'A One-Woman Crusade for Independence': My Memories of Princess Diana

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of Lady Diana's tragic death, her personal secretary recounts her triumphant Paris tour of 1992.

|
Jul 26 2017, 3:45pm

Foto de Bettmann vía Getty Images

The following is an excerpt reprinted from Shadows of a Princess by Patrick Jephson © 2017 by Patrick Jephson, used with permission by HarperCollins publishers.

Given the increasingly fraught atmosphere, it was a relief to set out for Paris a couple of days after Remembrance Day on the Princess's next solo tour. Friday 13 November—a date that might have promised ill omens—turned out to mark the start of a particularly rewarding trip. Its indisputable success finally threw down the gauntlet to those who might figuratively have wished the Princess to "get to a nunnery."

As the official responsible for the tour, I was painfully conscious of the subplot of Palace politics which would determine its perceived success or failure quite as much as anything that happened in front of the adoring crowds in Paris. The French media had already decided which side it supported. Paris-Match carried a front-page Demarchelier photograph along with the exhortation, "Courage Prin­cesse!" Not for the first or last time, we set off on our ambassadorial mission uncomfortably conscious that success abroad was unlikely to translate into universal approval at home.

"We'll show them!" said the Princess, determined blue eyes staring fixedly out of the window of the royal jet. She seemed to be speaking to the whole city as we climbed into the sky above London. In fact, I knew her words were more specifically intended for the occupants of a group of buildings at the end of the Mall, for the newsrooms of the capital, and for certain residents of country houses in Gloucestershire.

Interestingly, she had also said "we." I had come to recognize that simple pronoun as a code word of huge significance. This was not the royal "we" so beloved of dumb comedians. It was an invitation to a conspiracy. It was an offer of triumph or guilt by association with her one-woman crusade for independence. That "we" gave her courage and recruited other consciences to share her doubts. It often gave me nightmares, but by now it was far too late for me to get off the roller coaster that her life had become. I was too closely associated with this turbulent Princess to expect the offer of a safe, alternative position in the royal machine—and anyway, the terror of the ride had become a powerful drug. I was hooked.

Read more: Meet the Anonymous Fans Tweeting Princess Diana's Final Days

The Paris tour, though only lasting three days, turned out to be a triumph. Under the benign eye of the towering British Ambassador Ewen Fergusson, the program ran smoothly from one successful engagement to the next. Each was a classic set piece in which the Princess's striking beauty and crowd-pleasing style could be displayed to maximum advantage.

She glowed under the rapturous attention, responding as usual to the stimulus of public expectation by producing a flawless display of how to be a royal celebrity. Every gesture, every glance, every step of every walkabout revealed a professional at the peak of her form and no one, from the President of the Republic to the most cynical member of the press circus, was immune to her charm. The President was perhaps particularly susceptible. In the ornate splendour of the Elysee Palace, he and his wife hosted an intimate tea party. Differences of age, language, and status were swept aside as the Princess's laughter and the growing animation of her hosts overcame the formality of our surroundings.

As she took leave of the Mitterrands at the top of the Palace steps, scores of flashbulbs erupted simultaneously, bathing the Princess in an eerie blue light, freezing her image starkly against the historic stonework. She somehow dwarfed not only the head of state, who bathed in her reflected glory, but even the imposing imperial backdrop itself.

Perhaps it was the convergence of powerful symbols that momentarily made me lose my professional detachment. I was suddenly gripped by the realization that I was witnessing a defining moment, and even then I was poignantly aware that it marked a peak which would never again be scaled. Subconsciously I never forgot the marital clash that awaited us back in London. Subconsciously I also knew that, even if she won the battle for her independence, the war would cost the Princess her crown. This was all still in the future, however. In that instant, as the electronic daylight threw the surrounding Parisian dusk into momentary blackness, the Princess shone at her brightest.

Less than five years later, in the same city and under the same remorseless flashbulbs, she lay broken and dying in the wreckage of a car. This time there had been no police outriders, only paparazzi on motorbikes; there had been no benign Ambassador at her side, only a playboy lover; and there had been no watchful protectors, under whose attention she may sometimes have chafed but from whom she had fatally cut herself off.

For me, her Paris tour of November 1992 marked the Princess's apogee. Many more great and uplifting achievements still lay ahead of her, but in my memory these were always tarnished to some extent by the shortcomings and doubts which her new independence all too readily exposed. Paris saw her, briefly, without that tarnish. To my eyes, knowing what she had already endured and what lay ahead in the immediate future, there was something heroic in her. Like much heroism, it was not without its flaws and may even have been the compensating flip side of some deep fear. Nonetheless, that night in Paris it sprang from a strength of spirit momentarily freed from accumulations of false sentiment in a simple bid for survival.

Stories