September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

Though the world witnessed a glowing bride, on the day of her wedding, Diana Spencer was filled with a sense of foreboding. Not because the spectacle would be televised across the globe, and not because she would be acquiring the title HRH as well as a husband. Several days before she was to marry Prince Charles at St. Paul’s Cathedral, his fiancée had stumbled upon a curious artifact—a bracelet inscribed “F” and “G”—in her Buckingham Palace office. As she would discover, it was meant for a married woman whom Charles had courted when Diana was still a young child—and who had kept her place in his heart.

Born into an upper-class family, Camilla Parker Bowles, one year Charles’s senior, was an earthy ex-deb with two children and an army-officer husband. She had met Charles on a polo field in 1970. “My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather’s mistress,” she told him boldly. “How about it?” The two had become an item, but Charles had dithered when Camilla was ready for marriage. Though Diana had believed that Charles and Camilla had ended their affair, the bracelet (whose initials stood for “Fred” and “Gladys,” their noms d’amour) suggested otherwise. The epiphany had sent the princess-to-be to her sisters Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes for consolation. Protesting that she couldn’t go through with a marriage shadowed by Camilla, she received little sympathy—”Bad luck,” they said, according to Diana’s biographer Andrew Morton. “Your face is on the tea towels so you’re too late to chicken out now.”

Fueled by giddy love and girlish resolve, the 20-year-old had managed to look radiant as she walked down the aisle on July 29, 1981. The next morning, at Broadlands, the Hampshire home of Charles’s mentor, the late Earl Mountbatten, she awoke to rave review’s in the press—and to the presence of the complex man whom she had married.

Nearly 13 years her elder, Charles was a caricature of an emotionally remote royal. Instead of laughing and cuddling, his notion of a honeymoon involved fishing and immersing himself in the works of his spiritual adviser Sir Laurens van der Post. Accustomed to the formality aboard the royal yacht Britannia (where naval officers joined them at every dinner during their postnuptial cruise of the Mediterranean), Charles seemed to regard the spontaneous Diana as a kind of rambunctious puppy.

For all of that, the prince appeared to be fond of his bride, in his distant way. Relieved to have fulfilled his obligation to wed a virginal aristocrat, he haltingly confessed to the press before the wedding that yes, he loved his fiancée—”Whatever love is.” To a friend, he wrote gamely, “All I can say is that marriage is very jolly, and it’s also extremely nice being together in Britannia.” By the time the couple joined the rest of the family at the Queen’s Scottish castle, Balmoral, that August, Charles still seemed hopeful about the alliance; at a photo op on the banks of the River Dee, his wife—who told the press that she could “highly recommend” matrimony—grasped his hand adoringly, while he looked confident and relaxed.

But the storm clouds were gathering. Isolated from her own chums and kept at arm’s length by the Windsors, the young princess became obsessed with the fear that Charles was still seeing Camilla. Though he had told his bride that he had ended the relationship, no amount of reassurance curbed Diana’s anxiety over the photos of his paramour that had spilled from his date book on their honeymoon. “They had shocking rows about [Camilla],” a friend told Andrew Morton. “I don’t blame Diana one bit.”

Riddled with self-doubt, desperate for a sense of control, Diana had begun to abuse her body. Pre-wedding nerves—along with a casual comment from Charles about her “chubbiness”—had inspired a crash diet before the ceremony. Tension-fueled bingeing and purging, accompanied by mood swings, had followed. The royal staff had been puzzled by her ability to consume large quantities of sweets without gaining an ounce. By the fall of 1981, Diana was purging up to five times a day, and was down to “skin and bone,” in Morton’s words.

Adding to Diana’s distress was the fact that Fleet Street dogged her every public step. Once indifferent to the royal family, the British public was hungry for news of Charles’s bride. “I was very daunted, because as far as I was concerned I was a fat, chubby 20-year-old…and I couldn’t understand the level of interest,” she told Martin Bashir in her groundbreaking 1995 interview with BBC TV’s Panorama. Eventually, she added, “I seemed to be on the front of a newspaper every single day, which is an isolating experience, and the higher the media…put you…the bigger the drop.”

