In 1958, William Peter Blatty, a publicist and aspiring author (“The Exorcist”), wanted to see how hard it would be to fake nobility among Americans. It proved to be too easy. But then, he had chosen the one city that is most ready to reward pretense: Hollywood.
I’ve always been curious about how Americans really feel about royalty, and, like Alice in Wonderland, I got “curiouser and curiouser” when King Saud of Saudi Arabia came to the United States recently and got a classic concrete-and-steel cold shoulder from New York’s sky line and New York’s mayor. Was New York speaking for America?
I was in a convertible, coasting along Hollywood Boulevard. Beside me in the driver’s seat was Frank Hanrahan, an old Georgetown chum and an ex-FBI agent. Frank looks stern. Frank looks distinguished. Frank has never been known to play a practical joke since coming to Los Angeles. This is important, as you’ll soon see.
Bright-eyed and unaware, we were on our way to an afternoon gathering of Frank’s friends in the Hollywood hills, when “Great screaming Teddy bears!” (or something like that) exclaimed Frank. “With those sunglasses on, you look just like an Arab sheik!” This was not surprising, as both my parents are Lebanese, but right then I knew my moment had come.
“Do I look like an Arab prince, maybe?” I prodded Frank.
“Whaddya mean? Whaddya mean?”
“Do you think I could pass for an Arab prince with your friends?”
Frank gently braked the bathtub and pulled up to the curb. He squinted at me in the glaring California sunshine. “Say something in ‘prince,'” he said finally.
“Ycsss—sank—you—very—mush,” I hissed haltingly.
Frank’s unblinking stare brushed over my face with light, inscrutable finger tips. “We’re in,” he said, and roared into gear.
Frank drove to a house where his friends — none of whom had ever before seen the author — were watching a football game. Frank entered first and prepared his friends.
“Look folks, I’m in a little bit of a spot. I met a Saudi Arabian prince—”
“King Saud’s son. I met him at a party some Egyptian friends of mine threw in Beverly Hills the other night. He wants to see how Americans really live and he asked me to show him around town. I’ve got him out in the car and—”
“Now. So look. I’m gonna bring him in. Now don’t panic! He’s a regular guy and he doesn’t want any fuss made over him. Just remember to address him as ‘your highness.’ But one thing — be casual!”
Blatty entered the room like a slumming prince.
I hastily spotted the most imposing chair in the room, marched over to it like Yul Brynner imitating Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and sat down, curling my fingers around the arm rest as though the chair were a throne, and, so help me, I felt majestic, even though I was wearing desert boots, Bermuda shorts and a loud, peppermint-striped shirt.
“Do you like football, your highness?” asked Denny Owen, a rugged college footballer.
“Ah—don’t they play football in your country?”
“Well…” and he good-heartedly launched into an explanation of the game. This seemed to ease the tension considerably, and someone else asked me if I would like a beer. I gave him the royal “oui” and Denny and Frank went into the kitchen.
I overheard their conversation:
Denny: “Cripes. I can’t hardly stand it! A prince! Here! And watchin’ the Rams on TV!”
Frank: “Take it easy, will ya, Denny? He’ll hear you.”
Denny: “What’s the deal on the candy stripe shirt, huh, Frank?”
Frank: “Oh, he’s just trying lo be one of the boys. Here, give him his beer.”
Denny: “A can, Frank—a can? We gotta give it to ‘im in a glass!”
Frank: “Nah, he’s a regular guy, I tell ya.”
Denny: “Well. O.K.”
And at this point I turned on my thro— er– chair, and saw rugged Denny carefully wiping and rubbing the top of the beer can with the tail of his clean white shirt.
Meanwhile, the Rams won the game, the TV was turned off and everyone became convivial. I learned later that some of the people in the room rather sided with the Israelis in the Arab-Israel dispute, but they were warm and friendly, and never gave a sign of their feelings. They were even suggesting nightclubs that they thought I should visit, places like the world-famous Mocambo.
Blatty was the toast of Hollywood that week. He appeared on talk shows and variety shows. He was invited to private dinners with movie stars. He succeeded beyond his most cynical dreams. The charade climaxed when Blatty got a chance to match his imposture against one of the country’s best fake princes.
One night a noted Hollywood publicist invited me along to an evening at ‘Prince’ Mike Romanoff’s. And thus it was that in the cool of the evening, ‘prince’ met ‘prince,’ ingenious imposter met up-and-coming challenger.
Entering Romanoff’s restaurant, accompanied by a studio publicity agent, Blatty seated himself with noble aplomb at a table. Within minutes, ‘Prince’ Romanoff hovered into view.
“Well, hello there,” he smiled genially, coming up to us.
“Hi, Mike. . . . Uh— your highness. Prince Kheer, may I present his highness, ‘Prince’ Romanoff?”
“How are you?” I murmured.
“A pleasure,” said Romanoff.
“His highness,” said the publicist, “is from Saudi Arabia. You know. King Saud’s son.”
“Oh. Of course, of course.” For one memorable, tremendous moment, Romanoff’s gaze locked with mine. It was toe-to-toe and there was silence in the arena.
The moment passed.
“Uh—by the way, your highness,” said the publicist, “there’s something I think you ought to know. I mean, I think I ought to tell you.”
“Well. “Prince’ Romanoff— he isn’t really a prince.”
Our shrimp cocktail had arrived.
“Iss what?” I demanded.
“They say he’s not a prince. Everyone knows it. But we like him so much we go along with the gag. No harm done.”
I put down my shrimp fork. “But iss not prince! ”
“Sorry. I am insult.” And rising majestically, I strode out of the dining room, out of Romanoff’s and out of my life as a prince, because, brother, I believe in quitting while you’re ahead!
With that snub, that out-royaling Hollywood’s most famous ‘royal,’ Blatty returned to life as a commoner.