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07.27.13

Malice in the Palace: Prince George’s Treacherous New Digs

When Will, Kate, and baby George move into Kensington Palace, they may bump into some of the same people who irked Diana. An adaptation from Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles.

When William, Kate, and boy George settle into Kensington Palace in their newly refurbished 20-room apartment 1A, they may find life has a few drawbacks that haven't changed much since Princess Diana was bunkered down there at apartment numbers 8 and 9. She moved there in 1981 and found the experience was like having a luxurious triplex in the grandest of co-ops—except that all the other apartments are full of people to whom your husband is related or whom you want to avoid (in Diana’s case, usually the same thing).

Edward VII once described Kensington Palace as an "aunt heap." It did, however, offer Diana more autonomy to run her own show. The Wales apartment occupied numbers 8 and 9, secluded on the Palace’s north side. The rooms were spacious and elegant, but also compact and manageable in size. Diana had already declared her independence by having the three floors decorated not by David Hicks, the top-of-the-line decorator married to Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela, whom everyone expected was a shoo-in for the job, but Dudley Poplak, a conventional, Sloaney decorator friend of her mother’s. Charles, never wild about Poplak’s taste, upgraded it with furniture and pictures from the Royal Collections. The apartment’s Georgian windows overlooked a private walled garden of a peacefulness that made it hard to believe you were in the heart of a teeming metropolis. Diana used to sunbathe there in the summer months. The below-stairs pecking order of butler, housekeeper, valet, two chefs, two chauffeurs, and a cleaner—with the addition of a ground-floor equerries room and the loitering presence of two police protection officers awaiting their orders for the day—gave Apartments 8 and 9 the feeling of a boutique hotel without the tourists.

There were four other royal households based in KP, creating a gossip channel that ran through the rooms like the low chatter of liveried mice. Apartment 1A housed the now fifty-one-year-old Princess Margaret, the Queen’s fadingly glamorous younger sister, who had such a short time ago seemed almost fast-track, with her Caribbean tan and young hippieish boyfriend, Roddy Llewelyn. She now led a boring grand life, rising at 11 A.M. to go to her hairdresser, David and Joseph in Berkeley Street, and emerging in full makeup for a boozy lunch with one of her gay walkers at the Ritz. Margo, as she was known by the family, was at first a cautiously sympathetic ally of Diana. They sometimes traveled to royal events together in the elder Princess’s Rolls, with Margaret, a canny diva herself, guarding against the upstage problem by always exiting from the car first, shaking hands with her host, and only then introducing the junior-in-status Princess of Wales. Eventually they quarreled, when Diana fired her butler Harold Brown for no apparent reason and promoted Paul Burrell. Margaret picked up Brown for her own household, but Diana, far from being glad that her former employee had found a job elsewhere, indulged one of her outbursts of focused spite, demanding Brown get out of KP altogether—including out of his rent-free apartment. She made the mistake of telling Margaret so and felt the full force of the Queen’s Sister Act. “Just remember who owns the flat,” Princess Margaret told Diana icily, “and who owns yours, too.”

Diana was convinced that “the Führer,” as she called Princess Michael, sometimes spied on her through her curtains and retaliated by spying back through her little opera glasses.

One useful legacy of the friendship was Diana’s discovery that the approach to Margaret’s front door—which the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will now occupy—in King’s Court was the only one in the Palace not covered by closed-circuit TV. (Once upon a time Margaret, too, had had a juicy private life she wished to hide.) Better still, across the courtyard opposite Margaret’s was a secret passage that led to the back entrance of the Waleses’ Apartment 8. Diana made full use of its secrecy. When the amorous Dr. Hasnat Khan was smuggled into the Palace courtyard under a blanket in the back of Diana’s BMW driven by Paul Burrell, the butler drove him not to the Princess of Wales’s front entrance but into the unpoliced King’s Court and the back entrance.

One pair of curious eyes Diana sought to avoid belonged to the occupant of Number 10:  the Austrian dynamo Princess Michael of Kent, aka Princess Pushy, who resided there with her husband, the Queen’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent, a bearded Tsar Nicholas II look-alike, and their two small children, Ella and Freddie. Diana was convinced that “the Führer,” as she called Princess Michael, sometimes spied on her through her curtains and retaliated by spying back through her little opera glasses. There was a lot of trench warfare between the Princesses Margaret and Michael, too. The latter accused Margaret of nearly poisoning the Kents’ cat in a reckless campaign to annihilate the Palace squirrels. Princess Michael’s Valkyrie good looks, comical shortage of cash, and serial snubbings from the rest of the family made her the gift that kept on giving to the media. An especially lively episode was the day the Daily Mirror discovered her father was a member of the SS. The Queen’s press secretary, Michael Shea, had to put it to the Austrian princess. She said, recalls Shea, “I don’t know. I will have to ask my mother.” Then she called back and said, “It appears to be true.” The day the unmistakably tall Austrian blonde was caught emerging from an Eaton Square address in a red wig followed by Texas millionaire John Ward Hunt was a bigger ratings draw still.

