Portrait of a princess, interrupted

Tina Brown talks with Salon about Princess Diana's not-so-enchanted life, her rebellious streak and her transformation into a humanitarian heroine.

By Joan Walsh
June 12, 2007 10:12PM (UTC)
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Tina Brown might not have staged it this way, given a choice, but to have "The Diana Chronicles" debut the week the wan blond icon Paris Hilton suffered a psychological and media crackup was great timing. Anyone wanting to ask whether Princess Diana mattered, or why the world got so worked up about her marriage, her divorce, her beauty, her romances, her philanthropic causes, and finally her tragic death 10 years ago this summer, can find illuminating contrast in the Hilton saga. If it's in our DNA to be captivated by princess stories (and it seems it is), to be fascinated by wealth, celebrity and beauty, to look for meaning and symbolism in the lives of the people projected on the world stage, to emulate or idolize or analyze or tear them down, how much more rewarding when such a symbol surprises us, changes into something we didn't expect. A princess suddenly becomes an outsider, a wealthy lady of leisure devotes herself to humanitarian causes -- and then dies tragically, mysteriously, at 36. We got all of that in the Diana story. Now we watch Paris Hilton's rise and fall and work hard to find larger meanings in her so-far empty life, but they mostly elude us, and make us feel a little dirty for seeking them.


I have to confess, I'm an Irish Catholic, I have no love for monarchy, I didn't understand the world's Diana fascination until after she fell out the window of the House of Windsor, and became the world's most beautiful and privileged outcast and underdog. I followed her emerging humanitarian career -- especially the crusade against land mines and her work on AIDS -- respectfully from a distance, and I was surprised by my own sadness at her death, and my retroactive anger at the way the royal family had treated her. I didn't have to sort it out; Tony Blair and Elton John grieved with me. Who didn't love the people's princess, the queen of hearts? Clearly I wasn't alone in being an American skeptic of wealth and royalty nonetheless deeply saddened by the princess's tragic death: Salon's energetic Diana coverage turned it from a culture magazine into a news organization, as traffic soared with every new Diana story we published that long, sad week at the close of August 1997.

Ten years later, after the necessary corrective of Stephen Frears' "The Queen" -- oh, how Diana made the royals suffer, so manipulatively; poor Queen Elizabeth! -- I approached "The Diana Chronicles" with wariness: What more could we learn? Or care? Had we all been had by the narcissistic, needy, media-smart Diana? But I came to care again. It's a riveting book about media, celebrity, monarchy, modernism, and about women -- more precisely the hole at the center of many women raised to look for a prince, even today.

Tina Brown's Diana is a little girl lost, abandoned by her mother, whose unhappy marriage and flagrant affair led to her losing custody of Diana and her siblings when the future princess was only 6. She courts her father, often by being his photo subject; she has an undistinguished career at school, leading to a lifelong description of herself as "thick as a plank." She leaves school at 16 and, rather unbelievably given her wealth and status, goes to work as a nanny for an American family. She lives the fairly empty life of a "Sloane Ranger," a cadre of wealthy young women who lived around London's Sloane Square, famous for having fun. When her sister Sarah dates Prince Charles, she decides she wants him. As she gets closer to her prince, she doesn't quite understand the role of Charles' close friend, Camilla Parker Bowles, although she will figure it out soon after her marriage.


The rest is literally history, but "The Diana Chronicles" settles most of the open questions about the princess's marriage, her divorce, the aftermath and her death. The book is satisfyingly dishy: Brown walks you through all the romantic and sexual controversies around Diana and informs you, based on more than 200 interviews and her informed parsing of all the evidence, that yes, Diana and Charles consummated their relationship before marriage; Charles picked up again with Camilla later than Diana believed; Diana indeed had affairs with bodyguard Barry Mannakee and army officer James Hewitt and, after her divorce, with surgeon Hasnat Khan and married art dealer Oliver Hoare. Brown scoffs at the insistence of Dodi Fayed's father, Mohammed al-Fayed, that the princess planned to marry his playboy son. Instead she finds evidence Diana was hoping to hook up with American financier Teddy Forstmann, and launch a new campaign against illiteracy. Brown calls the Fayed romance a "relapse" for Diana, back into her desire to be sheltered, and her weakness for "this silly state of glitzy nonsense."

