Book World Live

Tina Brown
Author, "The Diana Chronicles"
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; 11:00 AM

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, jingly 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. -- Review by Diana McLellan (Book World, June 10 - 16, 2007)

Author Tina Brown was online Wednesday, June 13, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss "The Diana Chronicles" and recount how Lady Di's fairy tale went sour.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Tina Brown: Hi everyone, Great to be here for the chat. I'm ready to roll...


Sterling, Va.: I have read one or two excerpts from your book and I noticed several mentions of "the virgin bride." I was quite young when Diana was married and missed that particular aspect of the courtship. Was her virginity such an important aspect of the marriage? Was there an actual medical exam to establish her virginity? The entire concept seems so bizarre to me.

Tina Brown: Her virginity was an enormously important aspect. The older generation of the Royal Family was fixated on the notion that the future Queen had to be chaste, with no past. If only to make sure that there was no sordid story coming out just as the crown was placed upon her head. Trouble was this was the late 70s, the era of the Sex Pistols, when the only virgins left were in sitcoms.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Your book confirms one of the things I have heard about Di, and that was she was a bit of a trouble maker as a youngster. Was there a particular tale you found most amusing? As a follow-up, where were her parents or nannies in trying to stop her from these misadventures? It seems she got away with quite a bit.

Tina Brown: Yes, Diana made real trouble for all her nannies - her way of getting her own back after her mother left home. She took it out on the help. She used to put pins on the seats of the nannies so they pierced them when they sat down. She threw another one's clothes out of the window and locked her in a bedroom. When her stepmother told her she couldn't use the stereo system, she tore all the wires out from under the floorboards. She was always not a woman you wanted to cross!


Kensington, Md., USA: I am an Anglophile. I have traced my ancestry back to the 16th Century towns of Barchester and Holt, England.

My daughter is a university librarian/archivist living in England. For several years she was an employee of Conde Nast working in Hanover Square, London.

My comment is: It is my understanding that Princess Diana was scheduled to visit with William and Harry on the weekend. If she had made proper plans by leaving Paris sooner, she would have been on her way back to England or would have been there rather than driving through a Paris tunnel?

Tina Brown: It's true that Diana was scheduled to leave Paris 24 hours earlier and was desperate to get home but Dodi really wanted her to come into town and see the Villa Windsor, the house belonging to the Duke and Duchess that his father had bought and also spend the night having dinner. By that time Diana had had it with the vacation and was also rattled by the fact that she had a bad conversation with William on the phone who was fed up with pictures of her cavorting with Dodi. It's a tragedy she didn't follow her own instincts and get home.


Pleasant Ridge, Mich.: Do you believe Prince Charles would have wed Camilla Parker had Princess Diana not died and was still alive?

Tina Brown: I think he would have found it very much harded to marry Camilla if Diana had been still there haunting his house. The public loved her so much and Diana would have found delicious, fiendish ways to have made it somehow impossible.


Cleveland, Ohio: You find these new 'revelations,' but isn't that easy to find when the subject is dead and cannot defend themselves? Are you obsessed with Diana because there is no way you could have been her?

Tina Brown: Most of my book is a reestablishing of Diana's importance and meaning. Far from tearing her down, I think this is the first book that actually takes her seriously. I came to very much admire her and feel that she had played a major role in both changing the monarchy and establishing a new way to use her celebrity for some humanitarian causes. Now the template for people like Angelina Jolie and Bono. Believe me Diana-envy is not part of my secret agenda. I think she had one of the saddest lives I can think of!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Ms. Brown, Did you see "The Queen"? What did you think of that film?

Tina Brown: I thought it was superb and in fact I went to watch the filming of the movie in Scotland and spent a wonderful day trading insights into the Royal Family with Helen Mirren and Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan, the screenwriter. What may not have been immediately apparent to audiences was the level of perfectionish that went into, for instance, the costumes and the set-dressing. It was flawless in texture, in fabric, in color.


New York, N.Y.: Hi Tina,

When you were researching and writing the book, what aspect of Di's life did you personally find most interesting or shocking, or both?

Tina Brown: I was particularly fascinated by her early life and childhood. It never really had struck me before how extraordinary it was that as late as the late 70s a girl of 16 could leave school with zero academic qualifications and become a nanny and a cleaner when her social background was at the top level of the Establishment. I call Diana the last uneducated British girl and it really was the case. Both of her sisters followed the same path, while her brother was sent to Eton and Oxford. And then her Spencer family background was far more complicated and interesting than I ever realized. Her grandmother Lady Fermoy is one of the fascinating bad fairies of the book. She testified against her own daughter, Diana's mother, in her custody case with Earl Spencer and the Spencer family was always riven with feuds and bitterness.


