From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Some fairy tale. As Diana, the Princess of Wales, emerged from the London movie house where she had just seen Whoopi Goldberg's Jump in' Jack Flash, she was spotted by six members of a West Indian street gang who had been loitering nearby. As she nervously made her way to her car, the gang members moved toward her, pointing their fingers violently and shouting, "There she is!" Then, noticing that the Princess' male escort wasn't the Prince (he was, unbeknownst to them, Diana's bodyguard), one of the men began taunting her. "I'm gonna tell Charles on you," he warned. "I'm gonna tell Charles."

Well, let him. It's doubtful he could tell Charles anything that the future king—or anyone else in Britain—hasn't heard already, courtesy of that country's racier papers. To be sure, dissecting the marriage of Charles, 38, and Diana, who will turn 26 on July 1, is virtually a national pastime in Britain. But as Charles and Diana near their sixth wedding anniversary on July 29, more undeniable blips are starting to show on the marital radar—disturbances that have fueled perennial Fleet Street rumors of a conjugal rift. For one thing, there has been a sharp rise in the number of the pair's solo vacations. Moreover, the couple's vigorous pursuit of separate interests has some observers convinced that the traditional happily-ever-after scenario may need some reworking. Diana herself has told friends, "More and more, from now on, it will seem as if we are going our separate ways—and we will be. When we were first married, I needed Charles at my side to help me learn the ropes, which were almost completely unknown to me. Now I can cope on my own."

Adding to the growing state-of-the-marriage furor was the newspaper serialization in Britain last month of a new book, Charles, by Penny Junor. The author, who has written biographies of Princess Margaret, Richard Burton and Margaret Thatcher, suggests, among other things, that the Prince married the wrong woman. The real problem, according to Junor, is that Charles has been forced to live in Diana's formidable shadow. "It's a shame he didn't marry someone who would boost him up and make him believe in himself."

Charles and Diana are well aware of the stories swirling about their marriage. The Prince turned uncharacteristically peevish when photographers recently spied him fishing. "You are hounding me!" he said, and, of course, they were. Diana seems to have accepted that fate with more equanimity than the Prince. "I know what the next development in our relationship will be," she jokingly told friends. "The papers will say I have taken a lover. And maybe the lover will be black and Catholic...But what can I do?"

Since the start of the year, Charles and Di have taken seven partnerless jaunts—including his four-day odyssey to Africa's Kalahari desert—more than many marriage counselors would sanction. One smart-aleck paper even began keeping a scorecard. "Our chart shows that Charles and Diana have spent 35 nights away from each other since Valentine's Day," wrote the News of the World. "Official duties were to blame some of the time, but the Prince chose to be away from his wife for 26 nights." Ouch!

The most recent trend toward spousal independence is said to have started in April of last year, when Charles, an accomplished amateur painter, flew to Italy to sketch the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A pattern soon began to develop. In August, during a family holiday in Majorca as guests of King Juan Carlos, a bored Charles flew off to chilly Scotland, leaving Diana and sons William, 4, and Harry, 2, behind to sunbathe. Three months ago Charles went to Switzerland; Diana stayed home. Then, in April, Charles baby-sat with William and Harry at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, while Di returned to Kensington Palace.

There were other celebrated separations on record as well:

•In February, after eight days of skiing in Klosters, Switzerland, Diana took off for London. Charles stayed on three more days at the Alpine resort, where he reportedly spent more time in a local disco than he had when Diana was still on the scene.

•At the end of April the Prince flew to Italy, ostensibly to gaze at the art. But then he had dinner with Fiammetta Frescobaldi, 28, a beautiful Italian countess of long acquaintance, fueling rumors of a romantic liaison. (The contessa's mother called the reports "rubbish" and pointed out that seven other guests were also at dinner.)

•Then, last month, Charles flew alone to a remote island in the Hebrides, off Scotland's northwest coast, where he spent three days helping farmers with their chores. Charles's defenders said the future king was simply trying to understand the lives of the common folk. But his detractors saw the trip as another sign that the frustrated heir is still seeking a sense of purpose and prefers to spend his time by himself, brooding. "It's one thing to want occasionally to get away from the pressures and responsibilities of family life," said one concerned acquaintance. "But it is another to have a compelling need to get away as often as the Prince does."

Frequent separations are far from unusual in Windsor clan marriages, since the suitability of one's mate is considered more important than love and compatibility. Charles's sister, Princess Anne, 36, and her husband, Capt. Mark Phillips, 38, often spend more time apart than together. And no one carps when Charles's father, Prince Philip, jets to Asia or Africa for weeks at a time on World Wildlife Fund business. Still, for the Waleses, separate-but-equal marks a notable new stage in their marriage. Indeed, at times they seem to be less in love than in business.

