by Sally Bedell Smith
Published by Times Books
320 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Diana was driving through the English countryside one day in 1984 with Michael Shea, press secretary to the Queen, when they noticed a huge billboard ahead with an enormous photograph of Diana's face. "Oh no!" Diana exclaimed. "What's that?" As they came closer, they could see that the billboard was an advertisement for a book that had been written about her. Diana buried her face in her hands, exclaiming that she could no longer tell where her public image stopped and her private self began.
She spoke those words three years into her marriage to Prince Charles, but her anguished confusion stayed with her to the end. From the moment she stepped into the limelight in September 1980 to her violent death seventeen years later, Diana was swept along in an ever-expanding persona, even as she searched frantically for her own identity. When she first appeared on the world stage, Lady Diana Spencer was a nineteen-year-old who had been raised with limited expectations: that she marry a fellow aristocrat and fulfill her duty as a wife and mother. Her marriage to the future King of England thrust on her a public identity that she could never square with her muddled sense of self.
The world probably would have heard little of Diana Spencer had she not married the Prince of Wales. "She would either have been a country-woman, just like her sisters, and dissolved into the atmosphere," said a male friend who knew her from her teenage years, "or she would have married an achiever who offered more of a challenge but would have gone off and had an affair, and she would have divorced the husband in short order."
Diana lived only thirty-six years, all of them amid privilege and wealth: the first half in the rarefied cocoon of the British upper class, the second in the highly visible bubble of royal protocol and pageantry. Her married life was unnatural by any measure --"bizarre," her brother Charles, Earl Spencer called it in his eulogy of Diana. Much of her royal existence was lonely and regimented, but tabloid headlines invested its large and small events with high drama.
Simply assuming the title of princess transformed Diana. As Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, put it, "She needed to be royal to succeed." But others have joined the royal family without becoming larger-than-life celebrities. Diana's extraordinary impact resulted to a great degree from her physical presence.
She was endowed with undeniable attributes. Her beauty was singular, especially her big blue eyes, the most expressive of all facial features. "They look so wondering and modest," a Norwegian photographer once remarked. Her height (five foot ten) and lithe figure allowed her to carry clothing exquisitely. If she had been a haughty ice queen, or even strikingly confident, her appeal would have been limited. What made her so charismatic was the combination of her looks and her air of accessibility. "She has a sympathetic face," her father once said, "the sort that you can't help but trust."
Diana had a knack for seeming to be open with people -- offering the same small glimpses to everyone, while effectively masking what was really going on. "People adore her because whenever she speaks to them she reveals some small nugget of information about herself or her family," observed Catherine Stott in The Sunday Telegraph in 1984. "Nothing she says is ever embarrassing or indiscreet. People feel that they are getting more than they actually are from her." As one of Diana's former aides explained it, Diana knew just how far to go: "People would ask her the most intimate questions, and she knew how to answer them sweetly while actually blowing them off. But because all those intimate details were out there, people felt they knew her."
She lacked arrogance, and she connected effortlessly with her social inferiors. "She had the gift of making other people feel very good" said one of her friends. "She was a princess, but she could step down and make you feel special." With her informality and easy small talk, she seemed an outsider in her own class. Before marrying Charles she even worked as a housecleaner. "I am much closer to people at the bottom than to people at the top," she told Le Monde in the last interview before her death. Yet unlike her sister-in-law Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, Diana maintained a regal dignity.
"I don't go by a rule book, I lead from the heart, not the head," Diana said. Her meager formal education enhanced her appeal as well. She frequently belittled her intelligence, saying she was "thick as a plank" or had a "brain the size of a pea." While she lacked intellectual curiosity and discipline, she had a practical, canny mind. "She was an entirely intuitive person," said journalist and historian Paul Johnson. "She was not particularly good at rational processes but she could get on well with people because she could grasp ideas if they had emotional importance to her. She was very quick, and quick to sense what people wanted." One secret of her charm, according to interior designer Nicholas Haslam, a friend for several years, was "she could appear to be talking about something to anyone. She was a conversational chameleon."
