From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
TO SOME, IT SEEMED A SPECTACULARLY SELF-destructive act—one that "plunged the monarchy into the greatest crisis since the Abdication," in the words of London's Daily Mail. Three years after allowing journalist Andrew Morton to document her misery in a bestselling biography, and 18 months after Prince Charles retaliated by suggesting in a TV interview that he had been unfaithful, the Princess of Wales revived her devastating public relations battle with her husband. In a startlingly frank interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir on the Nov. 20 edition of its critically acclaimed news show Panorama, a strained-looking Di, 34, parried Charles's confession by acknowledging that she had had an affair with former Life Guards officer James Hewitt, 37, whom she said she had "adored." Portraying herself as an innocent struggling to cope with a voracious press, vindictive courtiers and a self-involved husband, the princess declared that, as unhappy as her marriage may be, she has no desire to end it. That move, she says, will be up to Charles—who, it seems, must now choose between appearing to be a cad or a coward.

Watched by more than 21.5 million people in Britain and expected to draw millions more during an ABC News Turning Point special on Nov. 24, Di's first solo interview was seen as an extraordinary drama that eclipsed Charles's 1994 interview on ITN with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby. Bold and wide-ranging, Di's talk marked a new era in her turbulent relationship with the Palace—which, ironically, had taken pains of late to reestablish her as a working royal. Aired in Britain on the Queen's 48th wedding anniversary and announced by the BBC on Nov. 14—Charles's 47th birthday—the 55-minute session was interpreted as a hostile gesture not only toward the prince but also to the clan that Di once, in a recorded phone chat with chum James Gilbey, indiscreetly referred to as "this f—ing family." Saying she does not expect to become queen and doubts that Charles wants to be king, she claimed that courtiers had pegged her as a troubled woman and "a threat." Still, she said, "I'll fight to the end, because I believe I have a role to fulfill, and I've got two children to bring up."

The official response from Buckingham Palace was a conciliatory offer to "meet with the princess to see how we can help her define her future and continue to support her." Less uninformed than press reports suggested, the Palace had intentionally kept at arm's length from the interview. Yet some observers expected courtiers to be "absolutely devastated by this Exocet [missile] that she has fired at them," says Brian Hoey, author of a dozen books on the Windsors. "I'm sure Prince Charles had no idea of the damage she was going to inflict."

Like many royal watchers, Hoey described the princess's performance in the segment (excerpted from a four-hour interview) as brilliant. "[She] was incredible," says Hoey. "Her answers were calculated and impeccably delivered. And she came over as intelligent. Never again will anybody be able to accuse her of being thick as a plank."

Still, a significant minority asserted that Diana seemed to be spinning paranoid fantasies. "She looked physically and almost mentally ill," said Sue Townsend, author of a satirical novel about the Windsors called The Queen and I, which was later adapted for the stage. "It was almost like interviewing someone in a mental hospital—I felt I shouldn't be watching."

Although the prince himself (who spent part of the day at the Palace at a luncheon for Jordan's King Hussein) offered no comment, one of his oldest friends, Armed Forces Minister Nicholas Soames, pronounced Di's performance "toe-curlingly dreadful." Ex-husband of Catherine Soames, a close friend of Di's, the minister described the princess as being "in the advanced stages of paranoia" and said that what came through in the interview was "this tremendous...unhappiness that led to instability and mental illness."

In any case, Di's breach of the Windsors' "never complain, never explain" policy left her mother-in-law "seething," as a source described it to the Daily Mirror. On the night of the broadcast, the Queen and Prince Philip attended a Royal Variety performance for charity at London's Dominion Theater. There was no word on whether the Queen Mother, 95, who is recovering from hip-replacement surgery in King Edward VII's Hospital for Officers, had seen the show.

As provocative as the interview may have been, the intrigue surrounding Di's dealings with the BBC was almost as irritating to the Windsors. It was widely reported that neither Diana's staff nor the Queen's knew about the taping in the dining room of the princess's Kensington Palace quarters until Nov. 14. At that point, Di—who allegedly met Bashir through another journalist—was said to have phoned brother-in-law Sir Robert Fellowes, the Queen's private secretary (and husband of Di's sister Jane), to report that she had spoken to the BBC. Some sources close to the Palace, however, assert that certain advisers to the Queen actually encouraged Di to have her say, hoping that the public would turn against her and that opinion makers would call for a divorce. (A Nov. 16 poll by the Sunday Times found that most Britons, in fact, would be happy to see the Waleses go their separate ways.)

The BBC itself came under fire for circumventing the Palace in its negotiations with Diana—who reportedly was sold on the interview by the Duchess of York. "There is extreme irritation that the BBC, which has long enjoyed preferential treatment in the coverage of all state occasions and royals events, failed to [inform] the Palace," noted the Mirror. The controversy heated up when the Sunday Times reported that network programming executives had even kept the interview a secret from BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey (whose wife, Lady Susan, is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen), fearing that he would "tell Buckingham Palace and try to censor the programme."

