How the Queen sabotaged my passionate affair with her cousin: Zsuzsi Starkloff tells the story of how Prince William of Gloucester fell for her and scandalised the royals in the process
22:54 GMT, 24 August 2012
Forty years on, she still wears the prince’s ring on a chain around her neck, its weight and royal insignia a daily reminder of what might have been.
She could have married into the Royal Family, but instead she lives a modest existence on a mountain-top in Colorado, many thousands of miles from the world and the intrigues of the House of Windsor which caused her downfall.
Otherwise, Hungarian-born Zsuzsi Starkloff could have been Duchess of Gloucester, with a sprawling estate in Northamptonshire and a grace-and-favour apartment in Kensington Palace. Her natural modesty and cool good looks would have won her many admirers and a place in the nation’s heart.
Prince William could have anything he wanted in life except for Zsuzui Starkloff, a divorcee and foreigner
Instead, the unseen forces of the Establishment and a fatal plane crash put paid to a love which, though it remained largely secret, shook the royal court to its core.
Today, surrounded by mementos and photographs of her ill-starred affair, 78-year-old Mrs Starkloff has broken her decades-long silence to talk to the Mail about the love of her life.
In August, 1972, her lover, the spectacularly handsome Prince William of Gloucester, died instantly, aged just 30, when his Piper Arrow light aircraft stalled on a tight turn in an air race and crashed to the ground.
A grandson of King George V, he was the Queen’s first cousin and the most dazzling royal of his generation.
Clever, cool, athletic and muscular, William was a hero-figure to the young Prince Charles, who modelled himself on his older cousin and, ten years later, named his first-born after him.
But despite his natural gifts, the prince’s one fatal flaw was that he had fallen for an older woman who was both a divorcee and a foreigner. The prince could have anything he wanted in life, but not her.
For the powers-that-be at Buckingham Palace had already labelled Zsuzsi Starkloff ‘the new Mrs Simpson’ (after the American divorcee whose affair with Edward VIII triggered the Abdication Crisis in 1938) and were out to break the romance in any way they could.
Prince William of Gloucester (1941 – 1972) relaxes on his 21st birthday at his home at York House
The rules surrounding royalty back in the 1970s were very different. On the plus side, Prince William took his royal position extremely seriously. For him, the idea of being caught with his trousers down, a la Prince Harry, would be repugnant.
On the minus side, the nation’s first family was propped up by a cant and hypocrisy which extended all the way up to the Queen herself.
In 1972, William’s clear intention to wed a divorcee was greeted with apoplectic horror, and yet only six years later his cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, did just that, marrying a Czech-born divorcee with the full approval of the Queen and court, and turning the former Marie-Christine von Reibnitz into Princess Pushy.
Zsuzui Starkloff would have been popular as a result of her cool good looks and natural honesty
Today, Mrs Starkloff looks back with a surprising lack of rancour at the way she was forced out of her lover Prince William’s life.
She says: ‘He explained to me that it was his family’s fear that he would be likened to the Duke of Windsor. They wanted an end to the affair.’
Quite how unreasonable this presumption was can be seen by comparing the two men.
The former Duke of Windsor (William’s uncle) was already on the throne as Edward VIII when the Mrs Simpson affair became a public scandal, while the younger man, as a junior prince, had no chance of ever succeeding to the Throne. And whereas Edward VIII put his woman before duty, William, as we shall see, tried and tried to put duty before the woman.
‘William had a huge loyalty to his family — he wanted to do the right thing — and of course I supported him in that,’ says Mrs Starkloff, lightly shrugging off the Mrs Simpson parallel. ‘He had to make up his own mind, and he did that without influence from me.’
The couple met when William, aged 27 and on attachment to the Foreign Office, was working as a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Tokyo.
Tall, slim and beguilingly charming, he’d had a string of girlfriends but became smitten by Zsuszi, a Hungarian ex-model, after the pair met at a party.
Having been only briefly introduced, Zsuzsi next day sent her chauffeur to the embassy with a note saying: ‘Dear Prince Charming, I have a slipper missing. Would you like to come to a party’
‘He was quite a man,’ recalls Mrs Starkloff. ‘He was very manly, very passionate. And mature beyond his years.’
From the start, the prince was transfixed. He wrote home to his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, asking what their reaction would be if he proposed marriage.
‘They were against it,’ Zsuzsi says. ‘It came as no shock to me. I was seven years older than William for a start, divorced, and a different religion. I knew it was doomed.’ Even so, still he persevered.
His old schoolfriend, Giles St Aubyn, recalled: ‘She was witty, intelligent, attractive. William sparkled in her company.
‘But the relationship overshadowed everything else. It resulted in a period of great anguish for him, for it involved him in disagreements with his friends and family.’
One friend from that time, businessman Shigeo Kitano, recalls seeing the couple together: ‘Prince William was obviously deeply in love with her. She was very beautiful, with large brown eyes and long auburn hair. When she smiled, she had a big dimple.
Prince William of Gloucester was admired by his younger brother Prince Charles
His Royal Highness embarking on his first flight in a Fournier RF-4 at Biggin Hill
‘She was a good dresser and carried herself gracefully. She conversed in flawless Japanese and was clearly a very clever woman.’
The romance increased in pace over two years, but while courtiers were happy for the prince to sow his wild oats when abroad, they were increasingly nervous about what would happen when his tour of duty was over.
Pressure started to mount on him to dump his girlfriend, among whose sins — apart from being twice-married —was that she was the mother of two small children. There was also the tricky business, for bigoted courtiers anyway, of her being Jewish.
These points were brought home forcefully during the prince’s time in Japan by his boss, Sir John Pilcher, the British Ambassador.
