As the summer began, the Princess of Wales - in Manhattan ahead of the auction of her dresses at Christie's - spoke frankly about her life with the editor of the 'New Yorker' magazine

MONDAY, 23 JUNE, 1997. The Four Seasons, East 52nd Street, between Lexington and Park. At the invitation of Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, lunch with the Princess of Wales.

Anna and I get there a bit early, the Princess is exactly on time. She wears a mint green Chanel suit with no blouse and a stunning tan. Making her way quickly across the crowded restaurant, she has the startling phosphorescence of a cartoon creation - too blonde, too tall, too painfully recognisable. Perhaps it's her height that's unsettling. It renders her more than just an acute natural beauty. She's like a strange overtired plant, a far-fetched experimental rose.

It is immediately, and surprisingly, easy to talk to her about subjects one might have supposed were off limits. Perhaps her royal armour has begun to fall away, along with the wardrobe that is to be auctioned at Christie's in a week's time. (What remains is something different: celebrity, of the highest wattage.) It's obvious that Anna has the knack of relaxing her. The two worked together on a fashion benefit for breast cancer last September, and have been close since then. Within a few Perrier minutes, we are just a couple of mates having lunch with a famous girlfriend. We talk first about Tony Blair.

"I think at last I will have someone who will know how to use me," Diana says. "He's told me he wants me to go on some missions."

"What sort of missions?" I ask.

"I'd really, really like to go to China," she says. "I'm very good at sorting people's heads out." She says this straightfacedly, and I note that, like many stars with a gift for self-projection, she is almost wholly devoid of irony. But in her case the therapised phrases point to a quality of driven earnestness. It's easy to understand how she could throw herself into a public role, and just as easy, sadly, to see why she would bore Prince Charles. Notwithstanding his sometimes thoughtful pronouncements about architecture and urban planning, the county friends he surrounds himself with are a light-weight crowd. They have a collective class unease about anything that smacks of intensity. And what few people have understood is that Diana's love for Charles, like everything else about her, was embarrassingly intense. Had she been a chilly opportunist, she might have accommodated the marital arrangement favoured by so many of her husband's friends. But her love was tenacious, desperate, uncompromising. Her temperament was not the sort to take a husband's infidelity in stride. How could Charles have known that the demure deb he married would turn out to harbour a cache of emotions out of Emily Bronte?

None of this, though, is on show in the self-possessed woman who comes to lunch. The Princess that once was - the miserable girl who went mad in her cage - must now seem to her to be from another life, along with the dress she wore to dance with John Travolta at the White House. "I've kept a few things," she says about the auction. "But you know that Catherine Walker with all the bugle beads? People in England don't wear those kind of clothes anymore."

I find myself marvelling at how freely she is willing to talk about members of the Royal Family, and at how shrewd she seems to have become at press relations. She understands that in marketing terms the Windsors are a decaying brand, one that requires repositioning by a media genius - perhaps someone like Peter Mandelson. "I tried again and again to get them to hire someone like him to give them proper advice, but they didn't want to hear it," she says. "They kept saying I was manipulative. But what's the alternative? To just sit there and have them make your image for you? Sometimes editors at newspapers would write editorials suggesting things they could do, but instead of paying attention one of the private secretaries would ring up and give the editors a rocket."

I suggest that the antics of the Duchess of York, aka Fergie, don't help the royal cause.

"No," Diana says. "And it's a shame for Andrew, because he really is the best of the bunch. I mean, people don't know this, but he works really, really hard for the country. He does so much, and no one pays any attention at all. It's the same with Princess Anne. She works like a dog, and nobody cares. And I keep saying to Prince Charles, 'It's no good complaining that people don't care about your work. Until you straighten your head out and get things clear, people just won't give you a break.' "

We talk about her sons, William and Harry. "All my hopes are on William now," she says. "I don't want to push him. Charles suggested he might go to Hong Kong for the handover, but he said, 'Mummy, must I? I just don't feel ready.' I try to din into him all the time about the media - the dangers, and how he must understand and handle it. I think it's too late for the rest of the family. But William - I think he has it. I think he understands. I'm hoping he'll grow up to be as smart about it as John Kennedy Junior. I want William to be able to handle things as well as John does."

