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PRINCESS DIANA: 1961-1997

What Now for Diana's Two Sons?

September 02, 1997|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — They were described as brave and courageous, princes of boys who showed a stiff upper lip just four hours after being told of their mother's death.

Prince William and Prince Harry, in black ties and somber faces, attended regular Sunday church services in Scotland, arriving beside their father in a dark limousine with oversized windows. Their blank gazes appeared Monday morning at every London newsstand--precisely according to royal plan.

"The shellshocked boys were doing what the queen and Prince Charles would have explained to them was their duty," wrote Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. "This routine of duty is traditionally what has always helped the royal family overcome its grief, in public at least."

It is also what would have infuriated their late mother.

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"It was absolutely appalling to take those kids to church, business as usual," said Meg Henderson, a Scottish novelist and foster mother. "The vicar was amazed at how dry-eyed and controlled they were. It is a terrible situation for children at that age to be dry-eyed and controlled."

As official London obsessed Monday about the funeral arrangements for Princess Diana, her life's biggest ambition--the raising of her two sons as royals with a human face--was fast becoming her most urgent and at-risk legacy.

William, 15, and Harry, 12, had planned to fly to London to greet their mother upon her return from a French holiday. Instead, they were being consoled Monday by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Balmoral, the royal Scottish palace, as their father struggled with his new role as single parent.

The fretting over the two royal boys is straightforward: With their bigger-than-life mother gone, are they destined to grow up like their father, a stiff and emotionally rigid man who considered his own childhood cold and lonely? Are Charles and the rest of the royal family up to the task of grooming a popular 21st century monarch a la the sensitive Diana?

"There is going to have to be a very drastic reassessment of what goes on behind the palace walls, because Prince Charles, as with all fathers in a divorce situation, spends very little time with his boys," royal chronicler Christopher Wilson told reporters. "He is going to have to reorder his life."

The Diana vs. Charles rift in royal child rearing goes back to well before the princess' death.

In June 1991, when William was accidentally hit on the head with a golf club while at boarding school, Diana's reservations about her husband's hands-off fathering made headlines. While William lay in the hospital awaiting surgery on his skull, Charles excused himself to host a party for visiting European officials.

Charles, meanwhile, confided to friends that Diana sometimes ensured his absenteeism by scheduling family events when he was already committed elsewhere. Biographer Jonathan Dimbleby said Charles held his friends to a vow of silence so as not to provoke a "surge in tit-for-tat articles" that would open the monarchy to ridicule.

Even if Charles succeeds as a more attentive father, some fear the Windsor boys have lost so much in their departed mother that nothing short of a miracle can ensure that her dreams for them are ever realized.

"The chances are great that the royal-family machine gets hold of the two boys and makes them into Charleses," said a Diana mourner near Kensington Palace, the late princess' London home. "There is no one else in that family to give them her human touch."

In her last interview before her death, Diana said she would have long ago left Britain but for concern for her sons. Overwhelmed by her own royal debut 17 years ago, the princess was determined to prepare the boys for upcoming responsibilities--while ensuring they had a good time like other kids and also experienced the world beyond privilege.

The princess instituted "fun days" and "workdays" for the princes, dressing them in jeans and baseball caps for a bite to eat at McDonald's, a movie or a ride on a roller coaster. On workdays, the boys had to dress properly, shake hands and "forget any thoughts of selfishness," she once explained.

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"When they begin, they will be properly prepared," Diana said. "I am making sure of this. I don't want them suffering in the way that I did."

But suffering, it seems, is as enduring as the royalty itself. Tall, with his mother's good looks and bashful glance, William soured on life in the royal fishbowl even before last weekend's accident, which some attribute to the relentless media attention paid to his mother.

Royal sources let it be known last year that the queen and Charles were deeply concerned that the young heir to the throne was becoming hostile to his public role. British press reported that he turned down opportunities to travel with his mother because he hated being stalked by photographers. The king-to-be reportedly dreads the thought of assuming the high-profile crown.

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