Authors: Sally Bedell Smith
Copyright © 1999 by Sally Bedell Smith
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Random House and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
n September 1997, when I began my research on Diana, Princess of Wales, I had few preconceived ideas. I felt no partiality toward either Diana or her former husband, Charles, the Prince of Wales, though I had encountered each of them briefly and came away with impressions that seemed at odds with what I had read in the popular press.
I met Charles in the summer of 1991, as the couple were nearing their tenth wedding anniversary, on July 29. The British newspapers were filled with speculation about the state of their marriage.
created a sensation when it published two articles by Andrew Morton describing Charles’s fondness for Camilla Parker Bowles, a married woman he had known since 1971.
None of the articles mentioned that Camilla had been his mistress for the previous five years—an open secret in the aristocracy but unknown to the public at large. The tabloids had been similarly circumspect four months earlier when they reported that Diana’s riding instructor, Major James Hewitt, had become infatuated with her after having “
misread her friendliness.” At the time, only Hewitt’s family and a few of Diana’s closest friends knew the two had been having an affair since 1986.
The British press did draw attention to the obvious signs of tension between Charles and Diana. “
Set on separate ways in their private lives,”
The Sunday Times
declared that May, “the Prince and Princess of Wales seem increasingly to be bringing their competition and conflict on to the public stage. It is an insidious process that could spell disaster for the monarchy.”
On the afternoon of June 15 that year, my husband and I were taken by some English friends to the Guard’s Polo Club in Windsor Park to watch a Pimms Cup match between a team sponsored by Perrier and a Canadian team called the Maple Leafs. Charles was there without Diana, who
couldn’t bear watching polo. He wasn’t playing because his back was giving him problems; still, he appeared to be in good spirits, and he looked almost American in a blue blazer and sharply creased tan trousers with his slip-on shoes polished to a glistening mahogany.
After the match, we took refuge from the rain in a large tent. One member of our party, a woman in her late seventies, was a close friend of the Queen Mother’s. When Charles saw his grandmother’s friend, he kissed her on the cheek and called her by her first name. She made introductions all around, and we engaged in small talk. I noticed immediately how comfortable Charles seemed with older women. He was attentive and sweet to his grandmother’s friend, solicitous of her health problems, inquiring about mutual friends.
Knowing his interest in holistic medicine, she told him of a practitioner who worked wonders on aching backs, but it turned out the man was a faith healer (much more the province of Diana than Charles), and Charles seemed to lose interest. When my husband made some observations about Charles’s brother Prince Edward, with whom he had played court tennis—a forerunner of lawn tennis—at a club in New York several months earlier, Charles said something charming in response. In this familiar setting, chatting with people he knew and away from the prying eyes of the press, Charles was far more natural than the man shown on television performing his royal duties.
My only encounter with Diana was equally informal. In the summer of 1994, Diana and Charles had been legally separated for eighteen months, and their relationship had been further strained by his admission in a television documentary, broadcast in June, that he and Camilla Parker Bowles were lovers. That August, Diana was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, the guest of the Brazilian ambassador Paolo Tarso Flecha de Lima, and his wife, Lucia, one of Diana’s closest friends. A friend had invited me to the Vineyard for a visit with her family, and on August 16, I arrived with my children. An hour later, we were on a private beach for a small buffet lunch with Diana and the Flecha de Limas. Diana was mesmerizingly beautiful in a flowered bikini, her skin perfectly bronzed, her long-limbed figure exquisitely proportioned. My two younger children greeted her properly, but I had no time to brief my nineteen-year-old, who arrived late and breathless after sprinting down the hill. When I quickly whispered to him that the Princess of Wales was there, he exclaimed, “No way!” then whirled around to be introduced. He pumped her hand vigorously and said, “Hey, how are you doing?” She seemed genuinely tickled by his Yankee familiarity.
