Before I read The Diana Chronicles, I thought I knew enough about the life and death of the “People’s Princess” to be a runner-up on a quiz show. And so, I bet, did you. Well, reading Tina Brown’s 2008 book, I learned …
– The “engagement ring” that Dodi Fayed bought Diana on the last day of her life — he was in and out of the jewelry store in “seven minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”
– That last dinner at the Ritz — Diana was “quietly weeping in full view of the clientele.”
– Before their wedding, Diana and Charles saw one another just 13 times.
– Charles and Diana made love once every three weeks.
– When the marriage ended, Charles had the unused wedding presents piled up in the garden — and burned.
And much, much more.
I opened Tina Brown’s new book, the 592-page “The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil,” with a different hope: that I could skim the history of Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne and the sorry Charles-and-Diana years so I could dive into the dish about Andrew, Meghan and Harry, and Kate and William. That didn’t happen. I inhaled it all. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the 18-hour audiobook, recorded by the author, click here.]
“The Palace Papers” is a brilliant anthropological saga — the story of a tribe (the royal family) with a single goal (survival) and a willingness to eat any creature that threatens it (including its young).
I’ll get to Brown’s deep understanding of this dynasty. But you want dish, right? Let’s start there …
– At the wedding, Amal and George Clooney were asked how they knew Meghan and Harry. “We don’t,” they replied.
– Charles never eats breakfast. He lunches on bird seed and peeled fruit.
– Prince Philip sent some pants to the tailor to be adjusted. They were 51 years old.
– Charles broke his arm playing polo in 1990. Until it healed, an aide squeezed toothpaste onto this toothbrush.
– Meghan’s father gave too many interviews. His conversations with Tina Brown are the most revealing. “You want evil stories about reporters?” he asked her. “I can keep you here for a long time.” And he did.
Now we get to the character assessments …
The Queen: “If you’re talking about brands, no one is more attuned to their brand than the queen. She has never given an interview. She has never put a foot wrong.”
Harry and Meghan: “Temperamentally, he was a human IED.” His girlfriends bailed. And there was Meghan Markle, a co-star on the USA Network show “Suits.” She was 34, aging out of leading parts. She and Harry shared several key bonds: “a mutual addiction to drama” and less than exalted status. She was sixth on the call sheet of a basic cable show. He might as well have been sixth on the royal call sheet. They became “comrades in arms,” and their shared grievances would inevitably lead to an us-against-them war with his family, which they could not possibly win.
Diana vs. Meghan: “Diana gave her royal role 20 years. Meghan gave it 20 months.”
Andrew: “A coroneted sleaze machine…”
Kate: She played the long game for a decade before William agreed to marry her. “The lack of drama gave William an emotional safe space.”
Diana as a mother: “Like many women whose relationships with their husbands have become dysfunctional, Diana used her elder son as both a stand in and a buffer.”
Brown’s conclusion: “The fascination of monarchy is that its themes repeat themselves because its protagonists are earthly.”
Decade after decade, you have seen the public Tina Brown, the brainiest Brit in media, an icon on the scale of Anna Wintour. I worked for her at Vanity Fair and on her television show, and I know another Tina Brown, the reporter who wants to get the story at its deepest level.
For “The Palace Papers,” Brown interviewed hundreds of people. It turns out the most memorable for her were the people who had given their lives to the crown, the “little people.” About those interviews, she writes, “The smell of their stair carpets always filled me with gloom. The light always seemed to go out on the third-floor landing… The door would open to a small, heavily book-lined one-bedroom apartment full of tasteful knickknacks, a world of remnants from a life of palace duty.”
When I finished the book, that passage stayed with me, and I had the oddest feeling — I was sad. For everybody. So much human frailty. So much loneliness. I recalled Brown’s description of the Queen at her husband’s funeral: “small and bereft in her black mask and simple black hat and coat dress, grieving alone in the corner of the cavernous pew of the chapel. In normal times, she would have been surrounded by consoling family and the world’s dignitaries, but like everyone else who had lost a loved one in pandemic England, she was mourning in isolation.”
Yes, in isolation. As she had spent her life. Tina Brown’s book reminds us that whatever little privacy Charles and Harry and William have enjoyed will permanently end when the Queen dies and her secretary alerts the prime minister with a sentence of chilling code: “London Bridge is down.” Wish them luck.