The Diana Inquest Gets Personal

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Personal correspondance between Diana, Princess of Wales and her father-in-law Prince Philip reveal a tender side to their relationship.

Love letters, in-laws, tears. Now the Diana inquest is getting personal.

After 10 weeks of hazy eyewitness statements and just-the-facts expert testimony, the inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed this week got to the heart of the matter. Literally. The focus moved away from the crash and onto the lovers. For the first time, people who actually knew Diana took the stand and spoke about her relationship with Dodi. The jury even heard from the Princess herself, through letters that gave a glimpse of how she felt about the two men at the center of this real-life soap opera: Dodi and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and Diana's former father-in-law.

The theme of this week was to try to figure out just how serious Diana and Dodi were about each other. The conspiracy allegations of Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed, would be strengthened if the couple were really planning on getting married. The immensely wealthy owner of the British department store Harrods claims that the Royal Family orchestrated the crash that killed the couple, because the Windsors couldn't stomach the thought of Prince William and Prince Harry having a Muslim stepfather. Al Fayed's accusations hinge on his belief that the lovers were engaged and that Diana was pregnant with Dodi's child when they died. But if it turns out that Diana and Dodi were just having a fling, his case falls apart.

The Al Fayed camp scored a point on Monday when jewelry store owner Alberto Repossi took the stand. Hours before the crash, Dodi had visited Repossi's Paris store opposite the Ritz, the hotel where the couple were staying. The jeweler told the jury that Dodi had called him weeks earlier about buying a ring, saying he needed it by the end of August "because at the beginning of September, their engagement would be announced." Score one for Al Fayed.

However, during testimony on Tuesday, Repossi's employee Emanuele Gobbo revealed that the supposed engagement ring cost only $23,000 — peanuts if the plan was to propose to a woman who could have been Queen. Score one for the Royals.

On Wednesday, Diana's unbeloved stepmother Raine, Countess Spencer, who was a good friend of Mohamed Al Fayed's, gave weight to his case with her insights into Diana and Dodi's romance. Sometimes playful ("Well, we all want the dark handsome gentleman to walk through the door"), sometimes poetic ("The ways of the heart are impossible to fathom, aren't they, even in our closest friends"), Countess Spencer's testimony drew a picture of a couple very much in love. The daughter of romance writer Barbara Cartland, Diana's stepmother said she felt it was "highly likely" that Diana and Dodi would have married and that "it is very discourteous ... to everyone concerned that [their relationship] should be written off... as a summer romance." She also helped Al Fayed out by revealing that Diana was "obsessed by the idea of accidents" without really explaining what that meant, but drew the line at the suggestion that Diana might have been pregnant out of wedlock. "She was brought up in a quite old-fashioned way," she said. "It would have been out of the question for her."

Then it was Diana's turn. On Thursday, Prince Philip's private secretary presented to the court a set of letters that the Duke and Diana had exchanged while her marriage to Prince Charles was collapsing. The question of whether or not Prince Philip will testify has hung over this inquest from the start, with inquest-watchers hoping he'll step up to defend himself against Al Fayed's accusations. But the letters may be the closest he'll get to taking the stand. Dated from June to September 1992, the 10 letters — six handwritten by Diana and sent to Prince Philip; four carbon copies of the typed replies he sent her — were meant to prove that, far from wanting Diana dead, the Duke cared very much about her. The jury was only allowed to see the beginning and end of each letter, but that was enough to make the point.

In those snippets, Prince Philip comes across as an affectionate, concerned father figure with a sense of humor and the punctuation of a teenager: "I can only repeat what I have said before. If invited, I will always do my utmost to help you and Charles to the best of my ability. But I am quite ready to concede that I have no talent as a marriage counselor!!!" In her letters, addressed to "Dearest Pa," Diana thanked the Duke for showing "great understanding and tact" and said she was relieved that he was obviously "desperately anxious to help."

On Thursday as well, Diana's good friend Rosa Monckton testified that she had helped the Princess craft the letters and that she meant what she said in them. Monckton also poo-poohed the idea that Diana and Dodi were engaged. Recalling a holiday she and Diana had taken a few weeks before the crash, Monckton said her friend was still hung up on her ex, the surgeon Hasnat Khan. "It was clear to me that she was really missing Hasnat and that I think Dodi was a distraction from the hurt that she felt from the break-up of that relationship," she said. Diana had told her that Dodi was going to give her a ring, Monckton said, but she insisted it would be going "firmly on a finger on my right hand."

On Friday, however, Monckton was back on the stand and was reduced to tears by Al Fayed's lawyer Michael Mansfield, who apparently forgot that the proceedings were not a trial. Mansfield suggested that maybe Diana had been lying to Monckton, hiding the fact that she wanted to marry Dodi. "Diana was a very good friend of mine for six years, all right?" Monckton said before court adjourned to give her a chance to collect herself. "She was a true and very, very close friend."

But the last word, that day at least, went to Diana again. Mansfield produced some letters that Diana had written to Dodi in the weeks before the crash, letters that he feels prove that Diana and Dodi were serious. "Darling Dodi, these cufflinks were the very last gift that I received from the man I loved most in the world, my father," she says in one letter about a gift she gave him. "They are given to you as I know how much joy it would give him to know they were in such safe and special hands." In another, she thanks Dodi for a six-day holiday on his yacht: "This comes with all the love in the world and as always a million heart-felt thanks at bringing such joy into this particular chick's life." Even Monckton had to concede that this sounds like a woman in love. But, she added that Diana "tended to speak and write in an extravagant way." The inquest will go on, newly energized by old melodrama.