10 Years After: The undoing of Diana
From saint to sociopath in a decade: Can the denigration of Diana get worse?
ROSALIND MILES | June 18, 2007 |
Do you remember where you were when Diana died? Like 9/11 or Kennedy's assassination, the crash in the Paris underpass sent shock waves round the world as the princess briefly stopped it to get off. In Britain, half the population went mad, washed away on a tide of hysteria and flooding Kensington Palace, the home of the princess, with a torrent of flowers, cuddly toys and an estimated 50 tonnes of memorial tat. The other half somehow retained its sanity, and admissions to mental hospitals in Britain mysteriously went down by 50 per cent in the month following her death.
Ten years ago, Diana in death became a princess heroine, a secular martyr who had died for love. Seeking only a man she could trust, so the myth ran, she had been hounded to her grave by a pack of pitiless paparazzi, modern incarnations of the avenging Furies of the ancient world. Diana was in love with Dodi, they were going to be married, she was carrying his child. And now she was dead -- "Tod," "Morte," "Muerta" in headlines everywhere, one of the most widely reported events in newspaper history.
Like a sighting of the Holy Virgin, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, drew many thousands to mark the event. Shrines and offerings appeared, and plans were aired for a recognition of her spirituality, some canonization to come. Young, beautiful, victimized and dead: it was an irresistible combination. From Cinderella to princess and back again, the abandoned orphan / wife sitting alone among the ashes, her trajectory was universally appealing.
And then the second act, from victim to victor, triumphing over her adversaries and in the process tweaking countless royal noses hard enough to bring tears of joy to every republican eye. And now the final curtain, snuffed out like a candle in the wind, leaving behind worldwide vapour trails of saccharine and hot air. "The magic she created will outlive the shock of her death," raved People magazine. "For years to come, she will remain a kind of travelling light."
This beatification process had begun years before her death. In the early '90s her brother, Charles Spencer, told her biographer Andrew Morton, "She strikes me as an immensely Christian figure [with] the strength to do an enormous amount of good." Diana herself sedulously cultivated the role of the Mother Teresa of the U.K., and when she met the original, the crafty little Albanian embraced her as a fellow spirit with the pious rodomontade, "To heal other people, you have to suffer yourself." As one who had paraded her sufferings in deed and word, Diana was a living example of this Christ-like imperative. The intense adulation she evoked caused the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, to mock her mercilessly as "St. Diana" and "Our Lady of Bulimia." Now with her death, images of Diana as the mater dolorosa, large tearful eyes rolling as if in reproach at her faithless husband Charles, all contributed to the mounting conviction that something very special and precious had been lost: that there had passed away a glory from the earth.
Who was to blame for her suffering and untimely death? More and more it seemed that the whole marriage had been built on royal manipulation from the first. Diana had been coerced into being a princess before she had a chance to become a woman. Pitifully uneducated, having taken only four of the eight 0-level exams that most leave school with, and failed them all), she had been shoe-horned into one of the most demanding roles in the world. Even her height was denied, with reports stating that she was five-foot-ten and that Charles was six feet, when simple observation showed it was the other way round. Who was behind all that?
In truth it was a media concoction all along, the story of the dim but good-hearted girl led and moulded by a kindly but much cleverer older man -- think Jane Austen's Emma and Mr. Knightley, Annie and Daddy Warbucks, Maria and Captain von Trapp. The mythic history of this phallocentric notion stretches from Pygmalion to patient Griselda and beyond. Except that Charles was never the mature, serious-minded scholar-husband but a deeply damaged and self-involved man. His toxic blend of arrogance and insecurity encountering Diana's desperate neediness makes the doomed relationship of the naive, ardent Dorothea and the rigid, frigid Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch a closer literary parallel for the pair.
Why does any man choose to marry a much younger girl? Royal or no, it's a creepy scenario that depends on the permanent infantilization of the female, while the male is happily warbling Thank Heaven for Little Girls. Why was it found touching that Charles packed the works of the South African philosopher Laurens van der Post to read to his young wife on their honeymoon? Van der Post was a serial philanderer throughout a lifetime of marriage, who in his mid-forties seduced a 14-year-old South African girl entrusted to his care, disowning her and her child when he found she was pregnant. Was this whited sepulchre and priapic old goat the first "third party" in the marriage, long before Camilla came back?
