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Troubled past of Monaco's super-rich royals

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Monaco hopes royal wedding will draw a line under past tragedy and scandal
  • The wedding has been hit by claims, denied by the royal household, that the bride-to-be tried flee
  • Monaco's royals have a history of troubled marriages

(CNN) -- The royal family of the tiny European principality of Monaco has long been beset by tragedy and scandal. But hopes that the wedding of its crown prince could open a new chapter are already hanging by a thread.

Prince Albert II on Saturday married South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock at the climax of a lavish celebration featuring a guest list of royals, heads of state and Hollywood stars that has gossip magazines drooling in anticipation.

It is little wonder the gossip columns are interested in Prince Albert's wedding. Previously unmarried, the 53-year-old has acknowledged fathering two children to two separate women during his time as one of Europe's most eligible bachelors.

His dalliances and long-running bachelorhood have been a major cause for concern in Monaco, a glitzy tax haven for the super rich perched on the Mediterranean coast, at one time threatening the country's very existence.

They have also done little to change the perception that his family, the Grimaldi dynasty, is one of the most troubled royal households in Europe -- a reputation nurtured by widespread marital strife and misfortune.

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This is the very last thing they would want to have for a marriage that was attempting to put some form of stability into the most dysfunctional royal family in the world
--Richard Fitzwilliam, royal commentator

All this was due to change when Wittstock, 33, agreed to become Albert's princess -- a fairytale union that has drawn comparisons with Britain's Prince William and Catherine and Albert's own parents, Prince Rainier III to actress Grace Kelly.

But the omens have not been good. Just days before the wedding, the royal household was forced to deny claims Wittstock had been stopped by police at Nice's airport as she tried to flee for South Africa after learning details of Albert's private life.

Royal watchers say the rumor and investigations into its source by officials in Monaco are unlikely to help the Grimaldi family's attempt to rebrand itself.

"I suspect that people will raise their eyebrows and wonder what in fact is really going on," said Richard Fitzwilliam, former editor of International Who's Who.

"This is the very last thing they would want to have for a marriage that was attempting to put some form of stability into the most dysfunctional royal family in the world."

Though decried as false, claims that Wittstock had discovered Albert's private life was "not as exemplary as she imagined" resonate with an unorthodox past that in 2002 prompted his father to alter Monaco's constitution amid fears for the future.

Prior to the change, if Albert had failed to produce a legitimate male heir, Monaco would cede to France on his death. Now the crown can pass to a female heir, opening up succession to Albert's sisters, Princesses Caroline and Stephanie.

Says Fitzwilliam, given the "extraordinary goings on in the private lives" of Caroline and Stephanie, this isn't an ideal solution, and it is still hoped that Albert and Wittstock's marriage will produce an heir.

Caroline, 54, has been married three times. Her first marriage to Parisian banker Philippe Junot ended in divorce; her second in tragedy when Italian husband Stefano Casiraghi died in a speedboat accident. Her relationship with third husband Ernest August Prinz von Hanover is a regular source of media speculation.

Meanwhile Stephanie, 46, married then divorced her bodyguard Daniel Ducret after first having two children by him. After having a third child by an unnamed man, she married trapeze artist Adans Lopez Peres in 2003, divorcing him the following year.

The lives of Albert and his sisters have always been overshadowed by the death of their mother.

An Oscar-winning star of classic films such as "High Noon," "Dial M for Murder" and "Rear Window," Grace Kelly joined Europe's royal ranks after marrying Rainier in 1956.

Fitzwilliam said the marriage was used at the time by Rainier as an attempt to draw a line under Monaco's reputation as a hotbed of murky financial activity that earned it the epithet: "the sunny place for shady people."

Kelly certainly added a dash of glamour and, through charity work, helped nurture a benevolent side to the Grimaldi household. But this was dealt a blow in 1982 when she suffered a stroke that caused her to drive off a cliff, resulting in fatal injuries.

All this isn't to say apparent royal curses can't be lifted, as has been shown by the remarkable turnaround experienced by the British monarchy in recent years.

Long gone are the dark days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales when Queen Elizabeth II and her family were criticized for being aloof. The various falls from grace of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, have also been brushed away.

Much of this has been down to the popularity of Diana's sons, Princes William and Harry, who have both weathered their fair share of tribulations and trials by gossip columns -- particularly when William temporarily broke up with his future wife Catherine.

But as William and Catherine have shown, romance can prevail against the odds, and nothing draws a line under a royal family's difficult past like a good wedding.