Dissecting Diana

Tina Brown, image-maker, on the tabloid princess.

In the course of researching The Diana Chronicles, her first biography and third book, Tina Brown interviewed Tony Blair, a man she describes as “master surfer of the zeitgeist.” Nearly a decade after Diana’s death and his own electoral landslide, she asked the prime minister what he thought the princess’s life had signified. “A new way to be royal?” Brown suggested. “No,” he replied, Blairishly, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.”

He was referring, we can assume, to the qualities he encapsulated when he labeled Diana “the People’s Princess”: An upper-crust Oprah, she gave the repressed British masses permission to seek help for their eating disorders, walk out of their loveless marriages, and listen to Elton John. But seeing a new way to be British also meant that she understood, in Tina Brown’s neat phrase, that the aristocracy of birth had given way to “the aristocracy of exposure.” A veteran reader of Daily Mail gossip columns (and little else), she knew what the press wanted to hear. Diana was, as Brown puts it, “a tabloid girl in a tiara.”

“I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said her soon-to-be-seditious brother Earl Spencer hours after he received the terrible news on Aug. 31, 1997. “But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case. It would appear,” he announced, “that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her … has blood on their hands today.”

How much of that blood was given willingly is the story Brown has chosen to investigate. It seems clear from her account not only that Diana often confided in tabloid journalists, but that other protagonists in her domestic drama did, too. For years, Camilla would routinely phone in “background” information about the state of Charles and Diana’s marriage to the royal correspondent who later became editor of the Sun. When a book written in collaboration with Charles’ camp threatened to overshadow the publication of Diana’s own True Story, Diana leaked, by way of distraction, the news that Prince Andrew and Fergie were about to separate. The leak was blamed by the Palace on Fergie herself and damaged her divorce settlement; no one suspected Diana until the author of the piece, Diana’s biographer, Andrew Morton, admitted as much after her death. A month before the crash, Charles threw a 50th birthday party for Camilla, and Diana bumped them off the front page by telling a photographer she would be visible on the diving board of Dodi Fayed’s yacht. When the photo appeared the next day, she called the photographer, not to complain but to ask why the picture was so grainy.

Brown is convincing enough about Diana’s collusion. But what about her own? I’m not suggesting that she has, as Charles Spencer would have it, blood on her hands—merely that she cannot, as a high-powered journalist who covered Diana’s story in a number of publications over decades, be as passive as she likes to seem. Indeed, her inside knowledge is part of the point: She offers, using the first-person pronoun, personal impressions of Diana as a 19-year-old, as a young princess, as a dazzling divorcee. (She also admires, somewhat alarmingly, Prince Charles’ “manly shoulders” and “sexy hauteur.”) Brown attended Diana’s wedding in 1981 and her funeral. She had lunch with Diana at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan the month before her death. On one of the many occasions that Brown refers to this last meeting, she mentions in passing that Anna Wintour was there, too. It was, in other words, a meal with the power-media. Toward the end of The Diana Chronicles, Brown bemoans the “inexcusable conduct” of the paparazzi and, more generally, the fact that “subjects and photographers alike had been degraded by the media’s inexhaustible appetite for celebrity images.” This from the erstwhile editor of Vanity Fair? In the matter of press coverage, Brown writes both as expert and perpetrator.

As it happens, the mirror Brown and Diana held up to each other had even more specific points of reference. There are few people left who understand the intricate affinities of the aristocratic set; then again, you have to want to. Brown first trained her eye on them because it was her job as editor of Tatler magazine, the debutante’s bible, and she admits that the royal wedding did for Tatler what the O.J. Simpson trial did for CNN: It put the magazine—and Brown herself—on the map. Brown is very good at explaining the underlying political snobberies of Diana’s heritage—and the resentment and suspicion that arose from them. The Spencers rarely wasted an opportunity to point out that their family was older than that of the Windsors; despite this precedence, they were not so directly in line for what Diana called “the top job,” and Diana’s grandmother, for one, was such an inveterate royal climber that she spoke out against her own daughter when she left Diana’s boorish father for a commoner. Her testimony left Johnnie Spencer with custody of Diana and her three siblings, and Diana would never forget the lesson that love was nothing compared with status—a lesson that was not lost on the former editor of Tatler, either.

