By Annette Gallagher Weisman
St. Petersburg Times, Sunday, 29, 2007

A scathing satire by Craig Brown in Britain’s conservative newspaper The Telegraph, “10 Key Facts about Books on Diana,” ridicules the publishing frenzy this year to print anything and everything about the Princess of Wales, capitalizing on the 10th anniversary next month of her death in a Paris car crash.
One reader responded, “There are two facts about Diana: She died. And there’s too much talk about her.”

Well, yes, and no. Though many of us are sick of the media blitz for so-called celebs photographed in and out of jail or rehab, Diana’s fame was different. Apart from the royal scandals, and despite her flaws, the young girl who married a prince and later became an icon is worth remembering.

Even with her limited education, Diana achieved much in her short life. She walked through a half-cleared minefield in Africa – twice, so the press could get the right photo. Shortly afterward, 122 governments agreed on a treaty to ban the use of antipersonnel land mines.

Her dedicated work for many causes, done with cheery grace and humanity, was a wakeup call to the Queen to convey more empathy to her subjects. As former Prime Minister Tony Blair said to Tina Brown, author of The Diana Chronicles, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.”

In her comprehensive and riveting biography, Brown includes Diana’s work for around 100 charities. Her warmth and compassion helped such people as AIDs patients, whom she touched, cuddled or held hands with, prompting one dying patient to inquire whether Diana was an angel.

Prince Charles might have said, “That’s no angel, that’s my wife,” but he got the bad news early on in their marriage that Diana was the one people wanted to see. Crowds “openly groaned in disappointment” if they got him instead of her on their joint walkabouts.

Diana’s place

Part social history, part tattletales with authentic gossip, Brown’s book is an engrossing read, not only for her behind-the-scenes details of a fairy tale marriage gone wrong, but for her insight into how “the Diana factor” has changed how the media cover celebrities and the news.

Brown herself is one of the journalists who became celebrities, thanks in part to Diana. Editor of London’s society magazine the Tatler, which reported on all the royal doings, she transported that background to the United States as editor in chief of Vanity Fair in 1984, publishing a famous piece about the royal marriage, “The Mouse that Roared,” which caused a furor in Britain. During her reign as editor of the prestigious New Yorker, she devoted an entire issue to the death of Princess Diana.

Sarah Bradford, whose biography Diana was reissued this year, said of Brown’s contacts in a review in the Guardian, “There’s only one blonde in this book and it’s not Diana.”

The fact that Brown is so well connected that she can solicit opinions from people like Henry Kissinger is a plus. However, when a celebrity writes a book about a celebrity and the only face on the dust jacket is the biographer’s, there is a mixed message.

Like Diana, Brown married an older man, an English prince of publishing, Sir Harold Evans. Diana was not so lucky. Her prince turned out to be a cad, telephoning while on honeymoon his ex, Camilla Parker Bowles, and soon resuming, as we all know by now, their intimate liaison.

Brown offers plenty of new information, too, such as the fact that Charles’ nanny, “the sainted Mabel Anderson,” was “the spitting image of Camilla.” Hmm.

Brown uncovered the well-kept secret that Diana fell passionately in love with a Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, whom she’d hoped to marry despite his Muslim family’s opposition. “Her dream was a marriage between two globe-trotting humanitarians,” Brown says, a sort of Brangelina with serious status.

Brown also samples Diana’s spunk and sense of humor. Though she was sometimes called a commoner, her Spencer lineage is superior to her in-laws’. When Prince Philip told her once “If you don’t behave, my girl, we’ll take your title away,” Lady Diana Spencer responded correctly, “My title is a lot older than yours, Philip.”

In what turned into her battle with the royal family, Diana learned to expertly manipulate the media, but eventually the paparazzi became uncontrollable, destroying any privacy she had and ultimately chasing her into a Paris tunnel. Even as Diana was in need of help in the back of Dodi Al Fayed’s Mercedes, her photo was taken and sold exclusively for 300,000 pounds (more than $600,000 at today’s exchange rate); it may as well have been 30 pieces of silver. Pronounced dead at 4 a.m., she was moved to a secluded room in the French hospital Pitie-Salpetriere, where those who saw her said she still looked beautiful.

The last section of The Diana Chronicles, about what happened to her before she died and the soap opera that followed, will have even the cynics turning pages. As for Bradford, who diminished Brown’s intensively researched and well-written tome as “schlock and sentimental drivel,” all one can say is “meow!”

Friends far and wide

Less weighty in terms of pages and content is Larry King’s The People’s Princess: Cherished Memories of Diana, Princess of Wales, From Those Who Knew Her Best. It’s surprising to learn that people like Barbara Bush and Donald Trump, who contributed only a few sentences, were chummy with Diana. But there are also interesting essays with new information, such as one by British journalist Piers Morgan, to whom Diana said, “I would support an anti-stalking bill tomorrow.”

Though distrustful of many, Diana could be surprisingly candid and indiscreet with people such as journalist Taki, who spoke to her a few hours before she died. When Taki asked, in reference to Al Fayed, whether she’d be wearing a chador anytime soon, Diana laughed. “You must be kidding. You know very well what this is about.” Perhaps, as Brown suggests, it was to make Khan jealous.

Secrets of the chef

One of the most entertaining new books about Diana is Eating Royally: Recipes & Remembrances from a Royal Kitchen by Darren McGrady, private chef to Princess Diana. Before you think, “What? Even her chef is exploiting her!” McGrady says the advance and proceeds from the book will go the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Though an array of seasonal recipes cooked for the royal family may be enough to make foodies purchase this book, the fact that McGrady throws into the mix amazing below-stairs information about the royals and their castles is well worth $24.99.

On the lighter side, he’ll tell us that it takes “eight pints of milk from the Royal cows to make a pint of Royal cream,” but he also reveals the most private of moments. While with the Queen in her bedroom helping her remove belongings during the blaze that damaged her beloved Windsor Castle in 1992, McGrady watched Her Majesty pick up a pair of her husband’s slippers and stare at them: “I was struck by the thought that all the money and position in the world means nothing at a time like this.”

It’s the four years he was Diana’s chef at Kensington Palace that he most enjoyed. He says Diana’s bulimic days were over, and he cooked healthy food. She hated hunting, the royal sport, and her diet was absent of red meat. “Why does everyone in this family like killing things?” Diana once asked him.

McGrady says Diana always talked of moving to America and after each trip would say, “Darren, we’ve absolutely got to move there!” McGrady made it and is now a private chef in Texas.

Freelance writer Annette Gallagher Weisman is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and worked for Vanity Fair and Over21 magazines in London.

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Only a handful of celebrities have enjoyed the kind of love affair with the camera that Diana, Princess of Wales, enjoyed. But oh, how the cameras adored her.

The anniversary edition of Diana: The Portrait gathers some 500 images of her, ranging from baby pictures and childhood snaps to the iconic photographs: the girlish bride, the glamorous blond in designer gowns, the activist chatting with land mine victims, the devoted mum with her smiling young sons.

Compiled with the cooperation of the Spencer family, the book also includes a biography of Diana by British journalist Rosalind Coward, based on more than 200 interviews.

The large format and handsome design of the book serve well the photos and other memorabilia, from Diana’s school report cards to some of the notes left by her millions of mourners.