One of the most famous 40th birthday parties of all time was one held for Princess Grace. November. 1969. A Scorpion-themed extravaganza for the out-and-proud Scorpion, Her Serene Highness.
The event of the season? Held at L’Hermitage in Monte Carlo, where guests were asked to heed the dress-code colours of the zodiac sign (red, black or white) and the attendee list included her Scorpio nearest and dearest, with exceptions made for those with Scorpio spouses (Elizabeth Taylor made the cut because her hubby Richard Burton was one). Making the annals of historic birthday cake, too? A 52-kilo confection, topped with — what else? — a golden scorpion.
Celebrating with verve her own 40th that same year: Jackie O. Already once-widowed, but still world-famous — her first lady days behind her — the icon went all night with her new husband, shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, at a seaside nightclub in Athens. Indeed, they were photographed leaving the spot at 6 in the morning (yes, 6 a.m.), Jackie looking blissful in a Pucci minidress and flip-flops (yes, flip-flops).
Forty comes. It goes. A couple of the more glamorous parties marking the milestone in recent years included a days-long celebration held in 2010 on the Cote d’Azur — including one party at the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc — for Naomi Campbell (still then in her Russian mogul boyfriend phase); then there’s the multi-time-zone affair — a yacht party in Portofino, another big bash in Manhattan — held in 2012 for Gwyneth Paltrow (at the time still in her Chris Martin phase).
Yeah, OK. Scratch all that — at least where the Duchess of Cambridge is concerned during these overture days of 2022. For a future queen with one-name renown, things are looking much quieter and decidedly less lavish, as Kate slides to 40 this weekend. With the dread of Omicron in effect, and the moment demanding an instinct for the low key, it’s expected to be a mainly family affair with William and her children, say reports.
The right thing to do as far as optics go, sure, but also one that’s got the fortune, I think, of reinforcing the “supporting role” persona that is Kate 101. Keeping her own birthday fuss to a minimum, the runway remains clear to keep the focus on two other Windsor milestones planned this year: one being her husband’s own 40th; two, most impressively, those Platinum Jubilee celebrations marking the Queen’s 70 years on the throne, much of that hoopla taking place over a four-day bank holiday in June.
Cleverly, perhaps, Kate’s time in the spotlight actually came a couple of weeks prior — when the mother of three gave her first ever public piano performance during a candlelit carol service at Westminster Abbey, broadcast on Christmas Eve. Accompanying Scottish singer Tom Walker on his song “For Those Who Can’t Be Here,” it seized on her piano instruction as a girl and simultaneously managed a feat: the performance outpaced records on Instagram, with a clip of that moment becoming the Cambridges’ most popular video to date with over 11 million views. Doing it well before her birthday? Also part of the Kate modus operandi, methinks: Managing Expectations.
So what now for a gal entering the jaws of middle age — that one-time middle-class girl from Reading, whose parents made a mint through their mail-order business and whose own destiny irrevocably changed when she met William at St. Andrews, where she was studying art history? “All Catherine ever wanted was a house in the countryside, loads of kids, dogs, and an AGA stove,” a friend told the U.K.’s The Sun newspaper this week.
That is to say, fame is something she has long been agnostic about, but it’s something she’s learned on the job, step by step, embracing her official duties and patronages after a decade in public life.
One’s 40s being the decade when women often come into their own — “It isn’t that I no longer feel uncertain and insecure, but rather that I’ve become more comfortable with these feelings,” as author Cheryl Strayed once explained in Chatelaine about her experience, adding, “I can laugh at myself more readily …” — it is the feeling from friends that there is a new ooze of confidence in Kate.
She is such a shoehorned figure in the public imagination at this point that there is probably not much room for realignment, even as the years advance. Those who find her to be a “shop-window mannequin” — like novelist Hilary Mantel once quipped, in an infamous screed years ago made as part of a lecture at the British Museum — will likely continue to do so. “She appears precision-made, machine-made: so different from Diana, whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture,” as Mantel went on then.
Others — as the polls continue to show in the U.K, where her popularity has gone up — find solace in the rigour of that precision. All that unremarkableness and focus on being a consort: an Alka-Seltzer in the era of influencers galore and rent-a-celebs. “Kate understands that the only credo of the Royal Family is duty, duty, duty,” as one courtier cooed to Tatler magazine in a cover story about the Duchess in 2020. Citing the pandemic as a turning point, not to mention Megxit — when Kate took on extra royal duties, making innumerable remote appearances during lockdown, supporting the NHS, speaking to schoolchildren over Zoom and giving relatable interviews about home-schooling — the author of that piece, Anna Pasternak, mused moreover that “beneath the yummy-mummy exterior is a spine of steel.”
The prevailing view among royal-watchers is this: that Kate is much less Diana — the mother-in-law she never met — than she is reminiscent of the late Queen Mother. That whole Get On With It brio. “She’s got a really long-term view,” a source who has worked with the Duchess tells HELLO! magazine for their Kate-at-40 cover this week. “She thinks of her projects and her role within the institution and looks at everything through a 20- to 30-year lens. She’s naturally strategic.”
For me, looking back, the image that sticks out of Kate from recent years is the one of her wrangling all the little kids — page boys and flower girls — at the wedding of her sister, Pippa. Dressed in a pale-pink McQueen number, complete with soaring fascinator, a photographer caught her adroitly shushing the children as they waded into church. In that moment — a quasi-Mary Poppins tableau — there she was, the Duchess, as she usually is: on message.