September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

For a number of heady months in 1980, the pleasant apartment at 60 Coleherne Court in London’s bustling Earls Court district was an address on the lips of every British subject. Buckingham Palace may have been only a few miles away, but what the country craved was a glimpse of the girl who peeked from behind that Coleherne Court door.

Diana’s salad days in London were brief but busy, marking a change from her rural life to the sophisticated pace of the capital. For her 18th birthday, her father plunked down $85,000 for her first home. She enthusiastically decorated with the functional furniture style favored by popular designer Terence Conran and then invited three friends to move in. Like many girls of good family, Diana and her flatmates were known as Sloane Rangers: They shopped, partied and looked for Lord Right in the tony streets near Sloane Square. Diana considered this one of the happiest times in her life. “I laughed my head off there,” she told biographer Andrew Morton.

Diana equally enjoyed the hours she spent working with children. Two days a week she cared for the year-old son of American oil-company executive Patrick Robertson and his wife, Mary, who were temporarily stationed in London. “I needed a part-time nanny, so I called an agency, and Diana was the only part-timer on their books,” recalls Mary, who paid the future princess $5 an hour. “We didn’t know that she was anybody other than Diana Spencer. I found out only by accident that she had a title when I stumbled across a bank deposit slip that got buried in a sofa cushion. She would run errands for me and even wash breakfast dishes. She couldn’t have been more down-to-earth.”

The rest of the week, Diana helped out at the Young England Kindergarten. “If ever a child was crying, she would be the first person to go and help them,” says codirector Kay King. “She was also very good at reassuring nervous mothers.”

Her ability to nurture was evident, too, when she attended a post-polo barbecue in West Sussex in July. There, Diana told Prince Charles, then 31, that she had felt great empathy for him at the recent death of his beloved great-uncle Lord Mountbatten. “They just clicked,” Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Diana’s sister, told biographer Penny Junor. “He met Miss Right, and she met Mr. Right.” According to royal watchers, Diana fell in love with the idea of becoming the Princess of Wales.

It was not to be an easy campaign. The prince had a bulging black book of possible mates, including the fiery Anna “Whiplash” Wallace, outspoken daughter of a Scottish landowner. He also loved his bachelor life of musical and bucolic pursuits. But pressures inside the family were at work. The glacial message from his father, Prince Philip, echoed clearly down the royal corridors: Produce an heir, and soon.

As the courtship progressed—evenings at the opera, suppers at the palace—Diana fell hard. When she was asked later during a TV interview if she were in love with Charles, she answered with a resounding “Of course!”

Another love affair began then, too, expressed in oceans of ink and miles of film. Diana was photogenic and irresistible, and the public couldn’t get enough of her. At first it was fun. Once when the lensmen followed Diana’s little Metro car, she and flatmate Carolyn Bartholomew parked, jumped on a bus and later escaped through the back of a store. But the chases through London could also reduce her to tears. “On one occasion she left the kindergarten to buy a birthday present,” recalls King. “She was pursued like an animal, hounded into a corner with her hands over her face, and a member of the public came and stood in front of her and said, ‘Leave her alone.’ ”

Charles finally proposed in the Windsor Castle nursery on Feb. 6, 1981. He said that he understood that Diana might need some time to think it over. After all, he told her, it would mean wrenching changes. Someday, he said, she would be the Queen of England. But she accepted at once. “I saw Diana in her London flat, and I guessed when I saw her face,” Sarah told Junor. “I said, ‘You’re engaged.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ ”

On Feb. 23, the night before the official engagement announcement, Diana moved into Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s London residence. At the time, it was widely believed that she would there be gently tutored in the ways of the Windsors. But Diana would later claim that no one connected to the palace gave her a warm welcome or instructed her in royal protocol. Intuitively, she had left a note at Coleherne Court for her former flatmates. “For God’s sake ring me up,” it said. “I’m going to need you.”

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