When the news broke in the early hours of Sunday, August 31, 1997, that Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris, her biographer Andrew Morton was at the Edinburgh festival and quickly returned home.
“I dashed to the airport and flew down to London that morning. And I will always remember a French man gave me a piece of paper, because he recognised who I was. It said, ‘I want to apologise on behalf of all the French people’. Because at the time, everybody thought the French paparazzi had killed her,” says Morton, whose explosive book Diana: Her True Story was first published in 1992.
Back at his office, he found “something like 132 faxes and voicemails. It was just overwhelming”.
If the requests for interviews were overwhelming, the public’s outpouring of grief for the ‘People’s Princess’ was unprecedented, as bouquet upon bouquet of flowers - an estimated 60 million stems - were laid outside London’s royal palaces.
Without Morton’s book, and the hours of secret, candid interviews Diana gave for it, the world perhaps would never have known the real princess before she died.
“I don’t think they would have responded to her death in the same way if they didn’t have more of a sense of the kind of person she was,” says former tabloid royal reporter Morton, 63, who splits his time between homes in London and Pasadena, California.
“Did she regret [the book]? No. She told Lord Puttnam, ‘It’s going to be a bombshell, but I’ve no regrets’. She saw no other way out. What I didn’t understand at the time, and nobody did, was that she felt trapped. She was going to go off to Australia with William and Harry. It was all desperate stuff.”
It seems strange, 25 years on, to remember a time when we didn’t know about Diana’s struggles with bulimia, exacerbated by the affair between Prince Charles and Camilla, and her suicide attempts, including throwing herself downstairs while pregnant, during what she called ‘the dark ages’ of her early days in the royal family.
But when Morton first listened to her revelations in an ordinary London cafe, on tapes recorded by their mutual friend Dr James Colthurst, he felt as though he was “entering an alternate universe”.
“I knew exactly how [journalists] Woodward and Bernstein felt when they were admitted into the secret that Nixon had these tape recordings [of political opponents]. I’d been following the Royal Family for 10 years. I’d never heard of bulimia nervosa, I thought it was a flower or something. This woman called Camilla, never heard of her.
“It was astonishing and a curious contrast - as you’re listening to Diana spilling out her heart, all these people around me were just eating their bacon and eggs. I remember going back home... you’re soon enveloped by the paranoia, so I stood well back from the underground platform. It was like being admitted into a secret world.”
Ten years after her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles, described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a ‘fairy-tale’, Diana was desperate to escape and writing what was essentially her own autobiography, through the mouthpiece of Morton, was what she saw as her only way out.
“She felt the way she was defined didn’t bear any relationship to the life that she was trying to lead, or to the person that she was,” he says now. “She felt that by speaking over the heads of the mass media, to what she saw as her people, she could regain her voice.
“I don’t think it was especially thought-through. There was kind of a recklessness about it. She didn’t know me particularly well, she’d met me on royal tours now and again. But it wasn’t like she was my best friend or anything.”
And so, Colthurst became the go-between, pedalling off to Kensington Palace armed with a list of questions from Morton (nicknamed Noah - Notable Author And Historian - by Diana), which he asked the Princess over the course of six interviews in the summer of 1991.
What resulted was an extraordinary transcript, which made the basis of Morton’s book, first published in the months after Diana’s death in a revised edition of Diana - Her True Story: In Her Own Words, and republished in full this year, thanks to advances in modern technology allowing parts of Diana’s testimony to be heard again.
But when the original book was first published in 1992 (then just called Diana - Her True Story) everything Diana had said (including that Charles had a ‘secret friendship’ with another woman; on the advice of a libel lawyer) was simply attributed to friends to give the princess “some kind of deniability”. It meant that Morton came under fire and the book became Britain’s most banned of the 1990s.
“Those first few weeks were really difficult and pretty unpleasant, because Members of Parliament were suggesting that I should go to the Tower of London. My daughters were six and eight at the time and they burst into tears when they saw a cartoon of a man with a black hood, with me on a rack and the Queen saying, ‘Just one more turn’.”
It would take another secret interview in 1995 - this time on camera, with Martin Bashir for Panorama, in which she famously admitted: “There were three of us in this marriage” - for the Queen to write to Charles and Diana, after consulting the Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury, to request they divorce. Finally Diana was free.
In the years between the book and her death, Morton saw Diana blossom: “She was moving forwards, she’d sold her dresses at auction, she’d raised money for Aids charities, she’d done that tour to Angola [to visit a minefield] with the Red Cross, and Bosnia. She looked sleek and in control of herself. That’s what the book did - it gave her some control of a life that had been out of control for a long time.
“You could really see this emergence of quite a sophisticated, glamorous, thoughtful humanitarian on the world stage. I said, ‘You no longer want to be the Princess of Wales, you want to be the Princess for the world’, and she liked that, she used that phrase a lot.”
All that potential was cut short in August 1997, when a drunk Henri Paul, deputy head of security at the Ritz in Paris, got behind the wheel of a Mercedes after midnight to take Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed, son of the Harrods owner Mohamed, back to his apartment - and lost control of the car in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel.
“She would be alive today if she’d been wearing a seat belt, she would have ended up with some broken ribs,” says Morton simply.
“One of the things she says in the interviews is that she wanted to have a weekend in Paris so she could walk along the pavement. That weekend was the last weekend.”
As to her legacy, the writer says Diana has changed the royal family: “It’s a lot more inclusive. You can see that with the living legacy of William and Harry, and the fact they take on quite difficult issues like mental health. They’ve embraced groups and figures in society that are on the margins.
“And they’re admitting themselves that they’ve had difficulties coming to terms with the death of their mother. People always think, ‘Oh, a stiff upper lip’, but there’s a trembling low lip. So it’s alright to grieve, it’s alright to feel upset, it’s alright to feel depressed.”
Morton believes Diana, who endured her marriage, would have been particularly proud of how William has helped the Duchess of Cambridge settle in to her new role.
“She would have been thrilled that William was in a proper family, that was supportive, loving, ambitious, and that Kate has taken to the job pretty well and without too many miss-steps. And she would have been really proud of the way that William has steadied and supported her during what must be tense moments.
“To go from somebody who is not photographed to somebody who is... it’s like theatre. The job of a royal watcher was always to try and define the royal actors with the grease paint off. Prince William always makes it clear that he is an actor on stage for a while, then he goes off.”