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PRINCESS DI, FEEDING THE MEDIA FRENZY

Bedazzling, beleaguered, betrothed to the world, she was the troubled princess who endured a fairy tale so ghastly that it could have been written by a King called Stephen.

How nightmarish was Diana's life?

She hated polo, for one. And she dropped friends faster than she shed pounds, so volatile were her bouts with eating disorders. (No one, not even Charles, knew that she suffered from bulimia so severe that the night before their wedding she ate everything in sight.)

Royal mood swings? Diana's demeanor switched from superwoman to unrestrained hysteric with a flash of the camera. This picture-perfect princess had so many secrets that all the queen's horses -- not to mention scores of tabloid journalists -- could unleash them.

Not that any of her foibles really would have mattered. Diana had been crowned the people's princess. And for better or worse, she had the world in her pocket.

"I am much closer to people at the bottom than to people at the top," Diana told Le Monde in the last interview before her death at age 36. "I don't go by a rule book. I lead from the heart, not the head."

Enter Sally Bedell Smith, the respected profiler of CBS founder William S. Paley and U.S. ambassador-to-France Pamela Harriman. Smith makes what may be the first attempt at an impartial overview of the life of Diana Spencer. Her interviews with 150 people include Diana's closest friends, staff and advisers, some speaking for the first time on the record.

And what a record the author has compiled.

When Diana wasn't eating, she was devouring press reports, searching for favorable photographs in an insatiable quest for approval. Her butler finally began to hide the most unpleasant articles. "I always got a strange look when certain papers weren't there," butler Paul Burrell said. "She would ask for them, but I wouldn't let her see them."

To journalists, Diana's appeal was a simple one. Whereas Charles was clearly ill at ease with members of the press, Diana courted them, treating them as individuals and oftentimes intimates. Like a skillful marionette, Diana pulled the strings to choreograph press coverage.

Diana adopted a chameleon approach to life, changing roles to suit a public eye that never seemed to blink. Royal spokeswoman. Doting mother. Chic princess. For the most part, Diana's hairstyle told the story: It changed with her moods. She also had a way of reinventing the truth, changing accounts to fit the present. And while her ease with dishonesty was perhaps yet another sign of a deeper problem, friends and relatives tolerated the princess's art of embellishment.

Smith repeatedly points to similar evidence of Diana's flawed personality as crossing the line between neurosis and psychosis:

Indeed, Diana's unstable temperament bore all the markings of one of the most elusive psychological disorders: the borderline personality. This condition is characterized by an unstable self-image; sharp mood swings; fear of rejection and abandonment; an inability to sustain relationships; persistent feelings of loneliness, boredom and emptiness; depression, and impulsive behavior such as binge eating and self-mutilation.

We are told Marilyn Monroe also suffered from the same misunderstood disorder, as do 6 million Americans -- from 15 to 25 percent of all patients seeking psychiatric care.

Diana teetered between bulimic bingeing and purging, and anorexic starvation. The cycle of eating disorder was punctuated by excessive exercise and, later in life, colonic irrigation. In the four months before her wedding, in fact, her weight dropped 14 pounds and her waist shrunk more than five inches.

Yet for all this puzzling behavior, Diana managed to captivate the world. Her penchant for victims was an attempt to ignore her own sad state. Remember the princess shaking the hand of an AIDS patient without wearing a glove? This 1987 photo -- shot in Middlesex Hospital and perhaps seen throughout the world -- was vintage Diana -- she orchestrated the entire event.

"I found myself being more and more involved with people who were rejected by society -- and I found an affinity here," she said, a decade before her daring campaign against land mines took her to war-torn Angola.

Barely a stone is left in place throughout this book, as author Smith details: Diana's school days (she was not a good student), her parents' separation when Diana was 6 years old, and the not-so-friendly rivalry with sister Sarah for the affections of a certain prince. "My sister was all over him like a bad rash," Diana told a friend at the time.

"As I did my own preliminary research," Smith writes, "I found myself drawn to her emotional complexity, and I felt frustrated that no one had done enough reporting to make sense of her. The challenge was to separate her essential traits from the mythical personality that had been assigned to her."

The name players are also chronicled by Smith:

Camilla, whose reported first words to Charles (spoken in a voice deepened by cigarette smoking) were: "My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-grandfather." How prophetic. Just last month, Charles included Parker Bowles and her children on his annual Aegean cruise with his sons.

Sarah Ferguson, who fell from grace after she overstepped the bounds of friendship by revealing she had gotten warts from wearing Diana's shoes. It was only a year before that the two ladies sat in adjoining rooms at the colonic irrigation clinic exchanging pleasantries.

All the princess' men, including riding instructor James Hewitt, art dealer Oliver Hoare, soccer captain Will Carling, Pakistani surgeon Hasnet Khan and, of course, the rebound of Dodi Fayed.

Prince William, Diana's oldest son and best buddy. Anecdotes of William's broad shoulders show the little royal pushing tissues under the door of a bathroom, where his mother had retreated after a bitter disagreement with Charles. "I hate to see you sad," said William, who was 9 at the time.

But it is with sadness that the last page turns on this book that looks so hard at the struggling princess. Why was it that Diana, for all of her beauty, charisma and regency, was allowed to linger on the brink of insanity, lapsing all too often into jagged days of weepy discontent?

For the most part, Prince Charles probably lacked the "knowledge and temperament" to help his spouse, theorizes Smith. During their 15-year marriage, Charles did manage to shuffle the princess to various therapists -- albeit with little success.

There is no question where the author stands on Charles. Smith treats him, well, like a prince whose silent suffering ought earn him a warm place on the global hearth.

Perhaps the author's magnifying glass, if shone on the good prince, would slice through the troubled storm that was Diana.

And perhaps this book -- as well-researched as any biography -- would benefit from such a balance.

BOOK REVIEW
'Diana in Search of Herself'
By Sally Bedell Smith
Time Books
451 pages; $25.

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