The Last Picture Show
Is she an angel?
--- Helena Ussova, aged seven, land-mine victim in Angola, January 1997
Diana never looked better than in the days after her divorce. Divestment was the name of the game, in her life and in her looks. The downsizing started with her Kensington Palace staff, which she reduced to cleaner, cook, and dresser. The assiduous Paul Burrell became maître d’ of her private life, combining the roles of P.A., man Friday, driver, delivery boy, confidant, and crying towel. “He used to pad around listening to all,” says a friend of Diana’s mother. “I was quite sure his ear was pressed firmly to the key hole when I went to Kensington Palace for lunch.”
Diana reinforced her break with married life by stuffing a heavy-duty garbage bag with her entire set of Prince of Wales china and then smashing it with a hammer. “Make a list of everything we need,” she told Burrell. “Let’s spend a bit more of his money while we can.”
Diana now used police protection only when she attended a public event. Her favorite officer was Colin Tebbutt, who had retired from the Royal Squad. He was a tall, fair-haired matinee idol who was also a Class One driver, trained by the SAS. Tebbutt knew that by going to work for Diana he was effectively shutting the door to any future work with the Prince of Wales, but he had a soft spot for Diana. “There was always a buzz when she was at home. I thought she was beginning to enjoy life. She was a different lady, maturing.” Tebbutt says she would always sit in the front of the car, unlike the other Royals, such as Princess Margaret, who called him by his surname and, without looking up from her newspaper, barked, “Wireless!” when she wanted Tebbutt to turn on the radio.
“I drive looking in all three mirrors, so I’d say to Diana ‘I’m not looking at your legs, Ma’am’ and she’d laugh.” The press knew the faces of Diana’s drivers, so to shake them off Tebbutt sometimes wore disguises. “She wanted to go to the hairdresser one day, shortly before she died. I had an old Toyota MRT which she called the ‘tart trap,’ so I drove her in that. I went to the trunk and got out a big baseball hat and glasses. When she came out I was dripping with sweat, and she said ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m in disguise.’ She said, ‘It may have slipped your notice, but I’m the Princess of Wales.’ ”
Every Tuesday night, the Princess sat at her desk in her study at Kensington Palace, writing her steady stream of heartfelt thank-you letters and listening to a piano playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and --- her favorite --- Manning Sherwin’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” In the living room, Maureen Stevens, a clerk from the Prince of Wales’s office, who also happened to be a talented concert pianist, gave Diana a weekly private recital as she worked. You can almost hear Stevens’s piano rippling in the background as Diana writes a fulsome note to her close friend, Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis: “Dearest Liz, How proud I was to be at your side on Monday evening… so deeply moved by your personal touch --- the presents for the boys, candles at the hotel and ﬂowers to name but few but most of all your beaming smile, your loving heart. I am always here for you, Liz.” Sometimes Diana would stop and telephone the Daily Mail’s Richard Kay --- “Ricardo,” she called him --- to help her with the phraseology of a letter. KP was her fortress. On warm summer afternoons, she vanished into its walled garden in shorts and T–shirt and her Versace sunglasses, carrying a bag of books and CDs for her Walkman. On weekends, when William and Harry were home, Burrell would see her in a ﬂowing cotton skirt on her bicycle with the basket in front, speeding down the Palace drive with the boys pedaling furiously behind her. On her thirty–sixth birthday, in July, she received ninety bouquets of ﬂowers and Harry gathered a group of classmates to sing “Happy Birthday” to her over the telephone.
Diana’s charity commitments were pared down from around a hundred to the six she most cared about: Centrepoint, the Royal Marsden Hospital, the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, the English National Ballet, the Leprosy Mission, and the National AIDS Trust. The public announcement she insisted on reaped her unnecessary ﬂak and the resignation of her media adviser, Jane Atkinson. But Diana had a reason for being explicit. She wanted to avoid situations where she was just a letterhead. “If I’m going to talk on behalf of any cause, I want to go and see the problem for myself and learn about it,” she told the chairman of the Washington Post Company, Katharine Graham, at that time.
There was a round of social purging. Lord and Lady Palumbo were excised after Peter’s candid warnings about Martin Bashir. Elton John was in the deep freeze after acting as a go-between with Diana and Gianni Versace for the fashion designer’s coffee–table book Rock and Royalty. (The pictures of the Princess and the boys appeared amid a portfolio of seminude male models, and Diana feared it would further annoy the Queen.) Sir Ronald Grierson was bounced after he made the mistake of offering a job to Victoria Mendham, one of the many secretaries Diana fired. And Fergie was back in Siberia, this time for good. The divorced Duchess had cashed in with an anodyne memoir, which was full of nice comments about her sister–in–law --- except for one fatal line. She wrote that when she borrowed a pair of Diana’s shoes she had caught a verrucca --- plantar’s wart --- from them. Goddesses don’t get warts. Despite Fergie’s pleading apologies, Diana never spoke to her again. In 1997, the Princess gave a birthday party for her friend David Tang and told him he could ask anyone he wanted.
“Anyone?” he asked.
“All right, then --- Fergie.”
