Diana’s ‘Luminous’ Life: Sarah Bradford’s Version

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Diana — the countdown: Andrew Morton, “Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words” (1992), Anthony Holden, “The Tarnished Crown: Princess Diana and the House of Windsor” (1993), Anne Edwards, “Ever After: Diana and the Life She Led” (1999), Sally Bedell Smith, “Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess” (1999).

Sarah Bradford’s simply titled “Diana” (Viking, 464 pages, $25.95) is meant to surpass these representative earlier productions of the Diana industry, as her portentous prologue announces: “By the time of her death in August 1997, she was an icon and a royal rebel, a glamorous figure both worshiped and reviled. …” While Buckingham Palace staked out stories about the unstable princess, Fleet Street frothed up other tales about an uncaring and remote royal family. No stranger to hyperbole herself, Ms. Bradford continues:

No one who was in London during that time, or who watched the run-up to the funeral on television, will ever forget the experience or the irrational, dangerous emotions which the death of Diana had stirred in the British people. For the Royal Family its recent history could be seen as pre-Diana and post-Diana, such was the impact this young woman had upon the ancient institution and the people’s attitudes towards it.

Diana made her case, her biographer claims, through her “luminous presence and undoubted gifts of empathy with the suffering.” Moreover, she was not a troubled princess in search of herself, but rather, a royal in command of her role:

She groomed her sons to be in touch with the age: She had a clear view of how William should set about his royal task when the time came. Her own approach to what she saw as her job was utterly professional and could not have been carried out by a woman suffering the psychological problems attributed to her.

Wait a minute! It is one thing to accord Diana her due: She was, as Ms. Bradford reports, a student of icons, especially Marilyn Monroe, who battled the studios the way Diana assailed the monarchy, but Diana also evinced, in Sally Bedell Smith’s words, “borderline behavior.” Like Marilyn, Diana was “obsessed with finding her identity, harbored a terror of solitude, and suffered from crushing despair.”

To maintain a view of Diana in charge, Ms. Bradford describes a princess who could be brutal with her staff and with others devious, manipulative, and suspicious. Call Ms. Bradford’s effort an overcorrection. Seeking to avoid the sentimentality, the wallowing in victimhood, and the crass psychologizing of earlier biographies, the biographer chooses to create a proactive Diana.

But Ms. Bradford seems almost willful in disregarding evidence that weakens her brief. For example, she attributes much of the talk of Diana’s mental illness to her enemies at court. But it was Diana herself who began to reveal the shocking nature of her instability — not just the bulimia, but acts of self-mutilation to her arms and legs, as well as several suicide attempts.

Much of the disturbing news about Diana’s psyche was funneled through friendly channels to Andrew Morton, who remains in many ways still her best biographer. Sally Bedell Smith, Anne Edwards, and others have paid tribute to Mr. Morton’s groundbreaking book; indeed, virtually all the important Diana biographers have consulted him. Mr. Morton’s shocking revelations of Diana’s disturbed mentality are all the more powerful because he was her sympathetic conduit — her champion, really.

Mr. Morton is usefully augmented by books such as Anthony Holden’s, in which Diana’s behavior is measured against the history of the monarchy. A biography yet to be written might take more seriously than Ms. Bradford’s what it means to be an icon and how the icon views herself as part of a constellation of avatars.

Ms. Bradford, unfortunately, stumbles because she does not know what to make of the Monroe analogy. The biographer reports, for example, that one of Diana’s friends (unidentified in the notes) wanted to send her a “fantastic documentary” about Monroe but did not do so because “it was not good stuff for Diana to be looking at.” Diana was vulnerable and had “suicidal tendencies,” the friend explained.

What does Ms. Bradford make of this story? Nothing, except to point out that Diana and Marilyn died at the age of 36. Monroe’s story is disturbing because in the end all the icon had to offer was herself — that extraordinary empathy that Ms. Bradford admires in Diana and that was so much a factor in Monroe’s own rise and demise. What comes through in Monroe’s films, for example — now that the hoopla about her sexuality is no longer the only aspect of her that Hollywood is selling — is her extraordinary generosity, the way she tells that nebbish Roger Sherman (Tom Ewell) in “The Seven Year Itch,” “You’re just elegant.”

Monroe put all she had into such roles and came up empty. Similarly, depression followed Diana’s efforts to connect with the world at large. Too much a demand is made on such figures, especially when, like Diana and Marilyn, they are unsure of their own identities. As one of Diana’s friends said, at 36, Diana was no closer to understanding herself than she had been at 20.

Diana used to insist on Marilyn’s intelligence. And she was right, of course. But intelligence was not enough. And perhaps that is why Diana’s friend did not want to send that documentary to her. To identify so intensely with Marilyn Monroe was indeed dangerous, and any biographer who fails to explore that risk puts her biography of Diana in peril.

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