This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 11, 1996
Princess Diana Agrees to Divorce
After the royal shenanigans of their marital implosion, anyone who thought Charles and Diana would conduct divorce proceedings in good faith probably still believes that a kiss can turn a frog into a prince. Late on an appropriately chilly London afternoon last week, the estranged couple sat down in Charles's St. James's Palace, without lawyers or note takers, to acknowledge what everyone else already knew: their pyrotechnic 14½-year marriage was over. Calling it "the saddest day of her life," according to the ubiquitously quoted "friends," Diana bent to the Royal Family's will that divorce proceedings begin. Charles reportedly assented to be the petitioner. Diana agreed, in turn, to drop the honorific prefix, Her Royal Highness. Then, the princess expressed a desire, her publicist Jane Atkinson said later, that the news not be leaked to Britain's wolfish tabloid press.
So how to explain Diana's own press release a mere half-hour later, issued without the Royal Family's knowledge? In it, the princess declared that she had agreed to a divorce and had wrested some concessions from Charles. According to her version, she gets to keep her title (Princess of Wales), her house (the immodest Kensington Palace), and access to the kids (Princes William, 13, and Harry, 11). Details about the cash settlement - no minor matter - would be worked out later. Releasing the terms to the press, explained Atkinson, whom Diana hired earlier this year from London's corporate world to sharpen her public relations, "cultivates the image of a strong woman wanting to be in control of the message. There was no intended slur."
Just down Pall Mall at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II was very much taking it that way. "The Queen was most interested to hear that the Princess of Wales had agreed to a divorce," read a hastily cobbled-together statement. Although no one was about to quibble over access to the children, Diana's suggestions that she would remain Princess of Wales and reside in Kensington Palace were "requests rather than decisions at this stage," according to the Queen. Frosty exchanges between rival courts continued for another day, until the Queen finally begged for some dignity in a second statement urging the couple to divorce "privately and amicably."
There is about as much chance of that as of a reconciliation. The "he said, she said" accounts turned even the legal chapter of the Charles and Diana saga into a public spectacle. The credentials and social pedigrees of the couple's divorce lawyers were examined. There were "best guesses" at the cost of Diana's lifestyle - $1.58 million annually, according to The Daily Mail, which broke it down in detail (her monthly colonic irrigations: $130 an hour). And from Kensington Palace, Diana kept feeding the press with updates on her emotional state - "bewildered, upset and decidedly sad," reported Atkinson. "They're playing ping-pong with me" was Diana's own angry assessment of the House of Windsor's behavior, offered to one favored reporter. "It is hard to see how this can end quietly when Diana is running to the press to score points all the time," says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. "She is a horse running out of control, extremely dangerous and deeply destructive to the monarchy."
That said, Seward takes Diana's side in what surely stands as the week's pettiest disagreement: which side decided that Diana would no longer be called Her Royal Highness. Diana claimed that the Queen demanded the letters go. "The average Briton doesn't care about the HRH, but in the royal hierarchy it is very important, and I know Diana has been under tremendous pressure to give it up," says Seward. "Taking the HRH away shows how really, really dissatisfied the Queen is with Diana's behavior." But the Royal Family is also mindful of the negative reaction to their churlish refusal to bestow the HRH on American divorcée Wallis Simpson when she married the former Edward VIII in the 1930s. This time, an anxious Palace press office fired back that "the decision to drop the style was the princess's own." The truth probably matters only to a rarefied circle of royals and their most devoted followers.
But with each public squabble, the House of Windsor shucks off a little more of its dwindling vestiges of dignity. Previous generations of royals kept their troubles under wraps. The Queen Mother remains ever-popular at age 95, avoiding controversy by staying silent and enjoying the occasional cocktail - a personal philosophy best described as gin-and-bear-it. In contrast, the younger royals seem determined to play their sordid personal lives out in public. "A photo opportunity is never to be missed," says respected royal historian Philip Ziegler. So will the public slanging ever end? "A divorce will simplify things," predicts Ziegler. "With luck it will take some of the pressure off Diana, make her feel less harassed, and they will all settle down to a workable arrangement." Perhaps. But with Diana now taking on not just Charles but the Queen herself, peace may only come after a battle of royal heavyweights.
Maclean's March 11, 1996