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FOR TWO WEEKS, AT LEAST, IT LOOKED AS if the Princess of Wales had reclaimed the privacy she says she craves: During her two-week idyll on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., early last month, she managed to relax with close chum Lucia Flecha de Lima (wife of Brazil's ambassador to the U.S.) in a secluded manor house. Discreet residents kept Di sightings to themselves, and her social secrets—including a yacht trip to the Hyannis Port home of Sargent and Eunice Shriver, where she had a quiet dinner—were well-kept.

Three days after she returned to London, however, Diana, 33, was dealt a humiliating blow. In a story headlined, "Di's Cranky Phone Calls to Married Tycoon," the tabloid News of the World claimed that, over a period of 18 months, the princess had made as many as 300 anonymous calls to platonic confidant Oliver Hoare. A dashing Old Etonian who is a longtime friend of Prince Charles's, Hoare, 48, had volunteered to act as a go-between for the Waleses when their marriage was collapsing and listened for long hours as Diana poured out her sorrow and frustration. As the tabloid told it, the lonely, obsessive Di had rung his $3.5 million home in Chelsea as often as five times a day beginning in September 1992; she reportedly stayed on the line, saying nothing, while the increasingly anxious Hoare demanded, "Who's there? Who's there?"

The explosive story raised several troubling points—the most provocative of which involved Di's state of mind. For some time both friends and enemies have wondered whether the embattled princess is on the verge of a breakdown. Since 1992, when Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story, revealed that she suffered from bulimia and had made several cry-for-help suicide attempts, insiders have spoken more freely about her mental problems. As one veteran Di watcher has put it, "She's all over the place and probably heading for a complete breakdown." Now, without the Palace to provide guidance, Diana seems at sea. Feeling the pressure of living as an exile, she seeks help from aromatherapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors—and, occasionally, from a sympathetic male whom she sees as a knight in shining armor.

When, for example, she learned on Aug. 21 that the phone-harassment story was about to break, Di took the extraordinary step of summoning Richard Kay, the Daily Mail correspondent who has become her champion.

An "urbane, personable, good-looking guy," in the words of a colleague, the unmarried Kay, 38, had befriended Di on her 1993 visit to Nepal. "I think she quite fancies him," says a Fleet Street veteran who knows Diana. "There's a definite frisson between them." Although he is believed to have turned down her offer of a job as her press secretary, Kay reportedly agreed to trade advice for scoops: "He gives her unqualified support, and she gives him inside information," in the words of one royal watcher.

In May, Diana turned to Kay after a photographer had snapped her sunbathing topless on Spain's Costa del Sol; the two rendezvoused near Harrods and spent an hour talking in her car, where she moaned about her "bloody awful weekend." Kay obliged Diana by writing a story portraying her as an outraged innocent and followed up with a flattering exclusive on May 19, detailing her efforts to help rescuers aiding a tramp who had fallen into a lake in Regent's Park.

On Aug. 21, Di and her defender met at 4 p.m. in Talbot Square, where a freelance photographer who had followed up a report that Di was nearby snapped their "secret" meeting. Wearing jeans and a baseball cap pulled down low, Di ducked into Kay's Volvo, and he sped off. According to The Sun (which bought the clandestine pictures), the pair returned at 6:30 p.m.; they moved to her Audi and "talked intensely.... At one point, Diana appear[ed] to seek comfort by resting her head on Kay's shoulder."

What was she saying? According to Kay, Di insisted that there was "no truth" to the story and lamented, "What have I done to deserve this? They are trying to make out I was having an affair with this man or had some sort of fatal attraction. I feel I am being destroyed." Acknowledging that Hoare had "helped me and I have phoned him," she allowed that she might have hung up on his wife but denied that she was the mystery caller. When Kay asked about reports that she had rung Hoare from pay phones, she told him, "You can't be serious. I don't even know how to use a parking meter, let alone a phone box." Di also claimed that she was the victim of an antiroyalist plot: "Do you realize that whoever is trying to destroy me is damaging the institution of monarchy?" she said. (Palace watchers found the notion absurd: On Aug. 22 the Evening Standard asked, "High-level conspiracy against the royal family—or one woman's descent into madness?")

Diana, of course, had already realized that the story would fuel reports that she is unstable. "Somewhere, someone is going to make out that I am mad," she told Kay. As if to prove that point, she threw a bit of a fit when they parted: While Kay was leaning into her car as the two were saying goodbye, a passerby reportedly told them that he had spotted a photographer. Di—who had spent nearly three hours unburdening herself to a reporter who she knew would write about their encounter—"race[d] off the wrong way round the square in her car...looking for the cameraman," said The Sun.

The next day the News of the World ran a detailed report on Hoare and the anguish that he had suffered. A charismatic millionaire, he has been married for 18 years to socialite Diane de Waldner, 46. With sons Tristan, 17, and Damian, 15, and daughter Olivia, 12, the Hoares live in a three-story house on fashionable Tregunter Road in Chelsea. An expert in Islamic art who often jogs to his gallery in Belgravia, he is "sophisticated and very loyal," in the words of a friend who spoke to The Sun, "...the sort of man you could confide your innermost secrets [to] without fear of being betrayed."

One of the few people who was close to both of the Waleses, Hoare invited Charles and his inamorata Camilla Parker Bowles to discreet dinners at his home and served as an ad hoc counselor for Di. He urged the Waleses to save their marriage, and he offered a sympathetic shoulder for Di while she was trying to gain her footing as a woman alone. As a friend described it to The Sun, the needy princess may have mistaken his gallantry for a "fantasy romance."

