THE DIANA CHRONICLES
By Tina Brown
Doubleday, $27.50, 560 pages
REVIEWED BY SANDRA MCELWAINE
It was a paparazzi moment in what was about to become a paparazzi life. The instant the demure, 19-year-old "Shy Di" swept down the aisle of Westminster Abbey to wed the man of her dreams, 32-year-old Charles, Prince of Wales, on July 29, 1981, she became the most scrutinized and sought-after person on the planet.
Flash forward 16 years to a steamy August night in 1997 — another journalistic frenzy. The quintessential superstar was dead. Killed, along with her coke-snorting boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, in a gruesome car crash in a grimy Paris tunnel. Her fable had ended years before. It started to unravel almost as quickly as it began, and though divorced, dismissed and stripped of her H.R.H. title, she still reigned as the media's sweetheart, the people's princess, whose mystique continues to fascinate and titillate the public today.
Enter gossip extraordinaire Tina Brown, the well connected uber-editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker — the undisputed doyenne of dish. Ten years after Diana's death on that sultry summer evening, Ms. Brown, who cultivated the era of glitz and glam by enshrining celebrities on the covers of her magazines — a naked, very pregnant Demi Moore was one of her more eye-popping innovations — has made good use of her Rolodex to pen an intriguing saga of the late Princess of Wales.
It is a saucy, 486-page gambol through the the bedrooms, ballrooms and drawing rooms of the British upper crust. A cheeky, Tom Jones-style romp, describing the faults, foibles and peccadilloes of the stately, starchy Windsors, whom Diana's mother referred to as "the German dwarves," their boring friends and sycophantic, meddling entourage. Much of the material has seen the light of day before; more than 300 books have been written about the haunted princess, and more are on the way, but Ms. Brown's additional interviews and incisive prose make "The Diana Chronicles" a compelling read.
In reality, Diana's life was one of rejection and underestimation. The child of a horrific divorce who swooned over romance novels, she was deserted by her mother when she was 6, looked down on by her two older sisters, one of whom had set her sights on Prince Charles, and abandoned by her aristocratic father who, when she was 15, had remarried without telling his daughters or son. They found out by reading the papers the next day.
Her siblings assigned Diana to seek revenge. She did so by whacking the Earl across the face and and shouting, "that's from all of us for hurting us. Don't you ever do that to us again." This plucky outburst was a sign of a rebellious spirit that would characterize her relations with her future in-laws, and the guerrilla warfare that lay ahead.
The Royals thought they were acquiring a docile, dumb blonde who would serve as a broodmare, produce an heir and remain in the background, part of the furniture. And though she portrayed herself as a naive country girl, "thick as a plank," she was artful, cunning and quick to outwit and out maneuver the palace drones as well as the "Rottweiler," Camilla Parker Bowles, in order to gather sympathy for herself and steal the limelight from her stodgy, stolid spouse. Co-opting the press was the major part of her strategy.
"Diana was a work in progress," notes a wag. "Charles a work in aspic."
Perhaps her greatest conquest was a city, not a man. She captivated tout Washington in the fall of 1985. Her whirl across the floor of The East Room of the White House in the arms of Hollywood idol John Travolta made headlines around the globe and launched her into the stratosphere. "You could feel the awe from people in the audience," recalled Mr. Travolta, who found the princess both sexy and sensual. "It was history being made. And it was my job to make it look as good as if it was in a movie."
In her private life the film had begun to unspool and could not be rewound. Flush with success, Diana tried to rekindle her dwindling sex life. The self-proclaimed virgin, who had kept herself "tidy" for her wedding night, purchased sexy lingerie and even resorted to a striptease to arouse her disinterested husband — to no avail. A melancholy Charles viewed himself merely as "the carrier of flowers for my wife." He had returned to his mistress, the ever-tenacious Camilla, and the marriage deteriorated into a battle royal.
It was scorched-earth policy. The cruelty, jealousy, betrayal, secrets, affairs, rivalries and lies that ensued went way beyond any soap opera, tele-novella or bodice-ripper that Diana once loved to read. What Ms. Brown makes abundantly clear is that their wedding, which Charles called "la grande plonge," never should have taken place. It was a gross mismatch of two deeply wounded souls.
Who understood the psyche of the iconic Golden Girl? Geordie Grieg, a longtime friend and current editor of Tatler, tried to sort it out. "Everything went into the performance of being Diana," he observed. "When you met her you never felt more seduced, more glamorous, more famous, more intoxicated. Before she was married she was an uninteresting school girl — nice, polite, uninquiring, uninspiring. What made her change was being royal, rich, famous, watched, desired."
Great stuff for the tabs, but ultimately a sad and tawdry tale.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist.