On the day Diana Spencer died, her sons William and Harry were 15 and 12 years old. With her dying in a tunnel in Paris, at the side of her last lover, Dodi al-Fayed, something incomprehensible happened: a story so tragic that one would hardly believe it from a novelist became reality. The rise and suffering of Princess Diana had made the world dream and mourn, marvel and foam for almost two decades. In retrospect, one might see the cruel ending as an almost inevitable twist of fate. At that time, however, it released a shock wave that made the globe tremble like perhaps only the assassination attempt on Kennedy did before.
The then almost absurd view of the saint of the former kindergarten teacher, who had briefly made it to the future king’s wife, covered like glittering mildew the true story of a dysfunctional family that was not particularly exceptional in its failure. Well, it was costume drama, it had the strict and perhaps bizarre rules of the monarchy as special event cards. But basically it was like this: A marriage fails. What remains are the husband and wife, who blame each other, and two small sons.
Millions of families have to live with such situations and cope with them, more or less well. Rarely does life fail so brutally as in the case of Windsor vs. Spencer. The shocks can still be felt today, even after 25 years. The revenge – and the greed campaign that Diana’s younger son, Harry, is currently waging with the loudest conceivable battle roar against the rest of his family would be unthinkable without the fate of the princess for a decade and her strange and yet so successfully concealed egomania. To put it bluntly, if Diana had been a good mother, her son might not be the ego berserker he is today.
But she wasn’t, on the contrary.
Next June my wife and I are going away alone for a few days for the first time since our daughters were born, to Italy. It’s a first. We never wanted to put our children, aged seven and ten, into care or just be without them. That’s not particularly heroic, it’s quite normal. Children need their parents. Parents want to spend so much time with their children. Diana didn’t. She was too busy: with herself.
She had started the morning of her death before Sardinia, with croissants and jam on a luxury yacht. From there, Diana began the fateful journey to Paris, where the former princess wanted to indulge in further amusements with her new lover, Dodi al-Fayed. Because Paris and Sardinia were only short stages of a cheerful summer that Diana spent far away from her home and her children. Certainly: during their school holidays they had spent days together, but then Diana began a journey of several weeks through Europe. She flew to Milan for the memorial service for murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace, then on to the Mediterranean, where she checked into Harrod’s heir al-Fayed’s yacht and set sail. In between there was a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina for a campaign against landmines.
The latter is honorable, no question like many charity projects the former princess spearheaded. Always there, of course, because anyone who needs attention needs the press: paparazzi, camera teams, journalists. The symbiotic relationship between Spencer and the media had steadily developed and was mutually lucrative. During the years of the marriage’s failure, Diana had learned how to deal with the public. In the book Diana: Her True Story, Andrew Morton portrayed her as a betrayed country innocent who, taunted by her husband and bullied by the palace, had endured years of torment. Her inner and later extramarital relationships with, among others, a riding instructor and a heart surgeon were forgiven by the public. When her image threatened to collapse, she gave a legendary tearful interview to Martin Bashir. It sounded like this – she talks about Charles – like this: “Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him. But I’ve been terribly let down.” Add to that her signature look, very shy and innocent, googly eyes upwards, big childish scheme cinema.
In fact, Diana was the High Priestess of the randomly ordered photos – we remember the musing bikini Di in the bowsprit of the Dodi yacht. Gossip works because people match their feelings with those of those who (supposedly) made it – say, from kindergarten to Kensington. This photo from Somewhere in Jetsetistan says: Yes, she may be dating a slightly outgoing multi-millionaire now, but look – she’s a thoughtful woman in her 30s who doesn’t take orders. Diana had herself photographed by the best photographers in the world, in all roles that seemed helpful to her: sometimes in the big robe of a society lady, sometimes with a bulletproof vest. Diana the Poser. She once said that only images would remain of people like her. Well, and a tearjerker from Elton John that he originally wrote about Marilyn Monroe.
Didn’t it need women like Diana?
