As speculation grows about a Royal engagement, our exclusive series looks at Meghan Markle‘s life.
Today, in the concluding part, we examine her intriguing family history — and why Meghan seems the perfect princess-in-waiting.
Ava Burrows, a charming retired teacher who lives in a remote desert town in California, is highly amused at the idea that her step-granddaughter might one day marry into the British Royal Family.
‘Meggie marrying a prince? Who’d have thunk!’ she laughs, slapping her thigh. ‘I’m kind of expecting a visit from the men in black suits [the FBI] to check us out.
‘I guess it’s like your Downtown Abbey — and we’re the folks downstairs.’ The perfect analogy, perhaps.
Mrs Burrows was the second wife of Meghan Markle’s late grandfather, Alvin, so she would, technically, be the future princess’s step-grandmother should that day ever come — and some royal watchers think an engagement is more likely than not later this year.
And that’s just a taster of the complex web of relationships involving Prince Harry’s possible future in-laws. Meghan’s family has a fascinating heritage, involving both poor European immigrants to the U.S. and victims of the African slave trade.
Adjectives such as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘bizarre’ have been used to describe the clan, and Mrs Burrows agrees that it’s an unusual mix of individuals.
‘Compared to other people’s families, perhaps it is quite complicated,’ she told me, chuckling at this obvious understatement.
So where exactly do these ‘downstairs folk’ come from?
Meghan descends on her father’s side from Irish and Dutch immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania, while her mother’s ancestors were slaves who toiled on the cotton plantations of the Deep South.
Her paternal great-grandfather, ‘Papa Ike’ Markle, reputedly stood 7ft 2in tall and was immensely strong — a trait passed down through the generations.
Meghan’s father, Thomas Senior, now aged 72, stands 6ft 3in and weighs well over 20st thanks to a weakness for junk food. While her burly brother, Thomas Junior, is only fractionally shorter.
Meghan’s paternal grandfather, Gordon, worked on the railroads and her grandmother, Doris — the much-loved family matriarch — served behind the counter in what Americans used to call a ‘five and dime store’ — the local equivalent of Poundland.
They were a typical, small-town, blue-collar family: hard-working, God-fearing, self-reliant — and upwardly mobile.
(One of Meghan’s paternal uncles, Fred, 75, is an Eastern Orthodox Catholic priest. As a young man, he would baptise new additions to the family in the local river. Her other uncle, 77-year-old Mick, held senior public service posts and is now comfortably retired on the Oregon coast.)
After leaving school, Meghan’s father earned a pittance setting up the pins at the local bowling alley, but his ambition was to work as a stage technician. By age 20, he had moved to Chicago, where he found work in theatres and on the earliest television shows.
What Thomas dared not tell his bosses was that he was colour-blind, though he somehow managed to overcome this huge impediment to his craft. It was, his family have told me, a secret he kept as he rose to become an award-winning cinematographer.
Meghan’s father was barely 20 years old when he met his first wife, Roslyn, an alluring redhead who was just out of high school.
When they married, she was pregnant with the first of their two children, Samantha, who is now 52. Then came Meghan’s half-brother, Thomas Jr, now 50.
They lived in the bohemian Chicago suburb of Hyde Park, embracing the free and easy Sixties culture and roaming around in a battered blue camper van.
According to one source, though, Thomas Markle was not yet ready to settle down and become a father and husband, and within eight years, the hippyish marriage was over. Meghan’s half-siblings moved to New Mexico with their mother; her father headed for Hollywood, where he partied and worked his way up in the movie industry with equal vigour.
He was in his mid-30s and an established television lighting director when he fell for Doria Ragland, a beautiful assistant make-up artist 12 years his junior.
Doria’s ancestors were slaves, and her great-great-great-great grandfather had been put to work in the Georgia plantations.
He was emancipated in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Permitted to choose a new surname to mark his freedom, he selected Wisdom.
Thereafter, successive generations of the family — black, white and of mixed race — strove to better themselves, working as maids, janitors, tailors and factory-hands in Georgia and Tennessee, before Meghan’s great-aunt, Dora, joined the professional classes when she became a teacher.
Dora’s nephew Alvin — Meghan’s maternal grandfather — was an antiques dealer with a fine collection of vintage American cars. (He later divorced his first wife, who is Meghan’s grandmother, and married the aforementioned Ava Burrows.)
Meghan’s mother and father, Doria Ragland and Thomas Markle — the prospective royal parents-in-law — married in Thomas’s home state of Pennsylvania in 1979. Within two years, on August 4, 1981, Rachel Meghan Markle was born. (Meghan went by the name Rachel until her late teens.)