But the book is more than just dishy: It traces the development of Diana's social conscience and ties it to the deep neediness and sense of being an outcast that would, less productively, send her chasing after unworthy men. Watching the princess walk across a live-land-mine-studded field in Angola for a documentary, and then do it again for a better shot, becomes a symbol in Brown's book of Diana's courage, her conviction and her media savvy as well. She embraces AIDS patients and lepers and dying children, easing their suffering and her own. "She had an extraordinary gift in terms of communication, passion, caring and kindness; she was a very special woman in that sense," Brown says. "She had the ability to communicate genuine intimacy and feeling for strangers in ways that were inspiring."

I spoke to Brown about the book at the East Side Manhattan home she shares with her husband, Sir Harold Evans. The book is the storied editor's first literary project since her Talk magazine folded five years ago. Brown's career has been entwined with Diana's -- she chronicled the royal romance as editor of London's Tatler, and even served as a consultant to American networks for the royal wedding in July 1981. Her 1985 Vanity Fair story "The Mouse That Roared" was the first to describe the extent of the unhappiness between the prince and princess of Wales. After editing Vanity Fair Brown moved to the New Yorker; Diana asked her to lunch in July 1997 to discuss her new life and her humanitarian causes. Barely a month later, the princess was dead. Brown talked about Diana's life, her death and the alternative ending she imagined for the princess's extraordinary story. Starting today, she will be blogging about the book for Salon.


How well did you know Diana?

I knew her as a social acquaintance, enough for her to come over and greet me at events. And then, she wanted to have this lunch at the end. I think it was putting her views across to someone in the media. I was at the New Yorker at the time. So she asked Anna Wintour if she would bring me to lunch.


What surprised you as you got closer to the story?

Well, I guess the complexity of Diana. I mean I doubted a bit in the beginning whether or not I was really going to have a meaty heroine. Whether there was more to her than really met the eye of being a beautiful girl who had an unlucky marriage.

Right, but you had a notion ...


I had a notion. I knew of course that there was more than that, but I also wondered how much I would feel involved with her. But I began to see that there were so many layers to this story. There was the contextual aspect, which was fascinating, of course -- painting the picture of the society at the time, of the media at the time and so on. But I think what really surprised me about Diana was just her extraordinary sort of daring, really. I mean, I hadn't really thought through what it was like for a girl who came from that Spencer lineage. The Spencers were close to royalty for 500 years, and her grandmother was a lady-in-waiting, her aunts were ladies-in-waiting, her father was the queen's equerry, which is like the right hand of the queen. And yet it was Diana that kind of shook the monarchy.

Blew it up.

Blew it up like Guy Fawkes tried to. She really was a very brave, ballsy girl and faced down the queen and Prince Philip in really the most amazing way. When she did the Andrew Morton book ("Diana, Her True Story"), when she told her story pretending to be off the record -- I mean she told him the entire story and he put it all into others' quotes. This was her book really, in the sense that she annotated the galleys of the damn thing. But this was incredible behavior, because it's as if Laura Bush did a kiss-and-tell about George Bush while she was in the White House.


If only.

And faced him and everybody down and said, "I had nothing to do with this book. Andrew who? Morton? Who's he?" It was pretty incredible political stuff. And then when she did the Martin Bashir interview on "Panorama," I mean, she had the cameras smuggled up on a Sunday, and did this interview that she knew would just blow them all up.

But it seems like you're a little bit ambivalent about how much she knew it would blow everything up. Maybe it was my own reading, but she seemed surprised.

She was always a bit surprised. I mean the thing about Diana that is fascinating, here is where the complexity comes in, is she did these things but she often didn't think through the next day. She was tremendously driven at certain points to really make a stand, and for that, one has to admire her. But you question her judgment at times, and it's puzzling and interesting how she never really thought through the consequences of her actions. She was so caught up in the drama of that moment that the important thing was to get her story out, not how it would really impact everybody else. She imagined, for instance with the Morton book, that when everybody in the royal family would read her story, they would feel tremendous remorse for the way they treated her. And actually, of course as we all know, if you read a book like that, you just feel furious. And the same thing happened with Bashir; she basically thought, "I have to tell my story because they are trying to write me out of this picture and I want to make sure they understand." Well they did understand; they understood all too well.


And that was the end of the marriage.

And that was the end. As far as the queen went, she had to sit and watch her daughter-in-law on television saying basically that the royal family were jealous of her and that the monarchy didn't know how to rule. I mean, I'm sorry, but in other eras she would have been beheaded.


So it's kind of amazing about Diana that she had this kind of reckless spirit. And her brother had it too, really, in [Diana's eulogy] in Westminster Abbey.


You said that's something Diana would have done.

Yeah, she would have absolutely done it. I mean, it was the Spencer streak. The Spencers were, as the queen mother said, very difficult -- that the Spencers were, let's put it mildly, a headstrong, brash, dashing family is the truth. What I also found out is the only leverage she had was in the media. She had to use Morton, she had to use Bashir. Frankly how else was she going to make her stand? I mean, she had an alternative plan really, which was explode or implode, and she decided to explode. The alternative was to simply subside, to kind of go under, suck it up.

Suck it up, have secret affairs.

Have secret affairs, accept with a very smiling face that her husband was absolutely off with another woman and just live with it. And she didn't want to, she was too young, too beautiful, too romantic, and too desirous for some kind of emotional fulfillment. I mean, I sometimes think, perhaps if Diana had been less beautiful, would it all have been more bearable? It might have been easier all around. The family wouldn't have been as jealous; she wouldn't have been the superstar she was; Charles could have handled it better. And she probably would have had fewer options, and less power with the media.


I was struck in the book by the correspondences from one generation to the next in Diana's family: Her grandmother breaking up the romance of a friend's daughter to Johnnie Spencer, to put Frances, Diana's mother, in that role -- who was then, of course, totally miserable. And then Diana sets her sights on Charles after her sister Sarah dated him -- who knows how serious it would have been, but Diana decided she could best Sarah.

It's interesting. It was that realm of upper-class society -- sexual politics are very ruthless. Basically Diana was schooled in the ways of her grandmother Fermoy, who was a socially predatory, scheming woman. Diana's role models were these women who said, "Everything is for that tiara at the end; go for it and don't let anything stand in your way."

By any means necessary.

By any means necessary, just get that ring on your finger with the tiara intact. In a sense, that was the message Diana got from everybody. So it's not surprising in a way that as a 19-year-old girl, she set her heart on the biggest catch in England, because that's what she'd been raised to do.

But then she had no idea how unhappy she would be. In your book, there's this palpable claustrophobia and despair in every setting, from the honeymoon to Balmoral.

I know, it's very interesting. I really do feel with her that the dream became the scream. It was like an insulin coma. She was in this kind of swaddle of pink smoke around herself where she had this dream that was so strong; her romantic haze was so strong. Even though her mother had married her father at 17 and was miserable in very similar ways, she seemed to imbibe nothing of that, and just wanted this huge catch.

I was really struck by how Diana -- I remember her being referred to as one of the "Sloane Rangers," but I didn't really know what that meant until I read the book -- that there was this whole class of young women utterly unprepared to support themselves, or even to have interests. I mean, here you have this wealthy girl who goes to be a nanny to Americans ...

It was really remarkable as late as 1979. Here's Diana, whose father is an earl who lives in a stately home -- she leaves school at 16 to be a nanny and a cleaner. I mean it's pretty incredible stuff. Without one single academic qualification, not one. Her two sisters, actually, did the same, and her sister Jane was actually a very bright girl who certainly could have gone to Oxford or Cambridge.

So was that something odd about the family?

No, it was true very much of that type of girl. Her brother went to Eton and Oxford and the girls weren't educated.

It just felt like another century to me.

It felt like another century, I know. I was particularly struck -- I mean I wasn't as struck at the time because I guess I accepted that these girls did behave like that. I was at school with a lot of them, actually. But it was the tail end. I say that Diana was the last uneducated English girl. It's true, in a way. She was the last of that generation to live like that, but it's still remarkable that it went as long as it did in the late '70s. I mean, we already had all of feminism and the '70s were the time of the Sex Pistols. It's an amazing thing; they got prepared for absolutely nothing.

Did you ever find yourself trying to write an alternative ending where Diana grows up -- what would the next chapter be if she had made better choices in men or decided to be on her own?

I did think a lot about that -- about what would Diana be doing now. One thing I never called her out on was being fake about her humanitarian passion. That's one of the things in the end that validated her for me -- I felt she had an extraordinary gift in terms of communication, passion, caring and kindness; she was a very special woman in that sense. She had the ability to communicate genuine intimacy and feeling for strangers in ways that were inspiring. At the time that I met her, she was just coming out of this land-mines campaign, which was probably her finest hour, you know. And yet within six weeks of when I see her in July of '97, when she was so self-possessed, so on top of things, ready for her second act, she's on this boat with Dodi Fayed, right back where she started in this silly state of glitzy nonsense. Diana's desire for love was her terrible Achilles' heel -- her desire to be cherished. She never had been is the truth. Not as a child, not as a young bride, not as a married woman. She just never experienced genuine emotional fulfillment. She did have a good love affair with James Hewitt, but, you know, she was punching a little below her weight it seems. Hasnat Khan was a genuine love for her, but he wasn't prepared to give up his Muslim life, so in the end ...

