February 24. While the rest of the world was scanning headlines about troubles in Israel or deadly rainstorms in Rio, Fleet Street’s James Whitaker was telling the 3 million readers of London’s Daily Mirror what the big news really was that day: Discouraged by her ozone-conscious husband from using hair spray from an aerosol can, Princess Diana would henceforth be taming her tresses with the aid of a pump spray. Notch another scoop for the indefatigable Whitaker, 47, who has been on the royals’ case full-time since 1974. Considered the dean of the rat pack that monitors Diana’s every blush, wink and hangnail, he churns out some 300 stories of palace intrigue and domestic minutiae a year. He has no patience at all with criticism that he and his colleagues are hounding the royal family. The Windsors are, after all, symbols of the nation they work for and, as such, must be seen and heard to be useful. “There is no point in the royals doing anything if nobody is there to report it,” says Whitaker. Doing his bit for England, St. George and the Mirror, he relies on a network of well-placed contacts (including, surprisingly, some royal-family members), a full tank of gas and a few essential optical aids. Recalls Virginia Pitman, Diana’s flatmate while the future princess was being courted by Charles: “It was very difficult living with your curtains drawn, and then every time you look out seeing James Whitaker there with his binoculars.”
Whitaker was not to eavesdropping born. His father, George, was British chairman of Sperry Rand and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen in 1969. “It would make her laugh if she knew the connection,” says James, who was an accountant’s clerk but found it deadly dull and took up reporting in 1962. A Mirror correspondent since 1982, he was the first to report that the father of Princess Michael of Kent (the Queen’s cousin by marriage) was an SS officer in WW II. Married since 1965 to writer Iwona Whitaker, the mother of his three children, he lives comfortably in a fashionable West London district. London correspondent Jonathan Cooper persuaded Whitaker to set down his binoculars for a moment (Diana was safely asleep at the time) and give a reporter’s-eye view of life on the palace beat.
The first royals story I ever did was in 1968. I was working for the Daily Mail and was sent to cover a polo match that Prince Charles was in. It was sponsored by Tetley tea, and the public relations man asked me if I would like to meet the prince. Of course I said yes. So I went along, and it was a champagne and smoked-salmon feast. Until then, the reward for most assignments was a cheese sandwich and a pint of bitter. I soon got the message that when you cover the royals, it’s luxury all the way. From then on, if there was a royal event to be covered, I quickly volunteered.
Royal watching is very much like police work. Ninety percent is grind, grind, grind, aided by the occasional tip. It is about being ahead of the game. Nearly three years ago I was at a reception and noticed that Diana was wearing a new gold-and-diamond ring. I saw it on her hand, and she saw me looking at it. Then she covered it with her other hand, and I saw that she had removed it. Through a contact I found out that the ring was worth about $13,000 and that she had been given it by French jeweler Louis Gérard. There was such an uproar over the fact that she had accepted an unofficial gift, which royals are not supposed to do, that she had to auction it off to charity. I got a message from Major Ferguson [Fergie’s dad] that I was at the top of Diana’s hit list.
Scoops can be a result of sheer hard work or a mixture of work, luck and knowing your royals. The family is so predictable that I know in advance where they are going to be for most of a year. They always spend Christmas at Windsor before going to Sandringham for New Year’s. In late August they go to Balmoral. Plans for official visits are released by the palace up to three months ahead of time. But the private trips are no secret. I know that Charles and Diana always go skiing in late February or early March, and I know they will go to Majorca in August, probably on the 8th or 9th. Wherever they go, I am there first. I have a joke that it is Diana who follows me around the world.
Occasionally, the unexpected happens, as on their March trip to Klosters. I had been skiing and got back to my hotel about 3:20 p.m. Someone said there’d been an avalanche and that a royal might be involved. About 10 minutes later, someone else came in and said that there definitely was a royal involved and that one of the security guards was dead. I immediately rang my office in London, and they told me that they had heard that Fergie and Diana were in the hospital [which they were not]. I completely freaked out. I jumped into my car and went flying to the bottom of the ski lift. Just before I got there, I saw another car, also going too fast, coming toward me in the middle of the road. I braked but skidded right into him. It was just a glancing hit. I stopped. The driver spoke only German, and I spoke only English. Here was just about the biggest story of my life breaking, and I’d had a crash.
We were totally blocking the road, so I shouted at the other driver that I was going to move my car. I did, and just then two policemen came up. They said, “Why did you drive away?” They thought I was trying to leave the scene of an accident. I told them I was only trying to unblock the road. They didn’t care. They took me back to where the collision occurred and spent about an hour and a half measuring the accident spot from every conceivable angle. I kept trying to tell them I simply had to go. They just said. “You have your job, we have ours.”
Luckily, the officer in charge of the case came out and said I could go for 30 minutes. I asked him for 40. Then I ran like a bastard to the hotel where the other journalists were staying. Two of them filled me in on the details, so I was able to file copiously. Then I went back to the police station to give a statement. In a way, it was a lucky break because I picked up two things. First, they showed me the beeper devices that the royal party had been wearing in case of trouble, and they told me how they worked. Second, they told me the woman in the avalanche, Patti Palmer-Tomkinson, had been badly crushed and had suffered more than the two broken legs that I had already heard about. [She also had broken ribs and a collapsed lung.] So that got into the Mirror before the other papers had it.
Whatever the royals are planning to do, I have to do it first. Once, when Charles and Diana were spending time aboard King Juan Carlos’ yacht off Majorca, about 12 of us rented our own $5 million yacht to trail them. Perhaps the most organized I had to be was for the great bikini scoop of 1982. I had learned from a contact at Heathrow Airport that Charles and Diana were flying to the Bahamas. I was working for the Star at the time. Diana was five months pregnant, and we decided to see if we could get pictures of her sunbathing. I was with the Star’s photographer Kenny Lennox. Harry Arnold, my greatest rival, was there from the Sun, along with the Sun’s photographer Arthur Edwards. Kenny and I mapped out which beach Diana would likely use and the best vantage point to shoot pictures. Charles and Diana were on the island of Windermere, and we were 500 yards away across the water on Eleuthera.
