December 18, 1995 12:00 PM

ONCE, JAMES HEWITT WAS THE MAN adored by the Princess of Wales. Lonely, suffering from bulimia and self-pity, Diana took solace in the arms of the army captain who, she said in last month’s headline-grabbing TV interview, “was always there to support me.” Hewitt, in turn, was dazzled. During the five-year affair that ended in 1991 “she had him well and truly hooked,” said ex-fiancée Emma Stewardson 34, who spoke to a Sunday tabloid last month

These days, Diana and the only man in the kingdom known to have cuckolded Prince Charles—technically an act of treason—are competing for the role of martyr. Di, of course, told the BBC that she was “very let down” by Hewitt, who tattled in last year’s Princess in Love. Branded a “love slug” and a cad by tabloids, Hewitt, 37 fled Eversfield Manor his $400,000 Devon estate on Nov. 22. Four days later sounding curiously like his ex-lover, he defended himself in the Mail on Sunday: “I am on my own and virtually under siege,” he said. “I feel totally used.”

At least one friend believes that the anguish is real. Hewitt, she says, “is in a deep depression.” He has been blackballed at the private Cavalry and Guards Club in London, and the South Devon Hunt returned his $430 check for dues. Said one Hunt member: “I think if he turned up to one of our meetings we would leave the fox and end up chasing him.” Old girlfriends have joined the chorus: “I don’t think he’s capable of loving anyone but himself,” said Stewardson, who broke off their engagement in part because (as she told the News of the World last month) he boasted about Di while he and Stewardson were in bed.

Since October 1994, when he reportedly used book proceeds to buy an estate outside the village of Bratton Clovelly (pop. 360), Hewitt has stayed close to home. The common folk, at least, have been charitable; last June, neighbors asked him to open an annual fair. Robert Oughton, owner of the local pub, describes Hewitt as “nice and pleasant to talk to,” adding, “he’s quite popular around here.”

Raised in Kent (a county east of London) with two sisters, Hewitt began his social climbing early on. His parents, a Marine officer and a home-maker, scrimped to send him to public school; after graduating from Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point), he joined the Life Guards in 1978. A talented horseman, he had a taste for polo, fast cars and well-bred women—”put[ting] on all sorts of airs and graces,” in the words of one old friend.

After Princess in Love was published, Hewitt (who left the Army in 1993, after failing to make the rank of major) slipped into the life of a squire. Last May, London’s Sunday Times noted that he rose early to ride and often spent evenings listening to Tony Bennett with his dog Tess. Still, Hewitt clearly felt the sting of rejection. He planned to skip the Badminton Horse Trials (a May ritual in equestrian circles) he said since “I couldn’t stand all that finger-pointing.”

That, of course, was before Di’s confessional. Since then, Hewitt—who returned to Devon last week after his brief absence—has rarely been spotted in public. On Nov. 26, Princess in Love coauthor Anna Pasternak reported in the Sunday Times that Hewitt believed that his only offense was giving Di the love she had craved. “I’m deeply distressed that everything had to come out this way ” he said. “I want to get on with my life.”

A practiced ladies’ man with a reputation for living beyond his means, Hewitt may be tempted to come forward again. In a London vault, says one Palace watcher, are 46 billets-doux written to him by Di while he was in the Persian Gulf in 1991. Already, putative excerpts have found their way into print. On Dec. 2, an American tabloid ran steamy snippets attributed to Di: “When you lock your body into mine it’s as though heaven was our guide in love ” The next day The People offered “extracts” in which Di confided that she and Charles had not had sex for a year and told Hewitt, “I long to have your children ”

Windsor watchers, however, are convinced that the real letters have yet to surface. Newspapers are said to have offered Hewitt $500,000 for them, but publishing their contents would be risky since Diana (as the author) would have grounds to sue. Hewitt himself “is frightened,” says one journalist. “He’s terribly worried about what his brother officers would do to him if he did sell them, because it’s a total betrayal.”

For the moment, then, Hewitt is in limbo. He had hoped to build an equestrian center in Devon by autumn, but that project is still a dream. As for romance, Hewitt told the Sunday Times, “I never used to have any trouble with girls. Now, I don’t know.” While he has been linked to beauties including Sarah Milford-Haven, 33, he has formed no lasting attachments since the affair that turned him into “the most reviled man in Britain,” as the Times described it.

For her part, Diana is focusing on the future. Amid rumors of an impending divorce, she met last week with the Queen’s private secretary—ostensibly to demand a contract as an official goodwill ambassador. When MPs balked at the notion, she countered with a thinly veiled appeal for public sympathy. On Dec. 4, stories about her late-night visits to London hospitals appeared in papers including the News of the World. Photographers were stunned when Di not only posed after a Nov. 29 mission but spoke on a mobile phone to a reporter. “Some will live and some won’t but they all need love ” she said of the patients she had seen sounding for all the world like a woman above trying to sully the name of the man she once adored.


LYDIA DENWORTH in London JOHN WRIGHT in Bratton Clovelly