Prince William of Gloucester was the world's favorite royal. The tall, handsome, and daring prince seemed more like a movie star than a royal. Sadly, that only made his tragic end in front of 30,000 horrified onlookers all the more devastating. So, who really was the other Prince William? From his reckless streak to his doomed love story, let's find out.
You might guess that William of Gloucester had it all. His parents were Prince Henry, brother to the reigning King George VI, and Alice, Duchess of Gloucester. At the time of his birth, he was fourth in line to become King of England. The royal family rejoiced at the birth of a new son—but it wasn't yet safe to reveal him to the world.
From the moment he was born, William's life was in danger.
Though he was a prince of England, William of Gloucester wasn't born in some decadent palace like most of his kin. Shortly before his birth, German air raids forced his family to evacuate to a small village in the country. William came screaming into the world in a humble nursing home.
After years of service in France, William's father had been able to return to be there for his birth. Then, just a few months later, he was torn away yet again.
Prince Henry got a few precious weeks with his wife and newborn son, but the war still raged and he couldn't stay. His brother, the King, soon sent him on a diplomatic mission that would bring him dangerously close to the front. The King was well aware of the risks; he wrote to William's mother saying that should anything happen to Henry, he would become the boy's guardian himself.
Thankfully, he was never needed. Henry returned home safe and WWII ended a few years later—but William still needed a guardian angel.
Though nearly 20 years younger, William was quite close with his cousin, Princess Elizabeth. He acted as a page boy at her wedding when he was just seven years old. A few years that, he attended her coronation, when she became Queen Elizabeth II. What's more, her son Charles absolutely idolized his older cousin.
Just a few years younger, Charles was the perfect age to see William as a superhero. And, to be fair, William was one heck of a guy.
They don't make them like William of Gloucester anymore. Tall and roguishly handsome, everyone called him warm, tender-hearted, and generous to a fault. He was fiercely loyal to his friends, particularly those who were "ill, unpopular with others, or even downright embarrassing". But no one is perfect—not even Prince Charming.
Though Prince William had a good heart, he was still a prince. He grew up as the golden child for an entire kingdom, and it went to his head. He could be "tiresomely selfish," according to his biographer. That wasn't his only vice, either. Despite his cushy upbringing, even as a teenager, Prince William had developed something of a death wish.
An adventurous boy, Prince William soon grew into some extremely dangerous hobbies. From racing cars to flying planes, everyone in England heard about the daredevil prince's exploits. Pretty soon, people started calling him the Royal Family's own James Bond. It's little wonder Prince Charles looked up to him so much.
Clearly, Prince William was unlike any royal we'd ever seen.
Prince William didn't just look the part—he could claim adventures that even James Bond never could. Though the details are scarce, at some point in his life, William hiked through the Sahara Desert. But though it might sound fun, William couldn't just leave responsibility behind to wander the desert forever. He had to make something of himself.
Though princes like William customarily entered military service, he was far too independent for a uniform. Instead, he became just the second royal ever to work in civil service. He worked for a merchant bank, then became a diplomat. William still had the same adventurous streak, and he wanted to see the world.
He took a post in Lagos, then a few years after that, transferred to the British Embassy in Tokyo. That's where his doomed love story began.
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Before he met the love of his life, William only had eyes for one woman: his mother. William once said of his mother, “She is a human being and she must possess some faults. But so far as I am concerned she has no faults at all”. They remained extremely close for the rest of his life—but tragically, she would also live to witness his horrifying demise.
William's mother demanded that he have a doctor take a look at him before he left for Tokyo. For the royal family's James Bond, he likely expected a clean bill of health. He was in for a rude awakening. The doctor noted that William had suffered from jaundice for several months. The prince's skin also blistered if exposed to too much sunlight.
Good thing William's mother made him go in, because the doctor found something else troubling.
