Dickey: The Private Princess Diana

She was a lady, a princess, the mother of the heir to the throne and the most celebrated divorcée in the world. She was a passionate promoter of worthy causes and, in the eyes of millions of people, if not billions, a martyr. Maybe it seems churlish, almost 10 years after her death, to say that this English rose, Diana, Princess of Wales, was also cruelly manipulative and a serial adulterer, but, yes, she was those things, too.

Lady Diana Spencer, who called herself a dumb blonde—"thick as a plank" was her phrase—became, as Princess Diana, one of the most variegated icons of modern times, and she's been a paradigm for celebrities-with-causes ever since. Diana could be victimizer as well as victim, harridan as well as humanitarian. She could be coldly dismissive of her closest friends, but she was full of tenderness for strangers, and ennobled by the way they embraced her. A little girl in Angola, dying from wounds inflicted by a land mine, thought Diana was an angel when she sat by her bed in early 1997. When Diana herself was killed in a car crash several months later, the world mourned her as if it had lost a saint. In fact, the beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died that same week, drew far less attention.

For Tina Brown, author of "The Diana Chronicles"—published this week—the life of the princess has long been a fascinating and profitable tale to tell. Brown was the dazzling young editor of the glossy, gossipy society magazine Tatler in London in the early 1980s, before she came to the United States to take over first, Vanity Fair and, until 1998, The New Yorker. Their lives and trajectories were oddly but clearly intertwined. Certainly the princess helped launch the editor's career. From the beginning, Brown and her twentysomething colleagues saw the even younger Diana as "a generational echo," says Brown. Di's fairy tale turned nightmare life became a lens for looking into the stultified world of the royals even as her celebrity friends and her public and private passions reflected the creative dynamism of modern Britain. She was, as Brown wrote for Vanity Fair in 1985, "the mouse that roared." And then, so much more. "My goal with the book was to create the context," says Brown: "Not just Diana, but the Diana years."

Already this is shaping up to be the Diana Summer, with a spectacular concert organized by her sons, Princes William and Harry, to mark her birthday on July 1 (she would have been 46), and memorial services commemorating the decade since her death in August. Just last week a documentary on Britain's Channel 4 showing photographs of the crash scene taken the night Diana died came under scathing criticism as tasteless exploitation insensitive to the feeling of her sons and of the sympathetic public. Other books are on the way, many of them delving into well-plumbed "secrets" about Diana's life.

But Brown's book is different—at once more intimate and more aloof—than much that has come before. Having interviewed some 250 people and read shelves of biographies, stacks of tabloids, reams of detailed inquest reports, she makes calls and considered judgments on topics ranging from royal infidelities and Diana's sexual awakening (which she attributes to Maj. James Hewitt, one of seven lovers she's known to have had), to the controversy surrounding Diana's death (an accident).

The author met the princess only "four or five times" face to face, including a long lunch at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City that summer of the crash. But Brown had followed Diana so closely as she changed from "a fairy child" to "this self-possessed kind of striding, global superstar" that, says Brown, "I had this bond with the story." Certainly she tells it well, and it's a fair guess that "The Diana Chronicles" will be about as common as tanned navels on British and American beaches. When one reads through the full 524 pages, including notes, it's clear that Brown, having bonded for so long with "the story," has also discovered, for herself and for us, the woman.

Diana was not above embellishing aspects of her life, especially those that reflected badly on her husband of 15 years, Prince Charles, the current heir to the throne. Brown concludes that the Prince of Wales was in love with Diana when they married in 1981, and she with him. Indeed, she had set her sights on Charles long before he noticed her. For all the supposed importance of the 20-year-old bride's virginity, they did have at least one assignation and probably slept together before the wedding—in a royal railroad car. Later, Diana did not try to throw herself down the stairs to commit suicide, as she told interviewers, but merely slipped. Her most notorious affair, with Hewitt, probably did not begin until 1986, and therefore Hewitt probably is not, as often rumored, the "real" father of Diana's younger son, Prince Harry, born in 1984. (On this one critical point of parentage, curiously, Brown seems a little unsure.)

The picture of the royals that emerges from the book is of people who are boringly dutiful in their public lives, more than a little randy in private and often easily manipulated. Prince Charles appears both sympathetic and sad while he's being worked over not only by Diana but by his longtime mistress and present wife, Camilla Parker Bowles née Shand, the Duchess of Cornwall. As Brown explodes some trivial myths about this royal triangle—Charles, who was dressed by his butler, probably did not intend to wear cuff links from Camilla while on his honeymoon with Diana, and he did not sleep with Camilla on the eve of his wedding—the author's deeper reporting and analysis make their soap opera a riveting study in personalities as well as institutions.

Brown concludes that Camilla's real love was in fact her first husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, despite their more-or-less open marriage and their eventual divorce. In an aristocratic milieu where being a royal mistress is recognized as a vocation, Camilla was very good at her job, flattering Charles, and even asking him to read his speeches to her over the phone.

