Sitting aboard a red-eye flight from Cape Town to London on Sept. 1, 1997, Charles Spencer was caught between numbed disbelief and stomach-churning sadness. Forty-eight hours earlier, his sister Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a horrific car crash in Paris. "I would flit between thinking this was not really happening," he recalls, "to thinking I had to deal with it." To distract himself, Spencer spent the flight contemplating the practicalities of burying his sister. "I was working out who had to do the eulogy," says Spencer. "I went through my address book twice and realized it was going to have to be me. It was an awful feeling—a chill went through me."
Four days later, the ninth Earl Spencer took the pulpit at London's Westminster Abbey to deliver a eulogy that was part soaring tribute, part searing battle cry. Before an estimated worldwide audience of more than 1 billion people, Spencer lauded the sister he called "complex" and "radiant." Locking eyes with his nephews, Princes William and Harry, he vowed that "we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way" in which Diana had been rearing them. "I was not trying to make a big impact," he insists. "I was just trying to do justice to my sister."
Intentional or not, his impact could be felt far beyond the historic church's stone walls. Instantly, Spencer had gone from being Diana's kid brother to Diana's bold avenger. He had been silent when the Queen stripped Diana of the title Her Royal Highness after her 1996 divorce from Prince Charles, silent when the royal family all but froze her out in the years prior to her death. Clearly, he would be silent no longer. The speech "was very much the knightly crusade on Diana's behalf," says royals author Robert Lacey.
It is a crusade that Spencer has continued, and one that has cemented his place in the hearts of his sister's admirers. "I often have to fight with taxi drivers to get them to accept my fare," says the usually tight-lipped earl, talking candidly about his lost sister and the trying four years since her death. "They were particularly fond of Diana."
For those who share that fondness, there is Althorp. Once again this summer, Spencer, 37, will unlock the doors to his family's ancestral estate and his sister's final resting place as well as the home of the $4.1 million museum Diana, a Celebration.
This year's opening holds particular resonance, since it will take place on July 1, the day that Diana would have turned 40. The birthday is one the princess would have regarded apprehensively, suspects her brother. "I imagine she would not have been looking forward to being 40. She was always conscious of her age and appearance," he says. "But I can't see her losing that happiness and strength she had achieved." After her painful marriage, he observes, "she had reached the rebirth stage and was ready to move on."
In place of a candle-studded cake there will be candle-lighting pilgrims, all in search of a connection to the icon they knew—and the mother, sister and wife they didn't. For Spencer, the continued outpouring of grief from strangers remains disconcerting. "I find it difficult when people break down in tears," he says. "I resort to a very British defense mechanism and block it out."
That mechanism offered little protection immediately upon his learning that Diana had been killed when the car in which she was riding had crashed in a Paris tunnel. Then living in South Africa with his four children—Kitty, now 10, twins Eliza and Katya Amelia, 8, and Louis, 7—Spencer was awakened just after midnight by a phone call from the estate manager at Althorp. The next morning, he faced his children in tears. "I said, 'I have got some appalling news. I am afraid Aunt Diana has died,' " he recalls. "They had not seen their father crying before and they stood around looking incredibly sad for me." They also tried to help. "At one point after breakfast, I heard a scraping noise. Kitty, who was 6, was dragging a chair across the kitchen floor to stand at the sink in order to try to do the washing up," he says. "Little gestures like that were so thoughtful and charming."
Larger public gestures, such as the floral sea that washed up at the gates of Kensington Palace in the days after Diana's death, were both strange and reassuring. "The night before the funeral I went with my family to Kensington Gardens and wandered around for half an hour," he recalls. "We kept a low profile. It was comforting to see how much people were stunned by [her death]."
Spencer had risen at 4:30 a.m. one morning earlier that week to write his eulogy. "It took me an hour and a half," he says. "It just tumbled out." On the eve of the funeral, he visited his sister's closed coffin in the chapel at St. James's Palace. Though he says that the experience of seeing the body of his father after he died of a heart attack in 1992 "was useful to realize it really is final," he chose not to view Diana's. "She had been so badly injured," he says, "and I wanted to remember her as she was."
Alone in the chapel, he delivered his eulogy to Diana.