Alas, Diana's marriage was doomed from the start, like those of Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw or Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, a mismatch of heart, mind and hope. But who could have made her happy? Childhood misery had left her with a pathological need for attachment, an inner emptiness visible in her frenzy to consume: the next gown, the shoes, the purse, more, more, more. She hoovered up "therapies" too, with her psychic, her beautician, her astrologer or her colonic irrigator at £200 each. But the hunger at the heart of her being is at its clearest in her compulsive desire for attention, the genuine love she had for the camera and the limelight, perhaps the only true attachments of her life.
Within the royal family, Diana's difficulties and delicate mental balance were never dealt with in any meaningful way. When she died, it was a small step to target her in-laws as the source of all her troubles and the main instigators of her death. On holiday at her Scottish retreat of Balmoral, the Queen was attacked in the media for failing to fly immediately back to London to lead the national mourning. In an eerie echo of the march on Versailles that brought down the French monarchy in 1789, thousands of people massed outside the empty Buckingham Palace to demand the ruler's return to the capital.
Five days later, the Queen was back, in what was widely seen as a triumph of the Fourth Estate over regal indifference and callous disdain. Her impassive demeanour stoked republican stirrings in the national undergrowth. A Sunday Times poll published on Sept. 14, 1997, two weeks after the crash, found that nearly 60 per cent of Britons thought that without Diana, the monarchy would not survive another 30 years. If the brightest star in the royal firmament had gone, who needed the galaxy of freeloaders and no-hopers who remained? But the strongest findings were against the Queen herself. Nearly three-quarters(72 per cent)thought that she was remote and out of touch, and more than half(53 per cent)wanted her to step down.
These were the worst poll findings of the Queen's long reign. As for Charles, if he had loved his fragrant young wife instead of his agriculturally scented long-term mistress, the horse-faced Camilla Parker Bowles, the nation's sweetheart Diana would still be alive. Such was the strength of this pro-Diana, anti-royal feeling that the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair was later to boast that he had "saved the monarchy" by insisting that the Queen respond to popular pressure, and show Diana in death the respect that the family had denied her in life.
Fast forward 10 years, and how things have changed. Year by year, adjustments to our understanding of Diana have besmirched her saintliness, while the Queen has seen the royal family climb back to long-lost levels of esteem. What happened to reverse such strong views?
All reputations take a nosedive after death. Diana's suffered when some of the hard questions resurfaced that she had always been able to charm away when she was alive. How did her much-vaunted love for her sons square with informing the entire world via her notorious BBC TV interview that she had had an adulterous affair, but it wasn't her fault because their father did too? The lover in question was the red-haired army captain James Hewitt, one in a long line of men whose unsuitability was to dismay even the most diehard of Diana's devotees. This confession reignited the rumours that Harry is not Charles's son, a slur that will haunt the young gingernut to his dying day. What was she thinking of, doing this to her boy?
As for the lovers, the same bafflement prevails. No one can tell the full tally of those she took to bed, but between her marriage in 1981 and her death on Aug. 31, 1997, Diana was "linked," in newspaper parlance, with at least a dozen mostly unsuitable men. Even eliminating acquaintances, escorts, multimillionaire socialites like David Tang or potential second husbands like the U.S. financier Theodore Forstmann, it's a distressing roster of Hooray Henries and moonstruck losers as Diana swung between the chinless wonders of her own class and men in service roles like her police bodyguard. Others who climbed onto the bandwagon include her masseur Stephen Twigg, who hinted at something more than a professional relationship, and the TV cameraman Sebastian Rich, who last year tried to sell his memoir of "a 2 1/2 minute quickie" with the princess for £1 million.
In this still-swirling cloud of fantasies, secrets and lies, two names stand out. Charles's friends persistently claimed that Diana was mad, and her affair with the art dealer Oliver Hoare, a married man with young children, hardly helped her defence. When Hoare cooled down the affair, overwhelmed by Diana's emotional demands, he found himself bombarded with over 300 nuisance calls by day and night. Identified as the source of the calls by the police, Diana announced that someone else must have used her phones, and the case was dropped. Most Brits were not impressed. Nor did she swing much sympathy by claiming that it was all a palace plot to bring her down. Even the plea by royal gossip Lady Colin Campbell that Diana was pregnant, and thereby forced to abort the child, failed to cut much ice. But someone was playing the sympathy-seeking victim card again. "It might have been a girl," Diana is supposed to have wept.
The affair with Hoare ended in 1995. That same year Diana met the man she told friends was the love of her life, the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. This earth-shattering encounter with the devastatingly handsome Pakistani doctor, as she breathlessly described him, re-directed Diana's life. Now separated from Charles and already embarked on the hospital visiting that she called her "work," Diana created a vision of a joint future when they would tour the world together, Khan performing heart surgery in Africa while she nursed starving infants and comforted land-mine amputees: "We would be a perfect team," she glowed to a friend. But Khan's strongly traditional Muslim background made a marriage with a Westerner, a divorcee and a non-believer quite impossible. Like all the others, her greatest affair was star-crossed before it began.
Arguably more damaging have been the tales leaking out of Diana's foul-mouthed frenzies directed at servants and lowly staffers. A personal assistant was invited to holiday with Diana, a requirement she felt she could not refuse, then found herself billed for the cost. Worst of all was Diana's almost lover-like dependence on the oleaginous butler Paul Burrell, her self-elected champion and the man she called "my rock." A truly Dickensian character, Burrell raised crawling to the level of an art.
Enter Dodi, the Egyptian playboy son of Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed and chief player in the final act that cost Diana her life. Like the "fairy-tale" wedding to Charles, every detail puffed in the press was the polar opposite of the "true love" story given out. Far from hoping to become a couple, both of them were strictly out for themselves. And both were strangers more than lovers, since they'd met for the first time only six weeks before they were joined for all eternity in the Paris tunnel.
For Diana, lost and alone that summer(Balmoral time for the in-group!)and newly cut adrift by Hasnat Khan, it was a chance to be wildly self-indulgent in the Mediterranean sun, like the rest of the Eurotrash whose aimless orbit was slowly drawing her in. It was also a chance to cock a snook at her ex and the royal family in the most public and painful way.
For Dodi Al Fayed was a Muslim, a non-European, and the son of "the Queen's grocer" to Diana's group, since Fayed's store Harrods supplied the royal household with "provisions and household goods." Those who doubt the casual racism of the British upper classes have only to remember Prince Harry sporting a Nazi arm band at a fancy dress party as a "joke." To those outside the highest echelons of society, a rich and cosmopolitan Egyptian might be taken for himself. To the lowest, any man of colour is potentially a "Paki," a term of racial abuse fast approaching the N-word in offensiveness in Britain, but which is nevertheless freely applied.
No one knew this better than Diana. Even in her infatuation with the Pakistani-born Khan, Diana understood that this Othello / Desdemona coupling was so explosive that Khan had to be smuggled into Kensington Palace in a bread van, dubbed "the F--- Truck" by those in the know. By these lights, the shifty and none-too-bright Dodi was even more unacceptable. Diana privately agreed. In her circle, "Louis Faroukh" was the blanket term applied to Arab taste, and the Fayed family jet, with its plush seats like an old-fashioned cinema and carpet covered in pharaoh's heads, was a supremely mirthful example of that. For Diana then, the affair with Dodi was a twofer, a blast up the backside of the Windsors' morality and their style police.
But even more important was the message Diana intended for Hasnat Khan. Was she hoping to make him jealous, trying to win him back by showing him what he'd lost, as in the romantic novels that were her teenage staple fare? Or was it the hysterical vengefulness of the abandoned woman, a series of moves choreographed to humiliate the deeply modest and private Khan by displaying the woman he'd adored as a rich man's plaything, hardly better than a whore? Whatever her motive, Diana didn't care who she hurt. The photos of her and Dodi half-naked and canoodling on board the Fayed yacht also pained her sons terribly. How many teenage boys would relish front-page pix of their bikini-clad mother enjoying a snog-fest with a man she hardly knew?
And where was Dodi in all this? Busy counting the greenbacks when he wasn't pressing the flesh. Mohamed Al Fayed offered Dodi carte blanche to court Diana -- the yacht, the Riviera, the Paris Ritz. As a universal sex object and offshoot of a famous man, Diana was up for grabs just as much as Jackie Kennedy when Aristotle Onassis began marriage negotiations on the basis that she would cost him as much as a supertanker(US$42 million), as she did. But Mohamed didn't care about cost. Snaffling up Diana would have been the sweetest revenge on a country that had patronized him, refused him a passport and permanently placed him beyond the pale.
Dodi's real name was Emad, Arabic for pillar, as in "pillar of strength." Never was an irresponsible, unreliable, catastrophically immature playboy more unaptly named. And Diana's potential father-in-law Mohamed was a low, profane trickster who bribed British MPs with cash and kind and alternately neglected his son, then interfered massively in his life. Dodi told friends he believed Mohamed was ruining everything for him, and took refuge in Hollywood, dabbling in film, screwing starlets and snorting cocaine. That fateful August, a blond American model publicly claimed she was Dodi's true fiancée, flashed a huge diamond ring and announced they were to be married that month. But Mohamed ordered him to break it off once he had Diana in his sights. Dodi obeyed without demur. What was Diana doing with men like these?
Of all her shallow, thick-witted, dangerous lovers, Dodi was the nadir. Instead of relying on France's VIP protection unit, the Service de protection des hautes personnalités, that would have given the couple all the security they required, Dodi chose to rely on the Fayed / Ritz service, with the result we know. But Diana herself had refused the lifetime protection of the British special protection squad, believing it was only offered so that the family could continue to spy on her.
Ten years after the crash, Diana's memory has also suffered from Mohamed Al Fayed's determination not to let the matter drop. Despite a range of investigations from a government inquiry conducted by Lord Stevens, a former Scotland Yard commissioner, to the most intense media scrutiny, Fayed has never wavered from his conviction that his son and Diana were murdered as part of a British secret services plot led by Prince Philip to prevent Diana from marrying a Muslim. Never mind that the secret services seemed to have taken no interest in Hasnat Khan, during the whole length of that affair.
Throughout all this, the Queen has been restored to favour in the eyes of the world. In 1993, with the reform of the Civil List, she had already embarked on a low-key overhaul of "the Firm," purging drones and low-value royals from their age-old dependence on the public purse. Now, once the Hollywood-style celebrity Diana was gone, Her Majesty saw to it that the royal family went back to what it did best, keeping the country ticking over by opening civic centres, naming bypasses, visiting paint factories and enduring endless local events whose organizers had toiled selflessly for years, dreaming of no greater recompense than a royal smile. Diana never did any of this. She chose her audience with a view to what she could get back. She was not capable of the dreary, pre-planned trudge through the small-town event. So however dazzling a supernova to the rest of the world, Diana was the royal family's dark star, a black hole that sucked the light and life out of the rest of them and left all those they encountered hungrily rooting around for more, like swine among husks.
The Queen further rehabbed the royal family by allowing the civil marriage of Charles and Camilla, perhaps her canniest stroke. Like the Queen herself, Camilla has steadily beaten back the tide of disapproval over the years to earn an increasing respect in Britain, and the wedding took place to universal satisfaction in 2005.
And Elizabeth II also benefited both at home and abroad from the Helen Mirren movie, The Queen, and was happy to accept its softening of her image despite its misrepresentation of the days after Diana's death. Cynically calculated to appeal to the all-American urge to believe in the triumph of democracy over privilege, the film's claim that Tony Blair had educated the Queen in how to respond was way off the mark. After 45 years on the throne, the Queen was not about to take notes from Blair, a newcomer to office just months before Diana died.
With royalty in the ascendant and Diana on the slide, can it get any worse? Oh yes, it can. A new book from Tina Brown, The Diana Chronicles, promises to show the princess as she's never been seen before. Not so much a hatchet job as a professional dismemberment, the gospel according to Brown depicts her as a "spiteful, manipulative, media-savvy neurotic" preying on Charles and a series of other rich men for their status and wealth.
