September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

Six years after the ceremony that promised to revive the British monarchy, Fleet Street was convinced that the Prince and Princess of Wales were hopelessly estranged. In August 1987, a dour Prince Charles had retreated to Birkhall, the Queen Mother’s home on the Balmoral estate, to hunt and fish and brood. Grappling with the bulimia that was still a dark secret, a moody Diana had remained at Kensington Palace with Prince William, then 5, and Prince Harry, 2. Only after 37 days—when they staged a meeting at Highgrove, the Gloucestershire estate where Charles lives for much of the year—did the Waleses spend a night under the same roof. A sullen Charles arrived by limo, while Diana swooped in by helicopter. Twenty-one hours later, the princess was spotted driving away in her new Jaguar, looking grim. The “reconciliation,” it seemed, was over. Would the royal ties still bind?

For five long years they did. The Waleses continued their public engagements while avoiding each other in private. At first the prince’s friends tried to gloss over the rift by noting that Charles, a bookish sort who loved country pursuits, and Diana, a high-maintenance city girl, were simply pursuing separate interests. But as time went on, Palace sources began to suggest that Diana was a time bomb whose emotional problems had wrecked the marriage.

Behind the scenes, both Charles and Diana were struggling to stay afloat. Besieged with self-doubt, Charles had returned to his relationship with horsewoman Camilla Parker Bowles. Diana later admitted to seeking comfort in the arms of her own riding instructor—the dapper ex-Life Guards officer James Hewitt. Devoted to her sons and diligent in her charity work, the princess—raised in circles where such arrangements were common—tried valiantly to remain in a dynastic marriage with a husband whose heart was elsewhere.

Yet the war between the Waleses escalated, and by 1990, the couple’s anguish was clear. Apparently in the throes of a midlife crisis, Charles withdrew from his public duties after he suffered a badly broken arm in a polo accident that June; he spent four months recuperating—reportedly, with Camilla at his side. When he ended his convalescence, the prince seemed decidedly out of sorts. Asked about his health during a visit to the Marylebone Health Center in London, he snapped to a TV crewman, “What an original question. If you really want to know, I’m barely alive.”

Charles lost more points the following June when William suffered a skull fracture after being hit with a golf club. Diana spent the night in his hospital room; Charles visited briefly, then attended the opera. Diana’s 30th birthday and their 10th anniversary in July were marked by nary a public toast. In March 1992, the Waleses were on a rare family outing—a ski trip to Austria—when the princess received the news that her father, Earl Spencer, had died. Diana and Charles arrived at the funeral separately amid frenzied speculation: Could the marriage be saved?

Diana herself provided the answer when she made a decision that would alter the course of her life—and shatter the Waleses’ fragile equilibrium. When journalist Andrew Morton asked for permission to interview her brother Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, and her closest friends for a biography, the princess encouraged them to speak freely. Published in June 1992, Diana: Her True Story chronicled her struggle with bulimia, her supposed “suicide attempts” and her anguish over the Prince’s affair.

Shortly after the book was published, Diana was summoned to Windsor Castle for a confrontation with the Queen, Charles and Prince Philip, who essentially told her that “the whole family would be better off without her,” wrote Lady Colin Campbell, another biographer. In the days that followed, Charles explored the possibility of a legal separation. Though they continued their public engagements together, Diana later told the BBC’s Martin Bashir, “In our private life, it was obviously turbulent.”

That August a humiliating avalanche of bad publicity fueled Diana’s conviction that the Palace was determined to undermine her. A transcript of a 1989 phone chat with her old friend James Gilbey surfaced in the London tabloids. Complaining on the tapes that she felt “really sad and empty,” Diana had described life with Charles as “real torture.” Dubbed Squidgygate (after Gilbey’s pet name for her), the ensuing scandal was heightened days later by the revelations of a former Army corporal who claimed that, in 1988, he had seen the princess kissing her riding instructor. Though she would later admit that she had been involved with James Hewitt, Diana denied having an adulterous relationship with Gilbey telling Bashir that the Squidgygate leak “was done to harm me in a serious manner.”

By late fall, the unthinkable had become the inevitable. The Waleses’ house of cards toppled quickly. On Nov. 2, Charles and Diana (under orders from the Queen) embarked on what was to be their last official engagement as a married couple—a four-day trip to Korea during which they seemed barely to exchange a word. When they returned to London, the embattled Di startled the nation with an unprecedented statement in which she thanked the Queen and Prince Philip for being “sympathetic and supportive” during her time of distress. A week later, mortifying reports of a tape of an explicit late-night phone call between Charles and Camilla—one that left no doubt about the nature of their relationship—surfaced in Britain’s Daily Mirror.

In the first week of December, the princess made a quiet visit to her sons at Ludgrove, their private school in Berkshire, to tell them that she and their father had decided to separate. On Dec. 9, the Queen’s subjects received the not-so-shocking news: Prime Minister John Major announced that the estranged Waleses would live separately, although there were “no plans for a divorce.” Three years later, Diana would confess to British TV audiences that, on the day that no one had believed would arrive, she had been struck by “deep, deep profound sadness.” Said the princess: “We’d struggled to keep it going, but…we’d both run out of steam.”

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