When the sun rose next morning, Spencer could hardly have known what he was in for. The chiming of church bells, the cries of supporters along the cortege route, the shuffle of shoes on pavement—all of it still stings. Walking behind Diana's coffin—alongside William and Harry, their father, Prince Charles, and their grandfather Prince Philip—"was the most harrowing experience of my life," he recalls. "There was a clear feeling of high emotion around you of the most sad and confused sort, all hammering in on you. It was a tunnel of grief."
At the time, Spencer says he opposed the Palace's idea that William, then 15, and Harry, almost 13, participate in the somber march. "I genuinely felt that Diana would not have wanted them to have done it," he says. Nonetheless, "I got a message a couple of days before the funeral saying yes, they did want to do it and they would like me there." In the end, William and Harry "did beautifully," says Spencer.
After his speech at the Abbey, the public gave its own approval to Spencer himself, thereby burnishing his previously tarnished image. Nicknamed Champagne Charlie in the mid-'80s by the British press for his partying ways, Spencer's reputation was largely rehabilitated following his display of brotherly valor.
Ironically, the speech was a reversal of the roles Diana and her brother had long filled: she the protector, he the protectee. After the 1967 split of their parents, Johnnie, the eighth Earl Spencer, and Frances Shand Kydd (65 and living a quiet life in Scotland), the two young siblings grew particularly close. "I always looked after my brother really," Diana told biographer Andrew Morton. Their two older sisters—Lady Sarah McCorquodale, now 46, and Lady Jane Fellowes, 44—"were at boarding school when Diana and I were young," recalls Spencer, "so we spent more time together." Describing himself as "quite shy" as a boy, he adds, "it was very important for me to have a big sister with me at school."
Like all sibling relationships, the one shared by Diana and Charles had its ups and downs. Following an argument, "she would always freeze you out for a bit," says Spencer. "But as soon as she was ready to resume normal relations, I was ready." Once Diana became ensconced in royal life, "I was entirely understanding of the fact that she was not used to hearing the word 'no,' " he says. Yet he believes she appreciated his candor. "She was always just Diana to me—she never became the superstar princess. We were the only people, probably," he says, including his parents and sisters, "who treated her as a normal human being."
Although Diana's peripatetic schedule rendered brother-sister visits infrequent, she did carve out time for a stay at Spencer's Cape Town home in March 1997, about five months before her death. (He had moved there in 1996 to distance his family from the British press.) "It was really nice to spend a few days with no intrusion," he recalls of the paparazzi-free visit. "She was in an incredibly positive frame of mind."
Her brother, on the other hand, was then undergoing a particularly messy breakup. Married in 1989 to former British model Victoria Lockwood, 35, after a whirlwind courtship, he had seen their tempestuous romance become frequent tabloid fodder. During the course of their open-court divorce later that year, Lockwood's lawyers painted the earl as a "serial adulterer." Spencer, in turn, claimed that the marriage dissolved as a result of his wife's "mental and physical health," a reference to her struggles with anorexia and alcoholism. Ultimately, the pair agreed to a settlement in which Lockwood received $2.5 million, a sliver of his estimated $131 million fortune.
These days, Spencer says, he and Lockwood are "perfectly civil to each other." Their four children live with their mother in Cape Town and spend their school breaks with their father at Althorp. "They love it here," says Spencer of the 500-year-old home, about 75 miles from London, which the earl inherited upon his father's death. He says he encourages discussion of Diana. "They did go through a phase when someone would blurt out her name and one of them would say, 'Sssh, you will upset Daddy,' " he recalls. "But I would say, 'No, we must talk about it.' "
With its 121 rooms (Spencer principally occupies five), Althorp remains a monument to the British aristocracy. Diana was 13 years old, her brother 10 when they moved to the 10,000-acre estate in 1975. Today, in addition to magnificent oil paintings and stately marble mantelpieces, the house holds the mundane evidence of daily life. In the living room, Spencer's daughters' dollhouse is tucked under a desk and a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire quiz book rests on a side table. Reminders of the past continue to pop up, such as the earl's recent discovery of a schoolbook inscribed, in wobbly writing, "Diana Spencer." "This house is so huge, I suppose that will go on forever," he says.
A short walk from the house, situated on Althorp's Round Oval island, lies Diana's unmarked grave. Spencer marvels at the remarkable quiet that visitors, who are not permitted on the island, observe around the lake. "It has this cathedral-like atmosphere, and people whisper," he says. "I am well aware that people are not just thinking about [Diana] but about their own tragedies and losses. It is very therapeutic." Such was the case when Trevor Rees-Jones, Diana's bodyguard and the sole survivor of the Paris car crash, visited the grave last summer. "We had a long chat and I left him by the lake, sitting by himself," says Spencer, who calls Rees-Jones a "decent man."