She had an agile, teasing sense of humor that included a sure grasp of the absurd and an instinct for punchy ripostes. During a party at Christie's auction house in London, "My friend Paolo said to Diana, 'Gosh, you're brown,'" recalled Haslam. " 'W-8!' Diana said. I thought a minute and realized she meant she had been sitting in the sun outside Kensington Palace," her home in the London postal code W-8. "She was sharp as a sharp pencil," said a woman who knew her well, "fast with repartee. She got the point of stories. She got the point of all the people in the room."
But in the solitude of her apartment at Kensington Palace, the engaging public Diana often descended into a lonely, adolescent solipsism. "The time spent alone reviewing every situation and having no friends was for planning and plotting," said Haslam. Diana would dwell on her perceived inadequacies, ponder the betrayals of her past and present, and think obsessively about her enemies, both real and imagined. Her thoughts would plunge her into tears and sometimes vengeful schemes. At such moments, she made her worst decisions. "If you have a mind that doesn't connect together in a coherent way, and great instincts on the other hand, it is an interesting but odd mind," said film producer David Puttnam, a friend for more than a decade who adored her. "I don't like it that she sat around alone. When people like Diana put together bits of intuition and they don't have the ability to really analyze, they start spinning in space."
In public, Diana betrayed little evidence of her emotional storms -- a testament to her stiff upper lip, her talent for disguise, and her determination to keep the lid on. "I always used to think Diana would make a very good actress because she would play out any role she chose," wrote her former nanny Mary Clarke.
Because of her quicksilver temperament, Diana could slip easily from one mood to another, confounding those around her. "If she would say we will do this or go here, she was totally reliable," said fashion entrepreneur Roberto Devorick, a longtime friend. "But in her actions, she was like a roller coaster." In his eulogy, her brother Charles lauded Diana's "level-headedness and strength." In some circumstances -- giving advice or supporting friends in distress -- she admirably displayed these traits. In many other situations, usually those in which she was emotionally involved, she could as easily be irrational and weak. "She was a curious mixture of incredible maturity and immaturity, like a split personality," said one of her friends. "It was so extraordinary how she handled ordinary people, but at the same time she did silly and childlike things. She was very impulsive."
Charles Spencer also praised her "honesty," but as he once admitted, "She had real difficulty telling the truth purely because she liked to embellish things." It was hard to take Diana's words at face value, since she so often said things to make a point, whether or not she contradicted a previous account. She had other motivations for dissembling as well -- protecting herself or attracting attention -- and throughout her adult life, her tendency to take liberties with the truth often caused problems.
Many of the people around Diana tolerated her dishonesty. "At least once... she lied to me outright," wrote her friend Clive James. "She looked me straight in the eye when she said this so I could see how plausible she could be when she was telling a whopper." Her friend Peter Palumbo believed that Diana's special circumstances excused her. "I would ask her whether this had happened or that had happened, and she would tell me a complete lie, which I believed," said Palumbo. "But I never held it against her because that was her way, and that was her character, and she was under a lot of pressure." Such "enabling" by her friends emboldened her to lie even more.
Diana had many fine traits that were evident both in public and in private: warmth, sweetness, affection, femininity, naturalness, grace, sensitivity, reserve, humility, wit, instinctive sympathy, thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, courtesy, resilience, exuberance, energy, self-discipline, courage. "The nice side of her was fresh and unspoiled and almost childlike," said Nicholas Haslam. "Her nature was spontaneous."
But Diana also had darker traits that were largely hidden from the world. "Her dark side was that of a wounded trapped animal," noted her friend Rosa Monckton, "and her bright side was that of a luminous being." Diana's inability to see past her intense emotions and her failure to understand consequences often overwhelmed the better part of her nature, harming family and friends and creating misery for herself. As one of her relatives said, "She had a perfectly good character, but her temperament overtook her."
