From the Maclean's archives: Tina Brown in conversation

From June 2007, a conversation about Princess Diana, royal mystique and the night of the crash

A new report today suggests Tina Brown is parting ways with The Daily Beast. Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, discussed the changing media industry in an interview with the New York Times last month: “It doesn’t matter how talented you are right now. You used to be judged by your performance, but now it doesn’t matter what you do,” she said. “It is quite a business.”

In June 2007, Brown sat down with Ken Whyte to talk about her project of the day, The Diana Chronicles. She spoke to Whyte about married women and the Prince of Wales, Diana’s big lie, and Dodi’s fatal error:


I want to start with what was for me the most shocking revelation in your book, The Diana Chronicles, and it’s that you seem to find Prince Charles sexy.

Oh, dear! Listen, I simply was trying to say that I could understand why girls would find him sexy, not so much that I personally found him sexy.

Well, what is it?

What it is is a combination of terrific grooming, manners, and royal mystique. You know, when you get those three things together it’s a very attractive proposition. He’s a beautifully mannered man, actually, and does attempt to connect, and there is a humour there which is actually very appealing, too. And he’s got very blue eyes, and he has a very good sort of millionaire’s tan and altogether it was — I put it into the past now because he’s nearly 60 — but when he was the action-man prince it was an attractive proposal.

He got a lot of action, from what I hear.

He got a huge amount of action.

I was surprised at that too, an endless stream of girls, and not only available girls but married women.

Yes, he was very big on married women. In fact, Private Eye magazine — the satirical magazine in England — ran a story at that time which said that in White’s club — which was the posh dining club for the aristocracy — he’d been voted “Shit of the Year” for the way he treated women. He was quite a swordsman.

You mention this tendency for British husbands to make way for Charles.

Yes, it is extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s incredible that in and amongst the aristocracy it is still a status symbol to have the king-to-be sleeping with your own wife. To be cuckolded is considered something that you’ll take for the sake of England.

So Diana comes into this. She’s a very young girl from a good family, and she’s had almost no education.

She was sent to a school that really did nothing but prepare you to leave early and get married. You know, the daughter of an earl who’s got all the money in the world sends her to a school like that and she leaves at 16 to be a nanny. That was very common. None of her sisters were educated, either, but the boy, Charles, was sent to Eton and Oxford, the two best schools in England.

I was surprised at the degree to which the Queen Mother and Prince Philip were involved in setting up the match between Charles and Diana.

I know, I was very surprised too.

How could maybe the two most knowledgeable people in the world on what it takes to be the wife of a future king of England — how could they so have misjudged this girl?

It was very hard not to misjudge Diana. Diana was beautiful and fresh and young and innocent, and came from impeccable lineage, and adored him, and, you know, as I say, she was the last virgin left in England. Charles was very picky and he’d been through all these other girlfriends and none of them had seemed to stick. Of course, it became more and more clear that the reason that they didn’t stick was because he was in love with Camilla Parker Bowles and didn’t want any of them to stick. The Queen and Prince Philip were getting increasingly anxious that he was turning into Edward VIII, who abdicated. Edward VIII also had this great penchant for married women, and they became very anxious about whether or not Charles was going to wind up insisting he would marry Camilla and having her get divorced.

Right. And it became very clear that Charles and Diana were incompatible and disillusioned within months of marriage.

Months. I mean, really from the moment of the honeymoon where Charles was sunk in his travelogues by Laurens van der Post, and Diana was playing the piano to a cheering crowd of cadets or whatever she was doing. She just wasn’t on his wavelength. Charles was like a man of 60, he was incredibly old for his years.

What is the single most devastating point in Charles’s behaviour toward his wife?

I think that Charles had absolutely no need to humiliate Diana quite as publicly as he did. I think that when he virtually moved Camilla into Highgrove when he was still married, when as soon as Diana’s back was turned — if she forgot something and she drove back — Camilla’s car was parked outside the house, I thought that was unnecessary. Actually, so did everybody else in the royal family.

Diana wasn’t innocent in all this. What was the biggest lie she spread about Charles?

I think one lie she spread about him was that when she was pregnant with William she threw herself down the stairs in a suicide attempt, and Prince Charles just said, “Oh, dear. Well, pull yourself together. I’m going out hunting.” In fact, the whole thing was a total fabrication. Diana slipped on the stairs, had a tumble. There was a bit of alarm because she was pregnant but she saw the doctor and he said she was just fine.

Did the marriage have to fail?

