Princesses Behaving Badly

Meet the princesses behaving badly. They’re the schemers and the usurpers, the partiers and the floozies, the warriors and the survivors, the madwomen.

Sounds like the cast of the latest TV reality show, right? Well, the reality part is right. American Way contributor Linda Rodriguez McRobbie regales readers with the less-than-regal antics of 30 outrageous royals in her new book, Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History without the Fairy-Tale Endings ($20, Quirk Books).

“There’s an amazing depth and breadth of women you can write about under the title of princess,” McRobbie says. There are, of course, royals by birth, like German princess Sophia Dorothea. She was locked away for 33 years. “Princesses are often forgotten in history,” McRobbie says. “The reason some made their mark was often something sad or tragic or unfortunate.”

Clara Ward was the quintessential “dollar princess,” an American millionairess who married into European royalty. (Fans of Downton Abbey know the type.) Ward ditched her prince, abandoned her children and took off with a fiddler. “The way people at the turn of the century thrilled to Ward’s every movement was akin to how we follow Paris Hilton today,” McRobbie says.

McRobbie, based in London, easily could have stacked her deck with English princesses but looked further afield for her femmes terribles. “The concept of princess is not absolutely a Western one,” she says. One of McRobbie’s favorite finds was Njinga, a princess in Central Africa during the 1600s. The fierce warrior united Mbundu-speaking people and kept Portuguese colonizers at bay. Along the way, she’s rumored to have kept male concubines in female dress.

Such legends made it tough for McRobbie to parse fact from fiction. But no matter how outlandish the rumors, tragic the circumstances or bad the behavior, she succeeds in bringing to life these remarkable women — crown, warts and all.