Sir John had been encouraged to report back to London on the prince’s relationship, a task in which he took evident relish.
‘I soon heard that delectable feminine presence was frequently to be discovered in Prince William’s home,’ Pilcher smoothly purred. ‘We thought it wise of him to be attached to such an attractive and adult person.’
Zsuzui Starkloff landing at Heathrow in the airport's early days
In fact, this was diplomatic double-speak. What he actually meant was that it was fine for a woman to take care of the prince’s passionate needs, but at no time should she be mistaken for wifely material.
In the language of the seasoned diplomat, Sir John went on: ‘Left to his own devices, the Prince needed a degree of prompting. He was immensely good-natured and took in remarkably good part the observations I felt bound to make.
‘This was notably the case when I had to point out the constitutional and diplomatic service aspects of marrying a foreigner. He undertook to pause and think.’
Put in everyday language, the prince had been leaned on. Hiding his disappointment, he secretly ventured to get the love of his life accepted by the Royal Family.
An opportunity arose when the Queen despatched her sister, Princess Margaret, to Japan, apparently on official duties but also to look Mrs Starkloff over.
The princess and the divorcee were introduced, and Zsuzsi now recalls: ‘On the surface she was friendly. She told William: “I’m not surprised you’re in love with her” — and we all had dinner together.’
Within days, though, Margaret had written to her cousin warning him off any matrimonial plans.
She wrote: ‘I was so pleased to have the opportunity of a quick word with you. I do think you would be wise to wait for a bit, and then come home and see how everything looks.’
Margaret went one step further, advising him to confide in his boss Sir John Pilcher — a treacherous suggestion since the ambassador was reporting back to London on the prince’s every move.
But it was clear that Princess Margaret was not passing her own message to the Prince, but that of the Queen.
Back in the 1970s, the Sovereign clearly still took the view that true love was the implacable enemy of royalty — as it had seemed in the cases of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, and her sister Margaret (with her ill-fated affair with Group Captain Townsend).
William, it was clear, must not be allowed to follow suit.
None of this, though, made any difference to the prince. He decided, against all advice, to bring Zsuzsi home to England.
She recalls: ‘He organised a trip to Scotland to visit his uncle, the Duke of Buccleuch, and we spent some time there before going to the Prince’s country home, Barnwell. His father had suffered a stroke and was very ill. He was in a wheelchair.
‘I had a wonderful welcome from the Duchess (of Gloucester). She was warm and friendly, sitting with her flowers and her needlework, and we chatted. But she was very reserved and it was hard to know what she was really thinking.’
Much the same as all the other royals, no doubt ‘She didn’t show it, but I’m sure that it was there,’ says Mrs Starkloff.
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Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth) 'Mothers' her Cousin at the christening of Prince Richard
In fact, nothing could have been less likely. Her Majesty kept her distance and made it known she wanted an end to the affair.
And she got it. William finally caved in to family pressure, and with Zsuzsi in New York for family reasons, he called a halt.
Yet it was still far from over.
With his father now ailing, Prince William was encouraged to abandon his diplomatic career and return to Northamptonshire to tend the family estate. That way, an eye could be kept on him.
But as a ruse, it only partially worked.
Soon he had gone to America, where he and his lover were reunited. ‘We got an aircraft and we flew around together, or drove,’ she recalls. ‘We went to California to see some of my friends, then travelled on through the United States and Hawaii.
‘We did a lot of wonderful things together on this journey across the country, and for the most part he wasn’t recognised. I think he relished the anonymity. It was wonderful for him not to be bothered by people.
Prince William of Gloucester boards his Piper Twin Comanche at Cambridge Airport, before embarking on a three-week trip to Japan
‘Maybe he saw another life ahead for him during our time together, I don’t know.’
He’d told courtiers that while away in America, he was not to be disturbed. But before long he received a cable from the Queen, ordering him to represent her at the independence celebrations of the South Pacific archipelago of Tonga.
The royal machine was determined to maintain its grip — reminding him who he was and the job he had been born into.
But still he loved Zsuzsi. ‘It was a relationship of trust,’ she says now. ‘It certainly developed into a near-perfect relationship.’
Forced back to England, Prince William once again appeared to have submitted to demands to cool the relationship.
But had he ‘The eerie thing is that he wrote me a letter just before he died,’ says Mrs Starkloff. ‘In it, he said he wanted to come to New York and talk to me, to see if there was something we could do. He wanted us to be together.’
Mrs Starkloff is in no doubt that, having twice apparently deserted her, it was now William’s intention to show his commitment by proposing marriage.
However, it was not to be. On August 28, 1972, he climbed into the pilot’s seat of his Piper Cherokee Arrow at an air race near Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, and perished when his plane crashed and burst into flames within minutes of take-off.
He died wearing a replica of the ring that he gave Zsuzsi — made for him by craftsmen at her special request.
Two years later, when his father died, the royal dukedom that should have come to him passed instead to his younger brother, Richard.
Flying by day and by night in a Piper Cherokee aircraft, he was accompanied by the Group Chief Instructor Eddie Claxton
A momentary mistake to try to gain a few yards in a racing take-off killed Prince William
The instant his Piper Cherokee Arrow plane smashed into the ground 30 seconds later
What caused the pilot error which took the life of both Prince William and his co-pilot Vyrell Mitchell will never be known.
He was known to be extremely agitated about the continued enforced separation between him and Zsuzsi Starkloff.
‘Perhaps my fondest memory is of a formal dinner, with many tables,’ she says now. ‘We had only met once before. He walked slowly across the room and came up to me and asked: “May I borrow Cinderella for a dance”
‘He died wearing my ring. And I still think about him every day.’