Thomas Markle Snr: How Meghan Markle's reclusive father helped propel her into the spotlight

Lela London
Thomas Markle Snr, who is about to become a grandfather, worked long hours, but found time to take his daughter Meghan to ballet classes every Saturday - Tim Stewart

Soon-to-be grandfather Thomas Markle Snr, a self-described "footnote in one of the greatest moments in history", has become something of an unofficial patriarch to The Duchess of Sussex's estranged family relations.

The 74-year-old first started to hit the headlines last year, when in the run up to his daughter Meghan's wedding to Prince Harry, it emerged he allegedly collaborated with the paparazzi on a series of staged photographs. Two days later, the then bride-to-be, who is now days away from expecting her first child, confirmed her father would no longer be able to attend the royal celebration and would be undergoing heart surgery.

Unfortunately, since those dramatic few days before the wedding which made headlines around the globe, tensions only appear to have risen between father and daughter. Mr Markle has told many media outlets that his daughter refuses his calls, took it upon himself to plea for the Queen to help him reconcile the relationship, and even released parts of a private letter from his daughter to the public. But more on that below.

As Meghan, now the Duchess of Sussex, prepares to welcome her first child, here's what we know about the life of the reclusive Mr Markle.

Where is Thomas Markle Snr from?

Mr Markle, the proud father, was born and raised in the state of Pennsylvania on the US' east coast before his job as a cinematographer took him to Los Angeles.

Mr Markle was the lighting director on daytime medical drama General Hospital (the longest-running American soap opera still in production) when he met Meghan’s mother Doria Ragland, the assistant make-up artist at the studio, in 1979. He was 12 years older than Ragland and, at 6ft 3in, he towered over his 5ft 2in bride.

In an article written for Elle UK, a pr-royal Meghan describes her father’s progressive world-view and how it affected his relationship with her mother. “Growing up in a homogeneous community in Pennsylvania, the concept of marrying an African-American woman was not on the cards for my dad,” she writes.

“But he saw beyond what was put in front of him in that small-sized (and, perhaps, small-minded) town, and he wanted me to see beyond that census placed in front of me. He wanted me to find my own truth.”

When did Meghan's parents divorce?

Mr Markle had two children from a prior relationship (the Duchess's half-siblings Samantha and Thomas Jr) before marrying Ragland, who gave birth to Meghan two years into their marriage. The union didn’t last much longer. Officially, the divorce went through in 1988 - when the future royal was six - with both parents sharing custody. In an interview with Vanity Fair, however, Meghan revealed that her mother and father split up when she was just two.

Even though her parents weren’t together, the family would still go on holidays together and Meghan claims she never saw them fight. When dropping her off at the end of a weekend with him, Thomas would stay for dinner while the three of them watched the game show Jeopardy!, eating their food on TV trays.

How Meghan's father helped to make her a star

On her now-deleted lifestyle blog The Tig, Meghan regularly paid tribute to her father. Despite working over 75 hours a week, he would find time to take her to ballet classes “religiously” every Saturday morning. She reminisced about fishing trips to Big Bear Lake in Southern California with her dad, and recalled him lending a helping hand in the lighting of her high school musicals “so that they felt as grand as a Broadway show”.

She would also post tributes to her father on Instagram (her account has now also been deleted), crediting him for her work ethic and love of handwritten thank-you notes (Mr Markle took a job as a freelance calligrapher to support herself at the beginning of her acting career).

Thomas Markle Snr with his daughter Meghan Credit: TIM STEWART NEWS LIMITED

In 1989, he started work as the director of photography on raunchy sitcom Married...with Children while retaining his role on General Hospital. In an interview for Esquire, Meghan recalled visiting her dad at work: “Every day after school for 10 years, I was on the set of Married... with Children, which is a really funny and perverse place for a little girl in a Catholic school uniform to grow up.

"There were a lot of times my dad would say, 'Meg, why don't you go and help with the craft services room over there? This is just a little off-colour for your 11-year-old eyes'."

A year later he won an estimated $750,000 in a Californian state lottery - his daughter was just nine years old. The win helped fund his daughter's education through an all-girls private Catholic school and, later, Northwestern University where she studied theatre and international studies.

After she graduated, Mr Markle returned to Los Angeles to try to make it as an actress and secured her first role in 2002 as a nurse on an episode of her father’s show, General Hospital. After a decade of minor parts, Meghan got her big break as Rachel Zane on the legal drama Suits. Filming took her to Toronto, Canada for the majority of the year while her father, who never remarried, continued working in Los Angeles.

On her success, Mr Markle told Vanity Fair: “My father knew how hard it is for an actor to get work, so he above all people was so proud that I was able to beat the odds.”

Retirement and bankruptcy

In 2011 he won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction for a Drama Series. He retired from the industry a year later.

On retirement, he moved to Mexico, where he is still believed to live. In 2016, he filed for bankruptcy claiming he had just $200 to his name (Meghan’s mother has also filed for bankruptcy back in 2002).

In the TV interview used to announce their engagement, Meghan said that while Harry had met her mother a few times (to which a beaming smile spread across his face – “she’s amazing") he had yet to meet her father but had spoken to him on the phone.

A joint statement, with a Kensington Palace letterhead, was released by her parents on the engagement news. It read: “Our daughter has always been a kind and loving person. To see her union with Harry, who shares the same qualities, is a source of great joy for us as parents.

Meghan's family tree

The wedding week u-turns

Two days before the wedding, Meghan confirmed her father would not be attending her wedding to Prince Harry, saying she hoped he could be given the "space he needs to focus on his health."

Mr Markle had been intending to travel from Mexico to the UK to meet his future son-in-law for the first time, as well as the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall and Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. He was also intending to walk his daughter down the aisle.

However, after disclosures about his alleged dealings with the paparazzi and reports he suffered a heart attack earlier in the month, Mr Markle said he wanted to avoid the ceremony for fear of embarrassing his daughter.

The Mail On Sunday reported the alleged dealings with the paparazzi story the weekend before the wedding, claiming the images were staged and published CCTV footage stills of the US actress' father in the internet cafe with a photographer and in a series of royal wedding-related activities, apparently unaware he was being snapped.

Following the revelations, he went on to claim he fell unwell and required heart surgery four days before the wedding, saying "they [doctors] will go in and clear blockage, repair damage and put a stent where it is needed." He did not attend the wedding.

Thomas Markle Snr on Good Morning Britain

What has Meghan's father said and done since the wedding?

Mr Markle has been the architect of a number of media 'exclusives' since the royal wedding, allegedly being paid for his participation. 

A month after his daughter's wedding, he appeared in a controversial tell-all with Good Morning Britain in which he shared Prince Harry's presumed political views, among other private matters. A month later, he claimed she was hiding the pressures of being a "prim" royal behind a "pained" smile and divulged details of their last phone call

Right on cue, Mr Markle returned to the media a month later to call the Royal Family "cult-like — like Scientology — because they are secretive."

Then, in December, the estranged father released handwritten cards, photographs and extraordinary details of her first wedding to the world via a tabloid newspaper. One included $2,000 from the Duchess, for Mr Markle to put towards a holiday, and another read: “I love you with all of my heart now and forever.”

Earlier this year, he released a five-page handwritten letter revealing the Duchess' private feelings towards their relationship breakdown to a newspaper. It has since been published around the world, urging Palace aides to take legal advice.

While his ex-wife has reportedly arrived in the UK, preparing to welcome the royal baby, Thomas Markle has confirmed no such plans to see his grandchild.