Hereditas Historiae

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The Sunday Times  - 20 August 2017

 August 20 2017

Sex, lies and audiotape: Andrew Morton on how Diana’s memoir rocked the world

'Twenty-five years after the publication of his explosive book, Diana: Her True Story, Andrew Morton reveals the elaborate plan and clandestine meetings that allowed the Princess of Wales to pour out her heart for the first time about her failed marriage and attempted suicides


The Sunday Times controversially serialised the book in 1992

The moment that changed my life took place in an anonymous working-men’s cafe in the equally anonymous London suburb of north Ruislip. As labourers noisily tucked into plates of egg, bacon and baked beans, I put on a pair of headphones, turned on a battered tape recorder and listened with mounting astonishment to the unmistakable voice of the world’s most famous woman as she poured out a tale of woe and misery.

It was like being transported into a parallel universe as the Princess of Wales spoke about her unhappiness, her sense of betrayal and her isolated life as a prisoner of the palace. As she talked, she made three astonishing revelations: her suicide attempts, her eating disorder — bulimia nervosa — and her husband’s love for a woman called Camilla.

I left the cafe reeling, scarcely able to believe what I had heard. It was as though I had been admitted into an underground club that was nursing a secret — a dangerous secret. On my way home that evening I kept well away from the edge of the Underground platform, my head spinning with the same paranoia that infected the movie All the President’s Men, about President Nixon, the Watergate break-in and the subsequent investigation by Woodward and Bernstein.

Even at the distance of 25 years, it is a scarcely believable story. Hollywood producers would have dismissed the script as too far-fetched; a beautiful but desperate princess, an unknown writer, an amateur go-between and a book that would rock the monarchy.

In 1991, Princess Diana was approaching 30. She had been in the limelight all of her adult life. Her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 was described as a “fairy tale” by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the popular imagination, the prince and princess, blessed with two young sons, William and Harry, were the glamorous face of the House of Windsor. The very idea that their 10-year marriage was in trouble was unthinkable — even to the notoriously imaginative tabloid press.

For nearly a decade I had been writing about the royals, chronicling their work as they toured the globe. I had met Charles and Diana on numerous occasions at press receptions, where conversations with the princess were light, bright and trite, usually about my loud ties.

However, life as a royal reporter was not one long jolly. Over the years I had cultivated contacts inside the royal redoubt who helped me with various books. The previous year I had written a frothy lifestyle tome about the princess called Diana’s Diary. Though several interviewees had dropped dark hints that all was not well in the Waleses’ marriage, nothing had prepared me for the extent of the couple’s problems.

That insight came courtesy of Dr James Colthurst, a surgeon I first met in October 1986 on a routine royal visit, when he escorted Diana as she opened a new CT scanner at St Thomas’ Hospital, central London, where he worked.

Afterwards, over tea, I questioned him about Diana’s visit. It soon became clear that Colthurst, an Old Etonian and son of a baronet whose family have owned Blarney Castle in Ireland for more than a century, had known the princess for years.

Doctor’s call: James Colthurst, whose friendship with the princess gave Andrew Morton the link he needed - ANDRE CAMARA

Chatty but diffuse, Colthurst was happy to talk about any subject but the princess. Still, I thought, he could become a useful contact. How right that hunch proved to be. During this time Colthurst was being admitted into her secret club, learning a little about her heartache over her suspicions that her husband was having an affair with the wife of a friend. He was not the only one in the know. All those working for the Waleses realised that the simmering cauldron of deceit, subterfuge and duplicity at Kensington Palace was going to boil over sooner or later. How long, they asked themselves on a daily basis, could the conspiracy to hoodwink the future queen continue? Perhaps indefinitely — or until the princess was driven mad by those she trusted and admired, telling her time after weary time that Camilla was just a friend. Her suspicions, they reasoned, were misplaced; the imaginings, as the Queen Mother told her circle, of “a silly girl”.

Diana was coming to realise that, unless she took drastic action, she faced a life sentence of unhappiness and dishonesty. Not only did she consider herself to be a prisoner trapped inside a bitterly unfulfilled marriage, she also felt disempowered by a royal system that was ruled — in her words — by the “men in grey suits”. Inside the palace she was treated with kindly condescension. “And meantime Her Royal Highness will continue doing very little, but doing it very well,” was the comment by one private secretary at a meeting to discuss future engagements.

