In May 2008, the international set, including hell-raiser Ernst Hanover, his wife Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Count Leopold von Bismarck, polished its tarnished plumage and gathered in Chelsea for the “wedding of the year”. It was Scott Fitzgerald meets Hemingway, with a touch of Jilly Cooper. The best man was saturnine British Olympian Jeremy Palmer-Tomkinson, uncle of It Girl, Tara. The 62-year-old groom was a former Deb’s Delight; a rangy charmer with steel-grey eyes who had cut a swathe through 1960s London, despite being christened Kevin. The wedding itself was notable, not for whom the bride was (the groom’s long-term girlfriend, Luisa Fairey, a head-hunter), but for whom she might have been.
Kevin Aubrey Burke, who has died aged 77, will go down in history as the first love of Queen Camilla, when she was the debutante Camilla Shand. By all accounts, their liaison was brief, but what it lacked in years it made up for in verve. “Camilla cut her teeth on Kevin,” says a friend. The future queen was 17 years old, and it was 1965, shortly after her coming out party at her parents’ house in Knightsbridge. Debs were supposed to wear white, but Camilla wore clinging black chiffon, and her maquillage meant business. London society was waking up, punch drunk and triumphant after the War, and with a new, easygoing attitude that sometimes seemed louche to older generations.
The young Camilla was a child of her time and she loved to party. It was one soirée after another, some in large houses in the country presided over by dowager countesses, and other, chicer gatherings in the metropolis: Venetian parties in Mayfair, costume balls in Chelsea, half-naked parties in north London. “It was a bit like Vile Bodies,” says a former deb. “We were all very good girls, and we were all after respectable marriages, but we were kicking over the traces and getting home plastered at four in the morning, which our parents hadn’t done.” At one party, Moroccan-themed, there was a Senegalese man in a crimson turban who ushered guests into a London garden alive with lanterns and scented with hundreds of tuberoses.
It was a heady time to be young, and that spring, the thoughts of society’s young men were turning to what they had been contemplating all winter. Kevin Aubrey Burke, born in 1945, was a Deb’s Delight with bite. He was older than Camilla, aged 20, and had adventure in his blood. His father, Sir Aubrey Burke, was a pioneer aviator and chairman of the De Havilland aircraft company. His mother was the glamorous hostess Laura Rosalind Norman, daughter of a baronet and granddaughter of the Liberal peer Baron Aberconway. Through his work, Burke pere had socialised with Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland and had known Errol Flynn. It was a background very different to that of King Charles, whom “Milla” Shand was yet to meet, and also her first husband, cavalry officer Andrew Parker Bowles, whom she encountered the same year.
According to Kevin Burke, Camilla had “a slew of male admirers and was immensely popular”. He described her as “not a beauty, but attractive and sexy”. The pair gelled at once and took the first tentative steps towards being a couple. They both liked dancing and were visible on the floor until the early hours. Burke recalled: “Every night we had two or three cocktail parties to go to and a dance, and a couple of dances to choose from at weekends in the country. It was the best fun, and I had the best and most fun partner you could possibly wish for.” Despite being an Etonian, Burke had continental elan. He wooed Camilla in his yellow E-type Jaguar, which so enchanted her that she nicknamed it “the egg”. Decades later, he recalled, “I suppose we were in love.”
His heart was destined to be bruised, however. By his own account, “We were together for about a year, and then she ditched me. Why? Well, the short answer is that she was having a ball in London.”
The perky Miss Shand had also fallen for a raffish young man called Andrew Parker Bowles, who was catnip to women and a seasoned hand at love. (He had already romanced the young Princess Anne.) An old friend tells me, “Suddenly, it was Andrew, and Kevin was nowhere.” In 1973, the couple married, not long after Camilla broke the heart of the young Prince Charles by terminating their blossoming friendship. But all’s well that ends well. The Parker Bowles divorced amicably in 1995, and Charles and Camilla finally wed in 2005.
As for Burke, his fractured feelings mended and he settled down aged 42, with his first marriage to advertising executive Peta Baker. It lasted 14 years until 2001, before he wed Luisa Fairey at a Chelsea registry office. The wedding, followed by a lunch for 40 at Toto’s restaurant, Knightsbridge, was starry – the Hanovers, Viscount Cowdray, whose family founded the Pearson publishing conglomerate, and Count Leopold von Bismarck, great-grandson of the Iron Chancellor, and his socialite wife, Debonnaire. The Burkes had a son, Max, and enjoyed what was by all accounts a happy marriage.
It was a life not so different from Camilla’s. Her countrywoman’s eye would have roved approvingly over their West Sussex farmhouse, near Petworth – as a child, she grew up over the Sussex border, but still well within the South Downs – though her dogs might have been wary of its Koi carp pond. Cosier than Buck House will ever be, and excellent horse country, with easy access to Goodwood races and Cowdray for polo, it’s a haven world’s away from the formal bother of charity patronages and palace lunches.
Perhaps if thoughts of a debutante called Camilla haunted Kevin Aubrey Burke occasionally as time passed, did she hanker for that simpler time as well?