April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

WHEN LADY DIANA SPENCER walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral on her wedding day in 1981, her future seemed as set and unswerving as the flower-bedecked aisle before her. Stepping into a role defined by tradition and bound by royal ritual, the Princess of Wales was expected to do as most of her predecessors had done—stand by her man, produce an heir and a spare, and help preserve the mystique of the monarchy.

Now, 12 years later, Diana’s path looks more like a minefield, and the principal constants in her life are its contradictions. Since her separation from Prince Charles was announced Dec. 9, she has gained a measure of precious freedom, but hardly enough to seek other loves and liaisons. Although estranged from Charles and distanced from the royal family, she is raising a son who will one day be King. And though the British public still prefers her to Charles (a recent Gallup poll showed her to be the most popular member of the royal family), she is seen by some as a deserter a foolish renegade who, without the Palace to smooth the way, is vulnerable to the sort of embarrassments endured by mere celebrities.

Just a year ago, the current situation would have been unthinkable: cartoons of a seminude Diana splayed across the pages of a British tabloid; broadcast excerpts from a phone chat in which she and confidant James Gilbey discussed her fear of getting pregnant; an awkward visit to Nepal, where Buckingham Palace apparently asked her hosts to down-scale her welcome. If there was ever any doubt that her separation from Charles would alter her status, last month’s trials proved that for Diana going it alone won’t he easy.

One of the Princess’ most persistent problems stems from past indiscretions. Last month, an Australian TV newsmagazine aired unreleased out-takes from the Squidgy tapes (so called because of Gilbey’s pet name for Di in their December 1989 phone conversation, which first surfaced last August). The latest excerpt—sexually charged passages in which the two sounded like nothing so much as lovers—immediately hit the London tabloids as a titillating transcript.

Diana: “I don’t want to get pregnant.”

Gilbey: “Darling, that’s not going to happen, all right?”

Diana: “Yeah.”

Gilbey: “Don’t look at it like that. It’s not going to happen. You won’t get pregnant.”

Diana: “I watched EastEnders today. One of the main characters had a baby. They thought it was by her husband. It was by another man.”

Gilbey: “Squidgy, kiss me [followed by sounds of kissing]. Oh, God, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? This sort of feeling.”

Diana: “I love it.”

Then, later in the conversation, Di exclaims, “How wonderful!”

Gilbey: “I know. Darling, umm, more. It’s just like sort of. . .

Diana: “Playing with yourself?”

Court correspondents suggested that someone had made the Princess the target of a dirty-tricks campaign—a plot put into motion, according to one theory, by a prankster connected to British intelligence (see box on page 76). Said the London Daily Telegraph: “The supposed conversation was deliberately aired to coincide with the [Nepal] tour—an occasion when members of the royal family are always in an unavoidable media spotlight.”

While London buzzed over the Squidgy saga, observers in Kathmandu were studying tea leaves. From the moment she emerged from a commercial jet on March 2, it was plain that Diana’s tiara had slipped. Rather than “God Save the Queen,” a band welcomed her with Spanish pop tunes rounded off with the “Colonel Bogey March.” Although Di was greeted by Crown Prince Dipendra, 21, she was quartered not at the Nepalese royal palace but at the British Embassy. Instead of the chef, chauffeur, private secretary and ladies-in-waiting who had accompanied her on previous trips, she was attended only by her sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, 38. It was Prince Dipendra, not King Birendra and Queen Aishworya, who hosted the banquet for her at the palace on March 3. Although she did meet the royal couple later, it was at a private dinner.

To the practiced eye, the stamp of Palace strategists was unmistakable. “The downgrading was definitely on Palace orders,” says Brian Hoey, author of All the Queen’s Men, a book about the royal household. “One thing Buckingham Palace hates and fears more than anything else is a ‘runaway royal.’ It was a subtle way of trying to put her in her place.”

Fighting to bolster herself, the Princess has countered by pumping up her image as a working woman. In Nepal, her press officer announced that Diana’s visit was in her capacity as patron of the British Red Cross Youth and the Leprosy Mission. At her side, in fact, was the British Overseas Development Minister, Baroness (Lynda) Chalker. The pairing could work to Diana’s advantage: A respected Tory government official who shares the Princess’ concern for the underprivileged, Chalker, 50, is responsible for an aid budget of $3.4 billion. “In charity circles, this is the dream ticket,” noted reporter Robert Hardman in the Telegraph. “Visits from a glamorous…figure of world renown and the globe-trotting minister with the checkbook: two different faces of British benevolence—headlines and bottom lines in one go.”

In London, Diana has continued her good works with private visits to Refuge, a hostel for battered women, and to youth shelters run by a charily called Centrepoint. She is also scheduled to give a 10-minute speech on April 27 to an eating-disorder conference sponsored by the British Journal of Hospital Medicine. Although there has been no announcement concerning what she will say, insiders predict that the Princess will acknowledge her own struggle with bulimia.

