It is a long, slow slog through Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles. In over 500 pages she relates, in microscopic detail with occasional patches of bright writing and shrewd insights, the more-than-twice-told tale of Diana Spencer, the “People’s Princess” and Media Megastar. Unfortunately, she comes up with very little new, though the Di and Charles saga still remains, if you care, a great soap opera.
Brown, in relying on her copious Rolodex and well-known ability to make connections, says she interviewed over 250 people for the book, including Prime Minister Tony Blair. She also credits many publications in her notes, from pot boilers to serious bios, as well as numerous Fleet Street press reports. Nobody can say that Tina didn’t do her research in her first venture into long-form journalism.
And she does try hard — and sometimes succeeds — to give Diana’s familiar story a more substantial context. Known as the “Queen of Buzz” while an editor, Brown takes as her theme Diana’s instinctive understanding of the increasing importance of media, and its voracious need for photogenic celebrities. “An aristocrat herself, Diana knew that the aristocracy of birth was now irrelevant,” she writes. “All that counted now was the aristocracy of exposure…She was way ahead of her contemporaries in foreseeing a world where celebrity was, so to speak, the coin of the realm.”
Brown’s own well-publicized career as a high-profile Anglo-American editor was intertwined, from the first, with the Diana drama. At 25, Brown was the editor of The Tatler, house magazine for the upper classes, whose readers were the overbred, under-educated London society girls known as “Sloane Rangers,” after the fashionable London neighborhood. Shy Di, “thick as a plank” and desperately trying to hook the Prince of Wales, was a prototype of the breed.
Brown continued to cover Diana when she was the buzzed-about editor of Vanity Fair. Brown’s article “The Mouse that Roared,” published in 1985, described the early implosion of the Wales’s marriage. The feature caused a ruckus because the British press was still insisting that Prince Charming and Di, who had dutifully produced an heir and a spare, were, of course, living happily ever after. Brown was termed “a rat bag of gossip” by the Daily Mail. Within a short time the British tabloids, however, realized that Malice at the Palace could sell papers, too.
Brown and Vogue editor Anna Wintour had lunch with Diana at the Four Seasons restaurant just a couple of months before her death. The divorced princess, then the most popular woman in the world, was concerned because she had no where to go on vacation in August. Where she went, of course, was off with Dodi Al-Fayed, the “Egyptian lounge lizard…on a cheeseball made-for-TV version of her honeymoon.”
In describing Diana at lunch, Tina astutely writes:
What struck me was how much celebrity itself had transformed Diana’s appearance. I had come to think being looked at obsessively by people you don’t know actually changes the way your face and body are assembled…The heads of world-class celebrities literally seem to enlarge. Hillary Clinton’s, for instance, has grown enormously since she was the mere wife of the governor of Arkansas. It nods when she talks to you like a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In the case of Diana it was as if everything had been elongated and hand-colored…Her instinct to move to America was dead on. She would only ever feel at home now in the culture that invented fame the size of hers.
Tina is so right. I met Diana twice, too — once when she was the pretty, delicate newlywed. And then during that same last trip to America. I heard her give a speech on land mines, and she took a picture with my son and I. She was charming but she had, indeed, turned into a muscular, sharp-featured Amazon in a vivid dress.
Throughout the book Brown, unlike most of Diana and Charles’s past biographers, doesn’t play favorites and is fairly even-handed in assessing behavior. The Diana she describes is self-absorbed, needy, bulimic, often hysterical with whiplash mood changes and the ability to “press the delete button” on even her most devoted family and friends. She was also a genius at public relations and could relate naturally and appealing to ordinary people, to children, and to the sick. Charles, on the other hand, was just as self-centered as his immature bride, he was also dull and awkward. And, of course, there was Camilla. But some of his most-mocked interests such as the environment and raising organic food have become, Brown notes, today’s hottest fads. Unlike most Diana biographers, Brown, (whose husband, editor Harry Evans, received a knighthood in the queen’s honor list) even has a few kind words for the usually unsympathetic Princess Anne and Prince Philip.
Diana once said, complaining about Camilla, that there were three in her marriage. In truth, there were four. The media, especially the British tabloids, were the constant presence. With them, Diana had a relationship, even more complicated than she had with the royal family. She used her favorite reporters, and they used her. But at the end of her life, the media who had built her up for so long were busy tearing her down. They called her rude names to get her attention, and they were always outside, in greater and greater numbers, trying to get the next invasive picture. And on that fateful night in Paris, neither she, nor those who were supposed to be protecting her, had the good sense to avoid the flashbulbs by simply staying inside.