Brown’s later career as editor of Vanity Fair and TheNew Yorker coincided, to some degree, with Diana’s in its increasing glitz, power, and translation to glossier shores. In 1985, as the recently appointed editor of Vanity Fair, Brown wrote an explosive article about the Wales’ disintegrating marriage. Titled “The Mouse That Roared,” it earned her the nickname among British tabloid hacks of ” ‘Urricane Tina.” Writing in, of all appropriate places, Tatler, society litterateur (and Brown’s ex-lover) Auberon Waugh suggested that Brown had come up with her thesis out of jealousy—that she herself had hoped to marry the Prince of Wales. If Diana aspired to become more like an American, Brown understood that impulse, too. It meant appearing to be more confessional—in Diana’s case, spilling beans that made the Palace blanch—yet retaining control, at all costs, of the studiously choreographed packaging.

Brown’s book, which relies on 250 new interviews and countless previous books, is full of lively and supremely well-marshaled information; she chooses to call on both insiders and, to a sometimes credulous extent, voyeurs. The familiar story of Charles’ infidelity has a stirringly authentic ring of Gaslight about it. He would bring in his close confidants to pronounce Diana “paranoid” even as he was sweet-talking Camilla on the phone. “Was she always nutty or was she nutty because of the situation?” Diana’s friend, film producer and peer David Puttnam, asks Brown, and goes on: “She became nutty because Prince Charles didn’t love her, simple as that.”

Alongside such interviewees, Brown’s reverence for tabloid hacks as sources for Diana’s most intimate leanings can seem odd, and readers may even be forgiven for detecting certain sympathies of style. “High five!” Brown exclaims over Blair’s rise to power. “Well hooked, Sir!” she declares euphemistically when describing the Wales’ courtship on a fishing expedition. She refers to a particular dress as “that nipple-busting black taffeta eye-popper” (just the kind of description eminent fashion writer Colin McDowell, in his new book, Diana Style, is careful to avoid). And then there’s her spectacularly authoritative pronouncement that “[w]omen who love horses usually love sex. … Camilla Shand loved horses, all right. … The adrenaline, the fresh air, and the tally-ho exhilaration are all big libido boosters, to say nothing of all that throbbing, galloping animal vitality between one’s thighs.” Her riff on this is so unforgettable that when she informs us, 100 pages later, that Queen Elizabeth displays “toughness and mastery in the saddle,” it feels like too much information.

Inevitably, the “hack pack”—however well they claim to have known Diana’s every gesture—are never agenda-free. One, whom Brown quotes repeatedly, was invited to Diana’s flat for hot chocolate when Di was 19 and he was staking her out, sleeping in his car, yet he thought nothing of crawling around the Bahamas with a long lens and jungle gear to get a shot of her pregnant in a swimsuit. Years later, he had become picture editor of the Sun, and was awoken by a photographer who offered to sell him shots of her dying for 300,000 pounds. He didn’t stop to take in the news of her death; he agreed to the fee there and then. Why this person might be expected to offer a reliable account of Diana’s innermost feelings, it’s hard to tell. Another of Brown’s trusted tabloid sources says she believes they—the tabloid press—forced Charles to marry Diana even though he never loved her. You have to ask yourself how such a patent fantasy of omnipotence can be taken at face value.

One way to explain the fact that Brown so frequently cites these journalists is to see her book not as a biography of a person but as a portrait of a machine. Brown is interested in the way Diana was put together, the way she composed and inhabited different versions of herself, and how she needed her media reflection in order to pull off such transformations. “She would be her own Frankenstein’s monster,” Brown writes, “and nobody else’s.” While she was, as Brown puts it, “better informed than the highest-paid flak on the machinery of her coverage on any hour of any day,” Diana’s flirtation with the press began to go sour in ways even more globally threatening than the demise of her marriage: “Her relationship with the image-makers who had helped create her had become a love affair in its nasty death throes, a cycle of dependency and combat.”

The symbiosis, of course, continues, except that now it’s only one way. Brown, the latest of the “image-makers,” is thriving on Diana’s memory while shaking her head at the tragedy that “even as she struggled for life, Diana was being sold as an exclusive.” The jacket of The Diana Chronicles offers an unnerving reminder of the alter-ego situation between the two women. There are no photos of Brown’s subject included in the book, except in the black and white endpapers, yet the full-color author photo, which fills the entire back cover and which Brown tells us Annie Leibovitz “insisted” on taking, looks so much like Diana that you wonder whether it’s designed to be merely a portrait of the writer or a pointed message about the dynamic to be found inside.