NEARLY 24 years ago, on a morning in the high summer of 1997, I arrived at the heavy black door of numbers 8 and 9 Kensington Palace.
I had been invited for what Princess Diana later described as “a girlie chat”.
Diana at an event for the auction of 79 of her dresses for charity in June 1997Credit: Getty
I had been contacted the previous week by the Princess’s secretary with a slightly ominous message.
“The Princess would like to see you,” she spoke. I knew at once what it was about. I had written an article about Diana claiming she was hiding someone in the boot of her car to get them into her apartment unnoticed by security — or anyone else.
I felt as if I might be in for a telling off, but that is not how Diana worked, as I discovered.
So I pushed open the door, which was half ajar, and entered.
This was Diana’s home. There were no disapproving courtiers, no flunkies, no liveried pages, no army of maids. Only her butler, Paul Burrell, who I found arranging flowers in the pantry opposite and he escorted me upstairs to what I recognised as the salon.
A few moments later, Princess Diana, who would have been 60 on July 1, strode in on a waft of perfume, her hand outstretched in greeting. She was wearing an electric blue Versace dress which came just above her knees and was worn tight, without a trace of a panty line.
The Princess’s skin looked as if she had been dipped in liquid honey. It was golden without a blemish or even a hint of a freckle.
She wore Chanel shoes, a Cartier watch on one wrist and a slim diamond tennis bracelet on the other.
Princess Diana was glowing just two months before her deathCredit: Getty
Her earrings were sapphires with a small diamond drop.
Did the Princess always dress like this for morning coffee? I wondered.
But Diana had discovered the power of imagery long ago.
The first thing she wanted to explain to me were the concerns she had once harboured for her safety.
“The divorce was hell,” she said. “I was in pieces. I didn’t feel safe anywhere.” She had been consumed with paranoia. “I know it sounds silly now but I really did worry about the brakes on my car . . .” and her voice trailed off into a giggle.
She even thought Prince Charles wanted her out of the way and had penned a note saying as much and even suggested Camilla was a decoy and he wanted the way clear to marry their children’s nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke.
But now a year later she knew all her fears sounded silly and she was full of life and vivacious, positive and at ease. By nature, she was an incredibly insecure person.
It was one of her greatest problems — she would never outgrow the habit of dropping her eyes when she spoke in her silvery, little-girl voice, but she seemed more at ease with herself.
The Princess of Wales in 1985 in her sitting room at Kensington Palace, where she had the ‘girlie chat’ with writer IngridCredit: Getty
She had money, a reputed £17million from her divorce, and she was not lonely any more. She had started to enjoy herself. She was not harangued to the same extent by Buckingham Palace and she had stopped worrying about the brakes on her car.
Her campaign to ban landmines was gaining international momentum.
A summer romance was in the offing and she had the holiday with her sons to look forward to.
Any chat with Diana inevitably swung around to William and Harry.
Harry’s always teasing William: ‘If you don’t want to be King it doesn’t matter…I will be!’
Diana was always saying how much she loved them. She was possessive and still resented the presence of Tiggy, whom she had been led to believe by the dishonesty of Martin Bashir had been involved with Prince Charles and had even become pregnant.
The antagonism between the two women continued to smoulder almost two years later. Diana explained she had invited Tiggy to Kensington Palace for a “make up” lunch but Tiggy had refused the olive branch.
Diana was still jealous of Tiggy’s closeness to her sons, which was understandable, as they sometimes preferred Tiggy’s presence to hers because she attracted less attention.
On Eton Founders Day that year William had asked Tiggy to join him for the traditional picnic instead of Diana. This upset her, but William could not understand why his mother was crying about it.
Charles, Harry, Wills and Tiggy Legge-Bourke, circled
“I hardly see the boys,” she explained to me. “I couldn’t help myself.” She told me William hated the publicity he attracted but she explained to him he would have to learn to live with it. When he was a bit older he would learn to adjust.
She had fewer worries about Harry.
“He takes everything in his stride,” she said. “He is always teasing William — ‘If you don’t want to be King, it doesn’t matter, I will be’.”
Diana explained she would never do anything to hurt the monarchy.
“I have no wish to upset what is essentially part of William’s inheritance, whether he likes it or not,” she confirmed.
