September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

In the weeks before Christmas when Diana Spencer was a girl, she was handed a catalog from Hamley’s, a large London toy shop, and told to mark off what she wanted. In her world of historic position and well-heeled privilege, toys—and even titles—descended in abundance. What was much harder to come by at Park House, the 10-bedroom country home that her family rented on the grounds of Sandringham House, the Queen’s estate in Norfolk, were the intangible and critical needs of childhood: attention and affection, particularly for a girl.

It had been that way for centuries when Diana, weighing 7 lbs. 12 ozs., was born on July 1, 1961. Her parents, Edward John (called Johnnie), then Viscount Althorp, and her mother, Frances, daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Irish baron, were disappointed. Although they would come to adore their third daughter, they had wanted a son to carry on the line. They were already blessed with two daughters, Sarah, then 6, and Jane, 4, so Diana was soon baptized without much ceremony at a church in Sandringham. When her brother Charles, now the ninth Earl Spencer, was born three years later, however, he was christened at Westminster Abbey, and Queen Elizabeth was his principal godparent.

Closeness to royalty was hardly new to the, Spencers. Directly descended from Stuart kings—although almost always illegitimately—the family has populated the royal court for centuries. Thanks to a few Americans in Frances’s lineage, Diana was also distantly related to seven U.S. Presidents, including John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both her grandmothers were attendants at court, as were four great-aunts. Diana’s father served for two years as the Queen’s equerry, or aide, and as a small child, Diana called Her Majesty “Aunt Lilibet.” So when she was asked on the eve of her marriage if the imposing Windsor family made her nervous, she would answer quite honestly, “No, of course not. Why should it?” As Daily Mail columnist Lynda Lee-Potter put it in 1990, “Diana is possibly the only member of the royal family who doesn’t kowtow the instant she is fixed with one of the Queen’s terrifying Miss Piggy looks.”

Little Diana was blissfully unaware of class distinctions as she romped around Park House. For one thing, her father would not become an earl until the death of his father in 1975, which also made Diana and her siblings viscount and ladies. As well, Johnnie taught his children to downplay their aristocratic heritage. The future princess, recalls Spencer housecleaner Bridget Barford, “treated you as an equal. There was no ‘I’m Lady Diana, and you’re just a servant.’ ”

Nevertheless, life for Diana began as a kind of Laura Ashley idyll. From her cream-colored nursery, she had a view of lush fields of grazing cattle. She rode her bicycle along the gravel driveway and doted on a menagerie of pets. She loved the family’s heated outdoor swimming pool (even the Queen didn’t have one at Sandringham), where she and her siblings were sometimes joined by the Princes Andrew and Edward, those noisy boys from the even bigger house next door.

Parenting was not a Spencer priority. Diana and her brother had only passing contact with their mother and father. They began their schooling in the Park House nurserv. Nor did Diana and Charles dine with their parents; they took their meals with a parade of nannies. Recalled Charles later to Diana biographer Andrew Morton: “I don’t know anyone who brings up children like that anymore.”

Their traditional upbringing soon collapsed. In 1967, Diana’s parents separated. Johnnie and Frances had grown irreconcilably apart over the span of their 14-year marriage. Everything in Diana’s “tormented psyche turned on what happened to her at age 6,” wrote her friend, Australian journalist and TV personality Clive James in The New Yorker, “and left her to a loneliness that nothing could cure.” The Spencers’ split set off a bitter battle over the children. Lord Althorp won custody because Frances had already taken up with wallpaper magnate Peter Shand Kydd, the man who would become her second husband. She had been named the other woman in his divorce.

Although no one can say for certain, the Spencers’ troubles may have started 18 months before Diana was born, when Frances gave birth to a boy named John, who died within 10 hours. That knowledge was devastating for the future princess. She was left with the indelible impression, according to Morton, that she “was supposed to be a boy.”