Indeed, Diana's unstable temperament bore all the markings of one of the most elusive psychological disorders: the borderline personality. This condition is characterized by an unstable self-image; sharp mood swings; fear of rejection and abandonment; an inability to sustain relationships; persistent feelings of loneliness, boredom, and emptiness; depression; and impulsive behavior such as binge eating and self-mutilation. Taken together, these characteristics explain otherwise inexplicable behavior. Throughout her adult life, Diana experienced these symptoms severely and chronically. While she received periodic treatment for some of her problems -- her eating disorder and her depression -- neither Diana nor anyone close to her came to grips with the full extent of her illness.
There were numerous reasons for this failure, among them Diana's own ambivalence toward treatment, an ingrained mistrust of psychiatry in the British upper class, and hostility in the press toward mental illness. But mostly it was Diana's dazzling public persona that lulled even her friends and family into disbelieving that anything could be seriously wrong with her -- a common fate of the borderline. In the months before her death, Diana's erratic behavior and anguished outbursts showed that she needed help more than ever, but she was too isolated and tormented to find it.
For more than a decade, it fell to Britain's tabloid hacks (as the reporters cheerfully call themselves) to shape Diana's image. The British tabloids cater mainly to blue-collar readers, and circulation rather than advertising provides the bulk of their revenues. Consequently, they clamor for attention with sensationalism and titillation. These newspapers include the gaudy "red tops" (The Sun, Mirror, Daily Star, News of the World, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People) as well as the bourgeois midmarket Mail (daily and Sunday), Express (daily and Sunday), Evening Standard, and from 1984 until it closed in 1995, Today, a color tabloid modeled on USA Today.
The tabloids felt favorably disposed toward Diana most of the time: Promoting her was good for business. But if Diana crossed them, or misbehaved in their eyes, the hacks would scold and attack her, then patronizingly praise her when she came to heel. "Slowly she is adjusting," wrote tabloid veteran James Whitaker in a typical column at the end of 1983, when she seemed "no longer quite so obsessive in her determination... to keep her private life totally private."
Tabloid coverage of Diana was marked by some facts, but more often by guesswork, exaggeration, and outright fiction. Reporters wrote thousands of words on her setbacks, yet somehow managed to turn her life into a triumphant progression. Every six months or so, the press would offer a string of articles commenting on Diana's new "maturity," "confidence," and "strength."
"New confidence" was an especially popular theme, and the hacks invoked it on the slightest evidence: a different hairstyle, an adjustment in her wardrobe, a more poised demeanor. The real ingredients of confidence -- stability, commitment, clarity, maturity -- were sadly absent in her private life. Even in her last year, Diana was so terrified of silence and solitude that she called friends numerous times each day. According to Diana's energy healer Simone Simmons, "We would speak for hours a day -- eight hours was not unusual, although the record was fourteen. She spent nearly every free minute of the day on the telephone." Diana relied heavily on alternative therapists such as Simmons (who, among other tasks, "ghost-busted" Diana's house by standing in doorways and "willing" away "hostile spirits") and unconventional treatments such as colonic irrigation, in which the bowel is flushed with purified water through a plastic tube inserted in the rectum.
Rather than traveling a steady upward path, Diana actually staggered between advances and retreats. In her public role, Diana methodically became more skilled and assured, while privately her turbulence persisted. "You could see how she was evolving in the sense that she was... very, very professional," said Dr. Michael Adler, Chairman of the National AIDS Trust, who helped guide Diana in her work with AIDS patients. But in fundamental ways, Diana moved very little. She began her adult life looking for a man to take care of her, which is where she ended her life, with Egyptian playboy Dodi Fayed.
"There was a tremendous fight all the time to believe in herself," said her friend Elsa Bowker. "She wasn't steady because she didn't believe in herself." Another longtime friend observed: "She had so many compartments, so many periods and changes. It is difficult to knit into a coherent picture. What was applicable for her in 1989 was not so in 1994."