For all of that, it may prove difficult for Diana to remake herself as a sober, do-good People’s Princess. To critics she still seems hopelessly dim. “She is a woman of no education and no distinction,” huffed correspondent Minette Marrin in the Sunday Telegraph. Noting that, after a visit to a one-room home in Nepal, the Princess exclaimed, “I’ll never complain again,” Marrin added, “How would you feel if someone poked her foreign head into your front room and [said that]?”

Dim bulb or no, Diana does seem to realize that her safety net is gone. Struggling with her ill-defined role, she has little useful guidance (her ad hoc advisers include well-meaning but naive chums like Gilbey—a 35-year-old Lotus auto executive—sisters Lady Sarah and Jane Fellowes, 36, and her none-too-savvy brother, Earl Spencer, 28). “Diana feels lonely and isolated,” a friend told The Sun. “Since the separation, many people at court who she counted as her friends have turned against her. The people with power are rallying behind the Prince, and she is feeling the backlash.”

Diana’s sense of being under siege was probably heightened by the TV movie of Andrew Morton’s 1992 biography, Diana: Her True Story, which relentlessly details her suicide attempts and binge-eating. (The movie airs on NBC this week.) Broadcast in London in February, the two-parter earned TV channel Sky One its highest ratings ever. With four more Windsor-woes books due this summer—from longtime royal watchers Nigel Dempster, Lady Colin Campbell and others—it seems likely that more embarrassments are in the offing.

While his wife has been in the hot seal, Prince Charles has been busily burnishing his own image. He began by distancing himself from the Duchess of York’s scandal-prone father, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, his polo manager for 21 years. Last month the Palace announced that the Prince planned to retire from top-level polo. (He is expected to spend more time with his sons.) Thus, he would no longer require Ferguson’s services. Nor would he be further chagrined by the major’s association with Lesley Player. In her book, My Story: The Duchess of York, Her Father and Me, released in February, Player, 34, chronicled her affairs with Ferguson and with Texan Steve Wyatt—who, she claimed, was also the Duchess’ lover.

On the heels of successful trips to the U.S. and Mexico, Charles left on March 15 to visit peacekeeping forces in Croatia. Helicoptered to the Divulje army base where British forces are headquartered, he impressed reporters as the “beaming, relaxed Action Man of his near forgotten bachelor days,” as the Daily Express put it.

More headline-grabbing excursions are likely to be in store for the Prince. “At every opportunity the Palace machine will go to lengths to make Prince Charles look good and not [Diana],” says Daily Mirror Palace correspondent James Whitaker. “What we’ll see in the future is more of him and less of her.”

By all accounts, the Waleses see very little of each other. Like many estranged marrieds-with-children, they have a de facto custody arrangement that allows them equal time with their sons. When Wills, 10, and I Harry, 8—now at Ludgrove School in Berkshire—visit their father, it is often at High-grove, his home in Gloucestershire. (At last report, the house was being redone by a decorator chosen by phone-pal Camilla Parker Bowles, whose country house is a mere 20-minute drive away.) In London, Charles has moved into an apartment at St. James’s Palace, two miles east of Diana’s digs at Kensington Palace. Since the separation, their mother has taken the boys on short holidays: They accompanied her to the Caribbean in January and to Lech, Austria, at the end of March.

Despite the difficulties, life without Charles also has advantages for Diana. By all appearances, the Princess relishes her new freedom. Often Seen in simple slacks and tailored jackets, she has surprised Londoners by appearing in public with only a single detective. In January she was spotted crossing the street with three girlfriends who had been to see The Bodyguard with her. Last Feb. 6, on a train from Cardiff, Wales, to London, she joined a group of rugby fans—laughing, clapping and sharing food she had ordered from the buffet. Passengers on a flight back from the Caribbean on Jan. 4 were astonished to find her sitting in business class, and passersby gaped to see her traveling to a Feb. 12 performance at the Royal Opera House in a minibus with two women friends and a bodyguard.

The matter of a proper escort has yet to be resolved. Diana has not been seen with her old friend Gilbey since the Squidgy story broke, and Maj. James Hewitt, the handsome Guards officer who gave her riding lessons in 1988, has been keeping a low profile since rumors linking him with the Princess arose in 1991. Although she recently hosted a dinner at which several suitable bachelors were auditioned, Prince Edward, 29, has served as a pinch-hitter. On March 8 he was at her side when she represented the flu-stricken Queen at a Commonwealth Day reception at Marlborough House.

As that appearance demonstrated, the Palace may want to clip Diana’s wings, but it will not allow her to fall too far. As the mother of the heir to the throne, she wields a kind of power that the wayward Duchess of York, for example, does not. Representing the family at one of the most important functions of the royal year, noted the Daily Mail, “will be seen by many as an endorsement at the highest level of her continuing importance to the royal family.”

For now, at least, Diana seems determined to stay in the game. She may be on the outs with the royal family, but she is no fool. On March 8, she was shopping in Knights-bridge when the chauffeur behind the wheel of a Daimler tapped his horn twice. Turning quickly, Diana recognized the woman sitting in the backseat…and blew a kiss to her mother-in-law, the Queen.


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