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In this photo composite a comparison had been made between Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Diana, Princess of Wales with newborn son Prince William (L) and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and their newborn son Prince George both leaving the Lindo Wing of St Mary's hospital. (Anwar Hussein/Getty)

The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and the Duke and Duchess of (confusingly, also-named) Kent were lower-profile Palace neighbors. In Mrs. Thatcher’s abrasive times, the writing was on the wall that these two ducal descendants of George V and their families were unlikely to hang on for long to their income from the civil list. The ax finally fell under Tory Prime Minister John Major in 1992, leaving them wholly dependent on the Queen’s generosity. Hence, they never complained if the Queen’s office dispatched them to open a fish-packing plant in Grimsby in the middle of the Christmas holidays.

The Gloucesters had a thirty-five-room Palace apartment, while the Duke and Duchess of Kent were ensconced at Wren House, inside the royal compound. “Eddie” Kent is a strangely elongated version of Prince Charles, with whom he is close. (The Duke looks even more like a Hall of Mirrors Wales at the Queen’s annual garden parties when he wears a top hat.) He spends his time carrying out second-tier engagements the big Royals have passed on, while the Duchess (“Nutty Norah” to the staff) has been known for her mysterious “troubles” and conversion to Catholicism. Diana came to see her as a sweet, saintly woman whose charity work was an inspiration. She sometimes accompanied her on her hospital rounds and watched in admiration as the Duchess gave patients bed baths and emptied bed- pans. “She was the only member of the Royal Family I ever saw doing anything like that,” Diana told Simone Simmons. “Her values are humanitarian. Theirs [the other female Royals’] are material.”

There was very little neighborly interaction between the separate fiefdoms of Kensington Palace. Each had their respective private secretaries, equerries, ladies-in-waiting, butlers, chauffeurs, maids, and valets (a hundred people in all, including Robert Fellowes and Diana’s sister Jane, who had their own apartment inside the compound).

The Princess’s mild friendship with “Margo” did not extend to the older woman ever asking Diana to lunch or vice versa. And Diana considered Princess Michael “a waste of space.”

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Today the domestic arrangements at Kensington Palace are as complicated as ever. While (thanks to the discovery of asbestos in the roof) they wait for the million-pound reconstruction job on Apartment 1A to be completed, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been living in the tiny, two-bedroom Nottingham Cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace. Part of the reason they have been is such a hurry to get out of London and down to Kate’s mom in the country is that Nott Cott, as it is known, does not have central a/c, and London is currently cooking in a once-in-a-decade heatwave.

When apartment 1A is ready for the Cambridges—which should be in about six weeks time—it will be Prince Harry's turn to move into Nott Cott. It will suit him perfectly as his favorite nightclub, Bodo’s Schloss, a fake ski lodge built onto the side Kensington’s Royal Garden Hotel, has a secret back exit which egresses onto the edge of the Kensington Palace grounds, enabling effortless dodging of the paparazzi.

Amazingly, the old-timers from Di's day are still there; the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent (in Wren House, on the grounds of the Palace), and the still indefatigable Princess of Kent and her husband, the ever more Czar-like Prince Michael.

Much of what was formerly Diana’s apartment has now become home to William, Kate, and Harry’s beefed up media office, while other parts of it have become a tourist shrine as the Diana museum, displaying her dresses and other artifacts under the auspices of the independent Historic Royal Palaces charity. Historic Royal Palaces were given Diana’s apartment in a “trade” for Margaret’s old apartment, which had been used for storage and occasional exhibitions by them.

Kate is known to love Kensington Gardens, and frequently walks incognito there with her dog Lupo. She is only rarely photographed as the Royal Parks have a strict ban on professional photographers taking pictures in the park, and the ‘parkies’, protective of their famous resident, are particularly vigilant about turfing out anyone known to be a pap, or sporting a long-lens in the vicinity of the palace. But this is the age of the iPhone and Kate will rarely feel she is truly alone.

And one thing that certainly won't have changed is that the in-laws, and the servants will still be watching. Secluded in KP's palatial claustrophobia she may find herself thinking longingly of the whitewashed farmhouse she shared for the last few years near William's barracks in Anglesey.

Adapted from The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown Copyright © 2007 by Tina Brown. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.