Tina, Diana and the £1m comeback

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LIKE any good hack, Tina Brown adores a juicy morsel of gossip. When she was researching her major new book on the late Princess of Wales, she examined hundreds of scurrilous tales that have become part of the Diana story, but one, especially, caught her interest.

It was suggested to Brown that Diana's real father was not the Eighth Earl Spencer, but the libidinous tycoon Sir James Goldsmith. According to the story, Goldsmith began an affair with Diana's mother, Frances Shand Kydd, in the late 1950s when she was married to Lord Spencer. Diana, who was born in 1961, was Goldsmith's secret child, it was said.

The idea that Diana and Jemima Khan were half-sisters enthralled Brown. There was just one problem - the story could not be proved. Try as she might - and she did try - Brown and her team of researchers could not substantiate the story that would change history.

It was a deep disappointment. When Brown, 53, signed a contract with Random House to write The Diana Chronicles, she knew she was going to have to produce a terrific book, and a sensational new line about Diana's origins would have helped enormously.

There were more disappointments to come. One of the most important people in Diana's life, her lover, Hasnat Khan, a Pakistani heart surgeon, declined to co-operate, we understand. James Hewitt also refused to be interviewed. But many others close to Diana talked at length.

Brown had staked a lot on the Diana project. It was not just that she had accepted a huge advance - said to be 1 million - but the fact that the book was to be a point of departure for the relaunch of her own extraordinary career. The past few years have been tough for a woman who was once the toast of New York and the darling of media movers and shakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

With her husband, Sir Harold Evans, whom she met when she was a budding writer on the Sunday Times and he was the married editor, 26 years her senior, Brown conquered America and occupied pivotal positions at the very top of its journalistic hierarchy. The couple have two children, George, 21, who has Asperger's Syndrome, and Izzy, 16.

Brown was just 25 when she took over the ailing society magazine Tatler in London. She trebled its circulation, and, within five years, was appointed the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair in the US. America was good to Brown and her husband. Sir Harold, now 79, became president at Random House and she went on to edit the prestigious New Yorker.

The couple were treated like media royalty. Their contacts stretched from Wall Street to the White House. They were close to the top of the smartest invitation lists and their success became a kind of modern fable of British talent and hard work succeeding in the toughest environment in the Western world.

It ended in 2002 when Brown's own magazine venture, Talk, collapsed. She went on to have a TV chat show and returned to writing, but could not recapture her former pre-eminence. The Diana book was aimed at changing all that.

A glittering party to launch it will be held at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park next Monday. The guest list includes Tony Blair (who was interviewed for the book), David Cameron, Madonna, Nigella Lawson, Kevin Spacey and a host of others high on the celebrity scale. The choice of location is a piquant one. This was where, in 1994, Diana stepped out of a limousine in a black dress that stopped even the photographers in their tracks. She was a vision - and she intended to be. At that moment her ex-husband, Prince Charles, was telling Jonathan Dimbleby in a television interview that he had been unfaithful in his marriage.

Infidelity, forbidden love and the fall-out from it feature prominently in Brown's book. It claims her affair with Dodi Fayed was "a romance of retaliation" to annoy the Royal Family. Her real love, Brown writes, was Hasnat Khan. She would have him smuggled into Kensington Palace with a Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaway to spend evenings with her. On a date, she wore a black wig and glasses and, Brown writes, "thrilled to the excitement of standing undetected in a line at Ronnie Scott's jazz club".

Did Brown get this from Khan himself? It appears not. Indeed, despite the fact she says she interviewed more than 200 people for the book, some of the best sources may have eluded her. According to a well-informed royal writer, these included Paul Burrell, Diana's valet, whom she once described as her "rock".

But Brown did draw from deep wells of Diana knowledge, some of them hitherto untapped. The idea for the book began more than two years ago. According to a well-placed source, Brown was looking for a big project to restore her prestige. In a conversation with her literary agent, Ed Victor, she suggested writing up the diaries she had been keeping since she left Oxford nearly 30 years before. Victor, with his shrewd eye for a commercial success, said she should hold on to the diaries, but do a Diana book.

Brown, who, after all, had operated at the very top in journalism, knew the Diana story had become something of a last refuge for the unemployed writer. But Victor persuaded her she alone could do the definitive book, timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Diana's death.

