The New York Times
June 10, 2007
By CAROLINE WEBER
Admittedly, I'm biased. On July 29, 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, I was in London with my family. I was 11, and like millions of people, I couldn't get enough of the “Shy Di” fairy tale: ugly (O.K., gangly) duckling meets handsome (O.K., gangly) prince and becomes luminous royal swan. In the new couple's honor, I spent a month's allowance on wedding memorabilia. My prize purchase was a Diana coffee mug with a wide-brimmed ceramic hat. “Only the girls are going in for this lot,” the sales clerk grumbled. He might have been talking about the fairy princess myth itself. Sometimes against their better judgment, women the world over were entranced by the prospect of untold leisure, unequaled glamour and redemptive metamorphosis that this particular myth promised. Ladies, let's be honest: who really among us hasn't dreamed of becoming a princess?
With “The Diana Chronicles,” Tina Brown breathes new life into the saga of this royal “icon of blondness” by astutely revealing just how powerful, and how marketable, her story became in the age of modern celebrity journalism. Indeed, while Diana named Camilla Parker Bowles as the third party in her unhappy union, she might also have mentioned a fourth: the media. “She was way ahead of her contemporaries in foreseeing a world where celebrity was, so to speak, the coin of the realm,” Brown writes. “An aristocrat herself, Diana knew that the aristocracy of birth was now irrelevant. All that counted now was the aristocracy of exposure.” And Brown offers an insightful, absorbing account of the pas de deux into which, to her eventual peril, Diana joined with the paparazzi.
As the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, Brown certainly has the authority to examine the Princess of Wales as a creation and a casualty of the media glare. Perhaps not incidentally, Brown's own years in the spotlight were bookended by Diana's rise and fall. In July 1981, Brown appeared as a “royalty expert” on the “Today” show's coverage of the Wales wedding. Then the editor of the British gossip magazine Tatler, Brown recalls that “the wedding did for the sales of Tatler… what the O. J. Simpson chase did for the ratings of CNN. It put us on the map.”
After Diana's death in August 1997, Brown again placed the magazine over which she presided — this time, The New Yorker — “in the middle” of what was still “the biggest tabloid story in the world,” by publishing a special issue devoted to the princess' memory. Brown stressed the dramatic difference between the Windsors' self-styled identity (“local, modest, unsurprising” guarantors of British tradition) and Diana's (global superstar, unapologetically “shrewd… at press relations”). The conflicted relationship between the two had been, the historian Simon Schama noted in the same issue, a “wedding of the past and the future: the Radetzky March meets the Tatler cover girl. … But, as it turned out, the past and the future couldn't get along.” What's more — as Brown's book demonstrates, and as the recent film “The Queen” has also made clear — the future was bound to win, even if it claimed its own leading avatar in the process.
In fact, Diana's conquest of the camera was bittersweet from the start. In February 1967, when she was 5, her mother, Frances, began an extramarital liaison that led to her parents' acrimonious divorce. Diana's father, Johnnie Spencer, retaliated against Frances by gaining custody of the children. But his stiff-upper-lip reaction to the trauma (“speaking in words of one syllable… and sitting morosely for hours staring out of the window”) made him ill-suited to handle its effects on his offspring, for whom he was able to show affection only by taking “amateur movies and still photographs” of them. As a result, Brown notes, “Diana grew up associating the camera with love,” and striving to give it what it appeared to want in return. Her brother, Charles, told Sally Bedell Smith, a previous biographer, that when Johnnie was filming Diana, “she would automatically sort of make gestures and strike poses.” Honing her star power became, Brown observes, the bereft little girl's “own way of surviving.”
In theory, this was useful preparation for her relationship with Prince Charles, which first made it into the newspapers in September 1980. By this time, the British press was in a full-scale backlash against “the culture of deference” that had long dominated its society pages. Since Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of “the prurient News of the World” in 1969 and his reinvigoration, a year later, of The Sun “as a rollicking, up-yours tabloid featuring bare-breasted pinups every day,” England had entered a “racier media age” in which the staid House of Windsor “was acquiring the stale, curdled taste of a British Rail cheese sandwich.” Because “pictures of a middle-aged Princess Margaret churning grandly around the dance floor in her caftan in Mustique hardly moved product” — and Brown should know, having trumpeted that princess' “Mustique mystique” for The Tatler — “the guessing game of the Prince of Wales's love life was the sole excitement for the media.” And what excitement it was. The prince was Europe's most eligible bachelor, and his romantic exploits became fodder for an increasingly rapacious media machine.
