Even at a distance of 25 years, it is a scarcely believable story. Hollywood producers would dismiss the script as much too far-fetched; a beautiful but desperate princess, an unknown writer, an amateur go-between and a book that would change the Princess’s life forever.
In 1991 Princess Diana was approaching 30. She had been in the limelight all of her adult life. Her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 was described as a ‘fairytale’ by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the popular imagination, the Prince and Princess, blessed with two young sons, Princes William and Harry, were the glamorous and sympathetic face of the House of Windsor. The very idea that their ten-year marriage was in dire trouble was unthinkable – even to the notoriously imaginative tabloid press. Commenting on a joint tour of Brazil that year, the Sunday Mirror described them as presenting a ‘united front to the world’, their closeness sending a ‘shiver of excitement’ around the massed media ranks.
Shortly afterwards I was to learn the unvarnished truth. The unlikely venue for these extraordinary revelations was a working man’s café in the anonymous London suburb of Ruislip. As labourers noisily tucked into plates of egg, bacon and baked beans, I put on a pair of headphones, turned on a battered tape recorder and listened with mounting astonishment to the unmistakable voice of the Princess as she poured out a tale of woe in a rapid stream of consciousness. It was like being transported into a parallel universe, the Princess talking about her unhappiness, her sense of betrayal, her suicide attempts and two things I had never previously heard of: bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder, and a woman called Camilla.
I left the café reeling, scarcely able to believe what I had heard. It was as though I had been admitted into an underground club that was nursing a secret. A dangerous secret. On my way home that evening I kept well away from the edge of the Underground platform, my mind spinning with the same paranoia that infected the movie All the President’s Men, about President Nixon, the Watergate break-in and the subsequent investigation by Woodward and Bernstein.
For nearly ten years I had been writing about the royal family, and was part of the media circus chronicling their work as they toured the globe. It was, as the members of the so-called ‘royal ratpack’ used to say, the most fun you could have with your clothes on. I had met Prince Charles and Princess Diana on numerous occasions at press receptions which were held at the beginning of every tour. Conversations with the Princess were light, bright and trite, usually about my loud ties.
However, life as a royal reporter was not one long jolly. Behind the scenes of the royal theatre, there was a lot of hard work, cultivating contacts inside Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, where the Waleses occupied apartments eight and nine, in order to find out about royal life when the grease paint was removed. After writing books about life inside the various palaces, the royal family’s wealth and a biography of the Duchess of York, as well as other works, I had got to know a number of friends and royal staff reasonably well and thought I had a fair idea of what was going on behind the wrought-iron royal gates. Nothing had prepared me for this.
My induction to the truth came courtesy of the man in charge of the tape recorder. I first met Dr James Colthurst in October 1986 on a routine royal visit when he escorted Diana after she opened a new CT scanner in his X-ray department at St Thomas’ hospital in central London. Afterwards, over tea and biscuits, I questioned him about Diana’s visit. It soon became clear that Colthurst, an Old Etonian and son of a baronet whose family have owned Blarney Castle in Ireland for more than a century, had known the Princess for years.
He could become, I thought, a useful contact. We became friendly, enjoying games of squash in the St Thomas’ courts before sitting down to large lunches at a nearby Italian restaurant. Chatty but diffuse, James was happy to talk about any subject but the Princess. Certainly he had known her well enough to visit her when she was a bachelor girl living with her friends at Coleherne Court in Kensington and listen to her mooning about Prince Charles. They had even gone on a skiing holiday to France with a party of friends. Upon her elevation to the role of Princess of Wales, the easy familiarity that characterized her life was lost, Diana still speaking fondly of her ‘Coleherne Court’ but in the past tense.
It was only after she visited St Thomas’ that Colthurst and the Princess renewed their friendship, meeting up for lunch every now and again. By degrees he too was admitted into her secret club and was given glimpses of the real life, rather than the fantasy, endured by the Princess. It was clear that her marriage had failed and that her husband was having an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, the wife of his Army friend Andrew who held the curious title of Silver Stick in Waiting to the Queen. Mrs Parker Bowles, who lived near to Highgrove, the Waleses’ country home, was so close to the Prince that she regularly hosted dinners and other gatherings for his friends at his Gloucestershire home.