The next day we planned to start out prior to dawn, but before we did, I had to make sure we could get the pictures back to London that same day. I didn’t find any way of wiring them from Eleuthera, so I booked a charter plane. Then Kenny and I had to fight our way through some very thorny, dense undergrowth for about 2½ hours before we came to the spot that we had chosen. Four hours later Diana finally appeared. She was wearing a red bikini. We were jubilant. When Kenny and I decided he had gotten the best pictures possible, I left to bring the rolls of film back, while he stayed to shoot some more. I thought I was going to die on the way back through the bush. The temperature was more than 100°F, I was completely disoriented, and those bloody thorns just ripped my clothes and skin to pieces. When I got out I had no idea where our car was, but luckily I got a lift. I caught my plane to Nassau and wired my pictures to London first. We beat the Sun by two editions.
I wasn’t sure how Diana would react to those pictures, so I wrote her a letter apologizing for the intrusion and said I hoped she wasn’t too upset. I wasn’t sorry that I did it, however. The bottom line was that she was on a public beach and so were we. She didn’t reply. Often you get word back if you have pleased or displeased the royals. It may come in the form of a glance or simply being frozen out. One of their detectives or the press secretary might tell you as well.
I remember at one reception, Diana came over to me and said, “Mr. Whitaker, I have a bone to pick with you.” She was complaining about a piece I had written saying she shouldn’t have been giggling at a graduation parade at Sandhurst, Britain’s military academy, in front of such dignitaries as King Hussein of Morocco and King Hussein of Jordan. She told me, “I get terribly nervous on those occasions, and when I get nervous I tend to giggle quite a lot.”
Diana and I had quite a rapport going when I first got to know her. I used to be able to ring her almost daily. I met her when she was 16, but the first time I saw her after she started going out with Prince Charles was at Balmoral on Sept. 6, 1980. My photographer and I were on the banks of the River Dee looking for Charles fishing in his usual spot a mile or so from Balmoral. Di was watching Charles fly-fish, and it was my first glimpse of the mystery girl’s face. When they saw us, they drove off.
Because of my years of following Charles, I had a hunch they would go to a spot farther up the river. So we went there and sure enough we noticed someone hiding behind a tree. Then we saw the tip of a green Wellington boot. We didn’t know who it was, but we knew she was watching us with a hand-held mirror. As we began to close in to get a picture, she moved away, always with her back to us. She had a scarf wrapped around her head, so we couldn’t see her face. When Charles saw us he was furious, and they left abruptly. I couldn’t identify her, but a colleague got her name for me. We weren’t sure that she was Charles’s girlfriend, but her presence was enough to make me want to find out more about her. Eventually I learned where in London she lived and that she was a new flame.
People have always said that the famous picture of Diana in her see-through dress was engineered by the photographers, but this wasn’t the case. Diana agreed to have her picture taken at the kindergarten where she worked. At first she just sat on the grass with two children. Then she was asked to stand by some bushes so the light would shine through her hair. As soon as she did that, the photographers could see that her skirt became almost completely transparent, and they kept asking her to go back to the bushes.
This was about the last time she posed for us before her engagement. That meant we had to get pictures at all costs, which led to some hair-raising incidents, including car chases. On Prince Charles’s 32nd birthday in 1980, I learned that Diana would probably go to Sandringham to attend a party for him that weekend. So on that Friday evening I drove up, and when I arrived I found about 100 journalists waiting outside the gates. The police absolutely denied that Diana was there, but one of the photographers told us she had seen Diana’s car hidden in a shed. I was working at the Star then, and I teamed up again with Arthur Edwards of the Sun. We agreed to pool our resources and share the story.
On that Sunday, I learned that Diana’s car had been smuggled to the back entrance of Wood Farm, a small home on the estate. Arthur and I waited in my car behind some bushes at the end of the back road from Wood Farm that leads to the main three-lane highway. After two hours, Diana drove out. When she saw us emerge from the bushes, she burst out laughing and drove off at about 80 miles per hour. There followed one of the most amazing car chases that any member of the royal family has ever been in. As we drew alongside and got a little bit in front of Diana, Arthur, hanging out of the window, managed to take his pictures. We were so intent on the pictures, we didn’t worry about anything else. You have to remember that this was the future Queen of England. She never lost her nerve even when we were going around several curves. The result was a front page exclusive.
Royal watching has changed a lot since I started. There are some reporters who still follow Diana everywhere, something I don’t do anymore because I am older and fatter. They have motorbikes and walkie-talkies and cover all the entrances to Kensington Palace. In our day there was more trust. I remember once, before the engagement, Diana was leaving her flat and came over to my car. She said, “Look, I am just going out to dinner with some friends. Prince Charles won’t be there, and I’ll be back by midnight, so please don’t follow me.” She obviously didn’t want to arrive with carloads of press people trailing her. I didn’t follow her because I knew she wouldn’t lie to me. Nowadays, she won’t even speak to the modern lot. When I started, there were four or five of us. Now there are usually 50 or 60 of us, and we are put in pens maybe 60 yards away from the royals.
If you stopped reporting on the royals, I think they would complain. Several years ago there was an occasion at Sandringham when the Queen was going riding. Nobody wanted to upset her, so not one person picked up a camera or a notebook. The Queen called over her detective and said something to him before she rode off. He then reported to us that she had told him, “I don’t know which is worse, being harassed or being ignored.”