Remember, this was the woman who in 1987 had done more than anyone alive to remove the stigma surrounding the deadly Aids virus, when, against palace advice, she took the hand of a terminally ill sufferer at London’s Middlesex Hospital. While she was not able to articulate it fully, Diana had a humanitarian vision for herself and felt that if she was able to explain her story to the people, her people, they could truly understand her before it was too late. Telling that story, it turned out, is where I would come in.

In touch: Diana holds the hand of an Aids sufferer at Middlesex Hospital, 1987 - ANWAR HUSSEIN / GETTY / WIREIMAGE

She had already chewed over a number of options, from a series of newspaper articles to a TV documentary and even a biography. Diana knew her message but was struggling to find a medium. In the winter of 199l, knowing I was researching a biography of her, she started to test me out. She made it clear to Colthurst that she was not averse to him giving me titbits of information. In March 1991, he called me from a phone box on the southern tip of Ireland and told me that Charles’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Airy, had been sacked. The information came from Diana. The resulting article in The Sunday Times thrilled her. There were other tests that, although not on the scale of the riddles posed by Puccini’s Princess Turandot, had to be hurdled successfully.

She wanted to change her longtime hairdresser Richard Dalton and give another crimper a try. How best to dispense with his services tactfully and without his going to the newspapers to sell his story? Colthurst and I advised her to write him an honest letter, buy him an expensive present and send him on his way. The simple strategy worked.

For a woman who was living in a system where every significant decision was made by someone else, these small choices and acts of defiance gave her a feeling of control.

Another mystery she asked me to solve went to the heart of her enigmatic character. In July 1986, Diana’s protection officer and close confidante, Barry Mannakee, had been summarily transferred from his duties at her side. A few months later the detective was fatally injured in a road accident near his home in Loughton, Essex. The princess suspected that he had been killed in an Establishment plot and asked me to find out if her ideas had any credibility.

By pure chance, Jeff Edwards, a tabloid crime reporter commuting home, had come across the accident only minutes after it happened. He established that a young woman who had only recently passed her driving test had pulled out of a side street and failed to see Mannakee’s motorbike. I was able to report back that his death was a tragic accident. Diana was never entirely convinced and later visited a clairvoyant. “I hesitated about asking her questions about Barry because — well, I don’t know — I just hesitated, but I’ve always had a question mark about his death,” she explained.

Every year, usually in May, the princess, wearing an oversized headscarf, made a secret pilgrimage to the City of London crematorium in Redbridge where his ashes are scattered. “He meant an awful lot to me,” she told Colthurst. “He was my father figure and looked after me.”

At some point, after I had passed enough of her tests, Diana asked Colthurst: “Does Andrew want an interview?” It was a mind-blowing suggestion. Princesses don’t usually give interviews — particularly when they are the most talked-about and photographed princess of the age.

Within days of her suggestion, Colthurst summoned me to that cafe in Ruislip to hear a sample of the story she had to tell. I expected it to be a few sentences about her charity work and her thoughts about her humanitarian ambitions. Wrong again.

After jotting down notes of my startling encounter, I hotfooted it to see my publisher, the American-born Michael O’Mara. Drawing on a pre-lunch cigar, he listened to a summary of my meeting. Then, suspecting that Colthurst was a clever conman, announced: “If she is so unhappy, why is she always smiling in photographs?”

That went to the heart of the matter. If I was going to swim against the tide of public sentiment regarding the Princess of Wales and her husband, I needed some help. A few scratchy notes taken from a worn-out tape recorder wouldn’t cut it. What was needed was for her to co-operate as far as she was able in a biography that told the story of her whole life, not just her royal career. To all intents and purposes the book that resulted from this co-operation, Diana: Her True Story, was her autobiography, the personal testament of a woman who saw herself at the time as voiceless and powerless.

Diana’s initial commitment to the project was immediate and naively enthusiastic. How many days, she wondered, would it take to publish the book? In the early weeks of this secret co-operation, Diana set the pace. My notes from the evening of July 2, 1991, the day after her 30th birthday, give a flavour of her impatience. At 5.10pm Colthurst’s bleeper went off — no mobile phones in those days. It was Diana. “Sees major urgency for the book,” I jotted down in my notebook.

There was one big stumbling block; how to conduct the interviews with Diana. While I was keen to talk to the princess directly, this was simply out of the question. At 6ft 4in and as a writer known to palace staff, I would hardly be inconspicuous.