While Colthurst felt he was being let in on a secret, he was not the only one. From the bodyguard who accompanied the Prince on his nocturnal visits to Camilla’s home at Middlewick House, to the butler and chef ordered to prepare and serve a supper they knew the Prince would not be eating as he had gone to see his lover, and the valet who marked up programmes in the TV listings guide Radio Times, to give the impression the Prince had spent a quiet evening at home – all those working for the Prince and Princess were pulled, often against their will, into the deception. His valet Ken Stronach became ill with the daily deceit while their press officer Dickie Arbiter found himself in an ‘impossible position’, maintaining to the world the illusion of happy families while turning a blind eye to the private distance between them.
When Prince Charles broke his arm in a polo accident in June 1990 and was taken to Cirencester hospital, his staff listened intently to the police radios reporting on the progress of the Princess of Wales on her journey from London to the hospital. They were keenly aware that they had to usher out his first visitor – Camilla Parker Bowles – before Diana arrived.
Those in the know realized that the simmering cauldron of deceit, subterfuge and duplicity was going to boil over sooner or later. Every day they asked themselves how long the conspiracy to hoodwink the future queen could continue. Perhaps indefinitely. Or until the Princess was driven mad by those she trusted and admired, who told her, time after weary time, that Camilla was just a friend. Her suspicions, they reasoned, were misplaced, the imaginings, as the Queen Mother told her circle, of ‘a silly girl’.
As Diana was to explain years later in her famous television interview on the BBC’s Panorama programme: ‘Friends on my husband’s side were indicating that I was again unstable, sick and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better. I was almost an embarrassment.’
Far from being the ravings of a madwoman, Diana’s suspicions were to prove correct, and the painful awareness of the way she had been routinely deceived, not just by her husband but by those inside the royal system, instilled in her an absolute and understandable distrust and contempt for the Establishment. They were attitudes that would shape her behaviour for the rest of her life.
So, as Colthurst tucked into his chicken kiev, he watched as Diana toyed with her wilted salad and spoke with a mixture of anger and sadness about her increasingly intolerable position. She was coming to realize that unless she took drastic action she faced a life sentence of unhappiness and dishonesty. Her first thought was to pack her bags and flee to Australia with her young boys. There were echoes here of the behaviour of her own mother, Frances Shand Kydd, who, following an acrimonious divorce from Diana's father, Earl Spencer, lived as a virtual recluse on the bleak island of Seil in north-west Scotland.
This attitude, however, was merely bravado and resolved nothing. The central issue remained: how to give the public an insight into her side of the story while untangling the legal, emotional and constitutional knots that kept her tethered to the monarchy. It was a genuine predicament. If she had just packed her bags and left, the public and media, who firmly believed in the fairytale, would have considered her behaviour irrational, hysterical and profoundly unbecoming. As far as she was concerned, she had done everything in her power to confront the issue. She had spoken with Charles and been dismissed. Then she had talked to the Queen but faced a blank wall.
Not only did she consider herself to be a prisoner trapped inside a bitterly unfulfilled marriage, she also felt shackled to a wholly unrealistic public image of her royal life and to an unsympathetic royal system which was ruled, in her phrase, by the ‘men in grey suits’. She felt disempowered both as a woman and as a human being. Inside the palace she was treated with kindly condescension, seen as an attractive adornment to her questing husband. ‘And meantime Her Royal Highness will continue doing very little, but doing it very well,’ was the comment by one private secretary at a meeting to discuss future engagements.
Remember, this was the same woman who in 1987 had done more than anyone alive to remove the stigma surrounding the deadly Aids virus when she shook the hand of a terminally ill sufferer at London’s Middlesex Hospital. While she was not able to fully articulate it, Diana had a humanitarian vision for herself that transcended the dull, dutiful round of traditional royal engagements.
As she looked out from her lonely prison, rarely a day passed by without the sound of another door slamming, another lock snapping shut as the fiction of the fairytale was further embellished in the public’s mind. ‘She felt the lid was closing in on her,’ Colthurst later recalled. ‘Unlike other women, she did not have the freedom to leave with her children.’
