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.
A great glory of this book is the behind-the scenes close-ups of life at the various castles, palaces and Stately Homes. Picture Diana on her first two-month boot-camp in Balmoral, the sovereign's Scottish retreat: The long days slaughtering wildlife, picnics in the freezing rain, dinners seated between two elderly courtly stiffs ("heavy furniture" in Di-speak); Prince Philip booming on for hours about the evils of trade unions; Princess Anne barking about her day's kill; the Queen's bagpipers at last wheezing traditional Scottish airs around the table to signal time for the women to leave, perhaps for tiddlywinks and jigsaws. As nobody ever goes to bed before the Queen, Di could be stuck listening to Princess Margaret tinkling old show tunes on the piano until 2 a.m.
London's Kensington Palace, the luxurious grace-and-favor royal compound in which Diana and Charles lived for some time after their marriage, was a hive of loathing. Princess Anne called Diana "the Dope." Diana called the Austrian-born Prince Michael of Kent "the Führer" and "the U-Boat Commander."
Diana had not, of course, married for chums, a good time or even ambition, but for her ideal of romantic love. Finally understanding that Charles would always love Camilla Parker Bowles, and never her, she began the string of affairs that spiced up the end of her short life. Brown really goes to town here. She, worldly piece of work that she is, thinks everything would have been hunky-dory if Di had only got it on with Prince Philip, the Queen's consort. He fancied her anyway, and it would have kept the fuss inside the family. But Di aimed lower. Her first affair, Tina believes, was with Di's cockney bodyguard Barry Mannakee. For this flash, Tina pumped Di's pal Dr. James Colthurst, who helped the Princess tape all the dirt used by Andrew Morton in Diana: Her True Story, the H-bomb dropped on the House of Windsor in 1992. Not only had Diana admitted an affair, Colthurst said, but she thought Barry was "bumped off" when he died. Next came the red-haired Life Guards Maj. James Hewitt, her (and the boys') riding instructor. Later, when the discarded and broke Hewitt sold his memoirs, he was widely scorned as the Love Rat.
Was he or was he not the father of ginger-haired Prince Harry? Tina thinks so. "Well, I don't know what she was doing at the time," Prince Charles once responded, not too gallantly, when the subject arose. A succession of tall, handsome beaux, both before and after the official royal separation of Dec. 9, 1992, were dubbed "the Dianamen" and the "42 Longs" by her bodyguards. She fell hard for married art dealer, Oliver Hoare, becoming his "phone sex pest." She carried on with Will Carling, the rugby star. But by this time, she was already evolving into Saint Diana. The spurned but genuinely kind and empathetic princess comforted the sick, embraced AIDS patients, shook lepers' hands, touched bloody bandages. As she bent to speak to dying children or tenderly caress the wheelchair-bound, she seemed a veritable healing angel.
And now, she had a great love. He was a Pakistani heart surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan. Impressed that the devout Muslim would not consummate their affair until her divorce decree was absolute, Diana actually considered converting to Islam. She bought several sexy Pakistani outfits -- love those bare midriffs! -- cooked for him, ironed his shirts, vacuumed his modest apartment, and for his birthday turned up wearing sapphire-and-diamond earrings and a fur coat with nothing beneath. Ah, l'amour! And glamour! Unfortunately, his large, close family wanted him to marry a nice Muslim girl, and he obliged. Poor Dodi Fayed, who died in the Paris crash, was really just a stand-in.
Diana's tragicomedy is Shakespearean in scale, with its slippery royal machinations, its agonized ironies, its seething jealousies and heartbreaking inevitability. Brown is no Shakespeare. But she gives us a walloping good read. ·
Diana McLellan's most recent book is "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood."