Text By JENNY BARCHFIELD, Associated Press
MONACO (AP) — After waiting for nearly 30 years, the glitzy principality of Monaco has a new princess.
Charlene Wittstock, a one-time Olympic swimmer from South Africa, married Prince Albert II in an intimate civil ceremony Friday.
Wittstock succeeds Grace Kelly, the Hollywood beauty who wed Albert's late father, Prince Rainier III, in 1956 and had three children with him before dying in a car crash in 1982.
Dressed in a dusty blue jacket and matching palazzo pants made by Chanel, her blond hair pulled back, 33-year-old Wittstock seemed to be channeling a bit of Princess Grace's legendary elegance.
The couple took their vows in a ceremony before several dozen guests in the palace's sumptuous, red silk-walled throne room, where Grace and Rainier also married.
"Oui," both responded in voices so soft as to be barely audible, when asked if they took each other as their spouse. The marriage became official — and Monaco finally had its princess — when the president of Monaco's Council of State, Philippe Narmino, who officiated the ceremony, pronounced "I declare you united by the bonds of marriage."
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"A new page in the history of the principality has opened today," Albert told his subjects in a florid, post-ceremony address. "I know that (Princess Charlene's) spontaneity and generosity will come into full bloom ... to the great joy of the principality and its inhabitants."
Many of Monaco's 7,618 citizens braved the scorching sun to watch the ceremony live on two giant screens set up in front of the palace, some of them decked out for the occasion in suits or formal gowns and heels.
Cheers erupted from the crowd when, after the 15-minute-long ceremony, the newlyweds emerged from a window to wave at their subjects. The couple's brief, embarrassed peck on the mouth garnered even more enthusiastic applause.
"It's a gift that they've given us," said Henri Doria, a retired 73-year-old, as he watched the ceremony. "We've waited to long for him to marry and now he's given us this lovely bride, who will hopefully give us children, heirs. That's would be the most beautiful gift of all."
Long regarded as one of Europe's most eligible bachelors and reputed for his string of romances with some of the world's most beautiful women, 53-year-old Albert long eschewed marriage. His reticence to settle down was known to have exasperated his father and made many here despair of him ever tying the knot.
Albert's prolonged bachelorhood even sparked persistent rumors he was gay, though those were largely quashed after he acknowledged having fathered two children out of wedlock — a now-teenage daughter with a California woman and a little boy with a stewardess of Togolese origin.
Rumors that a third illegitimate child may have recently surfaced have overshadowed the wedding. News reports emerged earlier this week suggested that Wittstock learned of the child and allegedly tried to break off the engagement and return home to South Africa days before the wedding.
The palace unequivocally denied the reports, which a top aide to Albert dismissed as "ugly rumors" born out of jealousy and spite.
Still, the tensions were evident when Wittstock talked in a rare TV interview before the wedding about wanting to have her own children.
"I love children and have always wanted to have children of my own," she told BFM television, sitting next to Albert with a close-lipped, tense smile. "We'll see in the next couple of months or years."
Wittstock was born in Zimbabwe but moved to neighboring South Africa when she was 12, and under the tutelage of her mother, a swim coach, competed for that country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Like his now wife, Albert is a former Olympic athlete. A member of the International Olympic Committee since 1985, he competed in five Winter Olympics as part of Monaco's bobsled team.
Albert met Wittstock during a 2000 swimming competition in Monaco. Wittstock then began appearing regularly at social events and moved to Monaco, known for its lax tax laws and high-stakes casinos, in 2006. Locals say she has since maintained a low profile and is rarely seen out and about the principality.
"She seems like a very calm, very clear-headed young woman, but honestly we don't know that much about her yet," said Abeda Testa, a 56-year-old housewife dressed in screaming pink for Friday's festivities. "Now is when we'll start to really get to know her."
After the ceremony, the couple joined their subjects on the palace square for a cocktail. Monaco's mayor presented the newlyweds with two gifts from the people of Monaco, a painting by Russia's Wassily Kandinsky and a bronze by French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. A concert by French composer Jean Michel Jarre and a laser light show were to cap the evening.
Perhaps in a bid to focus media attention on Saturday's religious ceremony and star-studded gala dinner and away from the lower-key civil proceedings, palace minders hemmed journalists into holding areas and kept from interacting with residents, who were sipping Champagne and snacking on trays piled with finger foods.
The guest list for Saturday's festivities reads like a who's who of Europe's rich and famous. Billionaire businessmen, assorted royalty including the kings of Spain, Sweden, Lesotho and Belgium, heads of state, celebrated opera singers, top models and race car divers will converge on the palace for Saturday's Catholic ceremony and the gala dinner to follow.
Household names on the guest list include Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani — the perma-tanned Italian designer behind Saturday's wedding gown — as well as supermodel Naomi Campbell, American soprano Renee Fleming, former James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore and gold medal winning Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci.
Alain Ducasse — the world famous French chef who like many in his tax bracket has taken Monegasque citizenship — is serving up a three-course gala dinner based on the tastes and smells of the Mediterranean. Besides the Champagne and South African wines, everything at the dinner will be sourced in a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius around the hive of high rises, Art Deco casinos and five-star hotels that is Monaco. The main course will be line fished out of the waters off Monaco the morning of, and the vegetables will be harvested hours before they hit the plate, Ducasse has said.
Ducasse is also helping prepare a Sunday brunch that will cap the wedding festivities before the newlyweds head off to South Africa for an IOC meeting. They'll take their honeymoon in August.