Some palace observers considered Charles and Diana a dubious match from the outset and can't resist noting that the two have almost nothing in common except a deep love for their children and a devotion to duty. Their shared enthusiasms are distressingly few, and their mismatched tastes sometimes comically obvious. Di likes shopping, rock music, nightclubs, movies, romance novels and TV soaps like Dynasty. Charles, a man of eclectic interests, is passionate for polo, gardening, opera and fishing, not to mention galleries and museums, which bore Diana silly. Their visit to last month's Cannes Film Festival was clearly a compromise. The result? Diana looked bored; Charles seemed detached. Maybe their almost 13-year age difference is catching up with them. Or perhaps Charles is unwilling to change his habits. "He was a bachelor for a very long time before he got married," says a friend. "He got very set in his ways and has never made any real attempt to change."

If the couple has trouble finding common ground, it may be because they themselves are directionless. Charles lives in limbo, well-prepared for the kingship which may not be his until he is well into his 50s or 60s. Says author Junor: "Charles is one of the saddest people I have ever encountered. He is plagued by the belief that he has no role." According to Junor, Charles cares genuinely about his country's problems but realizes he is powerless to do much about them. And he is none too happy that the press trivializes his efforts, showing much more interest in Diana's clothing.

Charles may inadvertently have added to his problems when he admitted during a TV documentary last year that he talked to his plants. Fearing the remark would be misconstrued—though Charles is not the only serious gardener to chat up his plants—Buckingham Palace tried to get filmmakers to edit out the statement. But Charles was unperturbed and the confession stayed in. Since then the more scandalous papers have barely stopped short of calling him a nut case, leading Charles to ask recently, "Do people really think I'm a crank?"

Since the IRA murder of his great-uncle Lord Mountbatten in 1979, Charles has turned increasingly to Sir Laurens van der Post, a South African-born writer, anthropologist and philosopher, playfully known in some circles as the "royal guru." An 80-year-old scholar, Sir Laurens has been educating Charles in philosophy and religion. Some observers think he wields too much influence over the Prince. Penny Junor says she spent 90 minutes interviewing Charles and was scheduled to meet with him again—until she made the mistake of calling Sir Laurens. When she asked for an interview, he declined, explaining that he didn't believe in biographies of living people. According to Junor, the Prince then canceled his second appointment with her, explaining that he didn't believe in them either. Junor claims the incident gave her "a valuable insight into just how Charles can be influenced. He hasn't got the confidence in himself, so he looks to other people to tell him how to think and what to do."

Diana, of course, was only 20 when she married and was doubtless baffled by her role at the start. Now a polished public performer, she makes more than 250 official appearances a year and can be charming and purposeful whenever she chooses. This year she even visited a London AIDS ward despite the widespread (but mistaken) public concern that she'd better not risk it. Yet she sometimes seems bored and aloof, even yawning on-camera during events that don't capture her interest. And though she is British fashion's most elegant mannequin, she also uses clothes to shock, such as wearing a tight black-leather miniskirt to the theater. One palace insider claims that Diana will wear something particularly eye-popping whenever she has been absent from the front pages for more than a few days.

There has been only one duty, naturally, that Diana—and only Diana—had to do for Prince and country. And having done it, she has told friends that she has no plans to get pregnant again before 1989. "We're taking a breather," she says. Like Charles with his polo, Diana is turning increasingly to sport for diversion. Two or three times a week, she reportedly drives to the Vanderbilt Racquet Club in West London, where she plays tennis and gossips with chums such as Kate Menzies, a girlfriend of Princess Margaret's son, Lord Linley.

Diana has even more time to socialize now that she has stopped reading unflattering articles about herself. Still, she knows when something nasty has appeared. "A couple of days later the postman arrives with a bag of hate mail that somehow then gets through the system," she has told friends. "I actually read it. Of course I get upset."

No one in the know is suggesting that the royal marriage is about to crumble. And despite their differences and apparent need for marital breathing space, it is unthinkable—though not impossible—that the couple would ever divorce. According to royalty expert Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, "The Prince knows that duty comes first, and he is never likely to do anything against that. And Princess Diana has grown into a royal enough to understand that duty is the most important thing in her life." As Charles once put it, "When I marry, it has got to be the right person. For me, it is for life." Well-wishers hope that is a declaration of resolution and purpose, and not a pronouncement of sentence.

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Dianna Waggoner.