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The elder of the two princesses of Monaco, Princess Caroline and her sister Stéphanie have consistently starred in one of continental Europe's most intricate royal soap operas. A Jamie Lee Curtis lookalike and a divorce lawyer's dream, Caroline now seems to have taken over the role of responsible matriarch vacated by their mother Princess Grace after her tragic death in 1982.

Caroline was born in January 1957, only a year after the princess formerly known as Grace Kelly had married Monaco's ruling Prince Rainier III. Their 1956 ceremony had been a media event in its own right, paving the way for paparazzi-laden royal weddings since; Caroline's first exposure to royal controversy came early, when Grace caused a stir on a tour to America by breastfeeding little Caro.

Grace, in fact, set much store by fashionably progressive parenting, and raised Caroline and her brother Albert according to the theories of Dr Spock. Whether or not they became the best advertisement for the good doctor is another matter; as a young child, Caroline was so jealous of Albert that she used to bite him on the arm, until Grace, apparently, gave her a taste of her own medicine. And it's questionable whether Spock really recommended that, when your daughter demands a cocktail dress for her fifth birthday, you should commission one from Audrey Hepburn's favourite frockster Hubert de Givenchy.

Even before she had hit double figures, Caroline had already developed the diva tendencies that would serve her so well in later life: arguing with staff in Saks Fifth Avenue, she stamped her tiny feet and declared: 'I'm Caroline, Princess Caroline, and don't you dare speak to me like that!' (Winona Ryder could take lessons, perhaps.)

Her relationship with Stéphanie, who came on the scene in February 1965, was no less torrid, and she was once discovered trying to lower her younger sister into a toilet bowl during a Sunday lunchtime banquet for Grace's favourite charity concern, the International Red Cross.

Caroline first began to try Grace and Rainier's patience in 1973, when they fell out over Caroline's plans now that she had graduated from boarding school in the English equestrian heartland of Ascot. All agreed that she should transfer to study her baccalauréate in Paris and move on to the prestigious École Libre des Sciences Politiques, but Grace intended to move to the French capital to chaperone her daughter.

Caroline preferred to stay at the villa of her beloved grandmother Princess Charlotte, who had made a career of scandalising the rest of the House of Grimaldi and had started life as the illegitimate daughter of Prince Louis and his washerwoman. Charlotte had been passed over in the succession in favour of her son Rainier, and now lived in Marchais having affairs with a variety of ex-convict servants. Finally, Caroline compromised on moving in with a family friend, but hated the paparazzi attention, which only worsened when Grace and Stéphanie arrived to console her.

Nonetheless, Caroline made her life no easier by taking up with Henri Giscard d'Éstaing, the son of the French president, and with the singer Philippe Lavelle. A photograph of Caroline dancing in a Paris nightclub with Lavelle while the buttons on her blouse went their own sweet way did the rounds of the international royal-watching press; when Grace challenged her, Caroline hit back by reminding her mother of her own affairs.

In 1976, Caroline met her first husband Philippe Junot in another Paris nightclub, and ran up against Grace and Rainier's instant disapproval. Grace picked out several potential royal fiancés for Caroline, who continued to see Junot and underwent the modern princess' right of passage - being photographed topless with a zoom lens on her erstwhile lover's lot. The saga rattled on for two years, until she married Junot in 1978 in a ceremony snubbed by the British, Dutch, Danish and Swedish royals - and by Stéphanie, who refused to attend the wedding unless she could wear blue jeans.

While her parents were uneasy over precisely how Junot made his money, Caroline's misgivings came to a head when he was photographed with an ex in the New York nightclub Studio 54 after he had told her he was going to Montréal. In return, she began an affair with the film director Roberto Rossellini, and she and Junot had a major public argument after the 1980 Monaco Grand Prix; their divorce was formalised that October.

Both princesses were profoundly affected by Grace's death in September 1982 in a mysterious car crash while she was escorting Stéphanie home from the Grimaldis' villa in Roc Agel. Speculation has circulated ever since that the mother and daughter were arguing about Stéphanie's latest boyfriend (with this family, indeed, it's more likely than not), that Grace was inebriated or even that Stéphanie was behind the wheel.

