Camilla’s rise hit Diana with blunt force when Charles chose Highgrove as the venue for his mistress’s 50th-birthday celebration, on July 17, 1997
In May 1995, for £850,000 ($1,375,000), Camilla purchased Ray Mill House, a 17-acre estate on the banks of the river Avon, in Wiltshire, and began a campaign of expansion. The new residence slowly acquired a staff of two housekeepers, two gardeners, a chauffeur and car from Prince Charles’s fleet, a separately built security cottage complete with a Scotland Yard protection office, and stabling privileges at Highgrove. Bernie Flannery, the Highgrove butler, was instructed to do Camilla’s grocery shopping at the local Sainsbury’s supermarket whenever she wished—and to charge it to the Prince’s bill. Arguing, truthfully, that a visible royal mistress has to look good, Camilla was granted an annual dress allowance from the Wales war chest.
Eventually, Charles is said to have covered her debt of around £130,000 ($210,000) at Coutts bank. Eventually, he granted Camilla her own stipend of £120,000 ($194,000) a year, later raising it to £180,000 ($291,000). Eventually, Camilla Parker Bowles became H.R.H. the Duchess of Cornwall. Eventually—at least my money’s on it—H.R.H. the Duchess of Cornwall will be the Queen. Now that Camilla’s image reversal is complete, former St. James’s Palace staffers are amused that the favored story line in the press is of the patience and fortitude of “the woman who waited.” From the inside, it sure didn’t look that way. “It was Bolland who invented that fiction,” said a former colleague of his. “And, I can tell you, it was quite an aggressive campaign.”
Camilla’s rise hit Diana with blunt force when Charles chose Highgrove as the venue for his mistress’s 50th-birthday celebration, on July 17, 1997. The flagrant use of their former marital home was an unnecessary blow for Diana. It plunged her more deeply into her “darkness.” She was deeply envious as well as deeply hurt: while Charles had found his love, Diana had lost hers. Salt was rubbed in the wound by a flattering television documentary about Camilla—another plank in Bolland’s relentless campaign. Shirley Conran advised Diana not to watch it, but she couldn’t resist. After all this time, she still wanted one question answered: Why? Why was it this woman who had taken it all—her Prince, her emotional security, her destiny as Queen? After watching the program, Diana called her astrologer, Debbie Frank, in anguish. “All the grief in my past is resurfacing,” Diana told her. “I feel terrible … so frightened and needy.” She sounded, Frank said, “breathy, child-like, again.”
A Surprise Invitation
She needed to get out of town. She had toyed for a bit with the idea of spending the summer in the United States, and asked Teddy Forstmann, the financier and a sometime beau, to find her a house near his in Southampton. “I found her something, but five days later she called back and said the security people had said the openness of the Hamptons wasn’t safe,” said Forstmann. It was a boon when the importunate bullfrog Mohamed Al Fayed asked her to bring the boys to stay at his villa in the South of France. There she would be fully protected, not just by the security men who always accompanied the royal boys but by Al Fayed’s own prodigious security. She wanted to nurse her wounds. When her hairdresser, Natalie Symons, arrived on the morning of July 11, after Diana’s breakup with Khan, she was packing for the villa holiday and sobbing her heart out. “I could tell she was totally distraught because she didn’t have any mascara on, and she always puts her mascara on before she does anything else,” Symons recalled.
The spiral had begun. As she used to say to Patrick Jephson, when he was her private secretary, “Stand by for a mood swing, boys.” But her last oscillations spun so fast that the contrasts seem more shocking. Dodi Al Fayed appeared three days into her holiday in the South of France, summoned by his father, and the vulnerable Diana fell for the bait. Within weeks she was on a cruise alone with Dodi. The woman whose feet disappeared into the green pile carpet covered in pharaohs’ heads aboard Mohamed Al Fayed’s private plane and squealed over Dodi’s gifts in Bulgari boxes was the same woman who, only weeks before, had driven in somber silence up Sniper Alley in the shattered city of Sarajevo to comfort land-mine victims. The woman who posed for a boatload of French paparazzi in a tiger-striped swimsuit and called the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster at the Daily Mail to cackle “we couldn’t just sit in KP (Kensington Palace) all summer” was the same woman who, encountering a woman tending her son’s grave in a Sarajevo cemetery, had tenderly embraced her.
“God, we heard some terrible stories,” said Lord Deedes, who went with her into Sarajevo. “She very often interviewed somebody without an interpreter, and she would take some time over it. There was a widow who had lost her young husband. He had gone fishing and had hit a mine. When we went there the lady was absolutely brain-dead, but when we left she was revived. I really did think there that Diana had a healing touch. There is really no doubt.”