She plainly hankers for America - for the optimism, the options, the openness. She says she would love to move here. It's as if England for her had become synonymous with the Palace, that grey stone pile which broke her heart. Anyway, she's grown too big for it. Her kind of fame - wild and close to out of control, the sort of stardom that belongs to Elvis and Marilyn, JFK and Jackie - is truly understandable only in celebrity's homeland. "When all the Americans come in July for Wimbledon, you can feel the energy go up," she says wistfully. "It all collapses again when they leave." She smiles. "Well, perhaps Tony Blair will change all that." She speaks warmly of her friendship with Katharine Graham, the wise matriarch of the Washington Post. It's a good sign. Mrs Graham is exactly the kind of social protector Diana has always lacked - a seasoned older woman who has been through hell herself and is not mired in the politics of English aristocratic circles. "I love her," Diana says. "I really do."

We are about to order coffee, and I ask the Princess if she regrets the loss of her chance to be Queen. I assume she will avoid answering, but she surprises me again. "Yes, yes," she says quickly, her eyes lowered. Then she looks up and continues, "We would have been the best team in the world. I could shake hands till the cows come home. And Charles could make serious speeches. But" - she shakes her head - "it was not to be."

Listening to her, I feel a great sadness for England. She is right: they would have been a great team. The Royal Family had already been marginalised by the time she became Princess; it seems even more so now that she is no longer fully part of it. When was the last time the occupant of Downing Street was more charismatic in the public's mind than the occupants of Buckingham Palace? During the Blitz, perhaps, when Churchill was at the noon of his inspirational power. But seldom before, and never since - until now.

"You see, Charles is not a leader," she says. "He's a follower. He was born to the wrong job. He'd have been so happy with a house in Tuscany, being a host to artists. He just wasn't cut out for what he got."

I ask if one of the problems hasn't been the fact that he has had to stand so long in the wings, waiting for his role to open up.

"It's up to him to make his role," she says. "He could do anything. That's what I have tried to do."

I ask about her plans for the summer. For the first time, she looks a little uneasy. August, she says, will be difficult "without the boys", who will spend most of the month at Balmoral with Prince Charles. Still, she adds, now that they attend boarding schools she is getting used to their being away.

She mentions a vexing incident that occurred only the day before: she took her sons to see The Devil's Own, and there was an instant uproar in the press about the film's being sympathetic to the IRA. "I didn't know what it was about when I took them," she says. "We just wanted to see a movie, and we picked it out of the paper because William likes Harrison Ford. I issued a statement straight away, and I called Prince Charles and left a message. I didn't want him to think I was deliberately making trouble." She looks pained as she says this. Her relationship with her ex- husband, one feels, is settling into divorced normalcy - at any rate, she is trying hard to make it do so. She says she especially misses the boys on the weekends Charles has custody of them. What does she do without them? "I stay in town. If I go out, I keep my eyes down or straight ahead. Wherever I go, the press find ways to spy, you know. Often I visit a hospice."

Again, I feel the churn of strangeness I felt an hour before, when I caught sight of that long-stemmed figure weaving towards us through the restaurant's crowd of CEO suits. After Diana's public revelations of bulimia and self-mutilation, the country-house-party set permanently ceased to be part of her world. Televised confessions, talk of therapy, admissions of pain: it was all so emotionally aggressive, so unseemly - so un-English, in a word. And then, on top of it all, this bleeding-heart stuff! In the idiom of Prince Charles's best friend, the Honourable Nicholas Soames MP: "Pass the port, she's not my sort." So, while the rest of her class heads west, taking the M4 to Gloucestershire on a Friday afternoon for a jolly weekend of riding or shooting, the isolated Barbarella prin-cess makes her visits to cancer wards, arriving in a flashing cone of artificial light, like an alien checking out the sorrows of our world.

"Doesn't it drain you, being with dying people so much?" I ask.

"No, never," she answers fervently. "When you discover you can give joy to people like that, there is nothing quite like it. William has begun to understand that, too. And I am hoping it will grow in him." There is a firmness to her voice when she says this, as if she had glimpsed the only thing she can hold fast to. She reminds me of Celia Coplestone, the shallow socialite in TS Eliot's The Cocktail Party, who, devastated by a love that isn't truly reciprocated, surprises everyone in the last act by going off to do humanitarian work in a desolate corner of Africa and becoming a kind of saint. One senses that what began as a public-relations ploy has connected deeply to her fragmented sense of self. She has found a place to channel all that unrequited love, and is learning to be sustained by it.

