PARIS – Prince Albert is giving Monaco a crown princess at last.
Ditching decades of bachelorhood, the boyish if balding monarch announced Wednesday he will marry South African ex-swimming champion Charlene Wittstock. Albert’s betrothed has iconic shoes to fill, stepping into a role left vacant since the death of much-beloved Princess Grace in a car crash.
Royal watchers were ecstatic at the announcement and many were wondering: Is the bespectacled playboy prince manning up? And most importantly, will the 52-year-old Albert, who has acknowledged fathering two children out of wedlock, finally produce a legitimate heir?
“It’s been 30 years since Grace died, 30 years they’ve been waiting for a first lady, a princess, a dream beauty, glam. And voila!” said Colombe Pringle, executive editor of Point de Vue magazine, which has followed Albert’s amorous adventures.
The palace of the moneyed Mediterranean principality didn’t say when His Serene Highness Albert II, Grace’s second child and the head of the 700-year-old Grimaldi dynasty, will marry the 32-year-old Wittstock.
But the announcement put to rest months of speculation that the longtime companions would tie the knot.
Albert met the willowy blonde in 2000 when she traveled to Monaco for a swimming competition, and she has lived in the principality since 2006, said Laetitia Pierrat, a palace spokeswoman.
The couple are both Olympians – Albert was a bobsledder – and share English as one of their native tongues.
Wittstock swam for South Africa at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, though she won no medals. In the All Africa Games the year before, she won gold in the 100-meter freestyle. Before moving to Monaco, she also worked as a schoolteacher.
The principality’s Minister of State Michel Roger issued a statement saying the government “shares the joy of the Sovereign Prince, his fiancee and their families” and expressed “warmest congratulations” on behalf of the people of Monaco.
Word of Albert’s engagement zipped quickly around town on Wednesday.
“This will be great for champagne sales,” said Edith Wendebaum, who runs a wine shop in Monte Carlo. “It’s very, very good news, something happy at last,” she said, describing Albert as likable when she has met him. “Everyone here knows him a bit.”
Albert took the throne in July 2005 after the death of his father.
Albert was known for being a longtime bachelor – so much so that parliament in 2002 changed the constitution to allow one of his sisters’ sons to take the throne if he never produces a legitimate heir.
Albert acknowledged in 2005 that he had fathered a boy, Alexandre, with a former flight attendant. The following year, he acknowledged an American daughter, Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, now a teenager, born to a California woman. Neither can assume the throne because they were born out of wedlock.