Prince Albert of Monaco is engaged to marry Charlene Wittstock, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa, a union that will give this wealthy Mediterranean principality its first crown princess since American Grace Kelly died in 1982.
The palace announced the engagement of "His Serene Highness", 52, and Wittstock, 32, who also worked as a school teacher before moving to Monaco. The statement Wednesday put to rest months of speculation that the two longtime companions would tie the knot.
On Thursday, the prince was quoted as saying that Monaco would see a royal wedding in the summer of 2011. “I know the Monagasque population was waiting for this moment," Albert told the Nice-Matin newspaper.
The father of the crown princess-to-be, Michael Wittstock, said he received a call from Albert on Tuesday afternoon. “He phoned me so I could give him the blessing to put the ring on her finger,” Wittstock said in an interview published Thursday in The Star, a Johannesburg daily. He described the prince as a “nice chap” and said the family was excited about the engagement.
Albert met the willowy blonde Wittstock in 2000 when she traveled to Monaco for a swimming competition, said Laetitia Pierrat, a palace spokeswoman. Wittstock swam for South Africa at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, though won no medals. In the All Africa Games the year before, she won gold in the 100-meter freestyle.
Since 2006, Wittstock has lived in the principality, Pierrat said.
It will be the first marriage of a reigning prince since Hollywood actress Grace Kelly married Albert's father, Prince Rainier III, to massive hoopla in 1956. Princess Grace died in a car accident in 1982, casting a pall of tragedy over the family. She remains a style icon to this day — London's Victoria & Albert Museum for art and design has a current exhibition on her.
Pierrat demurred when asked whether Wittstock might be pregnant. "Honestly, I don't think so," she said, adding she wasn't privy to such matters but if Wittstock were, a formal announcement would probably have been made.
Royal watchers reveled at the news.
"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 the French celebrity magazine "Point de Vue," which often covers Albert's private life.
Albert took the throne in July 2005 after the death of his straight-laced father, who built the sleepy Mediterranean port into a tax haven for the rich and a glittering financial center.
That same year, Albert acknowledged that he had fathered a boy, Alexandre, out of wedlock by 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.
Bachelor no more
While his father's reign was defined by his marriage to Princess Grace, 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.