The Diana I knew: biographer Tina Brown on the evolution of her best friend, the Princess of Wales
Diana’s biographer, Tina Brown, reveals the pain, loves and incredible evolution of her best friend, the Princess of Wales, in this exclusive extract from a new National Geographic book.
Diana was always a rebel. She has been memorialised for ever as the People’s Princess. But first and foremost, Diana was a Spencer. Hers was a family more than 500 years old, with centuries of experience as power brokers to the throne. She was never intimidated by the royal family or afraid to take them on. It’s one of the ironies of Diana’s story that it took a girl from an impeccably aristocratic background to break the monarchy out of the crueller rigidities of class.
To understand why, you have to look to the experience that shaped her. When Diana was seven years old, her mother, Frances, left her father, then Viscount Althorp, for Peter Shand Kydd, the man she adored. Diana’s two older sisters, Sarah and Jane, were already off at boarding school. Her younger brother, Charles, was too small to feel the pain – as Diana did – of their mother’s departure.
They watched as her car drove off.
Her pain was compounded by the treachery of Frances’ mother, Baroness Fermoy, who sided with her father in the custody dispute. When Frances returned to try to get access to her children, the butler shut the door of Park House in her face; they could not hear her screams to let her see them.
Diana’s childhood was limited in its circle and almost feral in its neglect. She spent most of her free time with the servants below stairs. She rattled around the gilded halls of Althorp House, avoiding the company of her despised, social-climbing stepmother, Raine, whom her father had abruptly married in 1976, when Diana was 15,
without forewarning his children. When he broke the news of his marriage, Diana slapped her father hard across the face, shouting, “That’s from all of us, for hurting us.”
It’s impossible to know what happiness Diana would have known – or who she would have become – if she had married someone other than the Prince of Wales. But it’s also true that in 1977, when the naive 16-year-old first caught sight of the 29-year-old number one royal bachelor striding through a ploughed field at an Althorp shooting party, there was no other rival for her heart.
To Charles, however, Diana was the “jolly”, “bouncy” younger sister of Sarah, whom he briefly dated.
His future bride wasn’t always a radiant beauty; she became one under the spotlight.
It was remarkable to watch this change. At the time of her engagement, when she was 19,
I was introduced to Diana at the American Embassy in London. She was wearing a pale blue gossamerlight organza dress and was agonizingly shy. No photograph, however, fully captured her exquisite peach complexion; her huge, limpid blue eyes; her imposing, slender height. Her small talk was gauche but enchanting. As she and Charles moved between the guests, she gazed up at the urbane, practised Prince of Wales with starstruck adoration. Seventeen years later, in July 1997, when I lunched with her at the
Four Seasons in New York shortly before her death, global celebrity had electrified her charisma. It was as if she had been elongated and grown taller still. Impeccably groomed, she strode across the dining room on three-inch heels, garbed in a dazzling emerald green Chanel suit, with all the confidence of a supermodel blonde who knew every eye was upon her.
But love, or the lack of it, would always be Diana’s primal wound.
In June, she came to New York for the Christie’s auction of all her glittering gowns. It was the ultimate statement of her desire to leave her “fairytale” past behind. But over
lunch, she was wistful as she spoke to me – not of her success as a humanitarian leader, but of the loneliness of the summer ahead.
In August, the boys would go, as they did every year, to stay with their father and their grandparents at Balmoral. The world assumed, she told me, that everyone would vie to invite her as their guest. But hosting her came at a price of lost privacy that most of her friends did not want to pay.
In another of the great ironies of Diana’s fate, the invitation to cruise the south of France by yacht with her new admirer Dodi Al Fayed primarily meant safety. “He has all the toys,” she told her friends, meaning the accoutrements – the private plane, the car and driver, the servants and bodyguards belonging to his tycoon father, Mohammed Al Fayed (who also owned Harrods and the Ritz Hotel in Paris) – that were required to protect her.
The crash and the frantic, unsuccessful attempts to save her at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital were followed by “the Great Sorrow” – a wave of pain that swept the British Isles and the world as a numb and disbelieving public learned of Diana’s loss. Today, the courtiers who work at Buckingham Palace refer to the upsurge of anger against the Queen’s refusal to return from her Scottish palace at Balmoral as “the Revolution” – because it nearly was.
It was as if Diana’s death had allowed England’s stiff upper lip to tremble at last and acknowledge that it was no longer a hierarchical, class-bound society imprisoned by the cruel expectations of conformity it had shown the Princess during her life.
In 2007, I asked then Prime
Minister Tony Blair what, if anything, Diana’s life had signified. A new way to be royal? “No,” he replied, without hesitation. “A new way to be British.”
Diana, aged 21, at the Braemar Highland Games in Scotland, September 1982.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP: Fourteen-yearold Diana with her Shetland pony, Soufflé. Cuddling her guinea pig during a 1972 pet show. Leaving for boarding school in 1970. All poise, Diana jumping off a slide into the family pool.
ABOVE: Diana and her attendants on her wedding day, July 29, 1981. Diana’s dress, made of ivory taffeta and antique lace with sequins and pearls, featured a 25-foot-long train. BELOW: Diana and Prince Charles photographed on their honeymoon at Balmoral Castle.