Annapolis, Md.: I remember being so enthralled with the wedding and watching it live on television. I believed that Prince Charles and Diana were truly in love. My husband-to-be at the time laughed at my naivete. He has been proven to be right. My question: how were we all so fooled by the fairy tale aspect when it was such a business transaction in reality?

Tina Brown: You were fooled because the Royal Family was fooling themselves too! And because there was so much at stake in promoting this great fairy tale myth. The Royal Family at the time were in desperate need of a lift. They had become boring and stale and old and were in danger of losing the interest of the British people. Along comes this beautiful, innocent fresh-faced and glamorous girl and suddenly everyone is enthralled again.


Missoula, Mont.: Ms. Brown: Since you published my one and only New Yorker piece, then ran a short Talk profile about me, I'll forever think of you as a very good editor, bordering on great. Now, since we're both biographers, we're on equal footing and I ask the question that I ask all my peers: If you could alter space and time and today -- right now -- ask Diana one question, what would that question be?

Tina Brown: I would ask her: "Diana, why didn't you stay home with Dodi that night in Paris at his apartment when all the press was pursuing you. What was it that made you zigzag all over Paris like a hunted deer?"


Boston, Mass.: I was a little girl during the Charles and Diana years, and remember the fairy tale story. (I actually had Princess Di paper dolls, if you can believe it.) The night of my 16th birthday, August 30th, 1997 (in Connecticut, so six hours behind Paris) as my friends were leaving, I turned on the television and saw the news of the crash. I'll never forget it. I wonder, though, if people don't have that same kind of personal connection, say 50 years from now, how will Diana be seen? Will she be remembered at all? What are your thoughts?

Tina Brown: I think Diana is one of those perennially iconic people simply because the power of the fairy story that became a tragedy will be irresistible for generations to come. Moreover she was the mother of the future King. And I do believe that William, and Harry too, will want to burnish their mother's memory and image, instead of burying it as the Windsors have tried to do since her death. The concert on July 1 that the boys are holding in memory of her life is the first step in that burnishing.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think about Dodi Fayed's belief that there was some kind of conspiracy in her death? Is his theory believable to anyone either over there or here in the U.S.?

Tina Brown: I think that Mohamed Al Fayed at this point has convinced himself that there was a conspiracy because he still cannot live with the truth. The fact is that Diana died in a car organized by his hotel, the Ritz, driven by his acting head of security, Henri Paul, who wasn't even qualified to be a chauffeur, and was under the influence of both drink and drugs, guarded by a bodyguard who reported to Al Fayed and who did not ensure the Princess was wearing a seatbelt. That must be very unbearable for Al Fayed and I understand why he wants to turn this into a finger-pointing towards anybody but his own organization.


Baltimore, Md.: Did the press 'kill' Princess Diana?

Tina Brown: It was too easy for that to become the verdict in the weeks and months after Diana's death. It is true that the car was driving too fast to throw off the paparazzi but as her former bodyguard said to me in London: "Nobody ever died from a camera" and Diana herself was very used to being pursued and was always cool as a cucumber in the face of it. It was Dodi who was panicking that night and no doubt telling Henri Paul to step on the gas and it was Henri Paul who was drunk. The press were no saints but, in fact, the first one to arrive on the scene, the unfortunately named Romuald Rat was actually very solicitous of Diana, taking her pulse and seeing what he could do to help.


Cherry Hill, N.J.: Hi. Looking forward to reading your book.

I came to feel that Diana was just starving for love, that this underlay all of her behaviors and choices over the years. She lost her mother, tried to soothe her father, thought she had found love and stability in her husband only to be disappointed, and I think she was searching to fill this gaping space inside her for the rest of her all-too-short life. You?

Tina Brown: You are so right about that. Truth was that Diana never did find the love she was looking for. All the lovers let her down in the end and she never lost her yearning for Charles. What really was a source of grief to her was, not that she lost Charles, but that she never really had him in the first place. She turned more and more to the media for consolation and to her visits to the underprivileged and the terminally ill from whom she got as much sustenance as she gave.