She was Princess Diana and she was rejected.

She was always rejected is the truth.

It was always the wrong person.

The slipper never fit. It was just rotten for her that she couldn't have a decent, solid grown-up relationship; it was all she really wanted. So, you know, once again in despair, she kind of goes into this -- I don't think of it as her last great romance, I see it as her summer relapse. Everyone was away, she was miserable as hell, Charles had just given the 50th birthday party for Camilla, Hasnat has given her up, the boys are in Balmoral. She is miserable. Everyone she knows is off with their families, and then Dodi Fayed says, "Come on this boat." It was terrible judgment and very self-indulgent, but she did it. But I don't think it would have lasted. I feel she was in the middle of trying to think about her next act in terms of doing documentaries and working on humanitarian campaigns. I learned she had this new idea, which was to work on illiteracy -- that was going to be her new campaign. I think she was definitely going to come out of it. I really do. I think it was all dependent in the end on whether she met somebody who could have been this quiet, supportive man. Jackie Kennedy Onassis had Maurice Tempelsman. She went through her Onassis phase just like Di went through her Dodi phase ...

Needing that protection, that cocoon.

Yes, Jackie thought she could replace the power of the White House with the big toys and yachts of Onassis, and Diana thought she could replace Windsor Castle with big toys and yachts. And I think she would have come out of it just as Jackie did and found a sort of more mature and quieter way to be. William did not like Dodi, nor did Harry. The boys found him just embarrassing, and it could have never sustained in the face of that. I think that Diana really took seriously her responsibility to be unembarrassing to William, as the king. So I think she would have kind of got herself in check and tried to live a life of humanitarian concerns. I think she probably every so often would have ended up doing something silly, though, unless she found someone. She was a very needy girl. She was a hard woman to have a love affair with, because she was so demanding. She wanted to be the moon and the stars to one guy and the center of somebody's life. It's maybe just because she was never the center of anybody's. I think that was her tragedy with Charles was that she -- not that she lost him, but she never had him. That's what I think made her insane. And the same thing, really, with her parents. I mean, you know, her mother, she only had her for six years and then she lost her. And her father was a very sweet man, but he wasn't a man who was emotionally really there.

Why do you think we still pay so much attention?

Because her achievements were profound. I think that she did teach the royal family a different way of being royal. There is no question about it.

Tony Blair said to you that it was more than that. It was a different way of being British.

She came to represent a new national desire for compassion and warmth and inclusiveness, because Diana's great gift was that she really was able to take the underdog and give them dignity. And there was a wonderful story that I heard, which I put in the book: She went to visit an AIDS hospice and there were two old gay guys, and she was sitting, talking to them, and one of the old gay men said to her, "You know, this is so funny. You're a princess and I'm," and he started to cry, "and I'm a queen." And she put her arms around him and laughed and he remembered it after she died, and he just cried when he remembered it, because it may seem today not so important, but at that moment, it was important for him to be able to say to a member of the establishment, "I am a queen. I'm gay."

And be embraced.

And be embraced, and forgiven, as he saw it. Being given permission to be gay by a member of the class that always sort of rebuffed him was a very profound thing. The notes that were left when she died were things like, "You gave us strength," "You gave us courage" -- the inmates of [whatever jail]. Also, she really did show a way to leverage global celebrity to a very positive end. The Angelina Jolies and the Bonos of today, they are very much working in her template. And there have always been rock stars doing philanthropic types of things, but she really did take it to a new level, and with her land-mine campaign, she really showed not just that she was going to raise money for hungry people or whatever but that she could actually move the needle on an important issue. She took on a controversial issue and she actually did activate world debate and create something positive out of it. That was important.

Did you find yourself disappointed in her periodically?

Yeah, every so often you would think, why do that? Really, why do that? She did some bad things to Fergie [Sarah Ferguson, former wife of Prince Andrew], which were really unnecessary. She was happy to dish up Fergie to the press to distract attention from herself. That was a shame. I mean that was kind of beneath her. She would treat her staff badly sometimes at the end.

And yet your affection for her comes across.

I like her, I still feel she's a heroine. Jane Austen said about Emma that she was faultless in spite of all her faults, and this is how I felt about Diana. She had all these flaws. She could be a real, dangerous bitch, but she was just fabulous as well. She was also a major force in the world and a great loving, kind presence who could spread a lot of light and did. I think she would have been a sensational queen, and she would have been really good at it. That was part of her rage, of course, that she didn't just lose the prince, she lost her role.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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