So, too, Diana learned to be calculating, and never more so than during that summer that she died, just a year after her divorce from Charles became final. She was by then mature, radiant, independent, "transformed from protected royal princess into free-floating global celebrity," as Brown writes. But she was also, as the country-music song has it, looking for love in all the wrong places. Brown concludes her first affair was with Barry Mannakee, her bodyguard from 1985, who was later killed in a motorcycle accident. Next was Hewitt, whose relationship with Diana initially had the tacit approval of the royals, Brown writes. Afterward came James Gilbey, related to the gin fortune, who was caught calling Diana "Squidgy" in a bugged phone conversation; art dealer Oliver Hoare (whom she harassed with anonymous phone calls); rugby player Will Carling (whose wife named Diana in divorce proceedings); surgeon Hasnat Khan, the love of her life who would not marry her because of his obligations to his Muslim family and to his profession, and Dodi Fayed, son of Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed, who was just a bit of post divorce summer entertainment.

By then, Diana was, as great modern celebrities often are, in the process of reinventing herself. She cut back her charity commitments from about 100 to half a dozen, including the National AIDS Trust. (The way she had touched and comforted AIDS patients in the 1980s had an enormous impact, breaking through the paranoid walls of prejudice among the public.) But the princess was much stronger on symbolism than substance. "Diana couldn't cope with long, detail-oriented briefings on the Rwandan refugee problem," writes Brown. "In committee meetings she had the attention span of a fruit fly." A friend guided her toward the Halo Trust, a group working to clear land mines in war zones around the world. Partly out of conviction and partly to impress her lover, Dr. Hasnat Khan, she took up the mission—and once again changed perceptions for the better. Some of the most enduring images of Diana on the public record are with the maimed children of Angola and wearing mine-clearance armor in the killing fields of Bosnia.

Yet at the same time, Diana was ditching some of her longtime friends and allies. She was especially unkind to Sarah Ferguson, her former sister-in-law who had been married to Charles's younger brother Prince Andrew, once tipping off photographers about a dalliance "Fergie" was having. The two women forged a new alliance during their divorces, but when the impecunious Ferguson alleged in an otherwise saccharine autobiography that she had caught a plantar wart from a pair of Diana's shoes she borrowed, Diana cut her off for good.

Diana the princess-divorcée was also plotting publicity coups to upstage her rival, Camilla, that summer of '97. She timed her none-too-discreet escapade aboard the Fayed yacht to coincide with a birthday party Charles was giving for his mistress at his Highgrove estate. Diana told a friend that she fantasized about jumping out of the cake in a bathing suit—and did the next best thing by allowing the paparazzi to photograph her in a tiger-striped one-piece as she dove off the boat. According to Brown, Diana even informed photographers so they could capture the famous telephoto picture of her kissing Dodi out in the water off Corsica—a shot that earned the photographer some $500,000. After it was published, she complained that it was too grainy.

An aristocrat herself, Diana knew that the aristocracy of birth was now irrelevant. All that counted now was the aristocracy of exposure," writes Brown. "The camera was Diana's fatal attraction." So it was that a few days later, in the wake of "the kiss," the once tame paparazzi hounded her and Dodi mercilessly in Paris, chasing them from the Ritz Hotel to the tunnel near the Seine where they died.

Because there has been so much conspiracy theorizing about the cause of that accident, Brown devotes two full chapters to the tragedy. According to her, you can forget the talk that Diana was in love with Dodi, who was killed with her that night. She had no intention of marrying him, and nobody was out to murder them, even if Dodi's father keeps trying to convince the world that the royals have blood on their hands.

Of course he would, says Brown: "She died because four men in Al Fayed's empire weren't looking after her": Dodi, "whose plans were as chaotic as he was"; Al Fayed, who approved his son's "cockamamie notion" of using Henri Paul, the acting head of security at his Ritz Hotel, to drive them "instead of a qualified chauffeur"; Henri Paul himself, "who was found to be concealing a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit," and bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, another Fayed employee, who did not ensure that the princess wore a seat belt. "Little wonder that Mohamed Al Fayed's storm of regret at the loss of his son has been so volcanic in its repercussions of blame," says Brown. She also tells NEWSWEEK she thinks Mohamed himself was in love with Diana. "He was mad about her, yes," says Brown. "Absolutely mad about her." There is perhaps something of Euripides in this story.

The chronicle of Diana's life, in fact, however much it may have been told, and however maudlin some of the tellings, remains one of the great tragic narratives of our time, and Brown knows just the details to bring that point home. Despite her evident contempt for Al Fayed, for instance, she cannot help but sympathize with him as he waits outside the morgue in Paris before dawn that late-summer night in 1997, hoping someone can be found with a key so he can see the body of his son. And there is this line from Charles, talking to an aide in those hours between the news that Diana had been in a crash and word that she had been killed: "I always thought that Diana would come back to me, needing to be cared for."

"Heartbreaking," says Brown, whose book brings Diana back to all of us as a woman who still needs caring for.

Join the Discussion