She may not have been conventionally pretty, but the young, blonde Camilla Bowles had an "inner glow" and a jaunty self-confidence that the opposite sex found seductively powerful. As one of her old friends put it: "When a boy came into view, she could turn on the headlights — and how!"
Camilla first met Prince Charles in 1972 at Smith's Lawn in Windsor, the home of the Guards' Polo Club. As the story goes, she opened the conversation with a jolly: "My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?"
The story may be a myth, but it was certainly true that Camilla's great-grandmother Alice Keppel was King Edward VII's mistress for 12 years until his death in 1910. And it was also true that there was an immediate and powerful attraction between Camilla and Charles.
Lucia Santa Cruz, the Chilean ambassador's daughter who was Charles' first lover when they were both at Cambridge University, introduced the couple, telling Charles she'd found "just the girl" for him.
Camilla was "affectionate, she was unassuming and — with all the intensity of first love — he lost his heart to her almost at once," wrote biographer Jonathan Dimbleby. But Charles wasn't the only man in Camilla's life. She had been involved with Andrew Parker Bowles, a popular, carousing military officer, off and on for the previous six years. But when Parker Bowles was suddenly posted to Germany, Camilla was left at loose ends. And Andrew's frequent cheating, including, ironically, a dalliance with Princess Anne, meant Camilla didn't have any qualms about dating other men while he was away.
Anne's brother seemed just the ticket. "The relationship developed almost straight away. There was an electric magnetism between them," one friend told Christopher Wilson, author of The Windsor Knot. "Even if they were standing some way away, you could tell from the intensity of their conversation and the way they looked at each other what the upshot would be.
"It was like watching two steam trains heading toward each other at full pelt," the friend added.
Prince Charles leans back on to railings as he chats with Camilla Parker Bowles during a break in a polo game at Windsor Great Park, circa 1975. Photo: MEGA
The couple's first formal public outing was a double date with Princess Anne and her latest beau to trendy Annabel's nightclub in Berkeley Square. According to Wilson, Charles and Camilla left the club at 4 a.m. and ended up at her ground-floor apartment nearby where "they discovered a passion that was to last many long years; years of joy and sometimes of adversity, but years where never once would the love die."
Despite his reputation as one of the world's biggest catches, Charles was sexually inexperienced when he met Camilla. Other than Santa Cruz, his only other lover was future filmmaker Lucinda Buxton.
"Now, however, he had met a woman unafraid to make the first move and possessed of a rambunctious earthiness that took him by storm," wrote Wilson. "For the Prince, real life began with Camilla," said one friend. Some in Charles' inner circle were openly incredulous at the intensity of the attraction. "What was astonishing was that he took any notice of her at all," said another friend. "There were plenty of glamorous women around, but she had holes in her jeans and looked a mess. Not exactly an oil painting."
What Camilla had was that magnetic charm, wrote Wilson, and a gift for sympathy as well as sex. And Camilla was way ahead of Charles in that department. But even as they became lovers, she still held a torch for Parker Bowles, who was everything the Prince wasn't. "You would go round there on a Saturday morning and Andrew would be cooking breakfast and making coffee. Around 11, Camilla would stagger downstairs, bleary-eyed and a little disheveled," a friend of the couple told another Camilla biographer, Rebecca Tyrrel.
"She would walk around wearing one of his big shirts. She would sit on Andrew's knee and tease his hair. They clearly had a very lusty, healthy life together." Even before Camilla entered Charles' life, Parker Bowles were not only aware of one another, they were mates. They played polo at Smith's Lawn and mixed in many of the same circles. But Parker Bowles was quite the womanizer, and when he came back to London, he virtually challenged Camilla to keep up with his shenanigans. Some have even suggested her fling with Charles was initially just payback for his affair with Anne, which continued upon his return from Germany.
But even though Camilla was attracted to Charles, it was Parker Bowles who maintained the upper hand. He was the one who was keeping Camilla guessing by playing the field. One British newspaper report described him as a "sexual athlete." And while Camilla clearly had a special bond with Charles, the Prince gave her no real reason to believe they could have a future together.
Parker Bowles, for all his caddish antics, was the more realistic choice. However, as Charles became more smitten and their romance blossomed, he decided to test the waters with his family by taking Camilla on a visit to Broadlands, the Hampshire family home of Lord Mountbatten, Charles' great uncle and mentor, in the fall of 1972. The elephant in the room for Charles was his family's attitude toward Camilla. Her family, the Shands, were popular with the royals, particularly the Queen Mother. But it was no great secret that Camilla had a lusty appetite for men.
Indeed, the deal-breaker for his very traditional parents was that Camilla was not a virgin. Lord Mountbatten was particularly persuasive that the wed-before-bed mindset still applied to the wife of the future King. He had his own motives as well. He had long been pushing his virginal granddaughter Amanda Knatchbull as an ideal future bride.
By today's standards, Camilla didn't have that many relationships. By age 24, when she met Charles, she wouldn't be considered for one minute a "woman of easy virtue." According to reports, Camilla lost her virginity a few days after her 1965 debutante party to "a rakish young gentleman" named Kevin Burke, the son of Sir Aubrey Burke, who launched aviation giant Hawker Siddeley. After Burke, she had dated Rupert Hambro, of the banking dynasty, but he quickly made way for Parker Bowles.
Even after six years, Parker Bowles wasn't done sowing his wild oats. And Camilla, perhaps tiring of the dating game she was playing with him and enthralled by the heir to the throne, was open to a royal proposal, say friends. But jealous Parker Bowles quickly saw that his grip on Camilla's heart was slipping and was prepared to take action. Timid Charles missed the boat.
Obsessed with the notion of duty, as drummed into him by his domineering father and controlling great-uncle, Charles didn't consider asking for Camilla's hand in marriage until it was too late. Six months after he met Camilla, Charles went off to sea on an eight-month tour as an officer on the Navy frigate Minerva, still enthralled with Camilla and fully expecting her to be there for him when he returned.
Fate decreed otherwise. On July 4, 1973, Camilla was married to Parker Bowles, and although there were royals and the aristocracy in the congregation, there was one notable absentee.
Charles was sitting on his Navy ship in the Caribbean bemoaning how he'd somehow managed to let the one woman who'd ever made him happy slip through his hands. While Camilla was enjoying her honeymoon, the Prince was pouring his heart out to her in a letter he mailed from his lonely exile on duty abroad.
According to biographer Dimbleby, a crushed Charles described too late how he bitterly regretted that "such a blissful, peaceful and mutually happy relationship" should last only six months.
"I suppose the feeling of emptiness will pass eventually," he added ruefully. But the story of Charles and Camilla was not over. Far from it.