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The One . . .



Diana had been born on the grounds of the queens immense estate at Sandringham, but when Johnnie Spencer inherited his earldom he also inherited Althorp, the Spencer family seat in Northamptonshire.

So the new earl and his family relocated from Park House to this rambling centuries-old stone pile that had risen on the site of the ancient lost village of Althorp and was the centerpiece of a 14,000-acre country estate.

A long-ago ancestor, Sir John Spencer of Warwickshire, had bought Althorp in the 16th century with money he had earned as a super- successful sheep farmer. The Spencers’ original red-brick Tudor home had been thoroughly redone in the 18th century by architect Henry Holland, and it was the Holland house that was handed to Johnnie in 1975. The current generation of Spencers was by then a broken family. The older girls, Sarah and Jane, were little impacted by the move; they were already largely out on their own. But Diana, even though she boarded at West Heath, now called Althorp “home,” as did her younger brother, Charles.

Life had changed. The new house, though indisputably grand, was draftier, creepier. Since the 1950s, when the 7th Earl Spencer first opened the doors of Althorp to the public in order to get around tax codes, it hadn’t been a strictly private family dwelling—and now Johnnie, to supplement upkeep, instituted paid tours. If Diana and her brother were at first stoic, they were less so after Lord Spencer remarried on July 14,1976, to Raine, Countess of Dartmouth. Johnnie knew his kids had disapproved of the relationship, so he simply hadn’t bothered to tell them of the wedding. The Spencer girls and Charles truly detested this headstrong woman. Upon their stepmother’s arrival, someone wrote in the Althorp visitor book: “Raine stopped play.” Things would bottom out after Johnnie suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage in 1978 and Raine, while nursing him back to health, would not allow his own children to visit his bedside.

But in between Raine sweeping in and Johnnie’s convalescence, there was a day at Althorp in November of 1977 that is worth recalling.

Diana, the dreamy romantic and Barbara Cartland addict, had loved Prince Charles—the very idea of him—since she was a young girl. Charles, for his part, had been vaguely aware of that young girl since she’d been a neighbor at Sandringham; he considered her, when he considered her at all, as one of the children who played with his younger brothers, Andrew and Edward, at times when the royal family was on holiday in the country.

In 1977? Charles, first in line of succession to the British throne, was without peer the world’s most eligible bachelor. The Fleet Street press, having been transformed by the RMs—Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch—was chronicling and speculating and insinuating on a daily basis. Who would be “The One”—the one who was sufficiently beautiful and elevated and pure to be the next queen-in-waiting? The English public, voracious newspaper hounds, couldn’t wait for the latest scoop. The people thrilled when Charles showed up at a society event with a pretty young Brit on his arm, and were dismayed when he was linked to an American actress or one or another “Latin firecracker.” Charles’s great uncle Lord Mountbatten, who was his most-trusted adult counselor (his father, Prince Philip, being domineering in the extreme and not prone to explication), had urged the boy to sow his wild oats before settling down. Charles seemed only too happy to heed this advice, and oats were sown far and wide.

He dated, among many others, Lady Sarah Spencer, whom he formally met at the Royal Ascot House party in the summer of 1977, not long after his discharge from the Royal Navy. She was invited to Windsor and Balmoral castles among other places for a variety of events, and this news of course made the gossip pages of the tabloids. That was okay with Charles; he couldn’t eat breakfast without press coverage of the crumpets and kippers, and so being speculatively paired with this daughter of the peerage was unavoidable and not entirely unwelcome. Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, thought well enough of the Spencers, and there was some betting in England, where folks bet on everything, that this might be the real thing. That Sarah might be The One.

During their relationship, Charles visited Althorp for a pheasant hunt. (An American might pause here to remark: Royal Ascot house parties, pheasant hunts—you can’t make this stuff up!) Diana watched longingly from the sidelines as Charles, her father and their dogs marched through the plowed fields in search of prey. She was introduced to the prince, and managed not to melt. If Charles remembered Diana from earlier, it wasn’t clear, but she now made an impression. A family friend later told McCall’s that Diana, a spirited, long-legged 16-year-old, taught Charles “how to tap-dance on the terrace.” According to Time magazine, Charles was taken with “what a very amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was.” When it came time for a tour of the Spencers’ gallery of Old Masters paintings, which included several masterworks by van Dyck, Charles asked Diana to show him ’round—this after Sarah had told her kid sister to bug off. Years later, Princess Diana would tell her public-speaking tutor Peter Settelen that she had felt pity for Charles “that my sister was wrapped around his neck because she’s quite a tough old thing.” Lady Sarah would only be so wrapped for a few weeks more, because the prince called the whole thing off after Sarah dished liberally about their relationship to the frothing Fleet Streeters.

Charles, just turning 30, could not, of course, show any kind of attention to a 16-year-old girl from an aristocratic family. But he certainly left Althorp on that November day with a memory.

Lord Spencer, who died at age 68 on March 29,1992, is buried in the Great Brington parish church, near Althorp. Diana is buried on a small island in the center of a lake at Althorp.

