A Late Tribute to a Charming Princess at a Late 60

Published July 1st, 2021 - 06:18 GMT
Happy 60th Birthday Princess Diana
Happy 60th Birthday Princess Diana (Twitter)
‘I’m no lover of gadgets but the boys adore them,’ she said.

Once her birthdays passed virtually unnoticed, just the way she would have liked it. But not this year, not today.

On what would have been Princess Diana’s 60th, the world will be watching the sons she adored — once so close and now so publicly divided — reunite to unveil a statue of their mother at Kensington Palace where they grew up.

Emotions inevitably will be running high as the Covid-restricted ceremony unfolds with a guest list trimmed to the bare minimum. Many will focus on William and Harry’s every expression and facial tic as they stand side by side for the first time since their grandfather Prince Philip’s funeral in April.

For others, the excitement will be the first glimpse of a statue that has taken almost a quarter of a century to realise. How will it look? Can an artist who only worked from photographs truly capture Diana’s iridescent vibrancy?

And then there will be those wondering about what life would have been like now for Diana, who remains forever the iconic young and beautiful princess she was on the day of her death on August 31, 1997.

Landmarks and anniversaries are such a feature of royal life it is scarcely surprising that for members of the Queen’s family birthdays are often treated as an inconvenience rather than something to celebrate.

Certainly that was Diana’s attitude in the years after her separation from Prince Charles. With her children away at boarding school, she was often alone on July 1 — and she preferred it like that.

She was always happier observing someone else’s milestone than her own. The arrival of gifts, cards and flowers at the palace meant hours of extra work with the thank you letters, she would say.

So what happened on that last birthday when she turned 36, and how did she spend it?

The cards had been arriving by the sackload — 300 at her office alone before noon and several dozen more through special channels from close friends and family to her private apartment.

Then there were the flowers; there were 70 bouquets before staff gave up counting. ‘It’s like Kew Gardens in here,’ she told me in an early morning phone call that day, which began with her singing ‘Happy Birthday to ME!....’ down the line.

The flowers came from her charities, her friends and her admirers. The unmarried American private equity tycoon and billionaire owner of Gulfstream jets, Teddy Forstmann, who asked her to be his wife — she always said it was a strategic proposal so he could run for the U.S. presidency — was the most extravagant.

But then Forstmann sent her flowers once a week for three years. When he learned of her romance with Dodi Fayed a few weeks later, he telephoned the princess and told her — jokingly, she hoped — that he was going to throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Another bouquet came from David Tang, the Hong Kong businessman and socialite who managed to remain friends with both Prince Charles and Diana.

Meanwhile, one more hugely expensive floral arrangement was still on its way. Donald Trump would have to up his game if he was serious in his pursuit of the divorced Princess of Wales — he had to get the date of her birthday right. But more of that later. 

Her presents included the latest video camera from Gulu Lalvani, the Indian founder of tech firm Binatone and one of Diana’s most assiduous suitors. 

Just a few weeks earlier, he had taken her dancing to Annabel’s nightclub in Mayfair and he had offered her the use of his luxury home in Thailand for the summer holidays.

But that die had already been cast. Diana had, tragically, chosen Dodi’s father Mohamed Al Fayed’s hospitality over Lalvani’s, so she thanked the businessman for the camera which she told me she would give to Harry for his 13th birthday in September.

‘I’m no lover of gadgets but the boys adore them,’ she said.

Another gift, destined for William this time, was a laser beam device which Diana thought must have been sent to her as a joke. 

One present she wanted to keep but felt she couldn’t was a stunning white Lacroix dress. It was from Argentine fashion fixer, Roberto Devorik. ‘It’s beautiful and incredibly generous of him but I can’t accept it,’ she told me.

Devorik, who had known Diana almost from the moment she became a princess, had organised her trip to Buenos Aires in the aftermath of her Panorama interview, and was a devoted fan.