Still, the princess was learning to see her position as “a challenge,” as she described it later. “You couldn’t indulge in feeling sorry for yourself,” she told Bashir. “You had to either sink or swim…. I swam.”

Given to extravagant emotion—including ardent motherly love—Diana would learn to cope with public life by fighting for “time and space” when she needed it and by keeping her sense of humor sharply honed. A gifted mimic, she would develop scathing impressions of assorted denizens of the palace. (“Few people realized just how funny she could be,” her friend Lady Annabel Goldsmith wrote in The Daily Telegraph. On a charity expedition to Pakistan, she continued, “we were lent a little jet with seats that unfolded into beds. Diana became so hysterical with laughter at trying to recline her seat that she managed to fall out of it.”) In time, Di would also develop a sense of perspective about the trade-offs that she had made when she said yes to Prince Charles. “One’s life,” she would tell Ladies Home Journal, “is 70 percent slog and 30 percent fantastic.”

As the world now knows, the princess also learned to let herself vent. After a long day at the bedsides of the frail and dying, “she would call me…and simply cry, totally drained and completely exhausted,” her friend Rosa Monckton remembered in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph. “She was no saint and was as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us—in fact, rather more so.” Added Monckton (whose daughter Domenica, born with Down syndrome, was Diana’s goddaughter): “Diana had such a conflict of personalities…. She was complicated on the one hand and simple and naive on the other. These two coexisted, sometimes awkwardly, and made her life more difficult than it should have been.”

The Windsors were disturbed by Diana’s demonstrativeness. (“Maybe,” she told Bashir, “I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful.”) Though Prince Andrew was sympathetic, the others shrank from the vulnerable bride—leaving her to find her own way Charles, too, was put off, and the verbal battles that began in the fall of 1981 intensified after Diana became pregnant with William that October. Wracked by morning sickness, desperate for coddling, she staged a series of “cry-for-help” scenes, throwing herself down the stairs at Sandringham and later grazing herself with a lemon slicer.

Diana’s success with the British public was another irritant for Charles. In October she effortlessly charmed the public in Cardiff by delivering a speech partly in Welsh. When Di mania began to blossom, the prince felt displaced. To Bashir, Diana admitted, “With the media attention came a lot of jealousy.”

Born 11 months after the Waleses’ marriage, Prince William Arthur Philip Louis brought the couple (who were “quite potty over him,” in the words of Diana’s brother Earl Spencer) together for a time, but postpartum depression presented another hurdle. Though she would take solace in her closeness to William and Harry, offering them the kind of unconditional love that the Queen’s offspring had never known, her first months of motherhood were marked by weepiness, anxiety and a continuing battle with bulimia. The couple’s March 1983 trip to Australia and New Zealand with their 9-month-old son (whom Di brought in a break with royal tradition) only heightened the tension; fighting hard to conquer her shyness, Di was a smash. (Her modesty was particularly appealing. “I would trade places with you anytime,” she told a homemaker.)

By 1984, Charles’s pique was evident. Retreating from his public role, he brooded in the company of friends including Charles and Patty Palmer-Tomkinson and Dale, Lady Try on, known as Kanga. Behind the scenes, a restless Diana banished his duller chums from Kensington Palace and began discharging servants who didn’t suit her. The Queen was quietly alarmed, and her courtiers began whispering that Di was unable to handle the pressure of royal life. Aides believed that she needed at least six months free from personal scrutiny by the press.

In time, the Waleses’ friends divided into separate camps. Convinced that Charles’s polo-playing cronies supported his affair with Camilla (which he claimed was on hold until 1986), Diana began to avoid the Waleses’ Gloucestershire estate, High-grove, where his set collected on the weekends. Her own stylish confidantes (including former flatmate Carolyn Bartholomew and heiresses Catherine Soames and Kate Menzies) could be found with Diana in London, shopping and lunching at chic restaurants including San Lorenzo—and fleeing with her from the paparazzi who ignored her husband.

