WASHINGTON • "Poor Charles." That is what Sally Bedell Smith kept hearing from everyone as she worked on her new book about the British monarch-in-waiting.
Charles Philip Arthur George has been heir to the British throne for 65 years: His mother became queen when he was three years old and she is still going strong at 90. He has spent his life waiting for his one and only job.
Overshadowed in turn by his mother, his first wife and now his two sons, he is best known as the prince who married Diana and was a terrible husband.
When she died in 1997, the narrative was all but set in stone: Charles was dull, stoic and not very sympathetic.
"The vision we all have of him is of this extremely buttoned-up stereotype - double-breasted suit encasing him - a stiff, an old fogey, the guy who ruined Diana's life," says Bedell Smith, who first met the prince 26 years ago. "I was so struck by how different he was: funny, informal, warm, with this incredibly sexy voice."
Four years ago, the Washington- based author of biographies about Diana and the queen decided to tackle the man who would be king.
Her book, Prince Charles: The Passions And Paradoxes Of An Improbable Life, is not an authorised biography, but the palace assisted with access to public appearances, interviews and research.
It shows the prince as a royal son, a father, an activist and an eccentric. He owns shoes made from 18th- century reindeer skins. He is both old-fashioned (he does not use computers) and modern (he is a lifelong proponent of conservation and sustainability). He is rich, but not above courting Americans to support his charities, including wealthy patrons in Washington, D.C.
At its heart, the 500-page book is the story of a sensitive, lonely kid and his quest to find purpose in his life. Temperamentally the opposite of his mother - she is straightforward and unflappable - Prince Charles has always been too emotional and too insecure for a life that demands a thick skin and personal sacrifice.
But what choice does he have? There is a sign in his dressing room at his country home, Highgrove: "Be patient and endure."
In the 1970s, Charles was the most eligible bachelor in the world. The tabloids breathlessly reported every date and scrutinised every girlfriend as a future queen.
Everyone knows the story of his world-famous, ill-fated first marriage to Lady Diana Spencer.
Bedell Smith explains why he proposed to a 20-year-old whom he barely knew. He had followed the advice of his confidant and mentor, Earl Louis Mountbatten, and had enjoyed affairs with women who were not, by the standards of the day, fit to be a princess.
But Prince Charles planned to marry by his 30th birthday and he felt anxious and pressured when that date passed with no bride.
When Diana set her sights on him, he married her in 1981, although he was not in love with her.
He was, however, crazy about Camilla Parker Bowles, 69, whom he had met in 1972. She was irreverent, sexy, unintimidated and an ideal complement to the serious heir to the throne. The two had a six-month affair, but Camilla was besotted with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Andrew Parker Bowles.
She married the unfaithful charmer while Prince Charles was away on naval duties, which stunned the prince. But the two remained friends and resumed their relationship in earnest about five years into his unhappy marriage.
That love triangle ended in a messy and humiliating divorce, which painted a public portrait of Princess Diana as the victim of an unfeeling royal family and of Charles as an insensitive jerk.
The palace was in the middle of a cautious public relations rollout to introduce Charles and Camilla as a couple when Princess Diana was killed in 1997. It took another eight years before they finally felt that it was possible to marry without endangering his claim to the throne.
In the meantime, he busied himself with dozens of causes.
As Prince of Wales, Charles inherited the Duchy of Cornwall, which generates more than US$25 million (S$35 million) a year in income for him, which pays for his household and staff and supports William, his wife Kate and his brother Harry. Despite his wealth, he has never had qualms about raising millions from American patrons for his charities.
In 1997, Prince Charles hired Mr Robert Higdon, a Washingtonian who had worked for former first couple Ronald and Nancy Reagan and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, as executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation.
Mr Higdon revamped it, expanded its charitable mission and persuaded couples to donate US$20,000 each to hobnob with Prince Charles at Highgrove and other royal palaces.
The visits also became a vehicle for Camilla to launch an international charm offensive.
That effort was so successful that, in 2008, banker Joe L. Allbritton sank US$2.5 million into the development of Duchy USA, a line of products from the prince's properties. After almost a year of planning, the project was cancelled when the palace sold the worldwide rights to a British supermarket chain.
But all was forgiven - Mr Allbritton and his wife, Barby, were invited to Prince William and Kate's wedding in 2011 and Mr Allbritton loaned Prince Charles his private jet for a quick trip to Washington.
The Queen turns 91 this month and is still deeply involved with her royal duties. She has gin with Dubonnet at lunch and a martini before dinner. Prince Charles, now 68, holds the record as the longest heir-in-waiting and could easily go another decade before becoming king. His maternal grandmother lived to 101.
"The life he's led and the troubles and torments that he has had have, in a way, made it possible for William and Harry to lead much more normal lives," Bedell Smith says. One royal adviser told her: "These are two guys on a raft who escaped from the shipwreck of their family and made it to the other shore."
Talk of skipping Prince Charles and giving the crown to Prince William has subsided, which gives the young prince more time to enjoy a traditional (by royal standards) family life. Prince Harry, who is fifth in line to the throne, probably has the best of both worlds - a tight relationship with his brother and enough fame and money to do pretty much anything he wants.
And Camilla? Time heals or, at least, forgives. She has achieved grudging public acceptance, the full support of the Queen (grateful that her oldest son is finally happy) and an easy camaraderie with Prince William, Kate and Prince Harry.
When the couple married in 2005, the palace tried to mollify Diana loyalists by saying that Camilla would be called "princess consort" when Prince Charles becomes king. Now, it looks as if she may become queen after all.
When asked about this during a 2010 interview with NBC, Prince Charles stammered: "That's, well... we'll see, won't we? That could be."
But that, like everything else for Prince Charles, is somewhere in the future.