Such perceptions may not define character, but they bend it in sometimes painful ways. After the divorce, the bubbly child turned inward, and “Shy Di” was born. She also became a kind of family caretaker, sometimes even polishing shoes, which amused the household staff.

With her older sisters off at boarding school, she was, as well, very motherly toward her little brother. They were both afraid of the dark, and Diana often went to his room at night to comfort him. And when the two began Silfield School in nearby King’s Lynn, at ages 6 and 4, respectively, she was particularly concerned about how Charles was adjusting. She “kept saying to me the first day, ‘Is Charles all right?’ ” remembers Jean Lowe, Silfield’s headmistress until 1983. “I said, ‘Would you like to go and see?’ She trotted off and came back quite happy.” As a student herself, Diana “read and wrote well,” says Lowe. “She fit in with the rest of the children. She didn’t stand out in any particular way.”

Things became easier on the home front when Diana’s mother married Shand Kydd in 1969. The children loved their stepfather’s jolly exuberance. The farm in Scotland where the new couple settled was a lively place, full of warmth and laughter. Diana always enjoyed herself there.

At Riddlesworth Hall, her first boarding school, 9-year-old Diana made fast friends and began to come out of her shell. Although she was an average pupil, Diana did excel in one area. She won the institution’s Leggat Cup for helpfulness and volunteering around the school. She also developed a life long love of dancing and sports. At 12, she moved on to West Heath, a Kent school that emphasized character and confidence as well as academics. There, her sister Sarah had been an accomplished pianist and equestrian and Jane had been a brilliant student. According to Ruth Rudge, the school’s principal, academics were not Diana’s strong suit. Among other diversions, she loved old movies and TV shows, including the British soap opera Crossroads and Charlie’s Angels. She won another award for service, but she failed to pass any exams.

When she came home on holidays, Diana acted like a typical teen. “She would run into the house, throw her suitcases down and raid the kitchen,” says Betty Andrew, a Spencer staffer from 1975 to ’81. “She and her brother would eat anything that was leftover. She was a different kind of girl down here. She hated dressing up, and she was always in that swimming pool.” Diana also practiced ballet behind closed doors. “We weren’t allowed to see that,” recalls Andrew. “But we used to peep.”

Home life was upended again in 1976 when Johnnie married Raine, Countess of Dartmouth, a flamboyant, outspoken divorcée and the daughter of romance novelist Barbara Cartland. In an attempt to stabilize the finances of the family seat, Althorp, a 100-room stately home set on 550 walled-in acres and filled with valuable art and antiques, Raine fired staff and cut costs. She also converted a stable into a tearoom and souvenir shop and opened the gates to tourists, none of which endeared her to her resentful stepchildren.

“People like to think I’m Dracula’s mother,” Raine said in a 1981 interview with British newspaper columnist Jean Rook, “but I did have a rotten time at the start. Sarah resented me, even my place at the head of the table, and gave orders to the servants over my head. Jane didn’t speak to me for two years…. Diana was sweet, always did her own thing.”

By age 16, studying was definitely not her thing. Her father packed her off to Institut Alpin Vide-manette, a Swiss finishing school. Although she loved the skiing, she quickly tired of the academic routine and came home after a few months. Back at Althorp, she enjoyed a blossoming social life. Diana had formed close friendships with schoolmates Carolyn Pride, who would later became Prince Harry‘s godmother, and Laura Greig, who would become one of her ladies-in-wraiting. She spent time with boys as well, but rarely dated. It was Diana’s sister Sarah who first caught the eye of the world’s most eligible bachelor. On a shoot at Althorp in 1977, Sarah introduced her royal beau to Diana, who was dressed in an anorak, corduroy pants and Wellington boots. Prince Charles, it seems, saw only an amusing and attractive 16-year-old. She found him, Morton reports, “a sad man.”

Eager to be on her own, Diana begged to be let loose in London. Johnnie reluctantly agreed. And, though she could not know it, Lady Diana Spencer, with no clear idea of what she wanted to do, was set on a course toward a history-making role.

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