From their earliest childhood, William and Harry were collateral damage in a cold war between their parents, one that could turn hot in front of them in alarming ways. The two-year age gap between them was critical in forging their distinctive worldviews and, equally so, in shaping their perceptions of their mother. Prince Harry idolized Diana more and understood her less. He would always be her baby, a scamp who was “thick” at his lessons and “naughty, just like me.” His emotions, like hers, were always simmering near the surface.
William understood Diana more but idealized her less. He was privy to her volatile love life. He knew the tabloids made her life hell, but he also knew she colluded with them. By his early teens, he was his mother’s most trusted confidant. She used to describe him as “my little wise old man.”
Like many women whose relationships with their husbands have become dysfunctional, Diana used her elder son as both a stand-in and a buffer, toting him along for meetings with journalists. Then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan describes in his diary a startlingly revealing background lunch with Diana and the 13-year-old William at Kensington Palace in 1996 at which, he says, the princess allowed him to ask “literally anything.” William insisted on a glass of wine even when Diana said no, and he seemed thoroughly up-to-date on all the tabloid rumors about her lovers. “He is clearly in the loop on most of her bizarre world and, in particular, the various men who come into it from time to time,” the astonished Morgan noted.
Diana’s most recent romantic adventure at that time was with the sturdy hunk Will Carling, captain of the England rugby team, whom she had met in 1995 working out at the Chelsea Harbor Club gym. William hero-worshipped Carling and met him several times with Diana. When Carling visited Kensington Palace for a romantic rendezvous, he gave both the boys a rugby shirt. It is unclear when William came to realize that his idol was a sporting visitor in more ways than one. Carling’s wife, the television personality Julia Carling, conclusively enlightened him—and everyone else—when rumors of marital difficulties were rife, making it clear the princess was at least one of the reasons. “This has happened to [Diana] before,” Julia told a reporter. “You hope she won’t do these things again, but obviously she does.” Diana was livid about Julia Carling’s comments. “She’s milking it for all she’s worth, that woman,” she told Morgan over lunch. “Honestly, I haven’t seen Will since June ’95.” William interjected, “I keep a photo of Julia Carling on my dartboard at Eton.”
The exchange reveals much about the dynamic between mother and son. For Diana to include the future heir to the throne at a meeting with one of the royal family’s most reckless tabloid tormentors and freely refer to a casual affair was, on its face, amazing. (Try imagining the Duchess of Cambridge and a teenage Prince George doing the same today.) It suggests that her boundaries were dissolving and, with them, her judgment. Not only was William used to hearing about her lovers, as Morgan notes, but he’d also found a way to deal with it at school. Tacking Julia Carling’s image onto a dartboard was a gesture of loyalty to his mother that also announced he knew exactly what the other boys were whispering about.
Time and again, Diana chose to invade her own privacy, often for the capricious reason of making the men in her life jealous. The most unforgettable “stolen” snap from Diana’s last fateful holiday was the famous “kiss” picture of her in a clinch with bare-chested Dodi Fayed, her playboy lover, off the coast of Corsica. It was she who tipped off Italian lensman Mario Brenna—to send a taunting message to the real love of her life, Hasnat Khan.
Nicholas Coleridge, former president of Condé Nast International, tells a story in his memoir of inviting Diana to a boardroom lunch at Condé Nast London HQ in 1996. The day before, a picture of the princess sunbathing topless had appeared in the Mirror, causing a furor about invasion of privacy. Coleridge expected the princess to cancel, but she confirmed her attendance with the request there would be no publicity. Halfway through a beguiling confidential lunch, she said: At the end of the lunch, Coleridge walked her to her car outside Vogue House, where she was besieged by paparazzi.
Afterward, Coleridge rang a newspaper friend to see if he could find out who’d leaked Diana’s visit. The friend rang back in five minutes. Coleridge writes that his source told him, “ ‘I just spoke to our picture desk. Diana rang herself from her car, on her way to lunch. She often tips them off about where she’ll be.’ ”
This is classic, authentic Diana—tricky, seductive, playing a double game. Gulu Lalvani, the wealthy Pakistani-born British entrepreneur who briefly dated Diana in the last year of her life, told me that in the four months of their relationship, they always dined discreetly at his house or at Kensington Palace. One evening she suggested they instead dine at Harry’s Bar and have a dance or two afterward at Annabel’s. Even though no one had known about the plan in advance, the paparazzi were waiting at the door as they left the nightclub. Lalvani told me, “Whether Harry’s Bar called them or she tipped them off, I don’t know.” (I think we do.) He realizes now that she was using him to inflame the true object of her affections, Hasnat Khan. The pictures of Lalvani and Diana that appeared the next day were the whole point.