The doctor told William that he had porphyria. If that's not ringing a bell, that's the same disease that doctors believe drove King George III mad. Since the condition is hereditary, any of George's family could have it—and William was a direct descendant. Doctors eventually confirmed the diagnosis, providing more evidence that porphyria had been haunting the royal family for centuries—perhaps even as far back as Mary, Queen of Scots.
Thankfully, porphyria would not drive William mad like it had King George. It would never get the chance.
Naturally, William flew himself to Tokyo, in one of his many personal aircraft—the man was still a prince, after all. After a grueling 16-day flight from London, he arrived to find freedom like he had never really known before. Away from the standard royal duties and protocol, William could live something of a normal life. Well, "normal" for someone who's stinking rich.
It's time the playboy prince started living up to his name.
William was a working stiff now, but he hadn't given up on his daredevil lifestyle. He still loved fast cars and faster planes—but his reckless ways meant he often flirted with disaster. Once, while in Japan, he took some friends on a flight in one of his planes. Everything seemed fine at first, but as soon as the aircraft took off, something went terribly wrong.
"Safety" wasn't always the #1 thing on a man like William's mind. He performed his regular checks before taking off that day, but he missed something. Just as his plane reached the air, one of the doors suddenly burst open. As deafening wind flooded the cockpit, William's close friend grabbed onto the door and did his best to hold it closed.
One false move would have meant the end of William and his friends—but William knew just what to do.
Thinking fast, William asked his friend to hold on for as long as he could. The prince then performed an emergency stall in midair. Just as alarms started ringing, he slowed the plane enough that his friend could slam the door shut and fasten it securely. William managed to bring his friends safely back to Earth that day, with a story they'd be able to tell for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, he wouldn't always get so lucky.
In Tokyo, William couldn't be further from his family—and that meant no stuffy relatives keeping an eye on his activities. He was seen with many different foreign girls on various nights out on the town. No surprise, William didn't struggle to find female company. But then one day, William found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
Born in Hungary, model Zsuzsi Starkloff moved to Japan to be the face of Revlon's Japanese advertising campaign. Eight years older than William, she had already married, had a daughter, and divorced. As one of the most visible models in the country, she flew in the highest social circles. She even went out with Sean Connery several times while he visited to shoot a movie.
Maybe she had a thing for 007s, because as soon as she met Prince William, the two fell madly in love.
In 1968, one of Starkloff's upper-class friends threw a costume ball. Starkloff had already heard about the dashing young British prince in town, so she told her friend to invite him. And, in case he didn't think her intentions were clear, she wrote him a flirty note: "Dear Prince Charming we hear a party isn’t a party without you. Besides that, I’m missing a slipper, signed Cinderella." Do you think he got the message?
Naturally, Starkloff dressed as a princess that night (but, since this was the 60s, she regrettably chose to be an "Indian Princess"). That night, her Prince Charming dressed as the Lone Ranger in a black cape and mask. When he found his princess, he strode across the floor, approached her, and said, "May I borrow Cinderella for a dance?"
With an origin like that, is it any wonder they fell in love?
It’s not hard to see what William saw in Starkloff. One of her former business associates described her as “very beautiful, with large brown eyes and long auburn hair. She was a good dresser and carried herself gracefully. She conversed in flawless Japanese and was clearly a very clever woman”. But would it be enough to appease William's family?
William's early days with Starkloff were a whirlwind. They rented a secret love nest near the ocean, and for a painfully short time, they could pretend they were like any other couple. William adored cooking for Zsuzsi and made her breakfast every morning. She could scarcely believe the man was a prince—but she'd soon receive a painful reminder.
William and Starkloff could pretend like they were a normal couple for a while, but not forever. William quickly realized that he wanted to spend his life with her, but he knew it wasn't that simple. When he raised the courage, he sent a photograph of her to his family back home in order to gauge their reaction. It was not good.
William's parents told him the Starkloff was quite beautiful, but he could read between the lines. Had they been able to say what they were thinking, their letter might have begun with, "ARE YOU COMPLETELY MAD?" Starkloff was Hungarian, of common birth, divorced, and already had a child. To say they "didn't approve of the match" is putting it lightly.
