Nine years after the car crash in the Paris tunnel that killed Princess Diana, I attended a ball at Althorp, the Spencer family’s grand home in Northamptonshire.
The party was hosted, improbably, by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (with Tatler magazine) to raise money for his late wife Raisa’s foundation. The people partying in the tent that night were Diana’s crowd — the London uber-swirl of fashion, society and media.
Had she been there, Diana would have lit up the gathering with her radiant blondeness. Sitting next to old Gorby, she would have caused his birthmark to flush deeper as she leaned in to hear him speak of his wife, grasping his hand as she fixed her big blue eyes on him.
Diana would have been 50 tomorrow. What would she have been like? Still great looking — that’s a given.
Her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, with her cornflower-blue eyes and striding sexuality, was a handsome woman to the very end.
Fashion-wise, Diana would have gone the J Crew and Galliano route a la Michelle Obama, always knowing how to mix casual with glam. There is no doubt she would have kept her chin taut with strategic Botox shots and her bare arms buff from the gym.
Remarriage? At least two, I suspect, on both sides of the Atlantic. Always so professional herself, she would have soon grown exasperated with Dodi Fayed’s hopeless unreliability.
After the break-up, I see her moving to her favourite city, New York, spending a few cocooned years safely married to a super-rich hedge-fund manager who could provide her with what she called ‘all the toys’: plane, private island and bodyguards.
Gliding sleekly into her 40s, her romantic taste would have moved to men of power over boys of play.
She’d have tired of the hedge-fund manager and drifted into undercover trysts with more exciting men — a late-night talk-show host or a globe-trotting French finance wizard destined for the Elysee Palace.
I suspect she would have retained a weakness for men in uniform and a yen for dashing Muslim men. (A two-year fling with a Pakistani general, rumoured to have links to the country’s controversial intelligence service, would have been a particular headache to the Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department.)
Davos and the Clinton Global Initiative (an annual gathering of those involved with former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s charity) would have become her new post-palace power circles.
Perhaps she would have caused a Press sensation with an unplanned pledge from the CGI stage to raise $50 million to help educate women in southern Sudan.
Back in Britain to visit William and Harry, she would have enjoyed some elegant schadenfreude over the scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp when it was revealed that for years some employees had been hacking into the phones of celebrities and royals and publishing their illicit skimmings.
She would have sued for sure, and collected record-breaking damages (which she would have donated to the children’s cancer ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children).
Is it possible that even Squidgygate, the embarrassingly steamy phone call between Diana and her lover James Gilbey in December 1989, was really one of the earliest examples of Press malfeasance?
I never believed the bizarre explanation, investigated at length in my book The Diana Chronicles, that a radio ham named Cyril Reenan had picked up this call and offered it to Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun.
Was Reenan — who later spoke of ‘being set up by a sinister conspiracy’ and who died in 2004 — really a cover for a nefarious phone hacker?
If so, Diana’s obsession about eavesdroppers in the last days of her life — often mocked as paranoia — was simply the sound intuition of a careful student of the ways of Fleet Street.
Politically, she would have been very much at home with David Cameron and the Old Etonians who now run Britain. She would have parted company with Tony Blair much earlier, stung by his failure to use her for peace-making missions overseas.
He would have tried to woo her back, but Diana was shrewd when it came to the conducting of feuds.
While I suspect she would have been reconciled with her mother, I doubt she would have forgiven her brother, Earl Spencer, for abruptly withdrawing the refuge of a house in Althorp’s grounds after the collapse of her marriage, the time she needed it most.
And she would have found the way he dumped his second wife, Caroline Freud, within four months of her giving birth, as fresh evidence of his entitled beastliness.
I believe her best male friend in later years would have been, poignantly, her reviled first husband. As the financier Sir James Goldsmith once put it.
‘When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy’, and having married Camilla, Charles would suddenly have found the company of his former wife strangely comforting.
With time, Diana would no longer have found Charles’s causes so tiresome. Rather, she’d have empathised.
After so many loves and losses, she would finally have let go of her rancour towards Camilla. The Duchess’s galleon-size Lady Bracknell hat at William’s wedding would have offered satisfaction enough.
Besides, there were other rivals to worry about.
Among her global girlfriend set, she might view Queen Rania of Jordan’s beauty, youth and social conscience as a triple threat that should be watched.
After some initial competitiveness with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, she’d have probably bonded with her over ways to dodge Silvio Berlusconi.
And Kate, the newly minted Duchess of Cambridge? How would Diana have handled her son’s steadfast affection for a woman other than herself?
The rising public adoration of Kate would have afforded Diana some tricky moments. Pleased, yes, but, like Frances Shand Kydd — who, days before Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, suddenly burst out: ‘I have good, long legs, like my daughter’ — she would have had to adjust to a broadening of the limelight.
Her edge over Kate, of course, was her epic of princessly suffering, which would always make her story more interesting. (‘Happily ever after’ never has the same allure to the Press as: ‘It all went horribly wrong.’)
Rejoicing in her flawless Spencer pedigree, Diana would have positioned herself as a firm defender of the Middletons against the palace snobs — she would have ostentatiously made Carole Middleton, Kate’s dynamic mother, her new BFF (best friend for ever).
Would our heroine have found peace?
Yes, I believe she would have been sustained by the two things she cared about most: her children and her humanitarian passion.
In July 1997, Diana told me she’d been discussing the idea of making TV films about the causes she worked so hard for: the victims of land mines, leprosy and HIV/Aids.
For a woman whose private life was ruled by her heart, I found her a surprisingly good executive.
She knew how to make things happen and how to run a team. She had a galvanic focus when her compassionate feelings were stirred.
Had she lived, the Princess Diana Foundation, fuelled by a steady pipeline of adoring billionaire former boyfriends, would have become hugely prestigious and powerful.
She would also have been astute enough to turn her back on money that failed the ‘smell test’. The woman who left school without an O-level to her name would have been smarter than the London School of Economics: no money from Gaddafi’s son Saif.
In the world disasters of the past few years — 9/11, the tsunamis, the Pakistan earthquake, Hurricane Katrina — you know Diana would have been first at the scene in a hard hat with a camera crew (and ten million followers on Twitter).
She would have kept her spotlight trained on individual sufferers whom she’d continue to visit, care for and touch.
At a time when the world has disaster fatigue, I miss the generosity of her star power and what it could accomplish.
‘Don’t worry, Mummy,’ 14-year-old William told his mother when he learned she’d been stripped of the title of Her Royal Highness at the time of her divorce. ‘I will give it back to you one day when I am King.’
In many ways, he already has. He made such clear efforts to include the memory of his mother in the most important day of his life.
The engagement ring he placed on Kate’s finger belonged to Diana.
The opening hymn at the wedding, Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer, was one of Diana’s favourites, chosen by William and Harry to close her funeral and the memorial service that marked the tenth anniversary of her death.
But perhaps more than any other gesture, in the days before the Royal Wedding, William took Kate on a sacred trip to visit Diana’s grave on the island in the lake at Althorp.
He had waited all these years to do it, showing his wife-to-be that Diana still lives and is vibrant in his memory. And in ours.