Omaha, Neb.: As an American, I am a bit confused about the function of the royal family -- more specifically I was surprised to discover that they had a function. My understanding was that they remained in their life of leisure as a tribute to the tradition of royalty in Britain. They had, in other words, no real responsibilities or obligations. Your book interests me specifically because it discusses how Diana changed the royal family's relationship with the British people. Could you describe that transformation a bit? Thank you.

Tina Brown: The British Royal Family do play a very real part in life and traditions of England. There is a bizarre if apocryphal fact that more than 50% of Britons have at some point dreamt about the Queen. The monarchy is the thread that links British people to their history of which they are enormously proud and are seen as the bulwark against overmighty politicians; an impartial source of authority that stands above and beyond the daily maelstrom of politics. The Queen is hugely admired. When she dies there will be a great outpouring but the question of whether the monarchy will survive will be very much dependent on how Charles and William do. I don't think it is any more a given that a Monarch who was perhaps dissolute or disreputable could get away with it in the media culture we have today.


Washington, D.C.: No fan of the monarchy or the concept of monarchy, but feel myself very sympathetic to Charles ... not in how he acted ... but that he was caught in a system that denied him the one person who, for whatever reason, could have made him happy -- Camilla.


Tina Brown: I think you are right to feel that way. In fact in my book I'm sympathetic to Charles even if at time he was exasperating or self-centered. The fact was he was as trapped as Diana was. In a system that had become as archaic as it was ultimately cruel. No marriage he entered into was likely to survive because he had already met the woman he regarded as his soul mate, Camilla.


Diamond Bell Ranch, Ariz.: Ms Brown, I haven't read your book yet but have read several reviews of it and am looking forward to it so much. Can't really relate to lives like the Windsors or, for that matter, a woman like Diana. Yet I devour books about them -- particularly enjoyed Sally Bedell Smith's and several volumes of photos of Diana's wardrobe. Perhaps the great distance from ordinary lives like mine is the source of my fascination. And my compliments to you on your life full of accomplishment.

Here's my question: Do you really think Diana plotted out all her actions to achieve some end, or was it more happenstance? Was she really capable of that kind of long-term planning? She always seemed more a victim of circumstance to me.

P.S. I'm writing from a spot a few miles from the Elkhorn Ranch ...

Tina Brown: Thanks for the compliment and I agree with you about Bedell Smith's book which is one of the very best. Diana was a funny mixture of naivete and smarts. I say she was a tactician not a strategist. She was brilliantly media savvy on one level but she often didn't think through the fall-out from some of her decisions. For instance, when she told Andrew Morton all the private miseries of her marriage and her eating disorder, etc. she really did believe it would make the Royal Family more sympathetic and nice to her. In fact they were totally livid, of course, and considered her a dangerous, loose cannon.


New York, N.Y.: Like you, I originally found Diana frivolous and silly, but later began to find myself respecting her intelligence and ability to use her star power for good causes. Later, I saw her as a tragic figure, trapped by a bad marriage and a stifling royal system. My opinion of her changed as she humanized AIDS patients at a time when they were still considered contagious pariahs, and then was further enhanced by her work publicizing the horrors of land mines. When did you notice your opinion of her changing? Was it before or after her death and your work on the book?

Tina Brown: The moment that Diana kissed the AIDS baby was the moment I really began to feel she was becoming a woman of importance. She understood the power of gesture and that her royal charisma could shine a light on very dark places and change the world for the better. Her greatest moment really was in the last months of her life when she walked on an uncleared minefield in Angola to publicize the campaign against anti-personnel mines. It was a magnificent act of personal courage and inspired use of media spotlight. It wasn't till I got deeply into it in my book that I realized the global importance of some of the things she had done.


Washington, D.C.: I think the great irony of Diana's story is that she was chosen to reinvigorate the British public's interest in the Royal Family, but she succeeded much more than they expected or wanted, becoming far more popular than the rest of them. How soon after the wedding do you think the Queen or Charles realized they had made a mistake?

Tina Brown: They realized it pretty much immediately after the wedding. They thought the excitement would subside after she had the ring on her finger but in Charles and Diana's first tour to Wales in October 1981 it was clear the crowds only wanted to see Diana. They split the walkabout and when Charles walked over to people they groaned "Where's Diana?" and the crowd on her side was just going crazy. He was devastated and the Palace were extremely uncomfortable. The Queen wasn't thrilled either at the opening of Parliament that same year when her great annual moment in full crown and scepter was totally upstaged by the front-page pictures of Diana the next morning.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think that Camilla will be called "Queen" when Charles ascends to the throne? What is your opinion of her? Was she the third party in the Diana-Charles marriage from the beginning, as Diana believed? I always felt the Prince let himself off easy with the excuse that he had not returned to Camilla until the marriage had broken down. Wasn't it his attachment to Camilla that caused the breakdown in the first place?