There is no doubt either that the press really preferred the Princess Di of the past. In Angola, Christina Lamb talked to the “royal hacks” in the bar of Luanda’s Hotel Presidente and heard them “wistfully recalling previous jaunts to Klosters and Barbuda, and longing for the Diana of old who went to balls and banquets and wore Versace instead of flak jackets.” They found that Diana again only a few months later, when Al Fayed’s yacht docked in Porto Cervo, in Sardinia, and Diana and Dodi went shopping. Diana came back to the Jonikal with armfuls of cashmere sweaters, because Dodi had bought her every color they had. She told Rosa Monckton she found his conspicuous consumption embarrassing, but that did not prevent her from making herself demeaningly complicit. Her mother became frantic at being unable to communicate her deep feelings of unease at the pictures appearing at home. Frances made repeated calls to the Queen Mother’s page, William Tallon, a favorite of Diana’s, begging him to try to talk her daughter into breaking her silence when she got back. Tallon had no success. Frances told an old family friend at this time, “I cannot see the sun shining on my daughter’s head again.”
The murder of the flamboyant fashion star Gianni Versace in South Beach, Florida, on July 15, while Diana was on Al Fayed’s yacht, was a meteor shower in the exploding sky of her final summer. Versace had bridged the gap between fashion and celebrity, just as Diana had bridged the gap between royalty and celebrity. Versace had turned hooker style into high fashion, adopted by movie stars and rock icons in the 80s and 90s. Even a princess could feel exciting in his clothes. He had sent Diana trunkloads of his slinky gowns for nights when she wanted to make a splash. “He was killed,” wrote La Repubblica, “like a prince laid low in his own blood, with one hand outstretched toward his oil paintings, his tapestries, his gold.” Diana at first assumed that the killing (which turned out to be the work of a gay psychopath) was a terrorist assassination. Dodi’s bodyguard Lee Sansum found her on the deck of the Jonikal very early the next morning gazing sadly out to sea. “Do you think they’ll do that to me?” she asked him. She made up with Elton John at Versace’s funeral in Milan, sitting beside him and Sting and patting Elton’s hand comfortingly.
Back and forth she swung that last summer until the pendulum took her to Paris. And yet in the days in between her boat trips with Dodi she seemed to have such a clear new future outlined in London. She plotted with Shirley Conran something she’d never had: a career. “She wanted professional fulfillment,” said Conran. “She wanted to do something herself that would show she wasn’t an idiot.” The something was a great idea—to produce documentaries like the well-received film she had made with the BBC of her trip to Angola. She was all excited about the project—a film every two years, each one the centerpiece of a discrete humanitarian campaign. First, she told Conran, she would raise awareness of the issue, then produce a documentary in partnership with one of the television channels, and ultimately leave a structure in place to maintain her involvement with the cause. It was Diana’s version of a Clinton global initiative—and she had the idea first. The issue she wanted to start with was illiteracy.
Diana, who had once described herself as “thick as a plank,” was getting herself an education after all. Mike Whitlam reminded her during their time in Angola, “Don’t forget there are ten million landmines left by the British in the deserts of North Africa.” She replied, “Mike, I think you’ll find it’s twenty-three million.” And she was right. “We had a public meeting on land mines,” says Lord Deedes, “and she really knew what she was doing. She wasn’t just a royal observer.”
She wasn’t just a royal anything. That was the beauty of it. Had she lived, losing her H.R.H. might have turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to her, just as her mother had said. Yes, she was losing most of the perks and protections of the royal cocoon. But the power of her magic touch with the media and the public was something no one could take from her. And what she was gaining was freedom—the freedom to act without the constraints and limitations of palace and political bureaucrats, the freedom to embrace causes of her own choosing regardless of their potential for controversy, the freedom to make a difference on things that mattered and to see results.
In Ottawa, Canada, not long after her walk through the minefields, 122 governments agreed on a treaty banning the use of anti-personnel land mines. The Nobel committee awarded the campaign the Nobel Peace Prize, coupled with the name of the leading American campaigner, Jody Williams. In the House of Commons, during the second reading of the Landmines Bill, in 1998, the British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, paid handsome tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, for her “immense contribution to bringing home to many of our constituents the human costs of land mines.”
Diana was not there to hear it. She was alone on an island, in her grave at Althorp, the Spencer-family estate.