This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 25, 1997. Partner content is not updated.
Princess Di's scandals
This summer, for the first time since 1642, Londoners have gathered within sniffing distance of the Thames to see William Shakespeare's plays performed on the same Elizabethan stage for which they were written. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre has been lovingly reconstructed just steps from where the original closed 355 years ago, an open-air arena where the audience stands shoulder-to-shoulder to see the action. The debut season's production of Henry V offers some time travel, too: a historical epic, it harkens back to an era when English royalty still had the jelly. Shakespeare's Henry was one of England's great warrior-kings, with an unerring battlefield instinct for the enemy's jugular: "Once more, unto the breach, dear friends, once more." Henry rousted the traitors from his own court, smashed the larger French army at Agincourt to add their throne to his, and finally wooed and won a pretty French princess to seal the peace. In all, it was a rather fine age for English kings.
It is also a distant memory from the sunset days of England's second Elizabethan era which, to the casual eye, finds royal fortunes in clear retreat. The current Queen can hardly keep her family in line, and her kingdom is shrinking. Her House of Windsor is the object of smears and sneers, with the personal peccadillos of its members - and their merry ex-wives - filling the morning papers with grist for gossip over breakfast.
Last week's publication of cloudy pictures showing Diana, Princess of Wales, attached at the lips to Egyptian playboy Dodi Al Fayed spawned merely the latest burst of controversy for the beleaguered family. Diana may no longer be an official royal, having been formally cast out after divorcing Prince Charles last year. But she is still the mother of a future king - their shy eldest son, Prince William, now 15. And, given the greyness of her ex-in-laws, she remains the most photogenic symbol of British royalty. The tabloids went on high alert at the prospect that Diana might actually consider setting up palace with Dodi, who, among other things, is the nephew of Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Is this a love, they asked, of which the nation can approve? Is this man fit to be stepfather to an English king?
What a shame to leave such a great story to the tabloids alone. As entertainment, the circus that is the House of Windsor has all the ingredients of great Shakespearean theatre: love, adultery, nasty backroom plotting and, of course, farce. Apparently appalled by the steady drip of royal scandal, there are reports of republican stirrings in the land. Meanwhile, popular new Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to hold referendums that would weaken Westminster's grip on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - the "de-wiring of the United Kingdom" as one critic put it. Labour also plans to end the right of sons to inherit their fathers' seats in the House of Lords, cutting uncomfortably close to the Royal Family's own hereditary privileges. The cumulative effect led many constitutional experts to suggest that the future of the monarchy itself may now be in peril.
If this truly is a watershed in the history of the English crown, it at least benefits from a fabulous dramatis personae. Consider: Diana, Princess of Wales, the world's most famous face and the patron of both saintly causes and high fashion. Once shy and brittle, she is now toned, feisty, and fiercely protective of her two sons. She wields a grudge like a stiletto. Respected for her charitable works, Diana, 36, can still raise eyebrows with sometimes dotty behavior: last week she and Dodi helicoptered into England's Peak District to consult Rita Rogers, her psychic adviser.
Then there is Prince Charles, 48, the earnest heir to the throne who confessed adultery on national television three years ago and then watched aghast as his popularity plummeted even further. Forever immersed in good works, his latest project is a tough one: shoring up enough popular support to bring Camilla Parker Bowles, his longtime mistress, in from the cold. Last month, Charles threw a 50th birthday celebration for Camilla at his summer estate at Highgrove in Gloucestershire, conveniently just 27 km down the road from her own home. Camilla's interests are as similar to Charles's as Diana's are different. She is comfortable wearing gaiters and enjoys quiet country life; Diana took the front pew at Gianni Versace's funeral and prefers London's swishy restaurants. Diana is a clothes- horse; Camilla rides horses. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned that it would provoke a "crisis" in the Church of England if Charles and Camilla married. (Britain's official religion does not recognize remarriage, though it was created to allow the unhappily married Henry VIII to find a new bride.) Charles may have to choose between the woman he loves and the church he would automatically lead once he becomes king.
Add to that royal mess Mohamed Al Fayed, the coarse, flamboyant 64-year old Egyptian businessman who wants to be more British than the British - many of whom sniff that they don't want him at all. They are stuck with him: as owner of Harrods, he is the top shopkeeper in the land. The last Tory government publicly branded him a liar and twice refused him a British passport. He took revenge by revealing that he had bribed Tory cabinet ministers and members of Parliament, as well as given them free stays at his Ritz Hotel in Paris. The sleaze helped topple the government at the polls last May. Al Fayed cackled as they went down. Many people see his son's seduction of the jewel in Britain's crown as his ultimate tweaking of a British Establishment that won't have him.
Forty-one-year-old Dodi - who now shares more than just a syllable with Diana - has business cards that reads "film producer," and he takes credit for such movies as Chariots of Fire, World According to Garp and The Princess Bride. He also runs with the Euro-trash crowd who tend to cruise the Mediterranean on yachts the size of small islands. Last week, the tabloid pack was hunting down dirt from his past. They uncovered the flotsam of one ex-wife, American model Suzanne Gregard. The mid-1980s marriage lasted eight months, but produced a cheesy home video which the British press was happy to display last week. The papers also found several ex-girlfriends, most of whom had little good to say about him. As well, there were allegations of unpaid hotel and nightclub bills around the globe.
