Princess Diana's Life and Legacy

Tina Brown calls Diana a "cataclysmic force" who changed the monarchy forever.

January 8, 2009, 1:24 AM

Aug. 29, 2007 — -- That she was beautiful is clear — Princess Diana's beauty was frozen in time by her untimely death.

"A less attractive girl — we wouldn't be sitting here talking about her now," said Tina Brown, who has been covering Diana since she was a young editor at Britain's saucy Tatler magazine.

"Everyone ended up falling for her charm," Brown said. "When she turned her full beaming effect on you, it was pretty devastating."

Brown's new book, "The Diana Chronicles," has spent the last nine weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

She says that before Diana came onto the scene in 1980, "The royal family had become a stale commodity. ... There was a sense that this family needed a new act."

That new act arrived in the person of Diana Spencer, whom Brown describes as "fresh, young, beautiful, well-pedigreed, absolutely flawless background, no past that anybody could rake over."

Brown says the British public saw a chance for the monarchy to be re-invented. "The nation went crazy," she said. "They went for it, as did the royal family. — They wanted that fairy story as much as the public did."

But Brown says it didn't take long before the fairy tale ended. She says Prince Charles began to feel jealous of his very popular princess, about two years after they wed, right after Prince William was born, when the family went on their first official trip to Australia.

"Everywhere they would go, there were two lines," said Brown. "Charles would go down one line, and Diana the other; the side that got Charles would groan, and the side of Diana, everybody cheered and went crazy."

"After a time, that gets old, and in the end, Prince Charles felt very overlooked, very hurt, very left out. He didn't have the self-confidence or the secure nature of his manhood, in a way to accept that Diana, forevermore, was going to eclipse him."

But, according to Brown, Diana was insecure herself, and despite her soaring popularity, was crumbling in private. Suffering from both postpartum depression and bulimia, Diana soon discovered that Charles had resumed his relationship with his old lover Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Diana did not find much sympathy from her new family.

"The royal family thought Diana was big, big trouble. They wanted her to just calm down and become one of the team," said Brown. "Times like when the queen went to open Parliament — that's her big day. Diana had a new hairdo. The papers went crazy. Princess Margaret said, 'How dare she have a new updo when you're going to open the houses of Parliament?' This is the kind of thing that Diana had to deal with."

After 14 years — and infidelity on both sides — Diana and Charles' marriage was ruptured beyond repair. In 1995, Diana sat down for an interview on the BBC's "Panorama" program with Martin Bashir — then with the BBC, now the co-anchor of "Nightline." Diana famously told Bashir, "There were three of us in this marriage."

"If her goal was to somehow keep a relationship with the royal family and be a detached princess with the queen's blessing, it was an act of absolute suicide," said Brown.

"If her goal was to simply reach out to the public and make the point for her divorce proceedings, then it was an A-list performance. She threw down the gauntlet to the royal family, and basically said, 'If you mess with me, you're gonna get more of this.' And she did get her 17 million pounds [in her divorce settlement]. But, at the same time, it also meant there was no going back."

Diana always understood the power of the press, as she demonstrated in her campaign against land mines.

"I think that the most amazing synthesis of the whole Diana strengths and weaknesses was when, in Angola ... she walked through a partially cleared land mine field, which is immensely brave," said Brown. "One of the members of the press said, 'I didn't get the shot.' ... She amazed everyone by walking back and doing it again. Diana, the immense publicist, understood that the picture had to be right."

The picture had to be right, for both charitable reasons, and personal ones. Eight months after that land mine field incident, Diana's picture was seen around the world with the new man in her life Dodi Fayed.

"She was trying to send messages, so she tipped off the press that she was on that boat, herself. When she took that famous picture ... in the swimsuit, kissing Dodi, far from it being something she lamented, she called the photographer and said, 'Why is that shot so grainy?' She wanted that shot to go around the world," said Brown.

Brown says Diana couldn't come to terms with "her insecurity, her fragility, the sense of that wound from her childhood, which was so unhappy, and the great hurt from Charles."

"She could not come to terms with those things, and they would rise up and engulf her again, even though her public life was going so well."

Despite this, Brown says that Diana was not "in a downward spiral" at the end of her life. The last time Brown saw Diana was when the two had lunch in New York.

"She was so excited that Tony Blair had suggested to her that she might be a humanitarian ambassador for England — that was something that gave her enormous excitement, and that she would have a legitimate role for England," Brown recalled.

Diana had much to live for when, 10 years ago this week, she died in that car crash, chased and tormented by some of the very photographers she had encouraged only days earlier. In Britain, the day became known as Silent Sunday.

"That morning, the people of England were nowhere to be seen," said Brown. "They were behind closed doors, glued to the TV sets or the radios. There was even a power surge as the nation brewed up cups of tea in the morning to sit down for the long haul and watch TV."

Britain watched and waited for a reaction from the royal family, which stayed put in its Scottish castle, as it was played up in the movie "The Queen." Brown says the queen did not anticipate the public reaction and the hostility that erupted when she remained silent.

Finally, five days after Diana's death, the queen addressed the nation. The next day was Diana's funeral — the long solemn march to Westminster Abbey through the heart of London. The queen bowed her head as the procession passed Buckingham Palace.

"That was a very symbolic moment, because the queen only ever bowed her head for heads of state," said Brown. "[It] was a huge personal recognition of hers, that she must do this thing which, for her, went against the grain — acknowledge that Diana's death was commensurate to the death of a head of state."

"It was a very big thing for the queen to do. I think if she had not done it, the crowd would have gone absolutely crazy."

Some thought they already had. Peter Morgan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The Queen," said, "I didn't recognize my country. ... This seemed like a deranged emotionality. People ... came down with children from the north of England. They made no arrangements about where to stay. ... My sense is that Diana has been revised downward by history, and she is seen in England now as just sort of a troubled and complicated woman."

Brown disagrees. "She was troubled, she was neurotic, but the thing is that her positives so outweighed the negatives that those are the things that survive her life," she said. "What's left are those images of her embracing a child with AIDS, walking a mine field, holding the hands of leper patients. These are the things that live on, long beyond the other stuff."

And if she is correct, if Diana's legacy of compassion lives on, has she in some way changed the monarchy, itself?

"I think that Diana actually helped shake the royal family into the 21st century. She was the engine of change. She was a cataclysmic force, a meteor that landed on them and forced them to change their ways," said Brown.

"They've come to realize that the palace has to respond — that was the major thing that Diana had a beef with. She said, 'Terrible things happen, and where are we? If a bomb goes off in Ireland, you want to be there.'"

And when the bombs went off last July in London, the queen was there.

"She went right to the victims, visited them, gave an impromptu speech at the hospital, bowed her head with the rest of her staff about in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace," said Brown. "Her aide said to me, 'We would never have done this in the years before Diana.' ... The tragedy is that it took her death for the palace to listen to her, and that's, I think, the very saddest thing."

If Diana was able to speak to her legacy, she would no doubt point to her two sons.

"She really taught William and Harry with her loving mother's touch to be first, boys, and then princes — not stuffy, not stuck up, not isolated," said Brown. "They've developed into very attractive young men."

Brown calls Diana "the greatest thing to happen to the monarchy since Queen Victoria."

"She was the ultimate star of the 20th century monarchy. We'll be talking about her for the next 50 years."

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