So Diana was interviewed by proxy. Colthurst was the perfect cover to undertake this delicate and historic mission. Armed with a list of questions I had prepared and his tape recorder, Colthurst set off on his sit-up-and-beg bicycle and pedalled nonchalantly up the drive of Kensington Palace. In May 1991, he conducted the first of six taped interviews that continued through the summer and into autumn and would ultimately change the way the world saw the princess and the royal family.

Colthurst vividly remembers that first session. “We sat in her sitting room. Diana was dressed quite casually in jeans and a blue shirt. Before we began she took the phone off the hook and closed the door. Whenever we were interrupted by someone knocking, she removed the body microphone and hid it in cushions on her sofa.”

While this long-distance interview technique was an imperfect method that gave no opportunity for immediate follow-ups, many questions were simply redundant as, once Diana started talking, she barely paused for breath. Her story simply spilt out.

At times she was amusingly animated, particularly when talking about her short life as a bachelor girl. She spoke wistfully about her romance with the Prince of Wales, sadly about her unhappy childhood and with some passion about the effect Camilla Parker Bowles had had on her life.

She even showed us several love letters and postcards from Parker Bowles to the prince to prove that she was not imagining their relationship. I particularly remember one passage that read: “My heart and body both ache for you.” Diana was furious when we were advised by a leading libel lawyer that we could not say the prince and Parker Bowles were lovers. Instead I merely described their “secret friendship”.

As a rule of thumb, mornings were times when she was at her most articulate and energetic, particularly if Charles was absent. Those interview sessions were the most productive, with Diana speaking with a breathless haste as she poured out her story. She could be unnervingly blithe even when discussing the most intimate and difficult periods of her life.

After she first talked about her suicide attempts, I naturally needed to know a great deal more about when and where they had occurred. I subsequently submitted a raft of specific questions on the subject. When they were presented to her, she treated it as a bit of a joke. “He’s pretty well written my obituary,” she told Colthurst.

While she was desperate to see her words appear before a wider public, we realised that Diana must be given deniability, so that if the princess was asked, “Did you meet Andrew Morton?” she could answer with a resounding “No”. As a result her friends were used as a cover to disguise her participation. In tandem with writing questions for the princess, I sent out a number of letters to her circle of friends asking for an interview. Diana later explained why her friends spoke out: “A lot of people saw the distress that my life was in and felt it was a supportive thing to help in the way that they did.”

After that first session with Colthurst, Diana knew that she had crossed a personal Rubicon. She had thrown away the traditional map of royalty and was striking out on her own with only a hazy idea of the route. The reality was that she was talking — remotely — to a man she barely knew, about subjects that, if mishandled, could ruin her reputation. It was a remarkably reckless and potentially foolhardy exercise. But it worked triumphantly.

I have often been asked why I never tried to meet her. Frankly it was an accident waiting to happen. The only safe haven was Colthurst’s west London home, but as luck would have it, the girlfriend, and later wife, of the notorious paparazzi photographer Jason Fraser lived in the same street.

As Fraser was always in the vicinity, it made no sense to risk jeopardising the project by being photographed. One day, for instance, I was listening to one of Diana’s tapes in Colthurst’s sitting room and Fraser came to the door to ask about the princess. I quickly turned off the recorder and hid behind the curtains while Colthurst gently shooed him away. It was a close call — and a warning.

During this extraordinary year of subterfuge, O’Mara, Colthurst and I found ourselves not only writing, researching and producing what was a unique literary beast, an “authorised unauthorised” biography, but we became Diana’s shadow court, second-guessing her paid advisers. Everything from handling staff problems, dealing with media crises and even drafting her speeches came under our umbrella.

She would ring Colthurst half a dozen times a day, often when I was in the room. He was her sounding board for her problems and concerns, be it thinking of conversational gambits for the then French president François Mitterand or former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger to rewriting speeches at short notice.

While it had its lighter moments, this was a high-stakes game. I had been warned on two separate occasions by former Fleet Street colleagues that Buckingham Palace was looking hard for my mole. Shortly after one such warning, my offices were burgled and files rifled through, but nothing of consequence, apart from a camera, was stolen. From then on a scrambler telephone and local pay phones were the only sure way that Diana felt secure enough to speak openly. To be doubly sure, Diana had her sitting room at Kensington Palace “swept” for listening devices (none was found) and routinely shredded every piece of paper that came across her desk. She trusted no one inside the royal system and it did not help matters when Colthurst was knocked off his bicycle after an interview session at Kensington Palace. Fortunately he was able to retrieve the tape recording from the gutter. For a time Diana suspected that darker forces may have been at work.

