On 28th August 1972, at the Goodyear International Air Trophy at Halfpenny Green Airport, in the village of Bobbington, Staffordshire, a crowd of nearly 30,000 people had gathered to watch a dashing pilot put on a skilled display in his Piper Cherokee. Within minutes of take-off, the aircraft began to lose altitude at an alarming rate; clipping a tree, one of its wings was torn off, causing it to crash before it was engulfed by flames.
Horrified spectators raced towards the burning wreckage, but were overcome by the heat, leaving the pilot and his single passenger trapped inside and facing certain death. The passenger was Vyrell Mitchell, an experienced airman and demonstrator pilot who had worked for Piper Aircraft since 1967; the pilot, Prince William of Gloucester, also a highly competent aviator, was ninth in line to the British throne.
Born in Hadley Common, Hertfordshire on 18th December 1941, William was the son of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, the daughter of John Montagu Douglas Scott, the 7th Duke of Buccleuch. As a member of the Royal Family, he served as a page boy for the wedding of his cousin, The Princess Elizabeth, when she married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on 20th November 1947 and also attended her coronation on 2nd June 1953.
Above: Prince William prepares for the Royal Wedding (1947)
Much of William’s childhood was spent at Barnwell Manor in Northamptonshire, which had been granted to his mother’s family by Henry VIII until they were forced to sell the estate in 1913. It was bought back by Prince Henry in 1938. From 1944 to 1947, the Gloucesters resided in Australia after Prince Henry’s appointment as the Governor-General, as a consequence of the death of his brother Prince George, Duke of Kent, who had originally accepted the post. His time overseas gave William a wanderlust that would last for the rest of his life, and lead him to become a globe-trotting adventurer, undertaking a 12,000 mile trek across Africa at the age of 22.
Educated at Wellesley House School in Kent, Eton College and Magdalene College, Cambridge, in spite of telling his tutor, ‘I’m afraid we are not a very bookish family — I can’t work more than five days a week,’ William received a BA in history in 1963, before spending a year at Stanford University, where he studied business, political science, and American history. In 1965, he joined the Commonwealth Office and was made third secretary at the British High Commission in Lagos, where he lived for the next three years until his transferral to Tokyo upon his promotion to second secretary in the British Embassy.
William was forced to resign in 1970 due to his father becoming wheelchair-bound following a stroke, and the fact that he had been diagnosed with variegate porphyria, a rare and incurable hereditary condition which can cause extreme sensitivity to sunlight, resulting in skin damage and acute attacks marked by severe abdominal pain and seizures. The disease was known to affect the British Royals, with the most well-known case being George III, although Mary Queen of Scots and her son James I were also thought to be sufferers.
In Tokyo, William had met Zsuzsi Starkloff, a Jewish Hungarian former model and stewardess, six years his senior, who had left Hungary in 1956 and was twice-divorced with a young daughter. Introduced at a dinner party, Zsuzsi coyly sent him an invitation to an upcoming masquerade ball. Signed ‘Cinderella,’ she wrote, ‘Dear Prince Charming. We heard a party is not a party without you, and besides I’m missing a slipper.’ It was the start of an intense love affair, and as one of the Prince’s friends recalled, ‘She was witty, intelligent, attractive. William sparkled in her company.’ The couple travelled extensively across America, where, as Zsuzsi observed, ‘We did a lot of wonderful things together on this journey across the country, and for the most part he wasn’t recognised. I think he relished the anonymity. It was wonderful for him not to be bothered by people.’
However, after meeting the pair in the Japanese capital in 1969, William’s cousin Princess Margaret warned him, ‘I do think you would be wise to wait for a bit, and then come home and see how everything looks.’ Furthermore, despite the virtual impossibility of William ever becoming King, with bitter memories of the Duke of Windsor, the Queen and Queen Mother were said to have disapproved of the match.
Soon after William’s return to Barnwell Manor, Zsuzsi was invited to stay and remembered, ‘I had a wonderful welcome from the duchess. She was warm and friendly, sitting with her flowers and her needlework, and we chatted. But she was very reserved and it was hard to know what she was really thinking.’ A month later, William ended the relationship, yet they remained in close contact, with William inviting Zsuzsi to the Goodyear International Air Trophy in August 1972. Declining his offer, at her home in New York, Zsuzsi only learned of the crash when a journalist approached her asking for a comment.
An investigation into the accident, completed in June 1973, found that the plane had ‘made a very steep and very low level turn to the left round a marker pylon at the up-wind end of the take-off runway, during which, after the angle of bank had increased to about 80, there was an abrupt and very considerable increase in the rate of turn.’ It concluded that, ‘The abrupt increase in the rate of turn may well have been a last-second attempt to prevent the port wing hitting houses which lay in the immediate flight path.’ Additionally, it was noted that the Prince’s license stated, ‘Holder to wear spectacles which correct for distant vision and shall have available a second pair whilst exercising the privileges of the license.’ His broken spectacles were discovered amongst the debris.
Never doubting that their romance would eventually be rekindled, Zsuzsi maintains that William had been deeply in love with her, but was torn between her and his family who feared that ‘he would be likened to the Duke of Windsor,’ even dubbing her ‘the new Mrs Simpson’ into the bargain. So, they ‘wanted an end to the affair.’
The Prince’s tragic death inspired Zsuzsi to devote herself to her lover’s other great passion – flying. She earned a commercial pilot’s license and then worked in the aviation industry. Now 79 and the subject of The Other Prince William, a new Channel 4 documentary, Zsuzsi Starkloff still speaks about her royal beau, and what might have been, claiming recently, ‘If William had been born in a different age he’d have been free to pursue his heart. But we gave each other beautiful memories.’
Historical Dictionary of the British Monarchy – James Panton (2011)