While Stéphanie engaged in several years of punk modelling, Europop singing and flirting with the Parisian underworld, Caroline became the acting first lady of Monaco. Looking after the ageing Rainier, Caroline remained in the principality cataloguing - and, apparently, trying on - Princess Grace's collection of exquisite gowns. In 1983, she became engaged to Rossellini, whose great love Ingrid Bergman had died fifteen days before Grace.

Shared tragedy, though, did nothing for their relationship. Both quickly embarked on affairs, and within a few months Caroline had met the playboy Stefano Casiraghi on a friend's yacht and straight away jumped on to his. She announced that she was pregnant by Casiraghi in September, and married him that December in a private, non-religious ceremony at the palace. Her first son, Andrea Casiraghi, was born in June 1984, but by then it was already being rumoured that Stefano had been up to something in St. Moritz with one Christine van Schrabel.

Now Rainier's trusted ally in the family pastime of Making Princess Stéphanie Behave - even dragging her out of a nightclub in Sardinia during the Grimaldis' annual cruise - Caroline knew that he could still name her his successor ahead of Prince Albert if she wanted, and the so-called Monarchist Circle of Monaco began a whispering campaign against the bobsledding prince, forcing Rainier to deny that he would ever change the succession or that there were any family feuds. Caroline had two more children, Charlotte and Pierre, by Stefano, who refused to attend state occasions and preferred to race his powerboats.

Casiraghi had had two boating accidents in the first months of their marriage - coincidentally, the same year that Caroline narrowly avoided a head-on collision on the Corniche where her mother had lost her life - and in September 1990 died while racing his yacht Pinot di Pinot to defend his title in the World Offshore Championships. As if the princesses' lives didn't belong in a flashy romance novel already, Stefano had apparently promised Caroline that this would be his last race.

Immediately after the accident, Stefano's grieving brother accused the Italian Mafia of having organised Stefano's death - while some Monégasques blamed the Mafia too, but assumed it was a revenge attack against an ex-associate. On the night of his burial - in his racing suit - three presumed mafiosi entered the chapel and stood the coffin upright.

While Albert was setting his cap at Claudia Schiffer and Stéphanie having her ex-bodyguard's baby, Caroline retired to Provence and the home of actor Vincent Lindon. Her children with Casiraghi were legitimised by the Vatican in 1993, so that her eldest, Andrea, could now succeed the ailing Rainier with Caroline acting as regent. Are you keeping up at the back?

Caroline's relationship with Lindon collapsed in 1996, although it had still lasted longer than her first marriage. During the break-up, she turned to Prince Ernst August of Hannover as her confidante; the prince had been one of Grace's preferred suitors for Caroline back in the late 1970s (and would have been King of England if the British had adhered to the Salic Law), and La Kelly's taste in men might well have won out after all.

Ernst August, however, had to extricate himself from his marriage to Chantal Hochuli, at the same time as Caroline's attention was absorbed by the end of Stéphanie's scandalous liaison with her stripper-visiting bodyguard. Caroline's hair fell out with stress, and for some months she took to wearing a silk turban.

Caroline was finally able to marry Ernst August in 1999 (the year they had their first daughter Alexandra) and could now account herself a Princess of Hannover; according to the arcane rules of royal precedence, her Hanoverian title outranked that of Serene Highness held by the Grimaldis of Monaco. To date, their marriage has endured, and her children with Casiraghi appear to have adjusted to the new arrangements; Charlotte and Andrea, although not yet out of their teens, already appear to be exciting Paris-Match, and it can only be a matter of time before Charlotte is linked to Britain's Prince William.

In 2002, Rainier finally adjusted his will to allow his daughters to succeed Albert should he die childless, as the confirmed bachelor seemed increasingly likely to do. Caroline has continued to preside over state events and charitable functions, and may now have given the tabloids their share of pleasure, although it would be uncharacteristic for the Grimaldis' saga to grind to a halt just yet.

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