The great house remains open to the public in the summer, with all proceeds now going to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

Diana left West Heath girls school without having passed a single O-level exam but having been awarded a prize for outstanding community spirit. She studied (using the term loosely) very briefly at the Institut Alpin Videmanette, a now-defunct finishing school in Switzerland where the coursework included cooking, dressmaking, the French language and skiing. Diana skied better than she cooked, but didn’t like much of anything about the school and petitioned her parents to be allowed to return to England. They acceded, and Diana landed in London before her 17th birthday, staying first at her mother’s flat in town (Mrs. Shand Kydd was usually in Scotland) and then later in a South Kensington apartment found for her by Sarah and bought with £50,000 in family money from an inheritance that was freed up with her father’s permission. She would live there with three girlfriends as flatmates until 1981, after which she would move with her husband to a more luxe set of rooms.

So she was out from under Althorp and Raine, out from under school. She was a lovely teenage girl at liberty in the big city. What to do?

Well . . . shop!

And keep up those cooking lessons (at her mother’s urging).

And maybe look for a little work.

In the first capacity she became a card-carrying Sloane Ranger, a societal subset of upper- and upper-middle-class young women of the late 1970s and ’80s nicknamed for the posh Chelsea square where they hailed from, hung out, sipped Champagne or, yes, shopped. They were characterized—or satirized—as fiber-preppies, generally underemployed and somewhat proudly anti-intellectual. They had a fashion sense and a patois that marked them. They knew who they were, and they recognized Lady Diana Spencer as a queen among Sloanes.

If Diana was not expected by friends or family to make something of herself professionally, it was nonetheless supposed that she would do something with herself. She was okay with that. Ever since she was encouraged in dance by the famed Madame Vacani upon the great woman’s visit to West Heath school (Vacani’s legendary studio in Knightsbridge had long been the training ground for children of the highest upper classes, including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and a young Prince Charles), Diana had dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer one day. But although her training and natural talent would serve her well at royal balls and when cutting a rug with John Travolta, Diana was headed for a physical height of 5 foot 10—much too tall to be a ballet dancer.

But not too tall to tutor, and an early job in London was as an apprentice teacher of children at the Vacani studio. She left after only three months. It’s not clear why. She claimed a ski injury, but that story had various versions. Subsequent jobs included housecleaning at her sister Sarah s flat (Diana was paid a pound per hour), hostessing at parties, working as a nanny for an American family in London and then as a nursery assistant at the Young England Kindergarten in Pimlico. If there is a through-line in her employment, it is children, and later testimony by the parents of several kids she worked with indicates that she was magical with and among them. She was charismatic and kind, sensitive and simpatico, energetic and—again—empathetic.

Her social whirl at ages 17 and 18 was active but in no way untoward; her three flatmates were sister Sloanes, and this quartet traveled in a society of pretty young things who went to the expected places, danced to the expected music. Diana, as if saving herself for her still-imagined Prince Charming, avoided serious entanglements. She was among her set’s last virgins standing.

Which would be a factor when Prince Charles started paying much closer attention in the summer of 1980 after he remet Diana, now 19, at the country estate of Commander Robert de Pass, a friend of Charles’s father, and de Pass’s wife, Philippa, a lady-in-waiting to Charles’s mother. Their son, Philip, had invited Diana for the weekend, knowing Charles would be the guest of honor: “You’re a young blood. You might amuse him.” Diana watched Charles play polo at Cowdray Park, then all returned to the estate for a barbecue. At one point, Diana found herself sitting next to Charles on a hay bale. The conversation eventually wound around to Earl Mountbatten, who had been assassinated by Irish Republican Army terrorists the previous year, and Diana said to Charles quite earnestly, as she later confided to her chosen biographer, Andrew Morton, “You looked so sad when you walked up the aisle at Lord Mountbatten’s funeral. My heart bled for you when I watched.

I thought, ‘It’s wrong. You’re lonely. You should be with somebody to look after you.’ ”

Charles was genuinely moved by Diana’s words, and almost immediately their relationship changed—and raced toward engagement, which would be announced on February 24,1981. Diana was dizzied by the prince’s—her prince’s—new attentions. Charles, almost certainly, saw a palatable and undeniably pretty answer to a dilemma.

There was so much that was very, very, very wrong with this pairing, and so much of what was wrong was in evidence before they wed. Charles’s relationships, encouraged by Mountbatten (who meantime had been angling for Charles to marry his own granddaughter Amanda), were many—and included several adulterous liaisons with married women of the upper class. One of these women was Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he had loved for a long time and who would eventually become his second wife. Charles wasn’t ready to forgo any parts of his lifestyle; in fact, given a choice, he probably wouldn’t have wed Diana at all, surely not in that time frame. But his grandmother the Queen Mum and his intimidating father, in particular, were pressing him, vigorously asserting that Charles’s position as heir to the throne came with responsibilities, and that this Spencer girl (Church of England, young, probably fertile, seemingly without a past) looks to be the answer. Right now.

Diana certainly angled to become Charles’s love, as many biographers allege; and she certainly must have been savvy enough to experience some disquiet and perhaps doubt during her betrothal; but just as certainly, she was a relative innocent in this game. Her biographer Morton (and therefore Diana herself) wrote that, for instance, she was unaware that the married Parker Bowles intervened—or did not—in Charles’s affairs depending upon whether she felt the new female in question posed a challenge to her own personal relationship with the prince. She apparently felt Diana represented little threat.

So Charles proposed and Diana said yes. She moved into Clarence House, the London home of the Queen Mother, in preparation for the great day.

Would she have done so, if she had known? Would she have done so if she knew that, only shortly into her marriage, she would be weeping as she overheard Charles say into the phone, “Whatever happens, I will always love you”?


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It is a quote. LIFE MAGAZINE AUGUST 2017

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