As close as we became to Diana during this year of living dangerously, she was never entirely frank. She hid the fact that she had enjoyed a long, if sporadic, love affair with Major James Hewitt, a tank commander during the first Gulf War, as well as a brief dalliance with an old friend, James Gilbey. Nor did I have the faintest inkling of her infatuation with the married art dealer Oliver Hoare, who was the object of her love and devotion during the research and writing of the book.

Looking back, her audacity was breathtaking and one wonders if Diana wanted to get her side of the story published first so that she would escape blame for the failure of the marriage. It is a question that will never be properly answered.

As the project gained momentum, I had little time — or inclination — to reflect on her motivation. The priority was to produce a book that was accurate, credible and believable, a volume that the palace would have no chance to pick apart.

My acid test came when the princess read the manuscript. It was delivered to her piecemeal at any and every opportunity. Late one Saturday morning, for example, I cycled to the Brazilian embassy in Mayfair, where the princess was having lunch with the ambassador’s wife, Lucia Flecha de Lima, so that I could pass on the latest offering.

To my great relief she approved, on one occasion so moved by the poignancy of her own story that she confessed to weeping tears of sorrow. Though she had editorial influence, the only real area of contention was the book’s title. She wanted it to be called Diana: The True Story. We even mocked up of a jacket cover with those words. Eventually she agreed with me that this title would be misleading and untrue — and so “the” was changed to “her”.

She accepted, too, that the book needed a direct link with her own family to underpin its authenticity, agreeing to supply the Spencer family albums, which contained numerous delightful portraits of the growing Diana, many taken by her late father, Earl Spencer.

She also appreciated that, in order to make the book truly distinctive, we had to have a hitherto unpublished jacket picture. Again Diana came to the rescue, personally choosing a Patrick Demarchelier photograph that she kept in her study desk at Kensington Palace.

These were quiet interludes as the storm clouds gathered. The book was originally due to be published in September 1992. However, because the Duchess of York, who was as unhappy as Diana, was continually beseeching her to jump ship with her, we decided to publish the book as quickly as possible, setting a new date of June. Warning signs were multiplying. Just before Christmas 1991 I heard that a very well-connected individual had placed a £500,000 bet with a private bookie on the Waleses’ marriage not lasting another year.

As publication day approached, the tension at Kensington Palace became palpable. Her newly appointed private secretary, Patrick Jephson, later described the atmosphere as “like watching a slowly spreading pool of blood seeping from under a locked door”.

Though the book eventually became an international bestseller, for a few weeks in February 1992 it looked as though it might surface with a whimper rather than a bang. Serialisation was crucial but the newspapers we approached, including The Sunday Times, turned it down. When Michael O’Mara spoke to the then editor of The Sunday Times, Andrew Neil, he dismissed the book, believing it would be better off featured in a tabloid. Not only were the newspapers lukewarm, but the book trade was equally indifferent. The outlook was dire.

As the last throw of the dice, I had a word with Diana’s friend Angela Serota (now Lady Bernstein of Craigweil). She was in daily contact with Diana and also a friend of Neil’s boss, Andrew Knight, then chief executive of News International, publisher of The Sunday Times. Angela took a series of messages to him direct from Diana saying that she both approved of the book and strongly wished to see it carried in a broadsheet, not in a tabloid. Convinced by the stream of evidence, Knight eventually urged Neil to look at it again.

The appeal worked. Just a few hours later, O’Mara received a phone call from Sue Douglas, executive editor of The Sunday Times, asking to read the book. Within a matter of days a deal was done and in the process the initially sceptical Neil became one of the book’s staunchest defenders.

As the days ticked down to publication, Neil realised the magnitude of what he had done, insisting that I obtain signed statements from the book’s main witnesses testifying to the accuracy of what was contained within the slim volume. This I duly did.

Diana had anticipated a volcano erupting when the book was serialised and she was spot-on. In early June 1992, after the first extract appeared in The Sunday Times — under the front-page headline “Diana driven to five suicide bids by ‘uncaring’ Charles” — the response was explosive.