Criticism of the Diana museum—once derided as "Dianaland" in the press—has faded of late. "I am not here to idealize her or pump out propaganda on her behalf," says Spencer. "My family and I took the view that after she died, a lot of people would come [to Althorp] anyway, and that we should do something to satisfy the visitors' curiosity and to protect Diana's name and memory." To charges that he is beatifying his sister, he counters, "No one is pretending she was not human, but at the end of the day she did some pretty amazing things in her short life."
Spencer, who pays $700,000 in annual upkeep for Althorp, does not profit from the $15-per-person admission fee; the money goes instead to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund
, to which Spencer has donated $1.2 million. Visitors (most of whom hail from Great Britain) can see home movies of the princess, the leather-bound diary she kept as a teenager, and the ivory silk taffeta gown she wore for her wedding, nearly 20 years ago in 1981, to Prince Charles. The dress evokes Spencer's memory of seeing Diana as a bride. "That was the first time I realized I had a beautiful sister," he recalls. He dismisses accounts that she was having second thoughts on her wedding day. "The one thing about Diana is that you could see everything in her face," he says. "She was not very good at faking—and she was genuinely happy that day."
As for the memorial fund, which Spencer had criticized in the past for inappropriate licensing, he says he is now "totally satisfied" with the way it is being run. "In the beginning it was an organization that effectively had [$140 million] dumped at its doorstep, so it was chaotic," says former board member Vivienne Parry, a writer and broadcaster. "Now it has settled down and is giving away money in an effective way. And Earl Spencer can see that." So far, the fund, which is headed by Spencer's sister Sarah, has taken in a total of $150 million in donations, $63 million of which has been pledged to 250 different charities worldwide. Among them: numerous children's hospices and land-mine victims' groups—causes that Diana had championed.
Just as Spencer's view of the fund has mellowed, so has his demeanor, revealing a marked difference from the fiery attitude he displayed at Diana's funeral. His once rocky love life has assumed a quiet course since early 1999, when he began dating former elementary-school teacher Caroline Freud, a divorced mother of two. A onetime TV news journalist—he worked as a correspondent for the Today show
from 1986 to 1991—the Oxford-educated Spencer has devoted much of his energy to writing two well-received books, one on Althorp and one on his family's history. He also writes book reviews and articles for several British magazines. "I like the variety in my life," he says.
While his relationship with Prince Charles and the rest of the senior royals remains distant, Spencer sees his nephews, William, who turns 19 on June 21, and Harry, 16, several times a year. Like them, he attended Eton College, where he recently accompanied Harry to a school sporting match. An enthusiastic tennis and cricket player, he shares the young princes' athleticism, along with several of their physical traits—namely, William's stature (at 6'4", Spencer is some two inches taller than Will) and Harry's sandy-red hair. In recent years, "the press have been pretty good about the boys on the whole and have given them space to develop," allows Spencer, who acknowledges that his vow to the princes seems less urgent now than it did then. "[They] both know that they can ask me or anyone else in the family anything, and we would do it for them," he says. "Having said that, it was a vow made to two boys, and they are two young men now."
Though in large part Spencer, too, has moved on, he admits there are times when his grief will catch him off-guard. "Diana had a wonderful sense of humor," he says, "and there are times when I think, 'I must call up Diana and tell her that.' And then I get that sinking feeling when I realize that is not possible."
As is the case with anyone whose life is extinguished so prematurely, the what-ifs of Diana's stolen future continue to linger. Would she have married boyfriend Dodi Fayed, also killed in the crash? Spencer doubts it, as she had never mentioned such a scenario to him. In general, he is loath to speculate beyond the obvious: Had Diana lived, she would still be promoting her causes and, most important, savoring the successes of her grown boys. "She would have been incredibly proud of her sons," he says. He is also certain that, at 40, Diana would have continued her reign as the globe's most famous, followed, fascinating woman. "The sheer pleasure of seeing her face lighting up the front of a magazine made the world a more interesting place," says her brother. "Certainly it has been a lot grayer without her."
Simon Perry at Althorp
- Simon Perry.