Tina Brown, image-maker, on the tabloid princess.
Brown's book, which relies on 250 new interviews and countless previous books, is full of lively and supremely well-marshaled information; she chooses to call on both insiders and, to a sometimes credulous extent, voyeurs. The familiar story of Charles' infidelity has a stirringly authentic ring of Gaslight about it. He would bring in his close confidants to pronounce Diana "paranoid" even as he was sweet-talking Camilla on the phone. "Was she always nutty or was she nutty because of the situation?" Diana's friend, film producer and peer David Puttnam, asks Brown, and goes on: "She became nutty because Prince Charles didn't love her, simple as that."
Alongside such interviewees, Brown's reverence for tabloid hacks as sources for Diana's most intimate leanings can seem odd, and readers may even be forgiven for detecting certain sympathies of style. "High five!" Brown exclaims over Blair's rise to power. "Well hooked, Sir!" she declares euphemistically when describing the Wales' courtship on a fishing expedition. She refers to a particular dress as "that nipple-busting black taffeta eye-popper" (just the kind of description eminent fashion writer Colin McDowell, in his new book, Diana Style, is careful to avoid). And then there's her spectacularly authoritative pronouncement that "[w]omen who love horses usually love sex. … Camilla Shand loved horses, all right. … The adrenaline, the fresh air, and the tally-ho exhilaration are all big libido boosters, to say nothing of all that throbbing, galloping animal vitality between one's thighs." Her riff on this is so unforgettable that when she informs us, 100 pages later, that Queen Elizabeth displays "toughness and mastery in the saddle," it feels like too much information.
Inevitably, the "hack pack"—however well they claim to have known Diana's every gesture—are never agenda-free. One, whom Brown quotes repeatedly, was invited to Diana's flat for hot chocolate when Di was 19 and he was staking her out, sleeping in his car, yet he thought nothing of crawling around the Bahamas with a long lens and jungle gear to get a shot of her pregnant in a swimsuit. Years later, he had become picture editor of the Sun, and was awoken by a photographer who offered to sell him shots of her dying for 300,000 pounds. He didn't stop to take in the news of her death; he agreed to the fee there and then. Why this person might be expected to offer a reliable account of Diana's innermost feelings, it's hard to tell. Another of Brown's trusted tabloid sources says she believes they—the tabloid press—forced Charles to marry Diana even though he never loved her. You have to ask yourself how such a patent fantasy of omnipotence can be taken at face value.
One way to explain the fact that Brown so frequently cites these journalists is to see her book not as a biography of a person but as a portrait of a machine. Brown is interested in the way Diana was put together, the way she composed and inhabited different versions of herself, and how she needed her media reflection in order to pull off such transformations. "She would be her own Frankenstein's monster," Brown writes, "and nobody else's." While she was, as Brown puts it, "better informed than the highest-paid flak on the machinery of her coverage on any hour of any day," Diana's flirtation with the press began to go sour in ways even more globally threatening than the demise of her marriage: "Her relationship with the image-makers who had helped create her had become a love affair in its nasty death throes, a cycle of dependency and combat."
The symbiosis, of course, continues, except that now it's only one way. Brown, the latest of the "image-makers," is thriving on Diana's memory while shaking her head at the tragedy that "even as she struggled for life, Diana was being sold as an exclusive." The jacket of The Diana Chronicles offers an unnerving reminder of the alter-ego situation between the two women. There are no photos of Brown's subject included in the book, except in the black and white endpapers, yet the full-color author photo, which fills the entire back cover and which Brown tells us Annie Leibovitz "insisted" on taking, looks so much like Diana that you wonder whether it's designed to be merely a portrait of the writer or a pointed message about the dynamic to be found inside.
Gaby Wood is a foreign correspondent on the staff of the London Observer.
Photograph of Princess Diana on Slate's home page by Adrian Dennis/Getty Images.