By Charles Leerhsen
September 22, 1997 12:00 PM

They were fighting—not funereal—words. Standing at the gilded pulpit in Westminster Abbey, Diana’s younger brother, Earl Spencer, faced down a front row of stiff upper lips and took aim at an admittedly easy target: Prince Charles’s ear. Into this, and similar royal receptacles, Spencer poured not just the kind of unexpected, very personal frankness that one simply doesn’t utter to the Queen and her kin but also a molten, though exquisitely controlled, stream of rage. His “complex” and “radiant” sister, the 33-year-old Spencer said, had led a “bizarre” life since marrying Charles. Now her legacy—and perhaps the care of her children—would be overseen in part by her “blood family.” And in case Her Majesty hadn’t noticed, he went on: Diana hardly needed the title of Her Royal Highness, the one denied her after the divorce, “to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”

Behold the erstwhile prodigal Spencer, once known to British readers by the nom de tabloid Champagne Charlie. The speech was electrifying—though perhaps ungracious in light of the several steps the Queen had in the last week taken in Diana’s direction—and adored by the multitudes who applauded both outside the 900-year-old abbey and, startlingly, within. Continuing his assault on a British press he decried as being on “a permanent quest…to bring [Diana] down,” he demonstrated that, like his sister, he was more than capable of seizing the spotlight and using the media—in this case, worldwide television coverage that reached an estimated two billion people—to his carefully calculated ends. His eulogy also met a crying need for something spontaneous—and overtly Diana-esque, as it were—in the midst of a long and flawless day of ceremony. Perhaps what most appealed to the British public was his promise to become involved in rearing Di’s sons, William and Harry.

Giving voice so powerfully to the simmering anger of so many mourners, the speech had the impact of a thunderclap. Suddenly there was a handsome new hero on the scene. It didn’t hurt at all, of course, that he was harrumphed at afterward by arbiters of protocol, including the hissable likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, after the service, said he was “appalled” at Spencer’s address. “It was bad manners,” agrees one royal watcher. “I should think the Queen is spitting blood at Earl Spencer today.” Spencer showed the speech to no one in advance, lest it embarrass his sister Lady Jane Fellowes, 40, who is married to Sir Robert Fellowes, the Queen’s private secretary. Yet Ben Pimlott, one of the Queen’s biographers, seemed to speak for the majority when he said Spencer’s attack was “biting, tight and effective.” Richard Attenborough, who directed Gandhi and once served as Diana’s speech coach, praised Spencer’s eulogy as “courageous, considered, compassionate and determined.”

But what is Spencer determined to do, exactly? Until now he has seemed, in more ways than one, a pale reflection of Diana—an Eton and Oxford grad who worked, from 1986 to 1991, as a “contributing correspondent” on NBC’s Today show, but who has since basically seemed content to manage the family estate some 75 miles northwest of London and to be his famous sister’s less famous brother. At this he has excelled, often serving Diana as a one-man support group, not counseling her away from excesses so much as showing her she was not alone. Like Di, Spencer doesn’t suppress many emotions. He talks too freely about his feelings, sometimes to journalists. He falls in love too fast, often with the wrong people (including journalists). He is a crosser of lines, a sucker for his own impulses—and Prince Charles’s worst nightmare. If, as some royal watchers believe, the earl is moving back from Cape Town to keep close tabs on Di’s children, then someone should notify the Guinness Book: Spencer, to the delight of many Brits, may be on the verge of becoming the world’s biggest royal pain.

For the moment, though, he is an unhappy man with raw memories of a woman who was more than a sister. In 1967, when Diana was 6 and Charles 3, their mother, Frances, had an affair with wallpaper heir Peter Shand Kydd; the liaison ended her marriage to Johnnie Spencer, the Eighth Earl Spencer, in a matter of months. Not only did Frances move out, but the two older Spencer children, Sarah, then 12, and Jane, 10, went off to boarding school for the first time, increasing the younger children’s sense of isolation and forcing Diana to take on a motherly role. Diana, Her True Story, the book Andrew Morton wrote in 1992 with the princess’s sub-rosa cooperation, recounts that when the children were at their father’s home, Diana would lie in bed listening to Charles sobbing “I want my mummy, I want my mummy.” On nights when she could overcome her fear of the dark, Di made her way down the corridor to comfort Charles in his room.