Like a prisoner condemned for a crime she did not commit, Diana had a crying need to tell the world the truth about her life, the distress she felt and the ambitions she nurtured. Her sense of injustice was profound. Quite simply, she wanted the liberty to speak her mind, the opportunity to tell people the whole story of her life and to let them judge her accordingly.
She felt somehow that if she was able to explain her story to the people, her people, they could truly understand her before it was too late. ‘Let them be my judge,’ she said, confident that her public would not criticize her as harshly as the royal family or the mass media. However, her desire to explain what she saw as the truth of her case was matched by a nagging fear that at any moment her enemies in the Palace would have her classified as mentally ill and locked away. This was no idle fear – when her Panorama interview was screened in 1995, the then Armed Forces Minister, Nicholas Soames, a close friend and former equerry to Prince Charles, described her as displaying ‘the advanced stages of paranoia’.
It gradually dawned on her and her intimate circle that unless the full story of her life was told, the public would never appreciate or understand the reasons behind any actions she decided upon. She chewed over a number of options, from commissioning a series of newspaper articles, to producing a television documentary and publishing a biography of her life. Diana knew her message; she was struggling to find a medium.
How then could she smuggle her message to the outside world? Reviewing Britain’s social landscape she saw that there were few outlets for her story. The House of Windsor is the most influential family in the land, its tentacles wrapped tightly around the decision makers inside television and much of the press. Credible media outlets, the BBC, ITV and the so-called quality newspapers, would have had a collective attack of the vapours if she had signalled that she wanted them to publish the truth of her position. Again, if her story appeared in the tabloid press it would have been dismissed by the Establishment as so much exaggerated rubbish.
What to do? Within her small circle of intimate friends there was sufficient alarm at her current state of mind for several to fear for Diana’s safety. It was known that she had made a number of half-hearted suicide attempts in the past and, as her desperation grew, there was genuine concern that she could take her own life; worries tempered by a balancing belief that ultimately her love for her children could never take her down that path.
At the time she knew that I was researching a biography of her and had been reasonably pleased with an earlier work, Diana’s Diary, mainly because it irritated the Prince of Wales with its detailed description of the Highgrove interior. While researching that book, I had heard hints and rumours that all was not well inside the world of the Waleses. This gossip was but the bland hors d’œuvres before the barely digestible feast of information to come.
Without my fully knowing, Diana was gradually testing me out. She made it clear to Colthurst that she was not averse to him giving me titbits of information. In March 1991 he called me from a phone box on the southern tip of Ireland and told me that Prince Charles’s private secretary Sir Christopher Airey had been sacked. The resulting article in the Sunday Times quietly thrilled Diana, knowing that she had secretly fired a salvo of her own in the direction of her husband. There were other tests which, though not on the scale of riddles posed by Puccini’s Princess Turandot, had to be solved successfully.
She wanted to change her long-time hairdresser Richard Dalton and give another crimper a try. How best to dispense with his services tactfully and without his going to the newspapers to sell his story. Colthurst and I advised her to write him an honest letter, buy him an expensive present and send him on his way. The simple strategy worked.
At this time, what I completely failed to understand was that, for a woman who was living in a system where every significant decision was made by someone else, these small choices and acts of defiance gave her a feeling of control. For her it was tremendously liberating.
At some point she asked Colthurst: ‘Does Andrew want an interview?’ It was by any standards, a mind-blowing suggestion. Princesses don’t usually give interviews, especially when they are the most talked about and photographed princess of the age. These were the days before her Panorama confessional and before Prince Charles went on television to admit his adultery with Mrs Parker Bowles. It was simply unheard of.
Within days of Diana’s suggestion, Colthurst summoned me to that working man’s café in Ruislip to hear a sample of the story she had to tell. I expected it to be a few short sentences about her charity work and her thoughts about her humanitarian ambitions. Wrong again.
After jotting down notes on her suicide attempts, her eating disorders, her husband’s adultery with this woman called Camilla, I hotfooted it to see my publisher, Michael O’Mara. Drawing on a pre-lunch cigar, he listened to a summary of my meeting. Then, suspecting that Colthurst was a clever co...
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