Though the older man presented a perfectly conventional exterior to the outside world, clad in tweeds or polo blazer, he was somehow different to the other Windsors. He refused a career in the armed services — unheard-of in those days — and tried hard to turn himself into an ordinary citizen, even though at the time of his birth he was fourth in line to the Throne.
He was right about the unbookishness. His father, the Duke of Gloucester — younger brother of King George VI and the Duke of Windsor — had a well-earned reputation as a buffoon, while his mother, Alice, a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, was a prim and rather silent matriarch. Reading was not a priority in the family. But William was bold, stylish, different. Like his present-day namesake, he loved skiing, shooting and nightclubs — and drove a high-powered sports car.
Later, William’s old Eton friend Giles St Aubyn recalled: ‘She was witty, intelligent, attractive. The rumors started to fly. ‘William sparkled in her company and she helped him enjoy life in Japan. [But] the relationship overshadowed everything else. ‘It resulted in a period of great anguish for him, for it involved him in disagreements with his friends and family.’ Most of all, it put the fear of God into royal courtiers back at Buckingham Palace. By this time, the succession had been assured with the births of the Queen’s four children, but the shadow of the old Duke of Windsor and his obsession with a twice-divorced woman was still fresh in people’s minds. Zsuzui Starkloff was not only twice-divorced, like Wallis Simpson, but had two children. She was also Jewish. Courtiers feared a colossal backlash if the relationship became public, but William pressed on —determined she should be accepted by one and all. Princess Margaret, passing through Tokyo, was introduced to her. This encounter emboldened him to bring Zsuzui back to Britain. He had written to his parents, enclosing photographs of Zsuzui, asking what their reaction would be if he proposed marriage to her.
‘They were against it,’ Zsuzui recalled later. ‘It came as no shock to me. I was seven years older than William for a start, divorced, and a different religion. I knew it was doomed.’ The prince did not. The couple arrived at Heathrow and drove to the Gloucesters’ country home, Barnwell Manor in Northamptonshire, where Zsuzui was introduced to the Duke and Duchess. So insistent was the Prince that he should have his way that she stayed on for six weeks in the company of his parents. He even took her to Balmoral and introduced her to the Queen.
William resigned from the Foreign Office and took over the running of the family estate. The porphyria which had developed years before had not gone away, and he suffered increasingly uncomfortable symptoms. To ease the stress which came with those symptoms, he stepped up his flying, entering air competitions in his Piper Arrow. It was on August 28, 1972, that William took off, accompanied by an experienced co-pilot, Lt-Commander Vyrell Mitchell. They were taking part in the Goodyear International Air Trophy being held at Halfpenny Green near Wolverhampton. Soon after take-off, the plane executed a 120-degree turn towards the first leg of the course. ‘The angle of turn made by the Piper Arrow was observed to be too steep,’ according to his old Cambridge supervisor, Dr Ronald Hyam. ‘The aircraft lost height, cut through the top of a large tree, losing part of its wing, then rolled over, diving inverted into the ground, and burst into flames. Both pilots were killed instantly.’ As Dr Hyam adds: ‘It was a desperately sad and terrible end to the life of a remarkable young man of many talents, admired by all who knew him.’ The prince’s great love, Zsuzui Starkloff, paid her own tribute to him by gaining a commercial pilot’s licence and working in the aviation industry, delivering aircraft to customers. Today, she lives in Colorado and, at 77, no longer wishes to be reminded of her lost love. She never remarried.