By Diane Clehane
THE DIANA CHRONICLES
By Tina Brown
Doubleday; 542 pages, $27.50
I’ll admit it, I got up before dawn on July 29, 1981 to see Lady Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles. I also set my alarm for 5 a.m. ten years ago on September 6, 1997 to watch Diana’s funeral. It was pitch black when I sat in front of the television in the wee hours of the morning with my two cairn terriers who seemed more than a little confused by why I was up at such an ungodly hour if it wasn’t to take them out. By the time it was over, the sky was a bright blue and it was a gorgeous September morning. I found myself wondering how many other people were sitting in their living room wondering what they were supposed to do now. As we all now know, there were millions of pajama clad mourners.
I remember every detail of that surreal week between Diana’s fateful accident in Paris and the funeral. (Everything was brought into sharper focus after I saw The Queen last year). The haunting twist of metal that had been the black Mercedes sedan that ferried Diana, Dodi Fayed and Henri Paul to their deaths. The ever expanding field of flowers that consumed Kensington Palace. The achingly sad scrawl of ‘Mummy’ across the envelope that sat atop an arrangement of white tea roses on Diana’s coffin. The brilliantly blue sky the morning of her funeral. If I close my eyes, I can still hear that one woman who let out that desperate wail and called out ‘Diana!’ as the gun carriage began its procession.
When I consider how I found out about her death it seems rather quaint in the light of the 24/7 media age that now bombards us with ‘breaking news’ every minute of every day regardless of whether the information truly warrants that description. I woke up on that Sunday morning to watch Martha Stewart’s gorgeously languid show on CBS. I clicked on Channel 2 and instead of seeing the pre-felonious domestic diva showing me how she raised her own chickens at Turkey Hill, a somber looking and sounding British man was saying something that couldn’t be true. Diana was dead. Diana’s death had caught the world – and its media – so unaware that almost nine hours after the BBC announced she had died; CBS hadn’t gotten its own coverage going but was using a feed from London to inform its startled viewers. (Perhaps if Katie Couric was at the helm then things would have been different) The scenario is completely unimaginable today when you consider Paris Hilton’s 3 a.m. ET release from jail was covered live on Fox a few weeks ago.
By that afternoon, the wall to wall coverage had taken over with photo montages set to maudlin music and every Brit with the slightest connection to the royal family from the Hamptons (It was a Sunday in summer, after all) to Hamstead Heath was being trotted out by the networks to share their memories of the People’s Princess.
One of those people was Tina Brown who was tapped by NBC to offer commentary on the funeral. Then editor of The New Yorker, Brown told many anecdotes over the course of her television appearances and recounted her lunch with Diana (and Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour) at the Four Seasons where the princess radiated the transformative effervescence of international stardom. Brown retells the story in her book writing, “Striding across in three-inch heels across the high-ceilinged grill room of the Four Season, she towered like Barbarella. Her Chanel suit was sharp, animated green, her tan as flawless as if it had been airbrushed on ….” She reports Diana talked of moving to America.
Ah, what might have been.
In the ten years since her death, there have been scores of written about Diana since her death. (Full disclosure: I published my own, Diana The Secrets of Her Style in August 1998. I’m proud to say the reviews were generally good and the book was a best seller.) I have them all. Most are nothing more than rehashes of the tabloid tales that have passed into pop culture legend or sad efforts by former friends (psychic advisors and the lot) to take the money and run. I remember meeting Paul Burrell, Diana’s butler and confidante, in Beverly Hills in March of 1998 during the Academy Awards. He offered to talk to me for my book if I could get him into the Vanity Fair party. Nice. He is sadly emblematic of the men Diana put her very misguided faith in. Want to know what he’s doing these days? Diana’s most trusted 'supporter' has a role in one of the tackiest reality shows I’ve ever seen -- American Princess. The show, which earned Women’s Entertainment its highest ever ratings for last season’s finale, pits a group of tacky mall dwellers against each other for the chance for a “real royal title.” Burrell is one of their coaches. Yikes. He’s even signed up for another season that begins – not so coincidentally – next month.
There are some notable exceptions to the bumper crop of bad or unexceptional Diana books. Sarah Bradford’s Diana (Viking) was the first to reveal Diana’s true last love, Dr. Hasnat Kahn. I’ve tried not to harbor too much resentment towards Ms. Bradford or her publishers for virtually copying the cover of my book. (Go to amazon.com to check it out. They’re identical). Bradford’s book was published last year in September with absolutely no fanfare. An excerpt in Vanity Fair merited a Page Six item but that’s about all. While it sold well, it generated next to no buzz.
But then, she isn’t Tina Brown.
And that’s the critical difference that makes The Diana Chronicles a must-read. I recently interviewed Brown for mediabistro.com and made the following observation that’s worth repeating here:
“Looking back at Brown’s career trajectory, one could argue she was fated to have what might prove to be her greatest individual success due to her unique and enduring connection to the late princess. At 25, she became the editor of the musty, centuries-old British magazine Tatler fortuitously tying her fortunes and those of the previously irrelevant glossy to a certain other quintessentially British girl who would prove just as brilliant over time for her ability to tap into the zeitgeist. Brown once remarked that Diana’s wedding did for Tatler’s newsstand sales “what the O.J. Simpson chase did for the ratings at CNN.” In 1985, just as S.I. Newhouse considered shuttering Vanity Fair because it wasn’t generating enough buzz, Brown, who’d been tapped to be its editor in chief less than two years before, penned a cover story on Diana famously dubbed “The Mouse That Roared.” The issue’s runaway newsstand success help buy the prescient editor more time and create what evolved into holy grail of celebrity reporting.”
