For those of you who think that Josh O’Connor is too good-looking to play Prince Charles in The Crown, take a few minutes and type the words “young Prince Charles” into Google search. Yes, the 72-year-old prince—that sometimes clueless, often-maligned, squirrel-adopting, plant-befriending, shoelace-ironing perennial king-in-waiting—was once a hottie.
When the young Prince of Wales visited the United States, first with his sister, Princess Anne, in 1970 and then solo in 1977, hundreds of girls and young women lined up to meet him at the airport like he was a member of The Beatles. In California, on the final leg of his 1977 trip, one of the waiting throng told The New York Times, “My friend, Debbie Noto, met him at the Bank of America and she was gushing all day about it.” And a young student editor at a college newspaper asked the prince, “What do you think of California girls? I’m one.”
Charles’s 1970 visit was a starry affair that could possibly have changed the course of history. Reports at the time suggested that then-President Richard Nixon tried to set the prince up with his eldest daughter, Tricia, then 24 to Charles’s 21. The two were seated together at a black-tie dinner at the White House and attended several social events over the course of the prince’s weekend in Washington, during which he and Anne stayed at the White House. “That was quite amusing, I must say,” Prince Charles told a CNN interviewer several years ago. “That was the time they tried to marry me off to Tricia Nixon.”
After Charles and Anne left Washington to go back home to England, Tricia told reporters that the prince was an “excellent dancer,” adding, “The house is going to seem empty without them.” But the royal biographer, Anthony Holden, said the match was ill-fated from the very first date. Charles was “distinctly annoyed” and found Tricia “plastic and artificial,” Holden wrote. (Tricia Nixon married Edward Cox in a White House wedding the next year.)
That Nixon might have had his eye on the prince as a future son-in-law was perhaps not too surprising, as Charles was then considered “the world’s most eligible bachelor,” a distinction he held for much of the next two decades. It was not uncommon to see shirtless pictures of the prince in the tabloids—showing off the taut body he kept in shape by windsurfing and playing polo—and there was a string of highly publicized romances (and a largely discreet one with a then-married Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall) before he finally married the young Diana Spencer in 1981.
His bachelorhood was covered as extensively as Brad Pitt’s is now. As the Daily Express chronicled, during Charles’s twenties, “his relentless daredevilry, which included parachuting, along with hours spent in the saddle playing polo or galloping with the hunt, honed his physique and earned him the nickname Action Man. Judging by the parade of beautiful women he squired (officially or not) Casanova would have done almost as well.” In 1974, People magazine put a glamorous picture of Prince Charles on the cover and proclaimed, “He’s turning 26 without a future queen in sight.”
Two decades later, magazines were still making the case for Charles as a sex symbol. As the British magazine Tatler put it in 1992, “Stand in a drawing-room with women of a certain sort over the age of 40, and the mere mention of the future king’s name will produce high octane levels of excitement. They can’t get enough of him.”
The magazine also argued that no photo back then did justice to Charles, but that to meet him in person was to swoon over his royal presence: “In the flesh, the Prince shovels sexuality,” the same story read. “We do not know what Charles thinks, but an awful lot of women are thinking it for him. These women, who trot around after him admiring the muscles, the boyish nape of the neck and that military bearing, know that you only have to see him on the polo field to realise that he has sex appeal.” (That issue of Tatler carried this cover line: “Is Prince Charles too sexy for his own good?”)
This is the Charles that many viewers were surprised by when Josh O’Connor showed up to play the prince in Season 3 of The Crown. As Lizzie Widdicombe wrote in The New Yorker last year, “Charles, played by the extremely good-looking British actor Josh O’Connor, is no longer drearily middle-aged—his seeming spirit age—but young and vulnerable, with an incipient charisma that’s about to be snuffed out by the soul-crushing demands of monarchy.”