While there were “interludes of happiness,” in the words of Charles’s biographer Jonathan Dimbleby, the Waleses’ public smiles were increasingly forced, and though she had produced the requisite heirs, Diana was increasingly at odds with the Queen’s men. In 1985, for the first time, her public engagements outnumbered Charles’s, and the media began to hint at a rift.

Four years into her marriage, Diana began to seize fun where she could find it—and the press took notice. In 1985, at a private dance in Leicestershire, she arrived without Charles and danced until 4 a.m. At a White House ball with the prince, she arranged to take a spin on the dance floor with John Travolta. On a visit to West Palm Beach, she was photographed making eyes at the local polo team while her husband looked the other way. And during the Windsors’ January 1986 get-together at Sandringham, Diana joined forces with the woman who had caught the eye of Prince Andrew. Thrilled to have a confederate, she helped 26-year-old Sarah Ferguson, known as Fergie, find her footing. She lent her awkward future sister-in-law clothes, invited her on a ski trip to Switzerland and joked with her about the self-important Windsors.

But like most of Diana’s relationships, her friendship with Fergie—who became the Duchess of York on July 23, 1986—was complex. Urged by Charles to be more like the exuberant duchess (meaning, less like her moody self), Di drew fire when the two collaborated on skittish pranks—disguising themselves as policewomen for a visit to the nightclub Annabel’s and jabbing at their chum Lulu Blacker with an umbrella at Royal Ascot.

When the impulsive Fergie (who admitted to Britain’s Hello! magazine, “I don’t think before I act”) began plunging into hot water and disapproving journalists dubbed them the Merry Wives of Windsor, Diana curbed her antics—in public. But the pressure never let up: As Charles renewed his affair with Camilla, Diana suffered from what she later called “rampant bulimia,” and speculation about the Waleses’ marriage reached a crescendo. Diana was portrayed by the press as a glamorous harridan, Charles as a recluse who consulted mystics and talked to flowers.

By now, the couple, who rarely shared a bedroom, were spending weeks apart. The problems of the marriage continued to surface in the press. Fleet Street began to focus on Diana’s flirtations with bachelors including Philip Dunne and David Water-house, but no one who knew her well believed that the relationships were serious. Her position as Princess of Wales meant more to her than anything in the world, her friends insisted. Few thought she would risk it for a silly fling.

As it happened, Diana did just that—though the dalliance would not become public until 1994, when James Hewitt, the ex-Life Guards officer who had offered her sexual solace, collaborated on a kiss-and-tell tome that reportedly earned an advance of $4.5 million. In the short term the relationship put the bloom back in Di’s cheeks. As she told Bashir, “I adored [Hewitt], I was in love with him.” But, she added, “I was very let down.”

In the absence of support from the royal family, the princess began to turn to psychics, astrologers, aromatherapists and personal trainers. But the real anodyne was work: The more severe Diana’s own pain, the more closely she embraced others. AIDS patients, lepers, the elderly, sick children—she responded to anyone whose life was in extremis.

John Mayo, former director general of the British charity Help the Aged, remembers a call that he received from Diana’s office in the difficult winter of 1987. “It was her equerry saying, ‘The princess would like to visit one of your day centers at 9 a.m. tomorrow.’ London was snowbound. But she turned up a little after 9 and said, ‘Sorry I’m late, but I had to drop William at school.’ She was affected by the visit because the center was not in a rich area, and there were several older people who couldn’t afford to keep the heat on.”

Though her self-doubt would never disappear, her charities and her role as a mother had given Diana the strength she needed—and the will to continue in a marriage that, by all appearances, was destined to continue until she became Queen. Ironically, Charles never seemed to take note of his wife’s strides. As she lamented to British TV audiences in 1995, the prince still thought of her as “the 18-year-old girl he got engaged to, so I don’t think I’ve been given any credit for growth. And, my goodness, I’ve had to grow.”

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