September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

When leaving an old life for a new one, it’s best to travel light. Diana, however, was burdened by a royal baggage train. In one respect the official separation from Charles in December 1992 freed them both from the strain of keeping up appearances. Those close to Diana saw a fresh enthusiasm and cheerfulness. “My life is changing,” biographer Andrew Morton reported Diana’s telling friends at the time. “I’ve opened up.”

Over the years that followed, Diana was a work in progress. She moved exuberantly, sometimes impetuously, into uncharted territory, caught up in a sleek round of friends, fashion and good works. But the past was persistent. Those closest to her joked that the princess’s acronym, POW, stood for Prisoner of Wales. In a wounding snub after the separation, choice royal appearances went to others.

Though she was widely praised for her candor and bravery, Diana was living in a golden fishbowl where a raised eyebrow or flirty smile also made headlines. Her past attachments were lucratively dredged up. In August 1994, the British tabloid News of the World suggested that from the time of her separation, a lonely Diana had made hundreds of anonymous phone calls to suave London art dealer Oliver Hoare, a longtime friend of the royal couple. (Diana admitted that she called him occasionally but not obsessively.) And in the ’94 tell-all Princess in Love, which he coauthored, Diana’s onetime riding instructor James Hewitt described sexual trysts with her in tasteless detail. In 1995 a flirtation with rugby star Will Carling turned nasty when Carling’s wife publicly accused Diana of trying to steal her man.

The public hammer blows took their toll on an increasingly fragile princess. She walked an emotional razor’s edge. On one side was the bright promise of a new freedom. On the other lurked vulnerability and loneliness as the end of her marriage loomed. Several intimates, according to some reports, tried to effect a reconciliation. In early 1995, Diana was reportedly agreeable, on one condition: No more Camilla. It was not to happen.

The prince, in fact, appeared determined to distance himself even further from his wife. With Diana’s reputation damaged, Charles tried to seize the public relations initiative and in June 1994 sat for a TV interview in which he admitted to an extramarital affair and implied that he’d never really loved Diana.

For the princess it was a declaration of all-out war. She was, royal expert Brian Hoey observed, “the mistress of media manipulation.” In November 1995, Diana launched her own offensive, one that would prove to be a masterpiece of one-upmanship. She gathered critical kudos and public sympathy by coming clean in a way that made worldwide headlines and sent a disturbing message to the Palace—by arranging her own television interview on the critically acclaimed BBC news program Panorama. In the 55-minute-long conversation with host Martin Bashir, she spoke of Charles’s affair, confessed her own indiscretions, admitted to hurting herself in a cry for help, outlined her agenda—to become the “queen of people’s hearts”—and tacitly agreed that perhaps a beleaguered Prince of Wales should step aside and let their son William ascend the throne.

For a member of the royal family—albeit an estranged one—the appearance was a shocking departure, unparalleled in its frankness and intimacy. Compared to the uproar it caused, wrote The Times, “the 1936 abdication was a garden party.” Diana’s advisers had tried to talk her out of it, but the princess rarely took advice. Indeed, her press secretary resigned, it was widely suspected, because she had spoken to the BBC without telling him in advance. The interview, as her friend Clive James wrote in The New Yorker, “multiplied her popularity, but it propelled her…over the wall, out of the country, away from her protection.” For the Palace and for Prince Charles, it was the last straw.

The royal divorce was finalized on Aug. 28, 1996. Among the terms: Diana received $600,000 per year for office expenses, her apartment in Kensington Palace and a $26 million settlement. No longer a member of the royal family, she would henceforth be known as Diana, Princess of Wales, and would no longer be addressed as “Your Royal Highness.”

Diana withdrew from public life in 1993. At social and emotional loose ends, she surrounded herself with alternative advisers: psychic Rita Rogers, hypnotherapist and nutritionist Roderick Lane, massage therapist Stephen Twigg and aromatherapist Sue Beechey.

After her divorce she kept her affiliation with only six of more than 100 charities, partly in an attempt to be hands-on with the causes and not just a figurehead. She was excited by recent conversations with new Prime Minister Tony Blair, who agreed with her that there should be a role for her in representing her country. In an act that seemed symbolic, she auctioned off 79 dresses at Christie’s in June ’97 for charity. “Nothing gives me more happiness,” Diana told Le Monde in her last interview, “than to try to aid the most vulnerable in this society.”

As she moved out of the royal sphere, her circle of friends helped her find stability. Diana saw more of her acquaintances, including Hayat Palumbo, a British socialite, and Lucia Flecha de Lima, wife of the Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. Diana occasionally stayed with her at Martha’s Vineyard on time-outs from the paparazzi pressure cooker of London. Last March she also eluded the press when she visited her brother Charles in South Africa.

As time passed, some of her old wounds began to heal. Prince Charles and Diana shared a public kiss at William’s parents’ day at Eton in May 1996. They presented a united front for William’s confirmation at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in March and were on warm terms for Harry’s sports day at Ludgrove School in June.

Those who knew her believed that one thing she never regretted was marrying Prince Charles. “Although she was no longer in love with him,” says Brian Hoey, “part of her would always love him.” She had even developed a sense of humor about her former rival. According to her friend Lana Marks, a Palm Beach-based designer of leather accessories, the princess “kept very unflattering cartoons of Camilla in her bathroom.”

Despite her new attitude, finding a man was not easy for the most watched woman in the world. She told Marks that “she was looking forward to getting married again, and she wanted to have a little girl.” But she also would complain in the same breath, “Who would take me on?”

A few brave souls, as it turned out. She became friendly with Dr. Hasnat Khan, a Punjab-born cardiac specialist, during her visits to one of his patients at the Royal Brompton Hospital. She got flirty with property dealer Christopher Whalley at her gym, London’s Harbour Club, in ’95. “What’s a girl got to do around here to get a guy to buy her a cup of coffee?” she reportedly asked. Whalley was soon lunching with her near Kensington Palace, helping her through the divorce days. He remained a gentleman throughout their friendship, telling The Evening Standard, “So she’s phoned me a couple of times…what’s the big deal?” The two were last observed lunching at La Famiglia this past summer.

By July she had a much more serious suitor. Dodi Al Fayed, a 42-year-old Egyptian playboy and sometime movie producer (Chariots of Fire, Hook), came into Diana’s life at the behest of his father, Mohamed Al Fayed, the multimillionaire owner of Harrods. Weeks after the elder Al Fayed invited Diana and her boys to join his family at his Saint-Tropez villa, Diana and Dodi were sharing their own private vacations. Al Fayed, who in the past had been linked with Brooke Shields and Tina Sinatra, was not bothered by the intense, sometimes harsh/media exposure. “He likes trophy women,” a friend said.

Other friends—and much of the world—were doubtful about Dodi, but he offered Diana understanding, a measure of tenderness and the money to ensure her privacy. Was she about to find a lasting happiness with him? No one could know. But as a boatload of lensmen snapped away at Diana in Saint-Tropez, she zoomed over to them in a speedboat. After appealing for privacy, she reportedly yelled out, “You’re going to be surprised with the next thing I do.” What could she possibly have meant by that declaration? Those who watched her so avidly would never find out.

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