Yes, there seems to be a reference to penile frostbite in Prince Harry’s forthcoming memoir, Spare, but the first detail to make it to the public in this week of leaked excerpts is still the most shocking one. On Wednesday, The Guardian quoted a few sections from the book where Harry alleges that Prince William physically assaulted him during a 2019 argument over the younger prince’s wife, Meghan Markle. It’s been clear since Harry and Meghan’s Netflix docuseries dropped last month that the couple has the new Prince of Wales squarely in their sights, but the book looks to be an even greater escalation, bringing William’s wife, Kate Middleton, into the ring as well. Add in Harry’s reported reference to William’s “alarming” hairline, and it’s clear that the younger brother is happy to punch below the belt—or at the scalp.

Since the Sussexes’ royal exit, royal watchers have wondered whether Harry and William will be able to make amends after more than six years of private feuding. On the royal beat at Vanity Fair, we’ve approached the question in a hundred different ways, going in depth about how wary William is that their private conversations might make it to the public. But by telling the story of an alleged violent argument, Harry has finally raised the question that has been worth asking all along: Does he even want to make nice with his family at all?

Though Harry told Tom Bradby, in an interview set to air Sunday night, that he would like to repair his relationships with his brother and father, King Charles III, the stories in the book make the terms of any reunion clear. Harry’s willingness to make this physical fight public, or mention his frustration with his father’s press strategy, proves that he feels deeply wronged by the events of both the last five years and the last two decades. If William and Charles are ever going to attempt to make amends, they now have no choice but to jump this fairly high hurdle first.

It’s too soon to tell if the senior royals will respond to the book publicly at all, and it’s important to remember that few people have actually gotten to read the entire thing. So far most of the information we have from the book comes from the Spanish-language version, which went on sale early in Spain and has been acquired by media organizations across the world. There’s something kind of perfect about the fact that our early introductions to the book’s details are coming as a translation of a translation. Harry’s own words are still largely unknowable, but we are getting all of the shocking details. 

When Harry first announced his deal to produce a memoir with Penguin Random House in July 2021, reports also came that Tender Bar author J.R. Moehringer had signed on as a ghostwriter. It seemed like an apt choice because Moehringer had written movingly about masculinity, ambition, and, in his work on Andre Agassi’s Open, father-son relationships. It wasn’t until Wednesday, when The Guardian published the first substantive leak from Spare, that I remembered exactly how splashy Open was, accompanied by a trickle of headlines about methamphetamines, Agassi’s disdain for the sport that formed him, and his experimentations with a toupee. The combination of depth and utter, even silly, honesty has made Open a classic of the form. Though I’ve read plenty of celebrity memoirs that divulge mostly nothing in a brisk and entertaining manner, it’s clear now that Spare will be something else entirely. The last few days of leaks, both serious and humorous, have proven that Harry is taking the Agassi route, down to the frank sexual details and drug use—and it’s working. 

The prince has a long lineage of carousing and brawling ancestors, but it seems like putting his name on something so tawdry might be the biggest possible betrayal of his family. The negative response to the book in the British press so far seems to be an instinctual reaction to the embarrassment, and it might mean that the palace never needs to provide a response because it’s satisfied by its side’s defenders. In the Daily Mail on Thursday, combative columnist Jan Moir summed up a common response to the news, calling Harry a “grudge-toting manbaby” in a column with the headline, “If Big Willy really did push Little Harold over (and break his necklace) one can understand why.” A combination of Sussex fatigue and knee-jerk defense of the stiff upper lip means that the Windsors will get the benefit of the doubt in the audience that truly matters to them.

This is, of course, the strategy the royals have been pursuing all along, and it’s precisely the one that Harry is criticizing. On the Vanity Fair podcast DYNASTY, my colleague Katie Nicholl and I traced the history of how the monarchy survived a tumultuous 20th century by managing the media and paying close attention to the public’s reaction. But we also discussed how an emphasis on surface appearances over values is often reflected in the palace’s desire to protect the images of the monarch and the heir at all costs, including allowing and inflicting reputational damage to other family members.  

Harry’s deep grievances against his family are just the latest example in a long history of Windsor tabloid misadventures resulting from this dynamic. Accepting negative coverage of Harry in the interest of protecting William, a tactic that Harry has alleged, has always seemed like a risky strategy, precisely because it distorted Harry’s interest in protecting his own reputation. On the covers of the tabloids for two decades, Harry has been the risky, impulsive, rebellious brother to a future king, even as hints of William’s alleged “temper” have emerged. As Harry surely knew, authoring a book divulging plenty of deeply personal family information would be the most effective way for him to attack William’s growing position within that system.

Listen to Vanity Fair’s DYNASTY podcast now.


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Erin Vanderhoof

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