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ANOTHER PROBING LOOK INTO THE ROYAL MESS OF DIANA'S MARRIAGE

Princess Diana's older sister, sharp-tongued Lady Sarah Spencer, said it best. When Diana's wedding to Prince Charles was days away, and Diana was worried about marrying a man she was beginning to suspect was in love with another woman, Sarah laid it on the line.

"Well, bad luck, Duch," she said. "Your face is on the tea towels, so you're too late to chicken out."

That's but one of the interesting new morsels thrown into "Diana, Story of a Princess," by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig.

Let's admit it: Who needs "happily ever after?" Diana's life is fascinating, from when she first met Charles on a country weekend, to when she marries the prince, to her rivalry with Charles' mistress, the married Camilla Parker-Bowles, and so forth.

And as far as Diana as a victim of the Windsors, or the press, or the public . . . well, call me harsh, but I tend to agree with a friend of mine who said: "Whatever she went through, it can't have been worse than a job."

Now, with Diana gone almost four years and even her sons learning to accept Camilla Parker-Bowles, the whole episode of the princess's life seems to recede into fable. Clayton and Craig know they're telling, or retelling, a good story. They can't help playing Danielle Steel just a little.

They wallow in wealth, for instance, describing the arrival of Diana's one-time American employer, Mary Robertson, at the pre-wedding ball:

As they swept in, Mary was pinching herself and thinking about Cinderella. The receiving line stretched right up the Grand Staircase, and the nervous Americans stood under the shiny domed skylight alongside duchesses and bishops, presidents and princesses. Everywhere Mary looked were lace-trimmed gowns, dazzling jewels and tall, handsome men in ribbons and medals. ... There were mirrors, chandeliers, gilded frames, carved wood, velvets, silks and brocades, columns, marble and stone. Everything was rich, ornate and royal.

In contrast to such sumptuous details, the book brims with bitterness.

Craig and Clayton should have taken a cue from Ladies Home Journal and subtitled their book, "Could This Marriage Have Been Saved?" Never before, to my knowledge, have the fissures in this union been laid so bare.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were, from the start, an unbalanced couple. Both of them, this new book makes clear, misrepresented themselves before the wedding.

The longest train

Charles, though long in love with Camilla Parker-Bowles, denied any emotional encumberments. He was pushed toward the wedding by his relatives (whom Diana was later to call "the Germans") and a sense of duty. The authors write: "His mother and father were urging him to act and seemed to be in favor of the match. Charles made clear in a letter that he wanted to make the right decision for himself and the country, but he was being given no time to think and no opportunity to get to know the girl."

Meanwhile, Diana, starstruck by a schoolgirl crush on the prince and determined to bag him, ignored the absent phone calls, the cool pecks on the cheek, and the other warning signs that her beloved's heart was elsewhere. Fatefully, she pretended to love the things he did, including art, philosophy, fishing and the outdoors.

Even while dreading what's to come, we have to laugh at her planning the wedding with her mother: "They went through books and pictures of previous royal weddings, determined to outdo them all. They found the royal dress with the longest train and created one that was longer."

As the ceremony approached, though, Diana finally sensed disaster. Days before the wedding, she tearfully confided in Buckingham Palace officials and, at their desperate, embarrassed advice, tried to fix everything by going to lunch with Camilla. The meeting (held, the authors snicker, at a restaurant called Menage-a-trois) solved nothing. Camilla even used it to her own advantage, ascertaining that Diana had no interest in accompanying Charles on hunting trips.

This wasn't the kiddie pool. It's enough to make anyone cringe, the post-honeymoon bitterness at the castle of Balmoral:

Diana announced that she wanted to go to London, telling Charles that Balmoral was wet and boring. Charles reminded her that a year ago she had said it was her favorite place on earth. He pointed out that the court was now at Balmoral and that was where they had to be, it went with the job. She tried again, and when that didn't work she complained, "If you loved me, you'd put me first."