Who better than the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker who basically created the high-low media culture of celebrity reporting for the modern age to write about the last pop cultural icon of the twentieth century?
Brown has taken on the job of writing the definitive Diana book and she embraces on her iconic doppelganger with gusto. The Diana Chronicles covers all the familiar territory: the media furor surrounding the engagement, Diana’s bouts with bulimia, Camilla as the other woman, the subversive BBC interview, the Christie’s sale as a symbolic purging of an old life, the transformative humanitarian work that Diana was using as a roadmap to the future. It’s all there, but Brown plumbs the depths of these now mythical episodes and manages to offer juicy new details due (she interviewed over 250 people) and her considerable rolodex that allowed her to do so. (Read the acknowledgements and you’ll see what I mean).
Many reviewers have noted Brown’s penchant for inserting herself into the story at seemingly odd times in the book. To criticize her for that is to miss the point entirely. Brown wants to remind the reader she was there – not as someone on Diana’s payroll but as a keen eyed observer who offers all- important context to events that in their repeated retelling over time seemed to have happened in a soap operatic vacuum.
Much has been made that Brown offers a fresh take at Diana’s life. I would argue that it’s not so much a fresh take as it is a broader one that includes reporting on those parts of Diana’s life that believe it or not, have not been done to death. Her account of Diana’s childhood and early life is compelling and a good read – especially those passages which describe the emotional agony Diana’s mother endured as she grappled with wanting to be more than a brood mare for her husband and express herself as a woman in a stifling emotional environment. Sound familiar? It turns out the well worn tale of Diana’s mother being a “bolter” is, as the truth behind all fractured families are, much more complicated than was previously known. Brown also reports with a sense of foreboding that it was Diana’s father Johnnie Spencer that sparked Diana’s fatal attraction to the camera by taking endless photos of her and shooting hours of home movies. She writes, “Diana grew up associating the camera with love.” Brown told me she most writing about Diana’s early life “the most fascinating part of all.” After reading what she discovered, it’s easy to see why.
Throughout the book, the author cites the familiar sources whose names are known to those avid Diana watchers and liberally references Andrew Morton’s now known to be officially sanctioned biography. But there’s enough fresh reporting and A-list interviews with people like John Travolta to remind the reader of Brown’s considerable editorial resume. Brown gets the actor to reveal he was Diana’s second choice as a dance partner the night of the famous White House dinner in November 1985. According to his account, the princess had hoped to twirl around with Mikhail Baryshnikov but the dancer said he couldn’t because he’d injured his ankle. Travolta’s account of his evening at the White House and his dance with Diana is just the type of juicy tidbits to satisfy the most ardent Diana fan.
Brown vacillates between sounding somewhat contemptuous of Diana’s stunts for attention and admiring of her strength to stand up for herself against the formidable Firm. She told me she grew to like her subject more and more as she got deeper into the work. Her affection and her pity is obvious in the final chapters when she deconstructs the events that led to Diana’s death.
While Sarah Bradford (who, it should be noted, wrote a scathing review of the book. Sour grapes, perhaps?) says that Diana was obsessed with Charles, Brown concludes Diana wanted to find someone – anyone – to really truly love her. She concludes that Diana was not in love with Dodi and had no intention of marrying him (I agree). When I asked Brown during my recent conversation with her what would have become of Diana had she lived, Brown answered blithely, “Aside from having her first face-lift?” before taking a more serious tone to say, “She was really doing terrific (in those months before her death) but her love life would always torpedo her. This is what makes her interesting and human. She was always sabotaged for this needy insecurity – this desperate need to have a man who loved her – which she couldn’t find.”
In the end, Brown’s take on Diana is a cautionary tale of epic proportions. The newly minted best selling author has said in numerous interviews that Diana's was an “emblematic life” and she took on the task of writing the book because she wanted to examine not only the life of the princess but the era that made her an international icon. Curiously, after reading The Diana Chronicles I felt I understood more about the current climate of our celebrity obsessed culture than I learned about its past. Diana was the celebrity all the Us magazine cover girls of today secretly aspire to be. Paris Hilton has even dared to compare herself to Diana --- something that drives Brown “completely crazy.” Before Angelina Jolie set out to save the world, Diana created the template for leveraging celebrity for international causes. The ‘stars’ of today are trying to fill a void that can never be filled. No one else will ever appear on the cover of People magazine 52 times during their lifetime. Diana showed the wannabes you can live an entire parallel life in the media that has little to do with your true inner self and create an aura of aspirational accessibility that deludes people into thinking they know you. But, as Brown has very astutely observed, the price of admission is a high one and every fairy tale is really just a hair’s breath away from its nightmarish flip side.
(Read Diane's recent interview with Tina Brown for Mediabistro.com:click here for article)
Diane Clehane is Lookonline.com's Entertainment Editor. She is the author of several national best sellers including Diana The Secrets of Her Style (GT Publishing) and I Love You Mom! (Hyperion). Her work appears in Variety, People, The New York Post and other national publications. She also writes the popular "Lunch at Michaels" column for Mediabistro.com.If you have news, gossip, an event, or a new product you would like to tell her about please email her at DClehane@aol.com
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