She also looked out for her brother at school. Jean Lowe, former headmistress of Silfield School, recalls, “Diana came to me when she was 6 and the present Earl Spencer was 4. She was worried whether her brother was settled in the nursery school and kept saying to me the first day, ‘Do you think Charles is all right?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I’m sure he is,’ and then she said it again. In the end I said, ‘Would you like to go and see?’ So she trotted off and came back quite happy.” In 1969 their mother married Shand Kydd, whom they liked; in 1976 their father wed Raine, Countess of Dartmouth and daughter of romance novelist Barbara Cartland, whom the children called Acid Raine. While she reduced the household staff, opened part of Althorp, the ancestral estate, to public viewing and sold off family treasures, the Spencer girls looked toward the future. Diana was only 18 when she began seeing Prince Charles, after a romance between the Prince and Di’s sister Sarah had fizzled. Spencer, a few years later, became a tabloid fixture, thanks to his alleged club-crawling ways. He complained about the coverage—even when it depicted him tackling a shoplifter at Harrods—but didn’t help his case by announcing, on a TV talk show, that he often fantasized about Roman orgies and “girls I’m interested in.”

Keeping track of the girls he was interested in wasn’t easy. In 1989, Spencer, within the space of 10 days, met and proposed to model Victoria Lockwood, declaring, “My happiness is complete.” Four months later they had a lavish wedding, but problems loomed. Lockwood suffered from anorexia and alcoholism. In 1991 an old flame of Spencer’s, Tatler magazine contributor Sally Ann Lasson, told the News of the World that she and Spencer had rekindled their love during a Paris weekend six months after his marriage. Showing the Spencer knack for spin control, he went to the Daily Mail to confess in an issue that hit the stands a day before Lasson’s did.

Supposedly 1992 was the year that Spencer finally put such nonsense behind him. “He looked back at that year as the worst in his life,” says one royal watcher. He had good reason. Within a matter of months, Spencer’s father died, Diana and Charles separated and Spencer’s best friend, Darius Guppy, was on trial for insurance fraud, a crime for which he was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. Spencer’s inheritance totaled $122 million, but with that came responsibility for Althorp and its upkeep. “I wake up in a cold sweat from the worry of it all,” he told a friend.

It was Spencer’s handling of Althorp—which fell to him as his father’s male heir by ancient British tradition—that led to his only real rift with Diana. She had been excited in 1993 when Spencer promised her a four-bedroom house on the estate where she could begin a new life away from the Palace. But three weeks later he withdrew the offer, explaining that he was concerned with the extra security precautions that would be necessary Diana was stunned. According to Morton’s second book, she wrote Spencer a letter expressing her extreme disappointment. He didn’t reply, and the siblings became cool with one another.

The rift didn’t last. In 1994, when paparazzi caught Diana topless, Spencer came to his sister’s defense, going on the TV show Inside Edition and blaming the breakup of her marriage on the tabloids. The next year he and Lockwood separated, but in 1996 he moved to Cape Town with her and their children, Kitty, now 6, twins Eliza and Katya, 5, and Louis, 3, to try a reconciliation. Soon, however, Spencer was photographed with South African fashion designer Chantal Collopy, whose husband in July of 1996 cooperated for a News of the World story headlined “Di’s Brother Stole My Wife.”

No wonder, given his history, that in the part of his eulogy warning us not to canonize Diana, Spencer seemed so aware of what it means to fall short of sainthood. At the moment, his world is in a state of flux and churn—a state that anyone who followed Diana’s adventures will no doubt find familiar. He has announced that his marriage is over, has broken up with Collopy and has left the world wondering if he will alight at last in England or South Africa. Whether he will wind up near his own children, who live with their mother in Cape Town, remains an open question. Watching him in Westminster Abbey, the Queen sat stone-faced but winced when Spencer referred to the “blood family.” Prince Charles, said one observer, stopped crying and turned white. Perhaps he was thinking that he had just seen the future, and it was frightening.

Reported by NINA BIDDLE and LIZ CORCORAN in London