October 24 2003

Death of a Princess

Conspiracy theories tell us more about the people
who believe in them than about the conspiracies themselves
picture of Princess D and Dodi
Oct. 24 — Once upon a time, not so long ago, the death of Princess Diana was my life. I covered the story at the scene in Paris the night she was killed, and for many months afterwards. The fatal crash on that last weekend in August 1997 looked like an accident to me then, and still does: the result of bad judgment, bad luck, high speed and drunk driving, just as French investigators concluded.

BUT THE MYSTERIES conjured around the incident are fascinating nonetheless. They tell you so much about the power of conspiratorial thinking, and especially the effect it can have in that penumbral chasm, so full of unspoken suspicions and fears, that divides the West from the Muslim world.

No, I’m not reading too much into it. The centerpiece of one grand conspiracy theory about Diana’s death, the supposedly compelling motive without which it makes no sense, is quite simply, race: The Princess of Wales, divorced mother of the future king of England, was dating a Muslim Egyptian. Therefore she was murdered.

In much of the Middle East and Africa, this is taken as a given, and has been since before any evidence of any kind was presented anywhere. Yet in the West, even among theorists who love to pore over the mechanical details of the crash, the skid marks, the noise, the mysterious Fiat Uno that also was in the tunnel, the possibility that miscegenation was at the heart of the plot, if plot there was, is treated as somehow an embarrassing and incidental element in the supposed crime.

There’s a similar disconnect on other more immediate issues. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, for instance, is generally viewed in the non-white world as a racist colonial enterprise, while in the West, and especially inside the Beltway, that sort of interpretation seems inconceivable. But you can’t get at the truth of what’s happening unless you look at all the possibilities, and take into account the painful belief as well as the inconvenient fact.

No case lends itself better to the study of conspiracy than Diana’s, and as it happens, in the last few days her restless ghost has been summoned back on the public stage to hear all the theories, all the charges and countercharges one more time. Her once-trusted butler, Paul Burrell, is dribbling revelations from private correspondence into the British tabloids to boost sales for his forthcoming book. Next week we’ll be treated to an hour-long TV special on the Diana case by crime writer Patricia Cornwell.

The most sensational bit of conspiracy that’s come out of this new wave so far was a handwritten letter that the princess sealed and gave to Burrell in October 1996, ten months before the crash. The Daily Mirror reports Diana writing: “This particular phase in my life is the most dangerous.” Someone (the Mirror editors have blanked out the name for legal reasons, they say) “is planning ‘an accident’ in my car, brake failure and serious head injury in order to make the path clear for Charles to marry.”

On its face, this would seem to be a paranoid fantasy, and among other letters published this week, there’s one cited in the tabloid The Sun that her brother, Earl Spencer, wrote to her in April 1996: “I pray that you are getting appropriate and sympathetic treatment for your mental problems.”

But for those who believe in conspiracies almost as a matter of faith, the worries, neuroses, mistakes, accidents that are part of all our lives—they only get in the way. There’s got to be a grand design, whether based on race, or greed, a sinister protocol, an evil cabal, or some secret utterly beyond our ken. Otherwise how could you explain your own helplessness?

For a full dose of Diana conspiracy, I called Mohamed Al Fayed, the Egyptian millionaire whose son Dodi, who hoped to marry Diana, died with her in the crash. Al Fayed is a very powerful, very controversial guy. He owns Harrod’s Department Store in London, the Ritz Hotel in Paris and many other properties. He has spent enormous sums underwriting private investigations into the death of Diana and his son. So I asked him if he could identify the unnamed figure Diana so feared in her letter?

Without missing a beat Al Fayed named one of the most famous members of the royal family. “He would not accept whatever and under any circumstance that my son [who was] from [a] different religion, come from Egypt, [and] can be the stepfather of the future king,” said Al Fayed, whose command of English deteriorates as he gets emotional. (Our attorneys tell us that British law precludes us from passing on Al Fayed’s hunch about the mastermind of Diana’s murder, thus preventing you from judging how valid or absurd such an allegation sounds, and quite inadvertently fanning the flames of conspiracy further.)

The response of Buckingham Palace, when asked about Al Fayed’s remarks, was decidedly restrained. They said they first heard these allegations from him back in 1999, and rebutted them then. “There is absolutely no evidence whatever to support his claim that the [BLANK] was involved,” said a spokeswoman. “While we sympathize with his loss, this cannot justify his baseless theories involving [BLANK] in the accident.” The spokeswoman also pointed out that Princess Diana’s own family had fully accepted the findings of the comprehensive report by the French authorities.

“Diana told me,” said Al Fayed. “Diana stayed with me for two weeks with her kids in Saint Tropez. She was hounded to death, and I know the minute this happened, I said ‘the boss must have executed his plan.’”

So let’s say [BLANK] was behind a plot to kill Diana. But how would you arrange a crash like that? “She was being followed up by MI6 and MI5 [the British foreign and domestic secret services],” said Al Fayed. “All her actions everywhere. This is why they know when she’s going to be with Dodi, when she’s going to announce [the] engagement, when she’s going to pick up the ring. Everything was planned, you know.” An alleged British agent named James Andanson supposedly tracked the couple in Paris, lying in wait with a tiny Fiat Uno to make them crash in the tunnel. (Andanson was cleared by the French police, but years later was found burned to death in another car. Officially the Fiat Uno and its driver have never been found.)

All this sounds rather intriguing, as it were. But the plot thickens to the point of opacity if you try to explain how the conspirators could know the car would travel the particular route it did, through the tunnel beneath the Place de l’Alma. There are several other ways you can get from the Ritz, where Diana and Dodi dined, to Dodi’s apartment at the top of the Champs Elysées, where they planned to spend the night.

So Al Fayed explains: The man driving the Mercedes with Diana and Dodi in the back was Henri Paul. He was the acting security chief of the Ritz Hotel, and he was on Fayed’s payroll. But Henri Paul was really working for MI6, according to Al Fayed. Paul was killed at the wheel that night while following orders from the British secret service, but of course he didn’t know he was supposed to die.

According to the blood tests run by the French, Henri Paul had enough alcohol in his system to send most men reeling to the pavement. But when I bring that up with Al Fayed he stops me short. “If you believe that this was drunken driver then forget about the interview.” He says he’s going to prove next month in court that the blood samples tested as Henri Paul’s in fact were not his blood at all.

Okay, Mohamed. But why didn’t Dodi and Diana, knowing the Ritz was surrounded by paparazzi, just spend the night there? After all, it’s the family hotel. “One of the security called me and told me it’s havoc outside on Place Vendome,” says Al Fayed. “I called Dodi personally. I say, ‘Please.’ I begged him: ‘Don’t go out. Just stay there. You’re in a beautiful suite. You don’t need to move tonight.’ I say ‘Please.’ He told, ‘No, I want to give her everything…. I will see. Maybe I will stay in the hotel.’ Twenty minutes later the hotel calls me [and] says Dodi was killed, you know, and Diana is in hospital.”

Dodi listened to someone else. To Henri Paul, perhaps. Or to Diana. At any rate, he didn’t listen to his father, and he died, and so did Diana.

Who was responsible?

Thus the conspiracy. How else to explain one’s helplessness in the hands of fate.

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