Explaining the different strands in his life that led to his having become a tongue-in-cheek chronicler of the British monarchy, author William Kuhn told the audience at the South End library on April 10 that he could think of three: Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, as the 'typical Midwestern kid starved for glamour;' being the son of an Ohio State English professor who took the family to London for a sabbatical when he and his brother Fritz were still boys; and watching the opening of the British Parliament and suddenly wondering what exactly the role of a monarchy was in a modern industrial democracy.
"Some of my rivals had concluded it was an invented system meant to keep the proletariat down," he said. "But I came to the opinion that in a contentious democracy, a monarchy could be unifying and positive factor, albeit with a comic dimension." Starting out doing scholarly research, Kuhn subsequently wrote biographies about 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli) and Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books). His continuing interest in the British monarchy, including its comic dimension, resulted in Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, which became a bestseller that was optioned to be a motion picture.
"By Harvey Weinstein," Kuhn said ruefully. "The option expired."
The novel posited Queen Elizabeth, depressed after the death of Princess Diane, walking out of Buckingham Palace and taking the train to Scotland by herself, chased by a group of unlikely courtiers. "It took about eight months to write," commented Kuhn, "but it was more successful than anything else I'd spent much more time on until then." Having done research in the Windsor archives, he was invited to the Buckingham Palace Christmas party, where he met Princess Diane. "She looked more spectacular than ever," Kuhn recalled, "with a beautiful red dress and red silk shoes. My academic colleagues would say, 'power to the people' but I said, 'yes, but did you see Princess Diane?'"
Researching Prince Harry Boy to Man, Kuhn saw that there were early indications of the rebellious personality of Prince Harry, which he illustrated with a picture in the accompanying slide show of toddler Harry sticking out his tongue to the photographer, while in his mother's arms. Unlike his older brother William, Harry was not a distinguished student and went straight into the army where he received officer’s training at Sandhurst. As second lieutenant, he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 but left within a few weeks after a UK media embargo on his time there was broken, which meant he could have become an enemy target. He was redeployed there later.
"There were a number of taboo images circulated by his army buddies, Kuhn said. "He was obviously a sexy guy, which is why I wrote about him,” he added dryly. He noted a similarity between the portrayal of King Henry IV by actor Alex Hassell in an ArtsEmerson production, in the arc of "troubled kid caught wearing a nazi unform, kicking out windows at a party, and his general lack of maturity" but eventually growing up as part of the British army. A segment of Prince Harry Boy to Man's dialogue was read by three event participants: FOSEL board member, Michael Cox; Kuhn's brother, Fritz; and writer Linda Markarian.
Answering audience questions, Kuhn said has not yet been invited to Harry’s wedding. Asked about his biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Benjamin Disraeli, The Politics of Pleasure), he said his interest in the 19th century British statesman, who became a Prime Minister, was piqued when he noticed the consistent homo-erotic themes in the politician's twelve books. His Jackie Kennedy Onassis biography (Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books) was inspired by an exhibit catalogue of her dresses, which led him to look into her twenty years as a book editor for Viking Publishing and Doubleday. Kuhn tracked down authors still alive today who had worked with her, all of whom praised her editing skills, and saying she had 'improved their work.'
Kuhn, a South End resident, is currently working on two projects: one on (Lord) Byron; the other about Tennessee Williams and Lilian Hellman.