From her father, she inherited the distinctive Markle nose, with its quirky kink near the tip.
Her mother gave her the dark, seductive eyes she uses to such devastating effect on the television series Suits, in which she plays the character Rachel Zane, along with her wavy hair (which she straightened after becoming an actress) and what she describes as her ‘caramel’ complexion.
It was a magical genetic combination, and from the moment they saw Meghan, her parents adored her.
Her father, family members noted, afforded her considerably more attention than his first two children had received.
‘When Meggie was born, Dad was a completely changed man,’ recalls her half-brother, Thomas Jr, who was then 14 and had recently left New Mexico for California to live with his father and stepmother and his new baby sister.
‘Before then, Dad’s work took priority over everything, but she became his whole world.
‘I remember when she came home from the hospital, he had decorated the bathroom with little angels and fairies.
‘He would keep holding her up to the mirror so she could see herself in his arms.
‘The look on his face was priceless.
‘Dad would take so many pictures of Meggie that she must have been the most photographed baby in the San Fernando Valley! He must have about 50,000 pictures of her stashed away somewhere.
‘Meggie was a little princess long before she met Harry — she was her Daddy’s princess.’
As Meghan’s childhood progressed, her father continued to indulge her. When he threw parties at home — the family lived on the beach at Santa Monica before moving to affluent Woodland Hills — he would parade her before his showbiz friends.
Going to work on hit TV series such as General Hospital — for which he won an Emmy Award — and Married With Children, he would take her with him on set, and the stars made a fuss of her.
Then, when her school — first the private Hollywood Little Red Schoolhouse and then an exclusive all-girls Catholic school — put on plays, the renowned Thomas Markle would volunteer to do the lighting. This led to sniping by some parents that it was no wonder that Meghan invariably won the leading role.
It’s certainly true that from an early age, Meghan wanted to be an actress, and her father aimed to give her all the help he could.
Family members say that her half-sister Samantha, who is 16 years older and had harboured the same ambitions, felt she wasn’t getting as much assistance as Meghan, which fuelled a deepening jealousy that had been present from the start.
Along with her brother Thomas Jr, Samantha had been raised by her mother in the backwoods of New Mexico.
For her, there was no private education, and no tip-toeing downstairs to charm guests at glamorous parties.
Around the time that Meghan was born, however, Samantha had moved back in with her father, hoping he would give her the entrée into Hollywood that she longed for.
With her long blonde hair and blue eyes, Samantha certainly had the looks. And according to her brother and mother, her father did what he could for her — but she was not prepared to put in the required effort.
‘Samantha wanted to earn the big money — that’s all she has ever been interested in,’ says Thomas Jr, who makes no secret of his loathing for his sister.
‘She thought that because she came from a showbusiness family she was going to be a Hollywood star, and it doesn’t work like that.
‘The only jobs she got were a jeans commercial and a couple of walk-on parts in General Hospital. She became very sour — and she still is.’
The teenage Samantha was so resentful of the infant Meghan, he says, that one family member remarked: ‘It’s a wonder she didn’t smother Meggie in her sleep.’
While Thomas Jr played with Meghan and took her to the park to feed the ducks, he claims his sister flatly refused to have anything to do with her.
Samantha also despised her stepmother, Doria, Thomas Jr claims, and was so embarrassed that she was black that she’d tell people she was the maid.
He claims his sister became so ‘weird’ that she would hide away in her room, dabbling in the occult, until he scared her to her senses by hiding behind a door in a mask.
In her late teens, Samantha moved out of the family home and has been estranged from Meghan for years.
This explains why Samantha has said such cruel things about Meghan since her relationship with Harry became public in October last year, Thomas Jr says.
She accused Meghan of being ‘self-obsessed’ and claimed she had failed to support her family after making her name on TV.
She even said that Meghan ‘hid’ the fact that Samantha uses a wheelchair because she suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Though Samantha fired off some of these barbs on social media, and they were widely reported, she has since denied making them, and now describes Meghan in glowing terms.
However, Thomas Jr doubts that she’ll get an invite to any Royal wedding. ‘I don’t think she’ll be there,’ he grins.
But he remains convinced that he will receive an invitation, even though he hasn’t spoken to Meghan for a long time, either.
Meghan, to her immense credit, has never alluded to this domestic discord. Instead, she paints an almost idyllic picture of her childhood.
Even her parents’ divorce, in March 1987, when she was five, does not appear to have adversely affected her.
Doria and Thomas Sr were awarded joint custody, the agreement being that she would live mainly with her mother, and spend some weeks and summer holidays with her father.
