BIOGRAPHY

The Princess Bride

Britain's Diana, Princess of Wales, is seen in this April 15, 1997 just months before her fatal car crash in Paris on Aug. 31.
Britain's Diana, Princess of Wales, is seen in this April 15, 1997 just months before her fatal car crash in Paris on Aug. 31. (Neil Munns - AP)

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Reviewed by Diana McLellan
Sunday, June 10, 2007

THE DIANA CHRONICLES

By Tina Brown

Doubleday, 542 pp. $27.50

I wonder if Tina Brown ever had the Queen Dream? Back in the mid-'80s, around the time Brown moved from editing London's Tatler to Vanity Fair, an astonishing 65 percent of the English -- including actors Judi Dench, Alec Guinness and several socialist politicians -- confessed to dreaming of a cozy tête-à-tête with Her Majesty. (Full disclosure: I had my second tea-with-the-Queen dream after reading Brown's book. It ended in a genteel food-fight, amid gales of chummy laughter.)

For those who haven't had the pleasure, Brown's jam-packed, juicy roll in the high cotton is even better, fragrant with the rich schadenfreude that makes Top People so much easier to bear. And in return for its rumored $2 million advance, it includes shovelfuls of hot fresh dirt, tucked among the standard (and amazingly detailed) iconic fare. Remember the sex-soaked phone tapes (Diana as Squidgy, or Charles's Tampax fantasy)? Remember the Royal Love Train? Dueling media manipulation? Jealous attention-grabbing? Top-of-the-line adultery, divorce and money-grubbing?

One charming image is new to me: The night before her fairy-tale wedding, the just-turned 20 Lady Diana Spencer gobbled everything in sight, got "sick as a parrot" (presumably to fit into her wedding dress) and then, at loose ends, tripped gaily downstairs at Clarence House to chat with the Queen Mum's elderly page. Spotting the old boy's bike, she hopped on and began peddling joyfully in circles, jingling the bell and singing over and over, "I'm going to marry the Prince of Wales tomorrow!"

That triumphant crow crowned months, if not years, of meticulous plotting -- not only by Diana, but also by the desperate-for-a-virgin-bride Windsor tribe, all laid out here for our delectation like a really good hunt breakfast. It also heralded the dawn of 16 years of hell. Hell for Di, hell for the Royals, hell for everyone but the press -- hell that didn't even end on Aug. 31, 1997, the night the black Mercedes carrying Di and her coke-snorting beau crashed into a wall of the Pont D'Alma tunnel in Paris, kicking off a decade of conspiracy theories, to which Brown gives a rather cursory and politic nod.

As it happened, Diana's bike caper was entirely in character. All her life, Earl Spencer's daughter hung with the help. Skimpily educated, she learned everything she knew below stairs at her family's splendid Althorp estate. She loved the gossip and chatter of housemaids and pastry cooks. Personally, I've always thought that her total ease with the British press -- and the reason its hard-boiled hacks fell so madly in love with her -- was that deep-down she considered them all matey surrogates for the gang in the scullery back home. She relished menial work, too -- to clean house, to wash and iron clothes, nanny small children and cook bread-and-butter pudding for the staff, was bliss. During her honeymoon aboard the royal yacht Britannia, as her cerebral Prince buried himself in the highbrow books of Laurens van der Post, Di slipped away whenever possible to crash the crew's parties. At one point, she had to be elbowed away from playing the piano for a crowd of cheering sailors. Even her accent -- flat, affectless and airing some surprisingly vulgar vowel-sounds -- struck many snobs as stunningly low-class for an earl's daughter. (In Charles's and Camilla's set, they use funny vowels, too, but they're the right funny vowels: "House" is pronounced "hice." "Very" is "virry." "Bouncy" is "bincey." Don't try this at home.)

Perhaps most important, Diana read what housemaids read -- down-and-dirty tabloids and sugary shy-virgin-marries-the-prince romances. Barbara Cartland, the pink-ostrich-plumed mother of Di's own hated stepmother, Raine, wrote hundreds of these, and would claim they were Diana's downfall: "They weren't awfully good for her." Fifteen years after the wedding (to which she wasn't invited), the Queen of Romance opined that the marriage was doomed all along because Diana "wouldn't do oral sex." Well, that wasn't in the romance novels, was it? But while we're down here in the trouser zone, it's worth noting that Diana herself called her marriage's sexual problems "geographical," and reported that Charles only sought her out every three weeks. We now learn that Charles likes to be called "Arthur" at the height of his amorous endeavors. Who would know? Not Di. But Camilla would, with her "long, languid understanding of her man" and her striking physical resemblance to his beloved childhood nanny.

The sour wisdom Brown gleaned during decades spent editing chic magazines glints throughout her book, like rhinestones under sackcloth. She blames Diana's bulimia on media exposure, pure and simple: "Us magazine today is filled with the sunken cheeks of formerly pneumatic starlets who are turned by round-the-clock exposure into tiny famished ghosts attached to hair weaves." "For women over thirty-five, glamour has three Stations of the Cross: denial, disguise, and compromise. As she entered her thirty-seventh year, Diana told herself she was looking for love. But what she was really seeking was a guy with a Gulfstream."

The young Diana was no angel. As a child she tormented her unlucky nannies. She locked one in a bathroom; she threw another's undies out the window; she spiked one's cushions with pins; she tossed another's engagement ring down the drain. As a teen, when James Gilbey stood her up on a date, she poured flour-and-egg paste all over his Alfa Romeo. When she and her sisters read about their father's marriage to Raine, recently divorced from the Earl of Dartmouth, and realized that they, the girls, hadn't been invited to the ball, she confronted the groom, hauled off and slapped his face. "That's from all of us, for hurting us," she said, before stalking out and slamming the door.

Word of the guerrilla warfare she launched against her new stepmother -- poison pen notes, harassing phone calls, yanking out the wiring from beneath the floorboards -- might have given the Royal Family pause before they launched their relentless campaign to have the heir to the throne marry England's sole remaining high-born virgin. One night, perhaps sensing she was being short-changed, she became so enraged with Charles kneeling beside his bed in prayer that she bonked him on the head with the family Bible. She used the f-word with some frequency. And she had an especially soft spot for garbage bags: When stepmother Raine was finally kicked out of Althorp, upon Earl Spencer's death in '92, Di had Raine's glorious clothes unpacked from her "S"-emblazoned Vuitton suitcases, stuffed into garbage bags and then kicked downstairs. (Her brother Charles, heir to the Spencer title, bowled Raine's other possessions after them.) And after her divorce from Prince Charles, she shoved the priceless Prince of Wales china into a heavy-duty garbage bag and went at it with a hammer and a will.


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