Before Diana, Charles had tried to evade the tabloids' scrutiny by bedding married women, “because the need for secrecy made them 'safe.'” But when he began appearing publicly with Diana — the 19-year-old debutante with a “soft, peachy complexion” and legs that seemed “to extend up to her ears like Bambi” — secrecy ceased to be an option. The paparazzi went wild for the girl who was not only (as an aristocrat, Protestant and self-proclaimed virgin) an ideal royal bride, but also a magnificently photogenic subject. Notwithstanding her “Shy Di” nickname, born of her habit of glancing up coyly at the camera from beneath batting eyelashes, Diana proved “a natural at giving the press what they wanted”: gorgeous pictures. “One by one,” according to Brown, “the hack pack fell in love with her.”
Winning the affection of the press was not, however, the same thing as winning the affection of Prince Charles, as Diana would soon be devastated to learn. One of the more striking revelations in “The Diana Chronicles” is that it was the media just as much as the royal family — ready for Charles to stop dithering and settle down — that propelled him into marriage with a woman he didn't love. A former royal-watcher for The Sun told Brown: “We really got behind Diana and pushed her towards him. I am absolutely convinced that we the media forced Charles to marry her.”
The prince's heart belonged to his married girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles (now his second wife), but as heir to the throne, he was neither encouraged nor expected to follow his heart. The problem was that the tabloids — and Diana, who consumed them avidly — insisted on a different story line: He's in Love. Other biographers have attributed the subsequent unraveling of the Waleses' marriage to Charles's cruelty (Andrew Morton) or Diana's mental illness (Sally Bedell Smith), but Brown chalks the disaster up to the bride's naive belief in a tabloid fiction. She and the media became partners in ignoring the warning signs from the groom himself, like his now notorious reply when, receiving news of the couple's engagement in February 1981, a BBC reporter asked Charles if he and his fiancee were in love: 'Whatever 'in love' means.” Amazingly, Brown points out, “the print press literally erased” the phrase “from their accounts. No one, it seems, wanted to break the spell.” Least of all Diana, who answered the reporter's “love” question with a giggle: “Of course.”
The bride was in for a rude awakening. And though most of the Waleses' sordid domestic drama has already been covered at length elsewhere, Brown perceptively highlights the media's starring role. Once married to Charles, Diana chafed at playing second fiddle not only to Camilla but also to Queen Elizabeth. While still a newlywed, she was deeply offended when Charles offered his mother a drink before her. “I always thought it was the wife first — stupid thought,” she complained afterward. Brown observes that first offering dri — “was only basic good manners” and concludes: “Stupid thought, yes, or maybe something worse: the onset of superstar entitlement. … Six months of adulation from the press had begun to reshape Diana's worldview.” Offended by the Windsors' failure to appreciate the qualities everyone else seemed to admire, she turned increasingly to the tabloids to nourish and sustain her.
To that end, Diana became a master of press manipulation, regularly leaking tips and planting stories about both herself and her enemies. She also understood the incomparable power of the image, which led her, at the height of her problems with Charles, to pose for a photograph alone in front of the Taj Mahal, “the monument to marital love.” In one of the book's many new interviews, John Travolta tells Brown about his legendary dance with Diana at the White House in 1985: “I thought, She not only knows who she is, she knows what this is — and how big this is. She was so savvy about the media impact of it all.”
Yet Diana's savvy had its limits. For although her public-relations wizardry enabled her repeatedly to upstage and — with the tell-all interviews she did in 1992 and 1995 — humiliate the Windsors, it did more than just give the monarchy an appealing, “human” face. By inviting the press to share in her most intimate experiences, the princess abolished every last vestige of celebrity privacy. And by providing the press with picture after dazzling, salable picture, she stoked “the media's inexhaustible appetite for celebrity images.” In an extended meteorological conceit, Brown observes: “The sunshine of publicity in which Diana would at first be happy to bask, posing and smiling for the cameras, grew steadily hotter and harsher. As the superheated imperatives of an invasive press bumped up increasingly against the milder human necessity of privacy, scattered rains gave way to drenching gales and then to spectacular and finally lethal hurricanes. … Diana herself had accelerated the climate change that ended up making her life literally impossible.” Mistakenly, she thought she could “control the genie she had released.”
But the genie pursued her to the end, right into the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, where a high-speed paparazzi chase culminated in the princess' death. Lying unconscious and badly wounded in the wreckage of a black Mercedes, Diana continued to inspire the frenzied photographers. As the picture editor of The Sun confessed to Brown, that very evening he initially agreed to pay £300,000 to one of the shutterbugs who had followed the Mercedes into the tunnel for snapshots of its mangled blond occupant. “Even as Diana struggled for life,” Brown writes, “she was being sold as an exclusive.”
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