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Royals who gave us inspiration now provide titillation

Nobody can say that the House of Windsor, the British royal family, hasn't kept up with the times.

Nearly a generation ago, they were already into divorce. The children are now into adultery. The image of family values, which the Windsors tried to project for most of this century, is definitely old hat as the century closes.

Still, Queen Elizabeth II, one of the old school even if her children aren't, carries on with great dignity and probably will into the next century, representing the monarchy, as the core of the British constitution, on one level, while the kids do it on another.

She is 68, but old age runs in the women of the family, since her mother, "Queen Mum" Elizabeth is now 94.

Meanwhile, Charles, the Prince of Wales and first in line for the throne, and his wife, Princess Diana, a.k.a. Lady Di, provide the raw material for the down-market newspaper industry, for which they are just about as necessary as paper and ink. Sometimes in supporting roles are Prince Andrew and his estranged duchess, red-haired Fergie.

Their fate is to sell newspapers, and for several years they have done it brilliantly for London's tabloids, whose philosophy of putting entertainment before news has now spread up-market throughout America and worldwide.

What Fleet Street (the name sticks although few newspapers are in Fleet Street anymore) relates doesn't have to be true, but, by George, it's got to concern the royals and, if possible, sex. More directly, the Waleses themselves are engaged in selling books.

Lady Diana apparently had smarter advisers than husband, Charles, and so beat him onto the market in 1992 with her side of the sad story _ authored by a friendly and enterprising journalist _ as a poor, beautiful princess neglected by a cold, selfish and philandering husband.

Charles was a little slower. He had to think about it more than a year after their separation in December 1992 before going on television to admit his adultery and then bless an "authorized" biography giving his side of the story. His cold and frightening father, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is said to have forced him into marriage with an airhead so concerned with her image in the press that she resented the prominence of the Falklands War.

His adultery, he said in his television interview, came only after the marriage had been irrevocably broken. And in the meantime, enter a cad, Diana's former riding instructor, who recounts in detail how she cried in his arms when he took her.

And wait. Diana has a second book just about to come out by the same friendly journalist who did the first. This apparently tells the story of how she was "used" by the British monarchy. This week a Paris magazine recounted what it said were the details of a divorce to be expected next year.

The divorce story has been roundly denied by the lawyers for both Charles and Diana, perhaps, say the cynics, because they have not yet really agreed on the price. And even Prime Minister John Major says Diana may still be queen.

Thankfully, there was another, edifying royal story with the stuff of real drama this week when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited Russia. It was the first British royal visit to a country where the Windsors' relations, Czar Nicholas II and his family, were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Everyone must have felt guilty. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's present "czar," was for most of his life a Bolshevik apparatchik, the very apparatchik, it turns out, who tore down and removed the traces of the house in Yekaterinburg where the czar and his family were executed on orders from Lenin.

As for the queen, her grandfather, King George V, was a close friend of his cousin "Nicky." They almost looked enough alike to be twins. And when it was a question of granting the Russian royal family asylum in Britain after the Russian Revolution, the British Cabinet was willing. George V said no.

Prince Philip, a Greek prince before marrying Elizabeth and fathering Charles, is a direct descendent of the Romanov czars. Nicholas I was the grandfather of his grandmother. Alexander III was his great uncle.

But in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph on the eve of the visit, Philip defended his wife's grandfather.

"George V's involvement was in March 1917 just after the czar had abdicated," he recounted.

"At that time, there was no threat to his life. There was a very strong revolutionary movement throughout Europe. The king effectively said don't let's stir it up by bringing him here. After that, things deteriorated. Then I think the window of opportunity had gone. At the time of the window, it did not seem to be necessary.

"I think that the difficulty with all royal families is they've always had to compromise between their family interests and their national interests. This can be extremely unpleasant. I was serving in the British navy (in World War II) and I had three brothers-in-law serving in the German army. You get swept up into these things. It was tragic."

Not everyone has been so charitable, especially among the Russian monarchists who have surfaced since the fall of communism with a dream of restoring the Romanovs.

The visit of the British royal couple ended on Thursday night with a dinner for Yeltsin aboard the royal yacht anchored in the harbor of the Russian royal capital, St. Petersburg.

Whether Prince Charles and Lady Di get a divorce or not, Buckingham Palace is not about to burn down just yet.

Prince Charles' father calls his son's biography a "turgid book," adding sniffily:

"I've never discussed private matters, and I don't think the queen has either."

But, in fact, the durability of the British monarchy lies in the fact that it has always been able to adjust. The "model family" role dates only from the early years of George V, just before World War I. His father, Edward VII, was a man-about-town in Paris. And while his grandmother, Queen Victoria, was the epitome of Victorian virtue, she also wrote a book about her life.

King Lear, of course, was a king only in Shakespeare's imagination, but neither he nor his daughters were improbable. As for real English royal houses _ the Plantagenets, the Tudors and the Stuarts _ oh my.

Remember how many wives Henry VIII had and what happened to them, and what his daughter, the first Elizabeth, did to her half-sister, Mary Stuart.

In the 1930s, Edward VIII broke the ranks of respectability by chucking it all for Wallis Simpson. What the royals are doing now is reflecting, in some way, our times, and probably preparing for the next century. The reports of their demise are almost certainly exaggerated. And they still sell newspapers.

Otherwise, why am I writing this?