It is hard now, when the narrative of Diana’s unhappy life has been accepted as conventional wisdom and when Prince Charles has been happily married to Camilla Parker Bowles for the past 12 years, to convey the shock, disgust and astonishment that greeted that first instalment.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, assorted Labour and Conservative MPs and a loose box of newspaper editors lined up to join the firing squad. Various bookshops banned the book — which had had to be printed in Finland as no British printer would touch it.

It was a genuinely scary and frantic time. My daughters, then six and eight, burst into tears when they saw a newspaper cartoon of their dad being tortured on a rack inside the Tower of London with the Queen looking on. I faced the equivalent in my first British interview — a grilling from John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today show.

More seriously, when I appeared on This Morning, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, in Liverpool one morning in June, security guards patrolled the roof of the building and the car park next door was evacuated. Rather than catch the train, a helicopter flew me to my next engagement, a book signing in Coventry. Later I learnt that Scotland Yard had been sent a warning by an Irish dissident group that I was on their hit list.

Even the pugnacious Neil, who had been threatened with a horsewhipping by a rival editor, was unnerved. He called me shortly before he was due to duel with the Tory peer Lord Fawsley on the ITN lunchtime news to ask for more ammunition to back up claims about the princess’s suicide bids. I managed to get hold of Diana’s friend Gilbey, who agreed to issue a written statement confirming that the princess had told him about her dramatic actions. We cobbled together a form of words on the phone, which I then read to Neil, who took them down in longhand just before his TV appearance.

As for the subject herself, Diana was relieved that at last her account was out, but desperately anxious that her cover story would hold water.

Her friends who had spoken out were themselves under severe pressure from their own friends and family, who felt that they had betrayed the princess. That, of course, was not the case.

It was vital that she showed some sign of support. She had a prearranged date that week to see Carolyn Bartholomew, one of the friends who had been interviewed for the book, and, though she was apprehensive, she agreed to keep the appointment. I knew that a picture of Diana and Carolyn together would do more than any argument advanced by me or Andrew Neil.

On the morning of June 10 I called Stuart Higgins, then deputy editor of The Sun, and suggested he send a couple of photographers along to Bartholomew’s Fulham home, where they might see something of interest. At some point they were called away and in desperation I contacted a former colleague, the Daily Mirror photographer Ken Lennox. He managed to snap the princess with her former schoolfriend. The subsequent publication of the photos marked a turning point in the tsunami of criticism that had threatened to drown out the book’s message.

Diana visits Carolyn Bartholomew, showing that she supported friends who had spoken to Morton - KEN LENNOX/DAILY MIRROR

Charles and Diana’s separation in December 1992, coupled with the prince’s televised admission of adultery and the princess’s own disclosures on BBC’s Panorama, gave further credibility to the book’s claims. It was only after Diana’s death, however, when I revealed the existence of the tape recordings and other evidence of her intimate co-operation with her biography, that the story of her life was finally accepted.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of her death and comes 25 years after the book’s publication. So much has changed, yet so much also remains the same on the royal landscape. Diana continues to be the centre of controversy and frenzy.

As the nation marked Camilla’s 70th birthday last month, a slew of books and flattering newspaper profiles pressed the Duchess of Cornwall’s claim to be our queen. Meanwhile, a poignant 90-minute ITV documentary to mark Diana’s death saw her sons, William and Harry, reminding the world who we had been missing all these years. While this tribute to their mother was compulsive viewing, it was hard to ignore the elephant in the room: not one mention of their father. One is left wondering what kind of programme, if any, they would have made about him. Or how he truly felt about his sons placing his ex-wife once more front and centre in the national consciousness.

Around the world, Diana’s shadow continues to loom large. There have been at least 25 documentaries made about her life and death so far this year. Film crews from Amsterdam, Paris, Los Angeles, Sydney and elsewhere have travelled to London in search of the princess. As I write, a film crew — most of whom were not even born when Diana reigned supreme — is flying in from Buenos Aires to rehash the story for a South American audience.

For my part I am very proud of playing some part in the narrative of her life, helping her — to quote her brother, Charles — to sing openly. It is now a quarter of a century since the fuse was lit in that north London cafe. Yet it seems like yesterday. As much as her detractors might hope, Diana has never really gone away.'

Andrew Morton promoting the memoir in 1992 - PETER BROOKER / REX / Shutterstock