Aired on the eve of Diana's four-day working trip to Argentina, the interview was interpreted as her attempt not only to set the record straight but to restore the Mother-Teresa credentials tarnished by her friendship with rugby captain Will Carling and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. Palace watchers noted that Diana was said to be impressed by the gravitas of the 60 Minutes-style show, even though Bashir, 32, ignored Carling and troublesome subjects including her alleged affair with married art dealer Oliver Hoare. (Diana, who has been courted by Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, has consented, according to the Sunday Times, to "at least two [more] general interviews, one for television and one for a foreign publication." There has been no word, however, on which outlets she has chosen.)

Not surprisingly, Charles was said to be stunned by his wife's confessions to Bashir. In the privacy of Highgrove, he reportedly commiserated with his inamorata Camilla Parker Bowles, 48, as a composed but emotional Diana, dressed in a conservative navy suit, talked about the breakdown of a marriage that, she said, "I [had] desperately wanted to work." The obstacles, she said, had included Charles's jealousy of her popularity with the press and his enduring attraction to Parker Bowles. Asserting that her "woman's instinct" led her to suspect in 1985 that he was unfaithful, Di said, "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded." Charles's infidelity was "pretty devastating," she added, and triggered "a feeling of being useless and hopeless and failed."

By Di's account, Charles's staff ("the enemy," in her words) preyed on her emotional vulnerability. For example, the depression that she suffered after William was born provided "a wonderful new label," she said: " 'Diana [is] mentally unbalanced.' " She admitted that her cry-for-help, suicidal gestures (including slashing her wrists with a razor and cutting herself on her chest and thighs with a penknife) fueled that notion—as did her struggle with bulimia.

Diana said her relationship with the suave Hewitt helped sustain her because "he was always there to support me." Acknowledging that she eventually began sleeping with him, she added, "I was in love." But then, she said, Hewitt betrayed her. In October 1994 he phoned to assure her that Princess in Love, a bodice-ripping "memoir" produced in collaboration with British journalist Anna Pasternak, was "nothing to worry about." Instead, Hewitt revealed in the book that Di had contemplated leaving Charles for him. "I minded very much that [he] made money out of me," she told Bashir.

Although Hewitt made no reply to her startling confession, Pasternak reported in the Evening Standard that "he was pleased that [Diana] seemed to have found inner strength." Still, there have been indications that he feels a certain regret; a pariah of sorts, he lives the life of a squire in a Devon manor house believed to have been purchased with his $375,000 share of the profits. Last May he told the Sunday Times, "Of course I regret what was written. I wish now that I had confided only in my family." As for the future, he said, "What am I going to do with my life? I'm only good at two things—horses and sex. I suppose that makes me unemployable."

If Di took other lovers, she wasn't telling Bashir. She denied that she had slept with Gilbey (whose suggestive conversation with her sparked the "Squidgygate" scandal when it was leaked to the tabloids in 1992) or made nuisance calls to friend and art dealer Oliver Hoare.

Despite her occasionally bitter tone, the princess described herself to Bashir as a woman above petty jealousy. Even when Charles confessed to infidelity last year, she said, she admired his honesty. When she heard that Dimbleby had written about Charles's affair with Camilla in his biography of the prince (published in October 1994), she drove to Ludgrove school in Berkshire to speak with her sons. William, she said, asked whether his father's infidelity had prompted the separation, and she explained that it was part of the problem—that "although I still loved Papa, I couldn't live under the same roof."

By one account at least, Diana enacted a similar scene on the eve of her own interview. On Nov. 18 she spoke to Prince Harry, 11, at Ludgrove. The next day she was photographed with William at Eton, where she called him aside as he left the chapel and took him behind a hedge for a tête-à-tête, presumably to warn him about the broadcast.

Like her ex-lover, Diana—who dazzled guests and drew an army of paparazzi at a gala for a cancer charity in London on the night of the broadcast—faces an uncertain future. While the Palace reportedly has no plans to send her into exile, it now regards her, according to the Daily Telegraph, as "an unpredictable and grimly determined adversary." Although she is set on remaining as a kind of goodwill ambassador, royal watchers wonder just how far the Palace will go to keep her in the fold. In the wake of the interview, a divorce was expected sooner rather than later, and "this will in no way enhance Diana's position," says biographer Lady Colin Campbell. "This simply makes it easier for Charles to divorce her and for people to understand why he has to do it."

For all the controversy, it seems that the common folk—always Diana's strongest supporters—are still solidly behind her. On the night of Nov. 20 the switchboard at The Sun was flooded with calls from readers praising the princess for her courage, and the next day audience members on the BBC morning chat show Kilroy expressed sympathy for the woman who said she wants to "make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels." Said one starstruck devotee: "I think she's absolutely marvelous. Here's this chap who was having an affair after they got married. How can they say she's to blame?"

MICHELLE GREEN
TERRY SMITH and MARGARET WRIGHT in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Margaret Wright.