It needn’t have failed. I think that there were times, particularly toward the end, when there was the beginning of a new understanding, where Diana was finally maturing. Not only was she a princess, a global superstar and a mother by the age of 21, which is incredible when you think about it — but she was also trying to handle this very complex, sophisticated problem of a husband who had a long-time mistress. By the time she was hitting her 30s she’d grown up, she’d had affairs, and I think she was getting to a place I think she might well have been able to accept a sort of negotiated truce. But unfortunately, the Camilla part of it was just too strong. You know, Camilla fought her corner, she was extremely tenacious. This is a woman who never backed off. Charles, of course, didn’t want her to back off.

Did that exposure of Charles’s intimate conversations with Camilla — the intercepted cellphone calls — permanently change perceptions of him?

It proved, for a start, that all the denials about Camilla were also lies, but on top of that there was a sense that this is what Diana had to deal with. You know, she was beloved, and here was Charles having this extremely raunchy conversation clearly with a woman he’d always said was just a friend and clearly wasn’t. People were very, very angry with Charles about it.

You describe Dodi Al Fayed as an Egyptian lounge lizard. What did you find out that was new about Dodi?

I hadn’t realized how manipulated he was by his father. He wanted to marry another girl and his father told him he’d better get himself down to the south of France and take out Diana. I thought that he was a bit more of a player than that, and he wasn’t.

You deal extensively with the night of the crash.

I wanted to do the crash in all the detail that I could. There were three myths, really, about the death. One was, could she have been murdered? The other was, could medical treatment have been better to save her? And thirdly, did the press kill her? I also wanted to see who was to blame. I came to the conclusion that if anybody was to blame, really, it was Dodi Al-Fayed. There were a thousand options for them to avoid being exposed any more to the press that night. But instead they drove first from the airport to the Villa Windsor, then to the apartment, and then from the apartment to the Ritz. The notion that they were going to be able to sit in some little bistro in Paris and have dinner, I mean, it was madness. Dodi was either incredibly dim that night, or out of his mind, or just wanting to be followed, you know? You can blame the paparazzi in the large sense that they’re ruthless and they should leave people alone, but the fact is their job is to pursue them, and they didn’t have to be pursued.

As a subject of social history is Diana going to endure?

I think Diana will endure. As a matter of fact, I think Diana will only rise in interest, because as her son William heads for the throne, she was the mother of the king and I think that the king is going to want to honour his mother. And I think the beginning of it is this concert coming on July 1.

You mentioned William. When you read about Kate Middleton, what did you think?

I was fascinated because I thought that ultimately history was repeating itself except that Kate Middleton had Diana’s example to live by and wasn’t going to have it. Everyone assumes that it was Kate Middleton who was given up by William, but my sources tell me that actually Kate Middleton had very cold feet herself about this whole thing, because what she was beginning to experience was very much what Diana experienced, which was as she became more and more of a media focus the royal family didn’t like it. Whoever marries William is going to have a very difficult time, if she’s a beautiful girl. My hope is that William marries a horse-faced duchess who just does good works and hopefully the media will have absolutely no interest in her, at which point they’ll all be very happy.

What was the nature of your relationship with Diana?

I had lunch with her before she died. But it wasn’t a friendship.

How did you find her?

Well, she changed enormously. My first conversation with her was after she first married and she was this charming, sweet Sloane Ranger girl with a warm affect and a kind of innocent, girlish charm, and by the end she was this very sophisticated, media-savvy, incredibly beautiful movie star. She really did evolve into something powerfully attractive, and sort of professional, actually. There was a professionalism to her at the end.

Did she deserve to be the most famous woman in the world?

Deserve? Yes, in the sense that she was much more beautiful than anybody you could even conceive in person. She was a ravishingly beautiful girl. The combination of her height and her colouring and her figure and these incredible, huge, cobalt blue eyes, and this very, very English rose complexion, she was a knockout. Secondly, she was a princess, which is irresistible. And thirdly, she did do wonderful humanitarian things, and she had a real gift for people. She had a tremendous gift for making the people she visited, the sick and the unwell, the disabled, feel absolutely lifted by her presence. People spoke over and over again about the lift Diana gave them. That’s quite a gift, it really is.

Everybody talked about her not being terribly bright — she referred to herself as thick as a plank — but you give her credit for her emotional intelligence.

She had great emotional intelligence. She really was pretty flawless in the way she handled her role as princess of Wales. But she did it instinctively from the word go, she did it with grace, she did it with charm, she did it with professionalism. She worked very hard at it, actually. She was a big asset to the monarchy. She was, as Paul Johnson said, our greatest royal figure since Queen Victoria.