And there's more, much more. Brown's extensive network of contacts has brought some 250 witnesses into court for the case against Diana, and it's a damning indictment, one already starting to play out in the British press. From Tony Blair to Dr. James Colthurst, described in the Daily Mail as "the bicycling son of a baronet" who is going public about his role in passing Diana's taped reminiscences to Andrew Morton, Brown builds up a picture of a woman teetering on the edge of reality, and frequently toppling over. One by one the "facts" of Diana's life are forensically examined and shown to be false. Diana's claim that she tried to commit suicide while pregnant with William was a sympathy-seeking lie. Diana had no intention of marrying Dodi, but was plotting to land a far richer man, perhaps American financier Teddy Forstmann, who not only owned a Gulfstream jet as the Fayeds did, but the company that made them, too.
Brown's book will ensure that we never see Diana in the same light again. Can we believe her? Brown, a Brit who like Diana married an older man of wealth and status, knew the princess in her professional role as the editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Some of the claims in Brown's book are supported elsewhere: Forstmann's importance in Diana's life is confirmed by his own spokeswoman: "Teddy Forstmann and the late Princess Di had a very close friendship." And Brown knew her subject. Interviewed about the new book, Brown's mantra was "That's what I'm about, marketing. [ I ] need to seduce all the time ... we're in a fight, a war ..." These are the very accents of Diana herself. Can we trust the information Brown provides? Yes. Will it help the memory of Diana's life and work? Not at all. Lying, corrupt, vengeful, self-obsessed and often unhinged, this Diana is not one we want to know.
Brown's professional nose for the full story brings out the pathos of Diana too. The unloved child's lifelong determination to be perfect, her aspirations to help and heal, were the root of her self-defeating and ultimately fatal search for something meaningful to do. And there is a real sympathy in Brown's account of Diana's early difficulties with her royal role. But the overall impression remains inescapably bleak. From saint to sociopath in one easy decade: will it end there?
It's likely that the reputation of the woman once adored as "the people's princess" will keep going down until Diana's still powerful ghost fades away. Royal insiders are still combatting what they see as the divisive effects of her destructive personality, and cite the tensions gathering around a commemorative event planned for July 1, Diana's birthday, as evidence for the need to keep "the Diana factor" under firm control. Senior aides were already dubious that a rock concert was a fitting way to "celebrate" Diana's life, whatever the princess's musical tastes. Now the revelation that the princes are planning an all-night bash afterwards to keep the party going for stars like Elton John, Lily Allen and Rod Stewart has been sounding the palace alarm loud and clear. Will the princes be photographed getting drunk and raving it up? Will they seem to be celebrating their mother's death by dancing on her grave? And what about the sight of Diana's nemesis, Camilla, at the Aug. 31 memorial service in the terribly tiny Guards Chapel -- personally invited by her stepsons William and Harry?
This month the princes were involved in another controversy, when they tried and failed to prevent images of the crash that killed their mother being shown in a British TV documentary. Claiming "the higher public interest" and insisting that the images did not "cross the line," the independent TV channel pressed on, reawakening exactly the kind of overheated and tasteless interest in Diana's death that the palace is so anxious to avoid.
With crises like these, the need to cut Diana down will persist. Those charged with charting the fortunes of the British royal house for the next thousand years will keep up a silent but inexorable pressure to "disappear" Diana from the history. The monarchy must triumph in the end, whatever the cost.
In the final reckoning, Diana was disposable, like all royal brides: Henry VIII ran through five women and was on the verge of disposing of the sixth, Catherine Parr, when she was saved by his death. The 19th-century princess of Wales, Caroline of Brunswick, was so hated by her husband that he offered her £50,000 to leave the country. In an uncanny echo of Diana, the common people loved and championed Caroline, to no avail: battering on the doors of Westminster Abbey for admission to her husband's coronation, she was humiliatingly thrust away, and died three weeks later. Once Diana had provided the country with the "heir and the spare," she was redundant. The survival of the dynasty is all that counts.
And that depends on primogeniture, the accession of the first-born male. Maintaining masculine supremacy is paramount, and uppity women pose a genuine threat. The entire system is posited on the deepest possible contempt for women. When a woman succeeds to the throne like Elizabeth I or indeed the Queen herself, she can be never more than a stopgap. No matter how successful, she is only holding the fort for some weedy penis-owner like James I or Charles III.