In the early years of the Waleses' marriage, the tabloids periodically hinted at deeper problems. These accounts were gleaned from dinner-party gossip and tidbits supplied, often for a fee, by disaffected staff from the royal household. Like social anthropologists, the reporters also relied on visual cues, divining meaning from the scantiest evidence, such as body language and facial expressions. Having introduced various alarming assertions about Diana--using such inflammatory terms as "fiend" and "monster" -- the tabloids would then capriciously reverse course and resume their gushing coverage as if the troubles didn't exist.
These twists and turns were part of the game; the tabloids were simply keeping a great story at a constant boil. Coverage of Diana often had as much to do with complicated turf wars between journalists as with the subject at hand. "If you look through the record of the eighties, you find totally contradictory stories week after week," said Richard Ingrams, longtime editor of Private Eye, which kept close tabs on the coverage. "I can't think of anyone who was consistently well informed about the royal family."
At the same time, the British "broadsheets" -- the respectable upmarket British papers such as The Times and The Daily Telegraph -- largely ignored the saga of Diana and Charles, considering it inappropriate and frivolous to follow the personal lives of the royal family. "We felt we had a responsibility to give the royal family the benefit of any doubt," said Max Hastings, editor of The Telegraph from 1986 to 1995. "I didn't think our audience would thank us for emblazoning our front pages with the rumor and gossip that had been in the tabloids." Whenever the broadsheets did cover Charles and Diana's relationship, they offered the official version, endorsed by the public relations spokesmen for the royal family: a marriage that endured some small bumps but benefited from a solid foundation of mutual affection and duty to the monarchy.
In 1992, the Diana saga took a perilous turn with the publication of Diana: Her True Story, by Andrew Morton, a former tabloid reporter. The fairy tale, it was clear, had gone horribly wrong. The royal love match turned out to be a sad tale of adultery, mental illness, betrayal, mistrust, and revenge. Diana's secret tape-recorded interviews with an intermediary supplied the basic message of the book. Presented as the "true story," the book was actually her highly emotional perception of events, shaped by psychotherapy as well as astrological readings and alternative therapists who reinforced her efforts to assign blame. The account was one-sided and filled with inconsistencies that mirrored Diana's own tendency to embellish and contradict herself. It was Diana's view of the world, but the public came to accept the book as reality.
The Wales marriage ruptured following the Morton book, polarizing opinion among friends and the public. Most writers found it easier, and more appealing to their readers, to sympathize with Diana and demonize Charles. To an astonishing degree, they took the book's word at face value. In the last five years of her life, Diana actively encouraged their efforts by courting an array of British journalists. "It is an undisputed fact that the Princess connived with the media and exploited it for her own interests," wrote Sir David English, the late chairman of Associated Newspapers and one of her most ardent advocates, "just as much as we exploited her for ours."
As a result, Diana's version was reinforced by sympathetic chroniclers, especially tabloid reporters James Whitaker and Richard Kay, as well as various friends, therapists, and astrologers such as Penny Thornton. Even James Hewitt's bodice-ripping tale published in 1994 reinforced Diana's spin, with his own self-aggrandizing role woven through. Diana's televised interview the following year with Martin Bashir essentially cemented the Diana viewpoint.
Allies of the Prince of Wales tried to even the score, circulating a pro-Charles version of events that portrayed Diana as unstable and manipulative. But journalists took a jaundiced view of Charles's aristocratic friends, and despite the Prince's earnestness and a basic sincerity, he simply couldn't compete with Diana's more endearing qualities of warmth and empathy. He was further defeated by his own awkwardness and his reluctance to hobnob with the press. Diana's champions also tapped into a natural sympathy for her grievances against a royal family known to be aloof, chilly, and preoccupied by duty. A sober authorized biography of the Prince by Jonathan Dimbleby did little to undercut the prejudices against Charles.
After Diana's death, Simon Jenkins of The Times called her "the paradigm unhappy woman of today. She was a spokeswoman for those with impossible husbands, worried about their appearance, wrestling with divorce, careers, children, trying to match impossible expectations." In a sense, Diana had ceased to be a person and had become a symbol -- of victimhood, rebellion, and emotional authenticity.
Because of its constant repetition as well as its compelling dramatic elements, Diana's life story often strayed from the facts. The lore regarding the divorce of Diana's parents is especially revealing. According to a 1992 account in the Evening Standard, the case was "publicly and bloodily fought out in the courts." That same year, the Daily Mail recounted that during her childhood Diana had "watched her parents publicly tear their marriage apart." On the first anniversary of Diana's death, MTV ran a biography set to music that even included a fake newspaper with the oversized headline THEIR DIVORCE WAS A TERRIFIC SCANDAL; EVERYONE TOOK SIDES to illustrate the film's assertion that when Diana's parents divorced, "a fierce custody battle" was "played out in the press."
In fact, nothing of the sort happened. A family member familiar with the Spencer archives recalled, "I have never seen a single clipping. I can't see any reason why it would have been in the papers. They weren't high-profile people." Indeed, while the Spencers' divorce and custody disputes were known to a small circle of aristocrats, the proceedings were conducted in private and only attracted discreet notices in The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard.
The reporters who covered Diana thought nothing of changing the story to suit the needs of the moment. Writing about Diana's problems at the end of 1982, royal reporter James Whitaker had noted Charles's solicitude, but reprising the episode for his book on the troubled Wales marriage eleven years later, he said he had actually concluded early on, "It was clear to me he did not love her at all." This assertion was even more puzzling in light of Whitaker's January 1982 report in the Daily Star that declared, "Prince Charles has finally fallen hopelessly in love with his wife -- more deeply than even he believed he could."
A more egregious example is the way Diana's chroniclers appropriated the phrase "three of us in this marriage," which Diana introduced in her 1995 Panorama interview. Martin Bashir began a line of inquiry with "Around 1986... according to the biography written by Jonathan Dimbleby... he says that your husband renewed his relationship with Mrs. Camilla Parker Bowles. Were you aware of that?" Diana replied: "Yes, I was, but I wasn't in a position to do anything about it." She further observed that she knew Charles had gone back to Camilla "by the change of behavioral pattern in my husband." In that context -- from 1986 onward -- Diana noted, "there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."
Not only did many journalists ignore the fact that, including James Hewitt, there were actually four in the marriage at that point, they consistently used Diana's remark to demonstrate that Charles continued his physical relationship with Camilla throughout his marriage. Thus, in the book The Day Diana Died, the author Christopher Andersen stated flatly, "From the beginning, Diana said, 'there were three of us in this marriage.'"
Because of Diana's worldwide celebrity, every character trait, gesture, action, and utterance was amplified. "She lived in an extreme state," said her friend Cosima Somerset. "There was no normal middle ground." Diana's potent public image drove expectations for her behavior impossibly high. Diana was clearly delighted when flattering articles bolstered her fragile sense of herself, yet the incessant scrutiny and bursts of invective drove her to despair. As early as 1983, she took to calling tabloid reporters the "wolf pack," and in the last few years of her life, according to a man close to her, when she felt despondent over her press coverage she would drive to a cliff called Beachy Head on the southern coast of England and contemplate suicide, only to be drawn back by thoughts of her two sons.
Instead of building a shield, as Charles did by declining to read what was said and written about him, Diana got pulled into a process she found fascinating and terrifying. As perception and reality became more confused, Diana's insecurities grew. From the beginning, Diana devoured everything written about her, and she viewed herself through the prism of the press. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle took over: The act of being watched warped her self-image and behavior. She herself once said, "I didn't like myself. I was ashamed because I couldn't cope with the pressures... I felt compelled to perform."
In his eulogy, her brother Charles offered one perplexing observation against considerable evidence to the contrary. "She remained intact, true to herself," he said. In some respects -- certain signature traits such as her mischievous wit and her easy rapport -- this was accurate. Habits drummed into her by an upper-class background persisted throughout her life: fulfilling her public engagements, for example, or writing instantaneous thank-you notes. As her friend Rosa Monckton observed, "Whenever things got too much for her she would say to herself, 'Diana, remember you're a Spencer'... and she would then get on with whatever she had to do."
Yet she tended to define herself in terms of the approval of others. "I think essentially that she was an ill person," said Dr. Michael Adler of the National AIDS Trust. "She was very, very insecure. She didn't believe in herself. There was not a sort of real center to her personality. Her identity was created for her, and she increasingly got herself into personal problems, which highlighted her inadequacies."
When she started out, she appeared to be a typical Sloane Ranger -- an ill-educated girl with a perfect pedigree and good manners, but little else to prepare her for the rough-and-tumble ahead. Her identity was incomplete and unsatisfactory, her self-esteem shaky, especially regarding her intellectual ability. What's more, she had certain juvenile preconceptions of her future, an idealized version of marriage that was fed by the fairy-tale romances written by her stepgrandmother, Barbara Cartland.
The royal family imposed a new identity on her, which was glamorized by the press and the demands of her international celebrity. She was expected to be a wife and mother as well as a royal spokesman and stylish symbol. As she tried to fulfill her duties, she felt that neither the royal family nor the press adequately praised her. The tabloids would create one image of her, and she would react, at times unwittingly, to a view of herself that the public had accepted but that often had little basis in fact. "As she expressed it to friends," wrote Charles's biographer Jonathan Dimbleby, "... she did not know who she really was."
Seeing herself over and over in photographs and on television only deepened her insecurities. "She scoured the newspapers for photographs of herself with an eagerness unalloyed by familiarity," wrote Dimbleby. "Not for the first time, it seemed to [Charles and Diana's] friends that she was searching for her own identity in the image of a princess that smiled back at her from every front page."
Diana felt inadequate to the burgeoning expectations, so she continually sought a new persona that would please everyone, mutating to fit the predominant impression and placate criticism. As Sam McKnight, one of her many hairstylists observed, "Her whole life appears to have been a series of transformations, and I guess it was, but I think she made it like that because she had to transform and transform until she found her true self." Diana's constantly changing hairstyles were only the most visible evidence of her shifting identities. "The haircut was a way to have a strong image," said her friend Roberto Devorick. "She changed it according to her moods. When she went to the excess of cutting it too short or making it too wet, she wanted to make a statement or fight a moment of her life. When it was looser and softer, I think she was feeling better about herself."
When Diana began actively spinning her own story in 1991 by collaborating with journalists, she declared, "From now on, I am going to own myself and be true to myself. I no longer want to live someone else's idea of what and who I should be. I am going to be me." But she was still obsessed by the expectations of others. "Whatever I do," she said toward the end of her life, "it's never good enough for some people."
Living as a celebrity did incalculable damage to Diana, whose emotional underpinnings were tenuous to begin with. "It is the inability to see oneself from the inside," said a friend who was privy to Diana's psychological torment. "There is always a reflection, a distortion. Who one is and what one's contributions are may be perfectly ordinary and valuable, but they are skewed by the distortion of fame. It is difficult to see oneself in that circumstance." | August 1999
Copyright © 1999 Sally Bedell Smith
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of the bestselling biography of William S. Paley, In All His Glory, and Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman. Ms. Smith began her career at Time magazine and has since worked at TV Guide and The New York Times, where she was a cultural-news reporter. She joined Vanity Fair as a contributing editor in 1996. She was awarded a Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award for magazine reporting in 1982 and was a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in 1986. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith, editor of U.S. News & World Report, and their three children.