NEW YORK – Prince Charles (search) and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (search), spent their first evening in the United States mingling with celebrities at a glitzy New York reception — but it was a tour of ground zero that seemed to affect them most deeply.
The pair began a weeklong visit designed both to promote trans-Atlantic ties and to glamorize the resolutely middle-aged royals with a gala at the Museum of Modern Art (search).
To the delight of the guests, he referred to Camilla, whom he married in April, as "my darling wife."
It wasn't exactly the frenzy that welcomed Charles 20 years ago on a U.S. tour that saw his radiant wife, the late Princess Diana (search), dancing with John Travolta at a White House dinner. But it was a start.
The tour moves Wednesday to Washington, where the royal couple will have an intimate lunch and a lavish dinner with President and his wife Laura — the latter a rare honor from the early-to-bed president.
The visit to the White House was to begin with a traditional show of pomp during a midday South Lawn arrival ceremony.
Afterward, the royal couple was being treated to lunch in the Bush's residential quarters, sitting down in the Family Dining Room with about a dozen guests, including both countries' ambassadors, said Susan Whitson, the spokeswoman for first lady Laura Bush.
After a tour of an innovative, inner-city boarding school, the real festivities were left for the evening, when the president was acquiescing to the kind of late-night, black-tie affair he typically shuns.
About 130 people were expected to dinner in the State Dining Room on the White House's grand main floor. There have been only five formal White House dinners honoring world leaders in Bush's presidency.
Other than to say that "seasonal" food was being served, the menus and the guest list — as well as Mrs. Bush's attire — were remaining closely guarded secrets, Whitson said.
The Bush White House is not known for its love of glitter and celebrity, so the guests were to feature names from Washington's A-list but few from Hollywood.
The prince and the president disagree on issues such as global warming, so the White House took care to characterize the visit as primarily a social one.
British media had predicted scant interest from Americans in the trip, but several hundred onlookers who gathered at ground zero to see the royal couple were supportive.
"He really does care about people, but a lot of people think, 'Oh, he's a prince, what does he know about us, what does he care?"' said Nancy Hodl, a 59-year-old retired secretary from New Jersey.
Small but enthusiastic crowds greeted the couple as they began their trip by paying tribute to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks at the vast site where the World Trade Center once stood. They next unveiled the cornerstone to a memorial garden nearby for the 67 British victims of the 2001 attacks.
At a reception for supporters of the garden project, the prince said he and his wife were "profoundly moved by what we saw — not just the scale of the outrage but the deeply distressing individual stories of heroism and of loss."
The U.S. tour is part of a careful palace plan to win acceptance for the duchess, long reviled in the British press — and among Diana-philes — as the woman who broke up the royal romance. "There were three of us in that marriage," Diana said in 1995.
Charles and Diana divorced in 1996; Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris the following year.
The duchess seemed at ease Tuesday, smiling broadly as she accepted a bouquet of flowers from a 5-year-old girl at the garden. Camilla, who has been trying to project a more glamorous image, wore a dark rose Italian wool crepe jacket and dress with velvet chiffon trim by designer Roy Allen.
Later, at the museum reception, the 58-year-old duchess had the chance to showcase another of the 40 outfits she brought for the trip, which will also include meetings with hurricane victims in New Orleans, homeless people in San Francisco and organic farmers in Marin County, California. Camilla wore a navy blue velvet cocktail dress with a cream chiffon collar by the British designer Anthony Price.
"I like Camilla," Sting said as he arrived. "She has a great sense of humor. She'll need it."