Ignorant as she was, Diana knew this: Spencers have been around royalty for centuries. Hence her delight in standing royal opinion on its ear and inviting their assorted highnesses to blow it out their asses. They thought they were getting a doltish, safe, ugly duckling who would be happy to spend her life trailing the regulation two paces behind. Instead, she grew into a fashionista who leaped into the limelight and fought like a tiger to defend her right to be there. Like Barbra Streisand, Diana willed herself to be beautiful, and millions admired her escape velocity, her fighting spirit and her flair.
But not those she most wanted to conquer or impress. To her husband, his entire family and hers, and almost all the British upper class, the new Diana evoked horror and disgust. Despite her breeding -- Diana could rightly boast that her blood was more English than the Windsors' -- her fixation on fashion and "dressing up" struck them as irredeemably vulgar. Worse was to come when she went on the BBC and blabbed about her pain and the extramarital affairs. Wearing so much black eyeliner that she looked like the bunnyboiler's bunnyboiler, Diana amply proved that she was not made of the Right Stuff. When she died, those around the throne regarded it as the greatest stroke of luck for the British monarchy since the dashing Edward VIII cleared the way for the dull but dutiful George VI. "Now we know God's an Englishman," one old courtier crowed.
In a country as class-ridden as Britain, it's hardly surprising that opinion about her divided on class lines. The vast majority of her worshippers were drawn from socio-economic levels B, C and D, known as "PWDC"(People Who Don't Count)to the A1 group. Unsurprisingly, all foreigners, especially Americans, are rated the same.
Diana's former followers may queue up to get the Tina Brown book, but they are already onto the Next Hot Thing: Prince William's love life, Harry's antics, Camilla's hats. Fast-forward another 10 years, and will any legacy of Diana survive? If all that commemorates this anniversary is a rock concert rave-up and a chance for her sons to get royally rat-faced in the company of luminaries like Sir Elton John, what tribute will the one-time Queen of Hearts get next?
Who cares? No one who counts. This is realpolitik, the system's triumph over the individual. The British monarchy has achieved what Hitler only fantasized, a kingdom that would last a thousand years. There have been kings of England since Alfred the Great kicked out the Danes. A millenium on(forget a measly 10 years), England still obeys the rule of kings, and there is no prospect of change. The present Queen may be 81, but she's likely to live as long as her own mother, another 20 years. So with Charles III upcoming around 2027, and William V another 20 years after that, the future's set fair.
And that's what it's about. Preserving the monarchy is the ruling passion of the Queen's life and her sacred charge. History belongs to the victors, and to the survivors, the spoils. No longer around as the Golden Girl of the world to keep the Teflon burnish on her reputation, Diana has gone the way of other golden lads and girls, down to dust.
As she must have done, surely, had she survived. All women who trade on their looks and sexual allure know that the passage of time brings an inexorable law of diminishing returns. In terms of her already-dimming star, Diana's death was the smartest career move she could have made. How would it be if she were still around? Pushing 50, would she still see herself as a victim? Would she still be looking for love, still batting her kohl-rimmed eyes like a helpless little girl? Or would she be a happily married woman with more children, perhaps even the longed-for little girl?
We shall never know, and that's the secret of her undying appeal. Diana's life touched so many others precisely because of its haunting quality of unfinished business, an agonizing sense of what might have been. She lived out her struggles in public, becoming the expressive vehicle for anyone who ever loved and lost, or got hurt, humiliated or betrayed. Marrying, mothering, man-hunting, floundering around to find some role or significance, she made Diana-watching into an unmissable sport. The world lived through it all with her, whether furiously angry or madly willing her on. She changed massively as she grew and developed, but it was clear that final summer that she was still a work in progress, with many miles to go.
That's why there is no feeling of closure in these anniversary rites, no hope of letting go, no quiet, elegiac acceptance of her death. "I won't go quietly!" she threatened during her divorce in what proved a blazing flash of proleptic irony. Whatever her catastrophic and finally fatal mistakes, she got that one right. Despite the best efforts of the censors and silencers, she hasn't gone at all.
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