Never has it been so cruelly pointed out how completely Diana's popularity exceeded her husband's. Her radiant blond looks, designer wardrobe and easy charm drove a television-bewitched public crazy. A mayor in Wales recalls:

Prince Charles indicated to me that they would each take a side of the road and at a certain stage he would take the initiative and he would decide to go over. And every time this happened you had this huge "Oaoah" from the people she was leaving. And all the time people keep calling, "Di, Di . . ."

Though privately hurt, the authors say, Charles hid any resentment and, especially in the early years, supported Diana. As the years passed, though, they learned to push each other's buttons, and fame became a weapon in these private battles. Diana undoubtedly found she could bait Charles by going beyond what he saw as dignified limits. The authors sound frankly naive ascribing good motives to her in this 1985 incident:

Diana had been trying to please Charles. That winter she had spent weeks secretly preparing a routine with the ballet dancer Wayne Sleep. It was meant to be a surprise present for her husband, who was due to attend a Royal Gala performance at Covent Garden. Two numbers before the end of the show, Diana left Charles' side in the royal box and slipped on stage with Sleep to perform a dance to Billy Joel's pop song "Uptown Girl." Diana was lithe, sexy and confident, and the audience loved it, demanding eight curtain calls. In public Charles said he was "absolutely amazed." In private he was embarrassed by the undignified show and told her so. A pattern was setting in. Whenever one made a conciliatory gesture the other rebuffed it.

This was a conciliatory gesture? Are they mad?

Confused beyond hope

Eventually, Diana emerges as confused beyond hope. She fell in love with the simple common man's life enjoyed by James Hewitt, the army officer with whom she had an affair. She became close to Hewitt's folks (who must have been dazed by this twist of fortune) and stayed with them on weekends.

Where were her children? I found myself wondering. William and Harry are little more than small shadows in this book, absent from Diana's frequent weekends with boyfriends, her extended, expensive holidays.

Superstardom, of course, demanded such a fast-paced life. When things got ugly and her temper grew short, it was oddly Queen Elizabeth, that old meanie, who tried to come to her rescue. Photographers and reporters are quoted extensively in this book, and one journalist recalls:

The Queen made it clear that Diana was not from a family that had been used to this sort of press coverage, unlike her family which had from childhood. And she said it was very difficult for her, and said, for example, if she goes down to the local shop, there'll be photographers and reporters there, covering her buying a bag of sweets or something. And one of my colleagues said, "Well, ma'am, couldn't she send a footman?" And the Queen looked up at him and said, "Do you know, I think that's the most pompous remark I've ever heard in my life."

It's ironic that, although the pursuit of photographers is widely blamed for Diana's death, it's as a photographic image that we remember her most.

Not a Mensa candidate

We do tend to remember the princess more for her hats than for anything that sat under those hats.

And the more Craig and Clayton try to prove her intellect, the more featherheaded she appears.

The book gives weight, for instance, to the testimony of a Red Cross leader, Mike Whitlam: "I said, "Don't forget there are 10 million land mines left by the British in the deserts of North Africa.' To which she promptly replied, "Mike, I think you'll find it's 23 million.' She was right." While it's nice Diana memorized the right number, this anecdote is hardly enough to make Mensa sit up and take notice.

At the end of the book, I found myself thinking that Diana was, quite simply, a woman who cut a darn good figure, had a gift for charm and wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And by contemplating her problems over and over, we could all wind up as confused as she was.

BOOK REVIEW

Diana:

Story of a Princess

By Tim Clayton and Phil Craig

Pocket Books

402 pages, $27

From the book:

They were interviewed for television that day. The Prince declared himself "positively delighted and frankly amazed that Diana is prepared to take me on." The BBC interviewer pressed them, "And in love?" Diana's "of course," delivered with rolled eyes and a self-conscious giggle, was immediately qualified by Charles' "Whatever "in love' means." Much has been made of Charles' odd remark.

Ronald Allison, who was Buckingham Palace press secretary through the '70s, told us the Prince was merely being clumsily flippant. But Diana noticed the comment. She later claimed that it echoed what her new fiance had said to her seconds after she had accepted his proposal of marriage. "I said, "I love you so much, I love you so much.' He said: "Whatever love means.' He said it then."

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