Family friends say Doria worked for a time as a flight attendant — just like the Duchess of Cambridge’s mother, Carole Middleton — so she was frequently away from home.
Although Meghan travelled with her mother to places such as Mexico and Jamaica — and it was the appalling conditions in some of these countries that she has said helped to develop her social conscience — it meant that she lived with her father for much of the time.
Thomas Markle Sr was then earning top dollar in Hollywood. Curiously, though, I am told, he has never owned his own house.
They would live in shabby, rented apartments situated near whatever studios he was working for, and drive around Los Angeles in clapped-out old bangers. Between the ages of eight and 18, Meghan lived in a second-floor flat on Vista Del Mar Street, a short walk from Hollywood Boulevard, with its neon lights and iconic landmarks.
It sounds like every young girl’s dream. But in reality it was then a depressingly seedy area, a short drive from the spot where British actor Hugh Grant had his infamous encounter with prostitute Divine Brown.
However, Meghan had much to be thankful for. Not least her first class education. At her exclusive Catholic girls’ high school, Immaculate Heart, she was always top of the class, or near it.
When it came to voting for the school president — the equivalent of a head girl — Meghan won hands down.
She was so popular, and pretty, that she was also crowned Homecoming Queen — a much-coveted prize among female high school students.
So much about her was perfect, contemporaries recall — even her handwriting. Indeed, one of her earliest jobs was as a calligrapher.
‘Meghan was gifted in many ways, but the thing I really admired about her was that she would fight, tooth and nail, for the things she wanted in life,’ says Sonia Ardakani, the mother of Suzy, her best friend at school.
‘And as Suzy said when I asked her if she was surprised that Meghan was going out with a prince: ‘Meghan always got what she wanted.’ ‘
At the same time, Meghan was ‘very considerate’, Mrs Ardakani says.
By Meghan’s own account, her sense of social awareness developed at an early age. At 11, she was appalled by the inherent sexism in a soap powder advertisement, which stated that ‘women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans’.
So she fired off protest letters to the company and to prominent women including Hillary Clinton. The wording of the advertisement was duly changed to ‘people’.
Meghan has also spoken of the racial prejudice and ignorance she encountered in her youth. In one ugly incident, she heard a white woman call her mother ‘the N-word’ during a parking dispute.
Mrs Ardakani is unsurprised. Racism was still so rife in their area of Los Angeles in the Eighties and Nineties, she told me, that non-whites faced hostile stares when they walked into restaurants and other public places.
Black and Hispanic parents would be told the register was full when attempting to enroll their children in certain schools.
Meghan’s father did his utmost to help her deal with this prejudice and teach her to take pride in her ethnic background.
When she asked for a Barbie Doll family set for Christmas one year, he bought two — one with black figures, the other white.
On Christmas morning, Meghan has recalled how she found ‘a black mom doll, a white dad doll and a child in each colour. My Dad had taken the sets apart and customised my family’ to mirror their own.
And once, when she came home from school confused, having been asked to tick a box stating her ethnicity — the options being black, white, Hispanic or Asian — he told her: ‘Next time, you draw your own box.’ Meghan took his advice.
In a revealing article written for Elle magazine in 2015, she spoke of the struggles growing up with a black mother and white father.
‘You create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom.
‘Because, in 1865 —– which is so shatteringly recent — when slavery was abolished in the United States, former slaves had to choose a name. A surname to be exact.
‘Perhaps the closest thing connecting me to my ever-complex family tree, my longing to know where I come from, and the commonality that links me to my bloodline, is the choice that my great-great-great-great grandfather made to start anew. He chose the last name ‘Wisdom’. He drew his own box.’
Today, Meghan is, in her own words, ‘a strong, confident, mixed race woman’ who, as she recently told Pride, a lifestyle magazine for ‘women of colour’, felt an ‘obligation’ to speak about being half-black.
She is also very aware of her good fortune, saying in 2015: ‘I dream pretty big, but truly had no idea my life could be this awesome. I am the luckiest girl in the world, without question.’
Should Prince Harry propose to her later this year, as many now expect, and Meghan accept his proposal, constitutional experts believe she will prove a huge boon to the Royal Family, because young people, in particular, will feel able to relate to her.
Her step-grandmother Ava Burrows thinks she has what it takes to become a valued member of the Royal family.
‘Meggie is just a wonderful person. Very clever, very pretty, a gifted actress, and she has done incredible work for women and the UN,’ she says. ‘I think she would be a great addition to anybody’s family.’
SOURCE: DailyMail – David Jones, Hugo Daniel