But she had, of course, as she knew very well — and the bitterness built up over the previous 16 years lingered on.
Diana with her beloved children Harry and William at Thorpe Park in 1993Credit: Getty – Contributor
Surprisingly, considering the animosity of the divorce, she talked with affection about the man who had, until the previous summer, been her husband. “Charles absolutely loved me,” she said. “It is very hurtful to our children when people say we didn’t love each other.”
I believed her, as I have seen some of the letters they once exchanged, but I knew Diana was telling me something she needed me to repeat, and she gave me a sidelong glance to see my reaction.
“It was the people around us,” she said. “They didn’t give us a chance. Charles is surrounded by the wrong people giving the wrong advice and he’s very unfulfilled and he really doesn’t do enough.”
Then, in contradiction of what she had just said, she continued: “If he becomes King, he will be restricted and will not be able to do all the things he likes. I worry about him.”
But Diana was now outside the royal orbit and looking to her own future.
She was sad her marriage had not worked out and believed had she and Charles met at different times in their lives they might have “conquered” the world together. “He loved me when we got married and I loved him,” she said. “We still love each other now, in a different way. At least I love him. He is a good person. It is incredibly sad about our marriage.”
It was, of course, too late. The Queen had done what she could to help hold their union together. She wanted Diana to be happy and gave her sympathy and support.
Charles and Diana pose for a photo in 1983Credit: Getty – Contributor
SHE WANTED TO UPROOT
But Diana could not weather the marital storms. She had neither the Queen’s strength of character nor her ability to compartmentalise her life and put duty before all else.
She could not shake Camilla Parker Bowles from her memory. It clouded her judgment and coloured her actions. Strangely on that summer day, Diana even told me she no longer blamed Camilla for the break-up of her marriage. She said it was the people around Charles who broke it up more than anything else. I couldn’t follow what she meant at the time. But since her son Prince Harry has left the royal fold, I can see it more clearly.
Diana wanted to uproot herself and start again. I am sure, given time, she would have done so. She had had enough of the UK. The Royal Family were putting obstacles in her way and she had reason to feel that the then government of Tony Blair had let her down badly.
Before he came to power he had made all sorts of promises about what her future role could be.
Diana was hopeful, as Blair had promised her a job as a roving ambassador if he won the election. It was exactly the role she wanted and one which she would have been so good at. She also met Blair’s strategist, Peter Mandelson, and the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Everyone appeared to be extremely excited about getting Diana on side.
But when Blair came to power he reneged on his pledge. He could have spoken to the Queen about it, which is what he said he would do. But he did not do so.
They remained friends but whenever Diana mentioned it, he prevaricated. She eventually felt very let down and insulted that he didn’t take her seriously.
Diana meets a young victim of landmines, Sandra Tigica, 13, in Angola in July 1997Credit: Alamy
No one would have been better than Diana. Her profile was a global one, she commanded respect from people everywhere she went and, as a roving ambassador bringing attention to the plight of others, she would have done wonders for Britain’s international reputation.
It was what she wanted to do. Not for her own satisfaction but because she genuinely cared about people. Despite the way Tony Blair treated her, it was what she was determined to do, even if it meant carrying on her work under her own steam. Helping others was her calling right to the end.
She had seen a programme on television about children being sold into slavery.
It upset her so much she determined it was going to be her next project and somehow, she would persuade some of her powerful and influential women friends to join her on a crusade to help eradicate the horrific trade.
She was proud of what she had achieved with the banning of landmines and would consider that her greatest legacy.
And when I left the palace later that morning, we made plans to meet again and discuss her work in detail. Of course, it never happened as exactly seven weeks later she was tragically killed in a Paris underpass.
Like everyone else, I was shocked when the phone rang at 2am that morning. But I had work to do and that helped. How strange, I thought, I was probably the last journalist to ever “interview” her.
But like her son Prince Harry, it is her membership of the Royal Family that defined her.
No matter how hard Diana tried to take charge of her own destiny she was never able to break free from an institution that was there long before she came on to the stage and is still there long after she departed.
But of everyone, she will always be remembered as the woman who cared.
Ingrid Seward is author of Prince Philip Revealed, A Man Of His Century, and editor in chief of Majesty magazineCredit: Rex