More unsettling was the origin story of the infamous tell-all book Princess in Love. Diana claimed to be outraged in 1994 when Daily Express journalist Anna Pasternak spilled the beans of her affair with former army officer James Hewitt—a dimmer, buffer version of Prince Charles with the diction of a man who seemed to have swallowed a mothball—in a palpitating account based on his cache of Diana’s love letters. “He’s sold me out!” she sobbed to her psychic, Simone Simmons. “Men aren’t supposed to do that to women. I hope his cock shrivels up!” Hewitt paid dearly and so did the author. The tabloids branded him forevermore as the “love rat,” and Pasternak was excoriated for peddling mawkish fantasy.
In 2019, however, Pasternak made a startling disclosure in the Daily Mail that Diana had encouraged, indeed urged, Hewitt to cooperate with the writing of the book to get ahead of a more salacious version of their affair coming in another book by Andrew Morton. Pasternak told me that she and Hewitt “met halfway between Devon and London in a field, and he said, ‘Diana wants the story told but with two conditions. One, it has to come out before Morton’s second book, and two, it has to be a love story.’ ” To oblige her, Pasternak says she crashed it out in five weeks. Once Princess in Love was published, Diana threw both Hewitt and Pasternak under the bus. Besotted to the end, her cashiered toy soldier never revealed whether or not he had done her bidding.
It’s hard to understand how a mother as devoted as Diana would choose, in 1995, to drag up her affair with Hewitt again in her explosive interview with the BBC’s Martin Bashir on Panorama. She knew how devastated her boys had been by their father’s on-camera confession of infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles in Jonathan Dimbleby’s 1994 ITV documentary, and how truly mortified they felt when Princess in Love came out. I am told Diana chose to speak about Hewitt to Bashir because he was the only one of her ex-lovers who wasn’t married.
In May 2021, Lord Dyson, one of England’s most senior retired judges, issued a searing report unmasking the full extent of the BBC cover-up of Bashir’s trickery in securing the notorious interview with Diana. He confirmed that Bashir successfully manipulated Diana’s paranoia by showing her brother, Earl Spencer, forged documents that “proved” her closest advisers had betrayed her to the palace, inflaming her desire to speak out for herself. Bashir lied his way to the biggest TV scoop of the 20th century. Dyson’s censure at least gave her two sons some rationale for why Diana did something so destructive to their happiness. William, who had watched the interview in his Eton housemaster’s study, told a classmate that as soon as he saw his mother’s face appear on the screen for the interview, he was overcome with a feeling of dread. Harry, still at Ludgrove, declined to watch the broadcast but later was angry with Bashir for his invasive questions, not with his mother’s decision to answer them.
By the time the housemaster, Andrew Gailey, returned to his study to collect William, he found him, Robert Lacey records, “slumped on the sofa, his eyes red with tears.” He pulled himself together to rush back to his room. But when, an hour later, Diana telephoned on the house phone, William refused to take the call. Diana was convinced he would never forgive her. She kept asking Simone Simmons, “What have I done to my children?”
After Lord Dyson’s report about the BBC’s Bashir cover-up, William chose to make a grave address on camera that could not quite hide the fury of a still-haunted son. “It is my view that the deceitful way the interview was obtained substantially influenced what my mother said,” he told the world. “The interview was a major contribution to making my parents’ relationship worse and has since hurt countless others. It brings indescribable sadness to know that the BBC’s failures contributed significantly to her fear, paranoia, and isolation that I remember from those final years with her.”
The words “indescribable sadness” can only hint at her sons’ private ordeal, but they also occlude the full picture. I am told by Lalvani that Diana said she had no regrets about the interview and made clear that she had said exactly what she wanted to say on camera. (She even co-opted lines such as “There were three of us in this marriage” from her writer friend Clive James.) “She was pleased about it [the interview],” Lalvani confirmed to me. “She didn’t have a bad word to say about Martin Bashir. She realized it served her purpose.” She was right. Her “purpose” was to frame herself to the British public as a betrayed woman before the increasingly inevitable divorce from Charles. Opinion polls in the wake of the interview showed support for the princess at 92 percent. She had the public in the palm of her hand.