“Absolutely not,” Diana replied, and would not be moved.
A new and unexpected ally was Raine. In 1993, Diana had finally made her peace with her formidable stepmother. The painful years of separation and divorce from Charles made the Princess see her old adversary in a different light. Still grieving for Daddy, her greatest support, Diana was at last able to recognize that Raine had loved him, too. She invited her stepmother for a weepy reconciliation over lunch at Kensington Palace. For moral support, Raine brought along her fiancé, the French Count Jean François de Chambrun. The precaution turned out to be unnecessary. Afterward, the Princess and the Countess were often sighted deep in a tête–à–tête at the Connaught Grill. One of Raine’s cautions was to try to stay on friendly terms with Charles for the sake of the children. She told Diana that both she --- Raine --- and her mother, Barbara Cartland, had maintained warm relations with all their former husbands and lovers.
Diana also made an improbable friend of Katharine “Kay” Graham. They had met in the summer of 1994, when Lucia Flecha de Lima had brought Diana to Kay’s beachfront house on Martha’s Vineyard. Not long after that, Kay gave a luncheon for Diana and Hillary Clinton at her Washington home. At a British Embassy lunch on the same visit, Diana met Colin Powell again. He told her he had been nominated to lead her in the dancing at the gala that night to raise money for the Nina Hyde Breast Cancer Foundation. Scotland Yard had been worried that at a ball in Chicago earlier in the year a stranger had cut in on Diana’s dancing partner. The General was deemed able to handle such an eventuality, but the Princess suggested she do a few practice spins with him in the Embassy drawing room. “She was easy with any melody, and we did all right in our rehearsal,” says Powell. “She told me, ‘there’s only one thing you ought to know. I’ll be wearing a backless dress tonight. Can you cope with that?’ ” Flirting with the big boys --- what bliss!
Diana thrived in America. “There is no ‘Establishment’ there,” she told her fashion friend Roberto Devorik --- wrongly, of course, but correct in the sense that America had no Establishment whose rules or members could possibly hurt her feelings. Richard Kay says she thought of America as “a country so brimming over with glittery people and celebrities that she would be able to disappear.”
Like her life, Diana’s taste in fashion became pared down and emphatic after her divorce. “English style refracted through an un–English sensibility” was how Vogue’s Hamish Bowles defined it. Her new evening dresses were minimalist and sexy, a look that had been taboo when she was an in-house Royal. “She knew she had great legs and she wanted to show them off,” said the designer Jacques Azagury. She wore his stunning red bugle–bead tunic over a short pencil skirt in Venice in 1995 and his blue crystal–beaded cocktail dress six inches above the knee to another Serpentine gallery evening. Diana actually looked her best at her most informal. Jumping rangily out of her car for lunch with Rosa Monckton at the Caprice, wearing stone–washed jeans, a white T-shirt, a beautifully cut navy blue blazer, and bare feet in ﬂats (she was usually shod in Jimmy Choo’s black grosgrain “Diana” loafers), she was spectacular. Vanity Fair assigned the Peruvian-born photographer Mario Testino to capture her as she now wanted to be seen: a modern woman, active on the world stage --- “vivid, energetic, and fascinating,” in the words of Meredith Etherington–Smith, the former fashion editor who introduced Diana to Testino. When Meredith first saw Diana at Kensington Palace, she was astonished at how different she was from the formal, public Princess of old. Now she was “a tall, electrifying figure,” wearing no makeup and “revealing the truest English rose complexion. Her hair, no longer a stiff helmet, free of lacquer and back combing, ﬂew around her head like a dandelion in the wind.” With her unerring sense of the dramatic, Diana timed Mario Testino’s stunning shots to come out on the cover of Vanity Fair the same week as her decree absolute.
Diana purged her closets of the past. She hated the sight of the froufrou’d and sequined relics of her roles as Princess Bride and Windsor Wife and Dynasty Di, embalmed in their suit bags. It was William’s brain wave for her to auction off her old gowns for charity in New York, and Diana loved her son’s creative notion. It would be at once a glorious psychic gesture to her new life and a boon to the charities she chose, the AIDS Crisis Trust and the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund. A royal rummage sale had never happened before. Most of the Windsor women, including the Queen, consign their old private-occasion items to a discreetly respectable resale shop in London’s West End. Diana’s auction would be a first.
Old clothes are often suffused with the emotions of the wearer. Meredith Etherington–Smith, who also worked as creative marketing director of Christie’s, was assigned by the auction house to help Diana choose and catalog the items. They sorted through Diana’s gowns every morning for a month while Diana relived the occasions when she had worn them. “Out! Out!” she would cry, pointing at some star–spangled throwback, or “No! I can’t bear to give up this one!” In and out of the catalog ﬂew Victor Edelstein’s oyster dinner dress with a strapless bodice encrusted with white bugle beads and matching bolero, which she had worn that elegant night at the Élysée Palace in Paris with President and Madame Mitterrand. “It was such a happy evening,” she dithered. She had been afraid of the French being so chic, but she felt she had really pulled it off. She sighed over another Edelstein gown, an ink blue silk velvet creation. This was the dress in which she had w