She describes videotapes of land-mine victims that a friend brought her and says how distraught they made her feel, how determined to help. "That's what I am for," she says. The expression in her eyes as she says this is eerie. Then the moment passes, and she reverts to being a conventional Sloane Street girl. It had just been announced that next year's G7 conference will be in Birmingham. "Oh, God," she says, giggling. "Couldn't they have thought of somewhere less dreary? Birmingham!"

Before we leave the restaurant, Anna asks her if she would ever marry again. She smiles. "Who would take me on?" she says. "I have so much baggage. Anyone who takes me out to dinner has to accept the fact that their business will be raked over in the papers. Photographers will go through their dustbins. I think I am safer alone." We are out on 52nd Street. Two photographers dart forward as she steps into her limo. Di! Over here! Di! Di!

WHEN THE news came of her death, my first thoughts were of place and time - of the wrongness of any royal princess, even a divorced one, contriving to be in that place at that time. In late summer, the Paris of the rich and the titled simply closes down. The city's grandees retreat north to cool woodlands or south to sunny coasts; meanwhile, Diana's English friends and sisters tramp the Scottish heather with the children or rusticate in the Tuscany villa that Archie and Amanda lend them every year. But Paris in August? Dinner at the Ritz weeks before la rentree? The fact that she was there at all was discordant, a poignant symbol of a season of panic and flight.

What of the brave new Diana I had met at lunch? I found it hard to reconcile the ascendance of Dodi Fayed in her life with the woman who had come to appreciate the subtle guidance of Katharine Graham. Some have suggested that the Princess was thumbing her nose at the Royal Family by consorting with the scion of a clan that, in its adopted but less than welcoming country, is so redolent of social, if not financial, rejection. I prefer to see it as a relapse - a wounded and wounding gesture, triggered by the galling emergence of Camilla Parker Bowles as the no- longer-unthinkable wife-in-waiting. The frantic Diana lurked beneath the shining surface after all. And for a woman with so much baggage, at the height of summer, who was there to turn to but a generous boulevardier who had the kit she needed - the planes and the yachts and the money to make it all go away?

The final weeks of Diana's life had hinted at the possibility that she was stumbling down the path blazed by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (whose very Paris villa had been leased by Dodi Fayed's father and elaborately renovated, as if in preparation for new occupants) or, worse, that she was courting the fate of a displaced Mrs Trump. If the dalliance had culminated in remarriage - to a partner at least as inappropriate as Wallis Simpson - then one of the consequences would surely have been the end of any connection with the Crown beyond the minimum required by her status as the mother of its heir once removed. A life of luxurious exile, of meaningless wandering from one pleasure spot to the next, would have been the logical sequel. In that event, the only thing that could have redeemed her in life is the thing that has redeemed her in death: her earnest, utterly unironic efforts to ease a bit of human suffering. Now she is frozen into bas-relief, forever kneeling to comfort some hurt.

DIANA'S death, like her life, has left the Royal Family shaken. From the abdication of Edward VIII until the wedding of Charles and Diana, the Windsors had served as the reassuringly dull continuum against which the traditional calendar of English life could be marked. A Christmas speech, a picnic in Scotland, a Remembrance-Day wreath, a royal christening: the Windsors' appeal was local, modest, unsurprising. Despite plenty of global travel, they were never global stars. The Mercedes that screeched into the Seine tunnel in Paris carried with it not just a Princess and her playboy but a phenomenon that for 16 years had frightened the Royal Family, captivated the nation, and enthralled the world.

As the coffin draped with the Royal Standard emerged slowly from the cargo hold of the plane from Paris, Prince Charles and the Spencer sisters stood silent, watching. The only sound was the soft whirr and click of cameras. What was in the Prince's mind? Along with grief and regret, perhaps this subliminal thought: Can we ever be normal again?

Copyright Tina Brown / 'New Yorker'. All rights reserved.

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