Otherwise, though, she was strikingly subdued, her high beams shut down. After a few feints at conversation around the buffet, I gave up. She seemed preoccupied, and she soon moved into a chair apart from the
group to talk intently to our luncheon hostess, with whom she later took a long walk down the beach. I’ve pondered Diana’s demeanor that day many times since. Here was one of the most charismatic women on the planet, yet she seemed almost without affect. I couldn’t figure out whether she was dim and incurious, or troubled and sad. She had not been with her two sons in weeks, and she was surrounded by families with children about the same age as hers. I also knew she had spent the morning with Elizabeth Glaser, a prominent fund-raiser for pediatric AIDS who was dying of the disease, which perhaps explained her subdued manner.
Only years later, when I was interviewing one of Diana’s friends, did I hear the words that correctly summed up her manner that day: “At times,” he said, “Diana could be fantastically vacant. She would just switch off. She was unhappy and would let herself give in. Sometimes she would not try a yard.” Yet I also learned that she was often more alert than she seemed. In social settings, according to another of her close friends, “she would perceive small things. She could pick out all the details about a person, both physical and … personality [attributes].” After I met Diana on the Vineyard, she confided to a friend that she felt I was “closely observing” her—which I had been trying to do unobtrusively. Her behavior on the beach offered other glimpses of character traits: her intensity in pursuing a new friendship—in this case with our luncheon hostess—and her preference for taking the initiative in social situations in order to maintain control.
As I suspected, she had been deeply moved by her visit with Elizabeth Glaser, but I discovered that Diana was suffering for other reasons. The previous day, she had learned that a book about her affair with Hewitt (which had ended in 1991) would be published in the fall—based on their correspondence as well as interviews with him by author Anna Pasternak. Diana had wept inconsolably and had hardly eaten. She was obviously still preoccupied the following afternoon.
When Times Books asked me to consider writing a book about Diana shortly after her death in 1997 at thirty-six, I hesitated. Scores of books had already been written, most of them sensational or superficial or both, by turns condescending, prurient, and fawning. Many were simply newspaper accounts strung together by British tabloid reporters whose tone ranged from hagiography to character assassination, sometimes in the same volume: Diana would appear at one point as a self-possessed superwoman, only to be portrayed pages later as a self-loathing, weepy hysteric, with no explanation for such contradictory behavior.
As I did my own preliminary research, I found myself drawn to her emotional complexity, and I felt frustrated that no one had done enough reporting to make sense of her. The challenge was to separate her essential traits from the mythic personality that had been assigned to her, and then
to show how these traits guided her behavior and her relationships. It was the prospect of finding the woman behind the public mask that drew me to the assignment.
Diana was a celebrity of almost unprecedented magnitude. As if royalty and photogenic beauty were not enough, she sent off wisps of desperate vulnerability—which were then confirmed by her wrenching personal confessions in the controversial 1992 book
Diana: Her True Story
, by Andrew Morton, and an equally controversial television interview with Martin Bashir on the BBC’s
program in 1995. When “ordinary” people met Diana, or even when they read about her or saw her on television, they often felt that her highs and lows reflected their own. It was this bond that brought out huge crowds of weeping mourners in the days after her death.
Among those who did know her, whether for years or months, Diana inspired proprietary feelings that grew stronger after her death. Perhaps because Diana had the ability to establish instant intimacy, or perhaps because she could be so intense, she inspired comparable feelings in others. After she died, various friends spoke of her with such assurance that it seemed as if she had confided in them all the secrets of her capacious personality. In fact, her friends supplied only partial and often contradictory views, because she was incapable of fully revealing herself to anyone. “
She would tailor the truth about this aspect and that aspect of her life according to whom she was speaking to and what she thought they wanted to hear,” wrote Simone Simmons, an “energy healer” who befriended Diana during the last four years of her life. “You have to fit the pieces of the puzzle together,” one of her close friends told me. “Annabel Goldsmith [a friend in Diana’s latter years] would see her in one light, I would see her in another.”
Some who knew her had long declined to speak publicly about her, and others have spoken to me with extreme reluctance: Diana’s hold over people—the fear of incurring her displeasure, of losing her friendship—remains even after her death. Another complicating factor is the Prince of Wales and his two sons. Few who knew Diana, even those who vehemently took her side in the marital wars with her husband, dare risk the wrath of the man who will someday be King. Some are genuinely fond of Princes William and Harry, and don’t want to incur their disapproval, either. For these reasons, many of the people who spoke with me demanded strict pledges of confidentiality.