THE NIGHT OF AUG. 30 HAD BEEN a special one for Paul Burrell, Princess Diana's longtime butler. After taking his wife, Maria, and their two children to a London performance of the musical Beauty and the Beast, Burrell, 39, and his brother Graham, 32, chatted until 1 a.m. at Paul's Kensington Palace apartment. An hour later a policeman knocked on the door with chilling news: Diana had been in a car crash. "It was like a bad dream," says Graham, a coal miner turned textile maker. "It really knocked Paul sidewards."

But not down. "He said straight away, 'I've got to go be with her,' " says Graham. By late morning, a grim-faced Burrell was in La Pitié-Salpétrière hospital in Paris, where he clothed the woman he respectfully referred to as The Boss in a dress he had picked from her closet. Then he gently tidied her hair and held her hand while waiting for her sisters and Prince Charles to arrive. Says attorney Richard Greene, a friend of both Burrell's and Diana's: "He wanted to make her a princess in death as she was in life."

Burrell's complete dedication made him far more than an ordinary employee to Diana. (Unconfirmed reports have claimed that he has shredded her most private documents to preclude their scrutiny.) In recent years, says Graham, "He was butler-cum-personal assistant-cum-press secretary-cum-chauffeur. I can't think of anything he wouldn't have done." Diana, in turn, called him My Rock. "He had an uncanny ability to read her," says Jerry White, director of the Landmines Survivors Network. When Di visited Bosnia in August, says White, who accompanied her, Burrell knew instinctively "whether she wanted water, a pear or a granola bar, and she would greet the offer with, 'Oh, Paul, what would I do without you?' "

What, indeed. Known for her mercurial moods, Diana had a staff that was always in flux: some 30 of her employees resigned or were laid off over the years. "Like most people who worked with her, the relationship with Paul would go up and down," says a palace insider. "But he stuck with it." Burrell and his family—Maria, a onetime maid to the Duke of Edinburgh, and sons Alexander, 11, and Nicholas, 9—even accompanied Di and her two sons on outings to theme parks and the movies. "Paul's family was like an extension of Diana's own," Graham says.

For Burrell, serving royalty was the culmination of a long-held dream. The son of a Derbyshire truck driver and his factory-worker wife, Paul steered clear of coal mining, the local business chosen by Graham and their brother Anthony, now 36, to pursue a college degree in hotel management and catering. "Buckingham Palace was his ambition from day one," says Monica Simpson, manager of the hotel in Torquay, England, where Burrell worked after college. She was hardly surprised when her young charge was hired away in 1976 after writing to the Palace. "His demeanor was that of a person who could handle that type of job and all that goes with it—such as discretion," Simpson says.

Burrell was a footman—a position that involves menial tasks such as laying out clothing—at the Queen's Balmoral residence when a shy Diana made her first visit in 1980. Asked to look after Prince Charles's soon-to-be fiancée, Burrell "was approachable," says Graham. "She could easily talk to him." At Di's request, he became butler at High-grove (Charles's country residence) in 1988, and then moved to Kensington Palace, occupying a three-bedroom apartment 100 yards from Diana's, when the couple split. When Diana vacationed in the Caribbean during her divorce negotiations last year, it was Burrell who reportedly stood by her fax machine to watch for dispatches from her lawyers.

Now that Diana is gone, Burrell's friends and relatives wonder how he will carry on. The only nonfamily member to attend Diana's burial, he was so distraught at her funeral that "I thought he was going to fall when he walked in," says friend Richard Greene. "I almost left my seat to catch him."

Though he remains in charge of taking inventory of the Princess's belongings, his job will end in December. Greene reports that Burrell has received "several generous offers" from prospective employers in the U.S. and Britain, but his future remains uncertain. One thing, however, is not in doubt. "I am one hundred percent sure the secrets he has, he will never tell," says Graham. "That's what he'll be: a keeper of secrets."

KIM HUBBARD
SIMON PERRY in London

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