As the News of the World told it, the strange, silent calls (as many as 20 a week) began in September 1992; although most were made during the day, some came as late as midnight. Over time, Hoare reportedly came to fear that he was the target of a plot by Muslim fanatics; in October 1993, after his wife picked up the phone and a woman shouted "a stream of abuse," he sought help from the police.

Detectives reportedly arranged for British Telecom to place a sophisticated tracing device on Hoare's phone; he was instructed to punch a secret code that would trigger tracking equipment when the nuisance caller rang. The trace began on Jan. 13—just as Di (who had spent a desultory New Year's with De Lima in Washington) packed princes William, 12, and Harry, 9, off to-school. There were six calls that day and six more through Jan. 19, when detectives presented Hoare with a list of numbers to which the calls had been traced. They reportedly included four lines at Kensington Palace, as well as Di's mobile phone. When Hoare saw the numbers, a police source told the News of the World, "his face was as white as a sheet."

Declining to press his complaint, Hoare promised to speak to Di when she called again—as she soon did. "Shout-[ing] her name to shock her into confessing," according to the tabloid, he allegedly heard her sob and say, "Yes, I'm so sorry, so sorry. I don't know what came over me." Within days, however, the calls reportedly resumed—this time from public phones in Kensington and from the house of Di's sister Sarah McCorquodale, as well as from Kensington Palace.

Curiously, Hoare never broke off his relationship with Diana; by one report he remained friendly with her because he wanted to let Charles know how she was faring. On March 14, Hoare had coffee at Kensington Palace with Di after a "kiss-and-make-up" dinner and, according to The Sun, later phoned Charles "to report that the meeting had ended amicably."

The question, of course, is whether anyone other than Di would have had the opportunity—or the motive—to make the calls. Diana reportedly showed Kay her diary in an attempt to prove that she couldn't have phoned from the Palace in January, but her alibi witnesses did not come forward. At 2:12 p.m. on the 13th, for example, Hoare logged an anonymous call; Di claimed she had been lunching at the time with Mariza, Lady Stevens, but Stevens could not be reached for comment. Bookers at the Daniel Galvin salon, where Di claimed to have been when the caller rang on the 18th, said they kept no records from January, and pal Catherine Soames was not available to support Di's story that the two had been at the cinema when Hoare received a call on the 15th.

Other sources have failed to help Di make her case. A Palace spokeswoman would say only that the phone harassment "is a police matter." Neither British Telecom nor Scotland Yard denied the story, and Hoare has kept quiet. Asserts a senior royal watcher: "There is no doubt she made the calls—none at all."

By Di's own account, she spoke to Hoare when the crank-call story broke. On Aug. 23 the Daily Mail reported that Hoare had "discussed the crisis" with Di but had not followed up on a suggestion that he issue a statement—allegedly because he was reluctant "to say anything that would appear to question her version of events." Even family members admit that Di's grip on reality may be shaky. Her brother Charles once confided to Andrew Morton that Diana "had a real difficulty telling the truth," and relatives say privately she has always had a propensity to embroider—or simply overlook—inconvenient facts. "Ever since childhood, Diana has had difficulty separating fact from fiction, reality from invention. It is a symptom of her illness," says Ross Benson, one of Charles's biographers. Known for choosing only friends who support her point of view, Di seems to rely on denial. In The Sun's words, she "seems to have convinced herself...that she did not make [the] anonymous calls. In psychiatric jargon, this is the 'denial phase' of a distressed mind. In plain English, it is lying."

At least one psychiatrist believes that such compulsiveness—in bending the truth, in binge eating, in making anonymous calls—is a sign of feeling "helpless and hopeless." Says Dr. Dorothy Rowe, London-based author of a book about depression: "Somebody who makes these kinds of calls may be feeling so vulnerable that they become dependent upon one person—someone they see as a lifeline. And they need to know that the person is around. People in that situation will constantly ring up to check that you're home."

Although Di consulted psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Lipsedge for an eating disorder in 1988, it is unclear whether she has undergone further therapy. Recently it was revealed that she had been treated for bulimia by a pair of con men—Derek Howell, a convicted robber who called himself a nutritionist, and Roderick Lane, a "physician" who has no license. (Lane came to the press's attention in late July, when he reported that a computer containing Di's records had been stolen from his office.)

In any case those close to Diana are worried about the effects of the latest scandal. "This is the sort of stuff that could push her over the edge," an insider told Today. Eor his part, even Charles was said to be troubled by her discomfort. "There's no love lost between them," says Benson, "but he's as concerned as anyone about her well-being."

Insiders say that the coming months are likely to be difficult for Diana. On Aug. 23, News of the World editor Piers Morgan promised he would publish further revelations that would put "an entirely new light" on her version of the story. And in November a new book on the princess is due from Morton, whose poor-Di biography alienated the Windsors forever.

For the moment, at least, Diana has been keeping a low profile. After her heart-to-heart with Kay, she kept an Aug. 23 appointment for a sitting at the West London studio of painter Nelson Shanks, who is working on a portrait. In a photo taken when she emerged, clutching a bouquet given to her by the artist, her jaw was tight and her face strained. The following day, Diana tried to elude photographers when she left the posh Chelsea Harbour Club after a workout. Sneaking out through the kitchen, she jumped off a loading dock—and (in a shot that seemed symbolic) she was snapped by a waiting lensman as she headed toward the ground.

MICHELLE GREEN
TERRY SMITH and MARGARET WRIGHT in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Margaret Wright.