Tina Brown: I am sure that Camilla will wind up being Queen. She's a great poker player and has won every round so far. No one in their wildest dreams could have imagined that she would not only now be entirely accepted at Charles's side but be his wife the Duchess of Cornwall. I'm pretty sure that Camilla was emotionally, if not physically present in Charles's life from Day One of the marriage and I believe he went back to her in the full sense right after William's birth, not after Harry's which is the official line today. I do feel that if Camilla had backed off the marriage would have had a chance but she was as tenacious as she was skillful in maintaining the Prince's affections.


Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Tina, many thanks for doing this chat. For someone who has always been at the front of new trends in media, what's it been like navigating new media with blogs, chats, podcasts, vlogs -- as you are presenting an old media form like a non- fiction book?

Tina Brown: It has been truly marvelous to observe the light-speed changes in media distribution. But what's moving just as fast are the ways that readers ¿ that's you ¿ are receiving that information and then bouncing it out again. All the world is now, literally, a critic. For publishers and authors that can be a daunting prospect. Mastering dynamic change also means that one must adapt. But I think the best approach is to engage this evolving dynamic is to engage it vigorously. Media is changing in unexpected and innovative ways, some of them harsh, but those changes must be viewed with a clear eye and met with an equally innovative response. Name your metaphor ¿ dodo, ostrich, buggy whip or Betamax ¿ hide from the change and it will hide from you.


Philly, Pa.: Tina! You are an excellent writer and I miss your op-eds. I have three questions: What happened between William and Kate? And what do you think of the rumor about Harry's paternity? Also, what was the relationship between Charle's ancestors and Camilla's -- I always get that mixed up. What a fascinating week it was that transpired after Daina's sudden, untimely and tragic death. I was transfixed by the drama. Thanks so much!

Tina Brown: William and Kate - interestingly I think history was repeating itself. Kate Middleton as a beautiful fresh face on the scene was starting to be covered obsessively by the British papers. Inside sources tell me that this thoroughly irritated the Queen who was beginning to say: "The last thing we want is another media queen like Diana." I think the stress of it all created complications in William and Kate's relationship and in the end William couldn't handle it and nor could she. Re: Charles's ancestors and Camilla's - Alice Keppel, Camilla's great-great-great grandmother was the mistress of King Edward VI. Re: Harry's paternity, until we get a DNA test we'll never know but I do think the notion that Harry's coloring and Hewitt's are the same is irrelevant. All the Spencers are redheads and so is Harry.


New York, N.Y. (again): One of the earlier participants was surprised that the royal family has any role to play in British life. It's important to note that the Queen has some important political functions in England also. Helen Mirren made this point magnificently in "The Queen." She opens Parliament officially. In addition, there is a wonderful story that was publicized during the Falklands War, when she called Margaret Thatcher on the carpet for not discussing, or at least informing her (the Queen) in advance of the plans to initiate military action in the Falklands against Argentina. The Queen made Mrs. Thatcher stand for the duration of the meeting, which was about 45 minutes, as a way of showing her great displeasure in Thatcher's failure to follow protocol.

Tina Brown: Great story, yes. The Queen and Mrs Thatcher were never more than on polite terms. In fact between Thatcher and Di in the 80s must have been one of the Queen's least favorite decades.


Massillon, Ohio: I wonder if the French had taken Diana directly to a hospital with the facilities to diagnose her internal injuries instead of insisting on stabilizing her at the crash scene for what seemed like hours, if she might have lived? Do you know how much time passed between the first ambulance arriving at the accident and Diana arriving at the hospital?

Tina Brown: The French have had wrongly been criticized for the medical care of Diana. Actually she had the best medical care you could possibly ask for at the Salpetriere Hospital. But the French system is different. Their ambulances are kitted out like the best medical facility in a hospital and they perform the medial care you would normally get in a hospital in the ambulance. Remember, she had a heart attack while being extracted from the car. The first medical man arrived at 12:40 a.m. and she was just outside the hospital at 2 a.m. when her blood pressure dropped to a dangerously low level that's what delayed her arrival to the hospital as they stopped to save her from going into another cardiac arrest.


Tina Brown: Great talking to you all! Thanks for all the great questions and I hope the rest of them can be answered in the pages of THE DIANA CHRONICLES.


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