I don’t subscribe to the now pervasive narrative that Diana was a vulnerable victim of media manipulation, a mere marionette tossed about by malign forces beyond her control. While strongly sympathetic to her sons’ pain, I find it offensive to present the canny, resourceful Diana as a woman of no agency, as either a foolish, duped child or the hapless casualty of malevolent muckrakers.
When Vogue’s Anna Wintour and I, as editor of The New Yorker, had lunch with Diana in Manhattan in July 1997—six weeks before her death—I was bowled over by the confident, skillful way she wooed us. Diana was always more beautiful in person than in photographs—the huge, limpid blue eyes, the soft peach skin, the super-model height. She told us her story of loneliness and hurt at Charles’s hands with an irresistible soulful intimacy that sucked us in, then switched to a startlingly sophisticated vision of how she planned to leverage her celebrity for the causes she cared about with a series of TV specials, 24 years before Harry and Meghan’s incoherent multimedia plans.
It’s understandable that her sons have a less nuanced view of Diana. If your beautiful 36-year-old mother dies in a car crash and is mourned—canonized, even—by the whole world, an unblemished picture is frozen that erases everything else. William, 15, and Harry, 12, believed—and still believe—that their mother was martyred by the paparazzi.
That Diana was hounded is undeniable. But in her last spiral in Paris, there were many fatal factors. Dodi Fayed, unused to being in the eye of the celebrity storm, was overexcited by the thrill of the chase. It was Diana’s choice—not the palace’s—to dispense with round-the-clock Scotland Yard protection. In the 2008 inquest into Diana’s death, former police commissioner Lord Condon testified that Diana was adamant that she did not want protection. She believed that officers spied on her and hampered her love life. But they also often acted as informal go-betweens with photographers to negotiate safer coverage of their famous charge. “It’s very tragic to say this,” paparazzo Mark Saunders speculated: “Had [her protection officer] Ken Wharfe or [her regular chauffeur] Colin Tebbutt been with Diana on the night she died, it wouldn’t have happened. They would have spoken to the press, and they would have given the brief outline of what was going to happen, which would have prevented the chasing.”
Saunders continued, “Diana was walking a tightrope with her relationships with the press. It wasn’t the press that had an affair with James Hewitt. It wasn’t the press that had an affair with [the married] art dealer Oliver Hoare and sat outside his house in the middle of the night. She was a normal person with feelings and emotions. But she was also the most famous woman in the world, and she was doing things that made the other side want to photograph her.”
On the 10th anniversary of Diana’s death, in 2007, William asked his private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton—without success—to do everything he could do to stop a Channel Four documentary showing graphic pictures of the Paris crash site. Quoting the boys, Lowther-Pinkerton wrote, “We feel that, as her sons, we would be failing in our duty to her now if we did not protect her—as she once did us.” Did Diana protect them? It’s not a debate that William and Harry want to have.
All their mother’s questionable decisions made sense to her at the time. In her wounded fury she lost all sense of the impact of her actions. Weeks after the Bashir interview, as the conflagration consumed everyone she loved and hated, the dogged Mark Saunders described in his 1996 book, Dicing With Di: The Amazing Adventures of Britain’s Royal Chasers, an eerie incident as the princess sped ahead of him down the highway out of London. His prey knew Saunders’s car well, and he could see her looking at him in the rearview mirror:
Writing these words in 1995, Saunders could have no idea what they foreshadowed. What was flashing through Diana’s mind as the car entered that last tragic chase into the Alma tunnel? Today, it would be unreasonable to ask that William and Harry forgive the paparazzi who trained their cameras on their beloved mother’s dying moments in the Paris tunnel, the hungry clicking of their shutters the last sound she would ever hear. Or to forget how often in their presence one or another of that ruffian gang had made her cry. Or to admit that, even though her own sons were among the “countless others” the Bashir broadcast hurt, she had shrewd, pragmatic reasons for undertaking the interview. The camera was Diana’s fatal attraction and her most potent weapon—the source of so much power at the price of so much pain. She was always gambling with those odds.
Her sons express their lasting contempt for the press in different ways: William with a grim, steely obsession with control; Harry with tortured, vocal, frequently ill-judged condemnation, a never-ending flurry of lawsuits, and, finally, a burn-it-all-down gesture that his mother—who, despite her yearning to be free, held tight to her diadem—might have well understood. But neither of them has yet been heard to reflect on how much Diana loved to dance with danger.