Although it appears in the pictures, Diana Spencer has always been very self-absorbed. She, who had previously known in minute detail the special demands of marriage to Charles, soon began to complain about her fate. The royal family didn’t know how to deal with it at the time – and today, given the carpet bombing of Harry and his wife, an American series supporting actress, they hardly know any better.
Outside the palace walls, Diana’s constant wailing was received with relish and understanding: wasn’t this the dark point of monarchy, proof that keeping a queen, supporting your family and court, was utterly unfashionable? Didn’t it need women like Diana?
Diana began and successfully accomplished her mission of disrupting royalty decades before the term became a household word. Her sons, one of them the future king, were her instruments, at least after the divorce. Above all, Harry, who was more like her in character, adopted her resentment towards the court and its regulations early on. Photos show Diana with her sons as a happy trio, message: the young princes are only really good with their mother. In truth, Diana spent more time with herself than her children arguably needed. She made William and Harry pawns between herself and the court, even though she should have protected them from that.
When the official gala performances were over after the divorce, Diana created a world in which she herself was the center – and everyone followed her. The charity princess of hearts was born and became a global mega brand. Generously supplied and equipped by the palace, it was less about money and more about the most powerful currency in the world: attention. Today it would be clicks on Instagram, back then it was covers on gossip magazines and fashion magazines. You had to put up with the tabloids.
Her sons went to boarding school, that’s how it is with king’s sons. But it’s tough for children from broken marriages. Especially when both parents work full time, both in time-consuming jobs. The father in the royal family business, the mother on the never-ending ego tour. Diana jetted around the world, sometimes on a charity, sometimes on a whim photo mission. Lovers came and went, each affording the princess-turned-princess a lifestyle that reflected the Windsors’ immeasurable wealth. Diana wasn’t humble. She was a young woman enjoying the sweet life of the jet set. The expert magazine for upscale gossip, the “Stern”, lists seven lovers.
“If it gets really bad, I’ll come get you” couldn’t be said
Where were the sons? At Eton, the boarding school, with my father, with my grandmother and of course – when there were holidays – also with Diana. But how often might they have missed their mother, in the mundane nights? Sure, you could make phone calls. But does that replace the hug? Even the comforting sentence “If it gets really bad, I’ll come get you” couldn’t be said when Diana was at the other end of the world, perhaps with her “great love” Hasnat Khan. love is closeness Especially between mother and child.
No, of course, the raven mother Diana is not responsible for everything that Harry, in particular, did in later years and now cheerfully and PR-charged and lucratively reports in his jammerography “Reserve”: The smoking weed, the coke, the defloration behind the pub, the Nazi uniform for party fun, the fight with his brother. Most of it happened when the former princess was already dead. But the educational foundations for character formation are formed early on. Sure, you wouldn’t want Charles as a father, and you wouldn’t want Camilla as a stepmother. But wouldn’t that have been Diana’s job, since she had a dislike for them and whose coldness she had always complained about, taking care of her sons?
Harry’s book, out today, is called ‘Reserve’ – and the title sums up all the former prince’s heartache at not being in the front row but behind his brother, William. Just as his mother couldn’t reconcile her role at court, neither can her son. For a while it looked like Harry was smarter than the mother, also to protect his own children. But his quiet escape from royalty – with which everyone had come to terms – was only the overture to a multimedia attack on his family and thus the institution that enables him to live a carefree life. First there was the “Netflix” series, a kind of filmed “Bunte” with Harry and, above all, his oh so pitiful wife from the USA. Then the book leaked, then the interviews came and now the damage can no longer be averted: for everyone.
The parallels in dealing with the reality of mother and son are strikingly similar. Both repeatedly emphasized how fatal the loss of privacy in the structures of the royal family was for them. And then, finally escaping this, to strive in public with a power that is otherwise only known from candidates in “I’m a star, get me out of here”, and to complain loudly about your own fate. Again, Diana set a bad example for Harry, who adored her. Or, written a little more robustly: The time bomb that Diana – regardless of her son’s salvation – placed the royals in the palace.
DOMINIC LIPINSKI POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Chris JacksonGetty Images
Princess Diana Archives Getty Images