In fact, they were determined to put a stop to it.
Despite the royal family’s misgivings about Starkloff, she had honest intentions and her love for William of Gloucester was true. Years later, Starkloff reminisced, “My relationship with William had nothing to do with his title or me wanting to be a princess, that wasn’t what it was about and William knew that”.
Fortunately, the couple had an unlikely ally inside the royal family.
Not long after William's letter, he received a visitor from back home: His cousin, Princess Margaret. Though she was ostensibly there on a diplomatic trip, William knew exactly why she had come. She was there to talk some sense into him. Margaret was the perfect choice, after all. She knew his struggle better than anyone.
William was far from the first royal to fall for someone beneath their station. When Margaret was younger, she had fallen in love with her father's equerry, Peter Townsend. She had wanted to marry him, but he had been 17 years older and divorced with two children. Sound familiar? The Royals knew she was the perfect person to remind him of his duty.
But when she arrived, William decided to take a chance.
William could have simply hidden Starkloff from his cousin and carried on their affair in secret. However, he seems to have trusted Margaret, because he introduced the two of them. When the princess first met Starkloff, a look of genuine surprise swept across her face. William's paramour was clearly not who she was expecting.
Margaret had come to convince William to leave her. That is not what ended up happening.
During her visit, Margaret and William spent many hours talking alone together. They never revealed what they talked about. When Starkloff asked William what the princess thought of her, he simply replied, "She said you are very nice and very interesting and she doesn’t blame me for falling in love with you”.
But what he didn't say spoke volumes. Starkloff claimed she already knew then that their love was doomed—but William wasn't ready to give up on it just yet.
Though Margaret didn't directly encourage William to pursue his relationship with Starkloff, she did leave him with one small glimmer of hope. The Royal Family's attitudes were changing—if glacially. Upon her return home, she wrote to William, telling him to "wait a bit" and "see how everything looks" once he got back to England.
That was all the encouragement William needed. He was going to try and make this relationship work.
Though their days were numbered, at least William and Starkloff got to enjoy a few more months of bliss. After Tokyo, they traveled all over the US together before ending up in New York. William told Starkloff to wait there while he returned to England to, as Margaret told him, "see how everything looked".
A month later, he sent word: Starkloff was to join him in England. Did that mean his family finally came around?
Prince Henry and Princess Alice welcomed Starkloff into their home. She found them kind and accommodating, but from the moment she arrived, she felt the distance between them. They were cordial, but they would never accept her as their daughter-in-law. That part might have hurt, but at least it wasn't a surprise.
However, this was also the first time she'd ever seen her William back home with his family. She was shocked to find that he was a totally different person.
Zsuzsi Starkoff had known William, the dashing young diplomat who flew planes and cooked breakfast. This was the first time she met Prince William of Gloucester. Seeing this side of him confirmed what she already knew: Though William was, as Starkloff put it, "too much of a man to be happy as a prince", he was also "too much of a prince to give it up to be a normal man".
Nearly the entire Royal Family disapproved of William and Starkloff’s relationship, but none more than Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip. He was concerned about the damage to the royal family’s reputation from yet another scandalous love affair. He wouldn’t have to worry for much longer, however. Tragedy was around the corner.
Prince William and Zsuzsi Starkloff eventually went their separate ways, but they never truly gave up on each other. Before parting, William had a signet ring made for her, embossed with a W, as a promise. Though he could never go against his family's wishes, he wouldn't forget about her. And if the winds ever changed, he would come back for her.
She made him an identical ring so he'd never forget that promise.
William of Gloucester got painfully close to marrying his great love. He even asked Starkloff what she would say if he proposed. She told him, "Ask me and find out". Some reports say he even made up his mind and decided to marry her, no matter what his family said. But even if that was the case, tragic news from back home put an end to that idea once and for all.
