Although not of the same breeding as the daughter of the eighth Earl of Spencer, Brown grew up privileged in the town of Little Marlow on the Thames, attending boarding schools where she wore a “gray cloak with a Ku Klux Klan hood for Sunday morning walks and learned piano from someone named Mrs. Clotsworthy.” At home, she hung out with actors, including Richard Attenborough and Joan Collins, while her father, a film producer of variable success, tried to seal deals. “‘Who shall we have to dinner to massage the Iranian/Swiss/Belgian money?’ was a catchphrase that signified the start of the school holidays,” she once wrote. “ ‘Everyone,’ my mother would reply, ‘and if he’s anything like the Indian twenty percent it better be a buffet.’ ” By 12, Brown was keeping a journal every night and writing plays. At Oxford, she immediately climbed the rungs of the literary scene, using a school-magazine interview to charm Auberon Waugh, Evelyn’s son, and dating Martin Amis, who was then writing a sex column under the pseudonym Bruno Holbrook (she preferred to call him Bruno).
After graduation, she freelanced silly newspaper pieces about the Playboy Club, bathing-beauty contests, and Erica Jong—Jong’s husband, she writes, guessed accurately that “the lady journalist staring beadily at him from the sofa was speculating feverishly about his impeccable genitalia.” Some stories were commissioned by the most respected editor in London: Evans, 25 years her senior and married with three children. Their courtship was a source of mirth in newsrooms, where she was cast as Becky Sharp and he as a latecomer to the swinging sixties, newly hip in dark nipped-in suits and big bright ties. In Philip Norman’s excellent Everyone’s Gone to the Moon, a roman à clef from that period, Brown is Fran Dyson, a breezily confident striver with “centipede eyes” and a dirty flat who is always playing someone for a fool: “I was outside the front entrance last night, trying to get a taxi home in the pouring rain, remember how it was bucketing down?” the book’s fashion editor announces to the newsroom. “And then that bloody pushy little Fran Dyson comes out and steals it from under my very nose! I mean, that was bad enough, but now she’s sent me this creepy little note of apology—and the most mingy little box of Black Magic you can buy! I don’t think it’s even half a pound!”
For Brown, Diana was v. v. hot. “Once any kind of beauty comes near the aura of royalty, they become way too hot to handle,” she says.
In a way, Diana and Brown grew up together, professionally speaking: Diana married Charles two years after Brown was appointed editor of the “Us magazine of Gosford Park,” as she calls the British society magazine Tatler, and died ten months before Brown left The New Yorker. Diana was Brown’s first great story—the joyful global mobs were demanding details about the new Sloaney princess-to-be, and at Tatler she was perfectly positioned to deliver. Soon Brown was courted by the royal circle, like the Parker-Bowleses, who invited her over to Bolehyde Manor for a photo shoot. “Compared with the freshness of the emerging Diana, the legendarily sexually confident Camilla suddenly seemed a knocked-around blonde with too much backstory,” Brown writes in The Diana Chronicles. “Andrew, for his part, spent the whole shoot staring at my chest.”
For Brown, Diana was v. v. hot. “Once any kind of beauty comes near the aura of royalty, they become just way too hot to handle,” she says. “In fact, you could argue that no beautiful commoner should be allowed to come near a royal, because it’s not safe.” She’s inclined to look kindly on Diana’s indiscretions: the secret book with Andrew Morton, the embarrassing Martin Bashir interview, the many phone calls she made to the paparazzi tipping them off to pictures, including, Brown suggests, the fateful snap of Fergie getting her toes sucked by a Texan millionaire in the South of France. Brown has to hand it to Diana: She had the forethought to understand that “the aristocracy of birth was now irrelevant,” she writes. “All that counted now was the aristocracy of exposure.”
For Tina, Diana is a fellow surfer of fame, one who used her gifts for self-aggrandizement and entertainment and pure fun but also for high purpose. The mix, as always, is all-important. “I think she’s greatly missed, in a funny way,” says Brown. “With all the earthquakes and tsunamis, and things like Darfur, she would’ve been all over it. She would have been there! She would’ve raised millions!
Then she changes her tack. “I personally feel she had to die,” Brown says, with a journalist’s heartlessness. “She was like a star that had to burn out.”
The world continued to evolve without Diana, and to a large extent without Brown. Diana’s death irrevocably changed the way the public relates to famous people. The people claimed the body of Diana as their own, and then they wanted to touch more flesh—JFK Jr., Bennifer, Paris, Cruise, leading us to a moment where America’s Sweetheart swans around town in jimmy-jams and a wig losing her mind expressly for the camera, which seems it will soon lose its interest in her (at which point she will doubtlessly cease her antics). The raw meat of celebrity can be gorged on daily—today, employees procrastinate at their desks in an onanistic stupor, eyes rolling in their heads as they listen to the uncut audio tape of Paula Abdul’s bawling phone call on Perez Hilton, watch grainy cell-phone photos of Lindsay Lohan mashed up in YouTube montages, and click through the endless lineup of celebrities nattering on outside nightclubs in TMZ videos about “keeping it real” and “firecrotches.” The public doesn’t want Brown to mediate their experience from behind the curtain. They want the curtain completely drawn up.