It also turns out that he may have jilted a fiancée for Diana. Kelly Fisher, a 31-year-old California model, gave a tearful news conference in Beverly Hills last week, filing a law suit against Dodi for breaking their engagement. Fisher, flashing a sapphire and diamond ring, said she was seeking $440,000 in damages. "You Dodi rat," screamed London's Daily Star. Through her lawyer, Fisher said that she wanted to meet Diana, to "provide the princess with a great deal of information that is not being made public at this time."
Sadly, there is no 20th-century Shakespeare to chronicle the escapades of this cast. The job is left instead to those twin stalkers of modern celebrity: the telephoto lens and the tabloid. The result is the kind of breathless prose that accompanied the Sunday Mirror's gloating after winning a bidding war to publish the long-distance photos of Diana frolicking in the Mediterranean surf with Dodi: "Our world exclusive photos show that, after years of inner turmoil and tears, Princess Diana has finally found a man who makes her feel like a REAL woman. Gone is the repressed sexuality that meant Diana could only tease and flirt in the company of strangers. The figure that was once a tense mass of bone and sinew is softly plump and rounded. In these happy pictures we see a woman whose whole posture tells of her new self-assurance. See how she gives herself up to her new lover."
And with that the tabloid pack was off in pursuit. They speculated freely on what advice Diana was hearing from her mother: it's so much easier to love a rich man, she is no doubt saying, "reported" the Daily Mail, as if the problem with Charles was that he was a bit short on cash. Dodi was said to be buying Diana an engagement ring. The family of Diana's previous love interest, London heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan, 38, was tracked down in Pakistan for comment on his being dumped for Dodi. They expressed relief.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Al Fayed was widely credited with having orchestrated the Di and Dodi affair. "What a pile of rubbish," Al Fayed's overworked press spokesman Michael Cole told Maclean's. "Mohamed's not a matchmaker. They met at film premières and various places over the years. They have been acquaintances for a long time - in a distant way." But the runaway speculation finally required Diana - through the usual channel of unidentified "friends" - to deny that she was about to get hitched again. And there were still reports that she remains "obsessed" with Dr. Khan.
All that sound and fury was music to Britain's rather timid band of republicans. They candidly acknowledge that scandal is the best weapon with which to whip the royals, and they were already keyed up for the publication this fall of American gossip spinner Kitty Kelley's new book, The Royals. Anti-monarchists smugly suggest that Kelley will spill tales of artificial insemination, bastard children, substance abuse and other grisly Windsor family secrets.
Whatever the truth in that - and Kelley's book has spent most of the decade in gestation - the rumors have been enough to frighten off every possible British publisher. "Have you read it?" responds a cagey Philippa Harrison, chief executive of Little Brown UK when asked why she will not publish a book that has been commissioned by her American parent company Time Warner. She says she has not read the Kelley book, noting only that "it is a difficult story." In London literary circles, the most widely voiced explanation is that industry lawyers have nixed publication. "There is a standard acceptance that the Royal Family never sue," explained one agent. "But there will be a first time."
No matter. News blackouts could not keep stories of Wallis Simpson's American divorces out of King Edward VIII's Britain in the 1930s - and that was long before the Internet. Since Edward's 1936 abdication, it has been general wisdom that a monarch needs the blessing of public opinion to keep the throne. After the latest shenanigans, The Guardian newspaper quickly published a poll last week: it showed that support for the Royal Family had slipped below 50 per cent for the first time. The article blamed the drop in popularity on scandals "culminating in the intense speculation" about Di and Dodi, under the banner headline "Near the end of the line?" The paper said its poll suggested that only the support of older Britons was propping up the monarchy, and urged republicans to press boldly for constitutional decapitation. "The royals are busy committing suicide," said MP Tony Benn, the old lion of Labour's fading radical left. "There is nothing new. It's the biggest yawn since Adam was tempted by the apple."
And therein lies the rub for republicans: English royalty has a centuries-old relationship with bad press. "Scandal? There's always been royal scandal," says Liberal Democratic peer and royal historian Lord Conrad Russell. "In the 17th and 18th century, news of it may have been confined to London and the gentry houses outside the city, whereas today it's on everybody's breakfast table. But it's part of the culture."
It can be argued that scandal is what makes the royals indispensable to the nation. The crown survived King George III's madness - long enough, in fact, to see it made into a hit movie. Queen Victoria mourned her dead husband, Albert, in seclusion for so long that her subjects became restless with her absence from the scene. They needed the fix of royal gossip, which she soon provided with public displays of her close attachment to her Scottish servant John Brown. That story, too, has hit the big screen.