Around 1970, William's father suffered a series of debilitating strokes that left him confined to a wheelchair. As his eldest son, it fell to William to take over his father's affairs. He still wore the ring he made for Starkloff, but his father's health only reaffirmed his choice of duty over love.
William left diplomatic service to, as he put it, take on his full-time job as a royal prince. He would never be with Zsuzsi Starkloff again—but that didn't stop him from trying to replace her.
In the early 70s, tabloids noticed that William had a new beau: Her name was Nicole Sieff, but it quickly became clear that he hadn't moved on from his first love. You might have expected William's next lady to be of noble birth—someone of whom his family would approve. Nope. Nicole was a divorcee with two sons from a previous marriage. Sound familiar?
Clearly, William wasn't over Starkloff, and he wasn't ready to settle down.
Prince William was obviously Nicole Sieff’s type. Her first husband was a daredevil just like William, but he stayed grounded in race cars. But maybe Nicole was a bad luck charm? While still married, her first husband suffered a brutal crash at Le Mans and he barely survived. After that, you'd think maybe she'd want a nice boring man, but instead, she went for William of Gloucester.
That's testing fate if I've ever seen it.
Now that the Royal Family's own 007 was back in England, everyone wanted to know what he was up to. While giving an interview for the Sunday Mirror, the reporter naturally asked the dashing prince about his love life. He responded that if he ever married, it would only be someone who was right "in the eyes of other members of the Family".
Tragically, William of Gloucester would never get the chance to meet that woman.
Though William no longer had the same freedom he enjoyed in Japan, he was still as adventurous as always. He got right back to racing anything with an engine. In 1972, he signed up to compete for the Goodyear International Air Trophy. He was to pilot the aircraft along with his friend Vyrell Mitchell, who would join him for the ride.
William had participated in plenty of races before—but this was where his luck finally ran out.
A crowd of 30,000 people watched excitedly as William of Gloucester's plane took off, only for their excitement to turn to horror. Almost as soon as he got in the air, William's Piper Cherokee banked steeply to the left. The abrupt turn caused his plane to lose altitude—and sent it careening straight towards a tree.
William tried to bring the aircraft under control, but he had already lost too much altitude. His plane hit a tree and tore the left wing clean off. By then, it was too late. The aircraft flipped over before crashing into an earthen bank near the airfield and bursting into flames.
A group of small boys who happened to be near the crash site rushed to the raging inferno to render aid. But their efforts were in vain. One of the boys later told BBC News, “We tried to break into the plane's doors and then tried to break it in half by pulling at the tail. But it was no good, we had to go back because of the heat”.
Though emergency crews rushed to the scene, there was nothing they could do either. It took two hours to get the blaze under control. The following day, coroners inspected the remains and, through dental records, confirmed what everyone already knew. Prince William and Vyrell Mitchell died in the crash. Mitchell had been 43, and William had been just 30 years old.
William’s mother, Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott, was so distraught at her son’s passing that she didn’t have the heart to tell her husband what had happened. She feared that, in his poor health, he wouldn’t be able to bear the news. In her biography, she confessed that he must have learned about the tragedy from the television.
Prince Charles took William's loss particularly hard. He'd always idolized his older cousin, who had always seemed invincible. He never forgot about William, and 10 years later, when Princess Diana gave birth to his oldest son, he already knew exactly what name to call him.
Even to the very end, William was still thinking of Zsuzsi Starkloff. In fact, he had actually invited her to join him at the race that day, but she had been previously indisposed. That turned out to be a mercy, as it spared her from watching the love of her life go up in flames. And, in case she still worried he might have moved on, he left one final, heartbreaking tribute to her.
The remains inside the aircraft were too disfigured for anyone to properly identify, but there was one item that survived the crash: The ring that William had made for Starkloff still sat around his finger. Even on his very last day, William was still thinking about Zsuzsi Starkloff.
Zsuzsi Starkloff eventually married, but she never let go of her daring prince. She lived until May 2020, when she lost her fight with cancer—but for all those years, she still wore William's ring around her neck.
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