But she said: ‘I have to be so careful what I am seen wearing in public and if it gets out this dress was a present I know I would be criticised.’

This was a glimpse into the pitfalls of Diana’s post-royal life. It was almost a year since her divorce and a year in which, thanks to her land mines campaign, she had become a global figure.

In recent weeks, she had been a guest at the White House of Hillary Clinton and the sale of her dresses in New York had raised millions with headlines all over the world.

But along with her £17.5 million settlement, her divorce deal had come with strict conditions: she could not exploit commercial opportunities and had already turned down lucrative offers from fashion and fragrance houses.

The gift of a Lacroix dress, she felt, risked being in the same category: it would have to go back.

Ever since turning down Charles’s offer of a 30th birthday party in 1991 — a time when the royal marriage was in deep crisis — Diana had deliberately chosen to have low-key birthdays.

Her 36th was no different. After scanning some of the cards she then turned to official paperwork.

There was an invitation from Harold Evans, the distinguished former newspaper editor, to attend a fund-raising gala in New York for eating disorder charities and a decision needed to be made about a forthcoming trip to Jamaica to support the work of Chain of Hope, the charity set up by eminent cardiologist Sir Magdi Yacoub.

Among those who gave their time freely to Chain of Hope was heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, the registrar whom Diana had been seeing for almost two years.

She also wrote privately to a family involved in a horrific road accident. She found time, too, to write to the former headmistress of her old school, West Heath in Kent, which was on the brink of closure after getting into financial difficulties because of falling student numbers.

Diana had also been following Prince Charles’s visit to Hong Kong where he was officiating on board the Royal Yacht Britannia at the former Crown colony’s handover to China.

The rain-soaked ceremony was broadcast on TV and, when she spoke to the prince next — to discuss holiday arrangements for William and Harry — after his return he told her the rain had followed him from Hong Kong to Manila in the Philippines without ceasing. 

Even though they were now divorced, their relationship was unpredictable, one day chilly, another day warm. The presence of Camilla Parker Bowles still haunted Diana.

Around this time, publicity for a documentary about the prince’s mistress was receiving considerable media interest to Diana’s evident dismay. ‘Why does she get such favourable coverage and I am constantly attacked?’ she asked me.

For Diana, there was no let up on that first day of July. That evening, she changed into a black Jacques Azagury dress which she teamed with an emerald choker and towering heels to attend, as guest of honour, a glitzy charity event at the Tate Gallery.

It was full of glamorous figures, including the Hollywood star Steve Martin, David Bowie’s model wife Iman, cover girl Laura Bailey, crooner Bryan Ferry and the new art world sensation Damien Hirst. One unexpected figure at the party was the princess’s brother Earl Spencer, whom she greeted with a kiss.

Later that night, she called me again. Among the birthday cards had been a letter from Fergie. The two women, who had been through so much together, were now estranged.

The reason? Fergie’s autobiography in which she had written that she had once caught verrucas from wearing a pair of Diana’s shoes. There were other reasons, too, involving issues of trust.

The princess was furious and, ever since the book’s publication the previous autumn, the pair had not spoken.

Until this point, nobody knew. But that night a newspaper was set to go public with the details. 

A friend alerted Diana and she immediately abandoned the letter of thanks she was about to write to the duchess in which she said she was prepared to offer her friendship again.

The two women, once so close because of adversity, were never to be reconciled.

That last birthday was not a typical day for Diana, but it was certainly characteristic.

What then of those flowers — roses and orchids — from the future President Trump? They duly arrived at Kensington Palace, two days after her birthday.

Diana, who had met the then property developer during an official visit to New York in 1995, later described him to the broadcaster Selina Scott as a ‘creep’, although Trump himself was to crudely claim he could have ‘nailed her.’

Diana did not want the flowers in her home and had an inspired idea where they could go. 

She despatched them to the Knightsbridge clinic where she went for sessions of colonic irrigation. It seemed poetic. ‘From one bum to another,’ she told me with a cackle of laughter.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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