Tina Brown: Princess Diana was ‘canny, resourceful’ and not a victim of the media

Tina Brown: Princess Diana was ‘canny, resourceful’ and not a victim of the media

There are several major royal books coming out over the next few months, all timed for the Platinum Jubbly and Prince William’s 40th birthday. And likely the long farewell of Queen Elizabeth, if we’re being honest. Last year, Tina Brown announced her new book The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil. It comes out this month. I’ve mentioned many times that Brown’s The Diana Chronicles is one of my favorite royal books, Brown managed to be sympathetic towards Diana while still telling the truth about Diana’s problematic behavior.

This new book… well, there hasn’t been much advance buzz either way, which made me suspicious because (for my money) Brown is one of the most dangerous royal biographers out there. As it turns out, Brown didn’t go to the Times or the Mail or any British outlet to tease The Palace Papers. No, she gave the first excerpt to Vanity Fair. You can read the full excerpt here. The book excerpt goes into detail about how Prince William and Prince Harry remember Diana differently and how those memories affect their actions today.

Diana told William everything: William understood Diana more but idealized her less. He was privy to her volatile love life. He knew the tabloids made her life hell, but he also knew she colluded with them. By his early teens, he was his mother’s most trusted confidant. She used to describe him as “my little wise old man.” Like many women whose relationships with their husbands have become dysfunctional, Diana used her elder son as both a stand-in and a buffer, toting him along for meetings with journalists. Then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan describes in his diary a startlingly revealing background lunch with Diana and the 13-year-old William at Kensington Palace in 1996 at which, he says, the princess allowed him to ask “literally anything.” William insisted on a glass of wine even when Diana said no, and he seemed thoroughly up-to-date on all the tabloid rumors about her lovers.

Dissolving boundaries: For Diana to include the future heir to the throne at a meeting with one of the royal family’s most reckless tabloid tormentors and freely refer to a casual affair was, on its face, amazing. (Try imagining the Duchess of Cambridge and a teenage Prince George doing the same today.) It suggests that her boundaries were dissolving and, with them, her judgment.

Diana did invade her own privacy: Time and again, Diana chose to invade her own privacy, often for the capricious reason of making the men in her life jealous. The most unforgettable “stolen” snap from Diana’s last fateful holiday was the famous “kiss” picture of her in a clinch with bare-chested Dodi Fayed, her playboy lover, off the coast of Corsica. It was she who tipped off Italian lensman Mario Brenna—to send a taunting message to the real love of her life, Hasnat Khan.

Why Diana spoke about James Hewitt in the Panorama interview: It’s hard to understand how a mother as devoted as Diana would choose, in 1995, to drag up her affair with Hewitt again in her explosive interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir on Panorama. She knew how devastated her boys had been by their father’s on-camera confession of infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles in Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1994 ITV documentary, and how truly mortified they felt when Princess in Love came out. I am told Diana chose to speak about Hewitt to Bashir because he was the only one of her ex-lovers who wasn’t married.

Diana had no regrets about the Panorama interview, even though Martin Bashir deceived her to get the interview: “I am told by Lalvani that Diana said she had no regrets about the interview and made clear that she had said exactly what she wanted to say on camera. (She even co-opted lines such as “There were three of us in this marriage” from her writer friend Clive James.) “She was pleased about it [the interview],” Lalvani confirmed to me. “She didn’t have a bad word to say about Martin Bashir. She realized it served her purpose.” She was right. Her “purpose” was to frame herself to the British public as a betrayed woman before the increasingly inevitable divorce from Charles. Opinion polls in the wake of the interview showed support for the princess at 92 percent. She had the public in the palm of her hand.

Tina Brown on Diana’s agency: I don’t subscribe to the now pervasive narrative that Diana was a vulnerable victim of media manipulation, a mere marionette tossed about by malign forces beyond her control. While strongly sympathetic to her sons’ pain, I find it offensive to present the canny, resourceful Diana as a woman of no agency, as either a foolish, duped child or the hapless casualty of malevolent muckrakers.

Meeting Diana: When Vogue’s Anna Wintour and I, as editor of The New Yorker, had lunch with Diana in Manhattan in July 1997—six weeks before her death—I was bowled over by the confident, skillful way she wooed us. Diana was always more beautiful in person than in photographs—the huge, limpid blue eyes, the soft peach skin, the super-model height. She told us her story of loneliness and hurt at Charles’s hands with an irresistible soulful intimacy that sucked us in, then switched to a startlingly sophisticated vision of how she planned to leverage her celebrity for the causes she cared about with a series of TV specials, 24 years before Harry and Meghan’s incoherent multimedia plans.

Harry & William’s contempt for the press: Her sons express their lasting contempt for the press in different ways: William with a grim, steely obsession with control; Harry with tortured, vocal, frequently ill-judged condemnation, a never-ending flurry of lawsuits, and, finally, a burn-it-all-down gesture that his mother—who, despite her yearning to be free, held tight to her diadem—might have well understood. But neither of them has yet been heard to reflect on how much Diana loved to dance with danger.

[From Vanity Fair]

Brown is basically saying that Diana was a basketcase who needed the near-constant reassurance of the press. While I do think Diana was a basketcase, I also think… that’s what the Windsors did to her. She felt imprisoned in a bad marriage with a chronic philanderer and she was trying to survive inside an institution which did everything to try to break her, to discredit her, to dull her light, to delegitimize her. While I hate to give Brown credit for this, I also believe that both William and Harry have major issues with acknowledging Diana’s media games, and how much she engaged with the paparazzi and called them herself. William’s version of Diana is of a woman who was a withdrawn, paranoid basketcase. Harry’s version of Diana is that of a wholly martyred victim. Neither version is how Diana really existed and tried to survive.

I side-eye Brown’s dig at the Sussexes too – “24 years before Harry and Meghan’s incoherent multimedia plans…” What’s incoherent? They signed Spotify and Netflix contracts and they’re doing pretty much what Diana wanted to do.

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, Backgrid.

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