Royalty's continuing ability to fascinate was evident at Sotheby's London and New York City showrooms last week, where the household contents of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as the king and Mrs. Simpson became in exile) went on display. The pieces come from the couple's Paris home, ironically now owned by Mohamed Al Fayed, who will donate the September auction's proceeds to charity. Sotheby's London exhibit offered an eclectic mix of royal paraphernalia (swords and family photos), the mundane (a mounted golf ball that the Duke whacked for a hole in one at the Royal Wimbledon course in July, 1931) and the rare (a copy of Winston Churchill's History of the First World War with a personal inscription from the author). The hottest item in this Jackie Kennedy Onassis-style garage sale will probably be the "abdication desk" from which the king delivered his famous radio address. Sotheby's puts its value at between $42,000 and $70,000, though they expect it to fetch much more.
But the most arresting piece is a haunting 1939 portrait of the duchess painted in oil. In a blue dress, her hair pulled as tight as her smile, she offers the world a blazing, unapologetic glare. Wallis Simpson had presence. She injected the adrenaline of passion and tragedy into a royal family that had grown insular and dull, a dash of star quality from an outsider - indeed, much like Diana. It will never be sufficient for the House of Windsor to rest its popularity on such inoffensive members as the 97-year-old Queen Mother and the remarried and forever dutiful Princess Anne, now the Princess Royal. They have their constituency, but smiling and waving is not enough these days. Modern royalty - stripped of political power, a mere constitutional decoration - also needs to put on a bit of a show.
And the current one is a blockbuster. Money swirls around it. British magazines without the royals would be like Hollywood without Bruce and Demi. No tabloid is about to lead a republican charge that would kill its golden goose. The personality-driven Hello magazine could not publish without the Windsors and the Grimaldis, Monaco's tragedy-struck and scandal-bit royals. Even Fergie, the duchess formerly known as Sarah, is cashing in on her family connections. In addition to having rented herself out as a date at the Viennese Opera last year, she now writes books and newspaper columns. Her pen reportedly annoyed her old friend Diana by revealing that she once caught a foot disease from borrowing a pair of her former sister-in-law's shoes.
A cottage industry of commentators has also sprung up, profiting from its expertise on all things royal. Prince Charles's biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, who once professed horror at the thought of being labelled a "royals writer," is expected to pronounce on each royal kerfuffle. "Every time something happens, my phone rings off the hook," Sarah Bradford, Queen Elizabeth's biographer, complained to Maclean's last week. "I have decided to stop providing people with free quotes unless they can help me sell my books." She was waiting for a CNN television crew to arrive at the time.
It seems to hold true that there is no such thing as bad publicity for a royal. Diana's image has survived tattle that it was her infatuation with English rugby star Will Carling that led directly to the breakup of his marriage. And Charles's succession to the throne seems secure. On the Royal Albert Hall stage in May at the annual rock concert to raise money for his Prince's Trust charity, Charles had his bottom pinched by one of the Spice Girls. "Squishy," was her giggly description, but the act signalled a sort of laying on of hands by the pop culture. Polls show that the British public is perfectly prepared to accept Camilla as Charles's second wife - but not queen. "They've managed to make people accustomed to her existence," says highly respected publisher Nigel Nicolson. "And everybody prefers a wife to a mistress. Especially at that level."
Nor should it be overlooked that, for all their frivolity, both Charles and Diana find ways to make themselves useful. Last week, while the Dodi controversy flared, Diana was in Bosnia consoling land-mine victims. She has applied her celebrity to boost the international campaign to ban the weapons to good effect. Her well-photographed visit to Angola's minefields last January provoked criticism from senior Tories: a poor girl in over her head on matters of state security, they tut-tutted. But public opinion was with Diana. The new Labour government quickly reversed Tory policy and endorsed the ban.
Charles has struck alliances with Labour, too. His Business in the Community program, which cajoles corporations into creating jobs in inner cities, is just the sort of undertaking that appeals to Blair's reformist zeal. "He has known Charles for about seven years and sees him as close to the government on such things as urban regeneration and our welfare-to-work program," one 10 Downing Street adviser told Maclean's last week. While Blair would never stick his neck out "to prop the monarchy up," said the adviser, the prime minister has made it clear that his constitutional reforms will leave the Royal Family untouched. As for the Camilla affair, "Blair's instinct is to let him marry her and get on with his life," said the aide.
And there was one more sign last week that the Windsors are not about to throw in the towel and crawl off to exile in Bermuda. On the rocky banks of Scotland's River Dee, Charles and sons William and Harry appeared for an official photo session before beginning their annual summer holiday on the Balmoral estate. It was the first time Charles had agreed to pose at Balmoral since he appeared in the same spot on his 1981 honeymoon, towing a shy new bride.
Prince William does not like the ever-intrusive cameras. It took much pleading from the photographers to get him to co-operate, before he finally raised his eyes in a shy smile so reminiscent of his mother. The prince is tall and good-looking, with a sweep of blond hair. He has even become a bit of a teenage heartthrob in Britain, at least among a certain social strata. Yet so little is known about him that, in time, the speculation must begin. Will William be dutiful like his father? A hurricane like his mother? Who is he dating, anyway? And someday they will surely ask, does he have the stuff of kings?
Maclean's August 25, 1997