One of Brown's first moves was to put together a team to help her. A key person was Philippa Kennedy, the respected journalist and former Fleet Street executive. Another was Ashley Walton, former royal correspondent of the Daily Express.

Kennedy spent months setting up interviews and talking to people who had known Diana or had something to contribute. Brown used her own impressive contacts book to make her own arrangements. She flew to London from New York for the interviews, sometimes held over several days.

One of her most important contributors was Diana's brother Charles, the present Earl Spencer. Brown already knew Spencer and she travelled up to his family seat at Althorp in Northamptonshire to spend long hours discussing Diana's personality and, especially, her childhood. Her aim was to try to discern in Diana's background the events and people that shaped her character, which, in the book, emerges as that of a manipulative, selfish and insecure woman with neurotic tendencies. The book also claims Diana's mother tried to talk her out of marrying Charles, and that Camilla never wanted to marry Prince Charles at all.

Brown was energetic in the pursuit of anyone who had known the princess. One such person was Billy Tallon, the Queen Mother's page known as 'Backstairs Billy'. Brown and Tallon attended the first night of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita together. Now in his 70s and living quietly in London, Tallon is said to have broken his lifelong rule never to talk about the Royals for Brown. In the book, he says that on the eve of her wedding, Diana rode a bike around the garden of Clarence House, singing out: "I'm marrying the Prince of Wales in the morning."

A significant interview was conducted with Ken Wharfe, the former Scotland Yard officer who was Diana's bodyguard. It seemed Brown was fascinated by the story of Barry Mannakee, Diana's bodyguard from the Royal Protection Squad. Mannakee, a bright and good-looking police officer in his late thirties, became very close to Diana and, inevitably perhaps, there was speculation about the true nature of their relationship. An aide reported his own suspicions to Prince Charles and Mannakee was removed from his post.

Eight months later, in May 1987, aged 39, Mannakee died riding pillion on a motorcycle which collided with a Ford Fiesta in South Woodford, east London. Diana never believed it was an accident. Mannakee, she said later, had been killed, probably by the secret services, because "he knew too much". In a move aimed at connecting with prospective American readers, Brown pays close attention to the story of US billionaire Teddy Forstmann, who owned, among other things, the Gulfstream jet company. Forstmann denies he had a sexual relationship with Diana, but told Brown he sent her flowers every week for three years. "She was so unhappy," he says in the book. "Diana definitely wanted a guy in her life."

If the killer scoop Brown wanted escaped her, it wasn't for want of trying. Among the people she interviewed were Diana's former chef Mervyn Wycherley, and her driver, Colin Tebbutt. What did they reveal? Tebbutt offers the insight that he would assure Diana he would not be looking at her legs when he checked the mirrors in her car. Others quoted include the fashion designer Roberto Devorik, Washington Post heiress Katherine Graham, and one of Dodi Fayed's bodyguards, Lee Sansum, who claimed Diana confided to him that she feared falling victim to terrorists. More substantial stuff may have been obtained from close friends of Diana such as Lord Palumbo and Dr James Colthurst, the go-between in Diana's dealings with author Andrew Morton. Colthurst broke a 15-year silence when he talked to Brown.

One person whose help is missing from her book is Mohammed al-Fayed. Al-Fayed agreed to meet Brown and she visited him at Harrods. They chatted in the boardroom and he arranged to make himself available for a further, full interview. It never happened. For reasons known only to herself, Brown never got back in touch. By then, of course, she may have felt she already had her story.

Like any good hack, Tina Brown knows when enough is enough. Doesn't she?

• TINA Brown was born Christina Hambley Brown on November 21, 1953, in Maidenhead, Berkshire, the daughter of film producer George Hambley Brown and Laurence Olivier's press agent Bettina Kohr. She was a rebellious teenager who was expelled from three boarding schools.

Brown went to St Anne's College, Oxford. Before graduating in 1974 she won the 1973 Sunday Times Drama Award for her one-act play Under the Bamboo Tree.

Having interviewed columnist Auberon Waugh and actor Dudley Moore for Isis, the university literary magazine, she ended up dating both men. At this time in the mid-1970s, she also dated the writer, Martin Amis.

In 1973 she won the Pakenham Award for the best young journalist. The Sunday Times named her the most promising female journalist, and, in March of 1974, the British edition of Cosmopolitan magazine described her as a "stunning 20-year-old playwright".

She met Harold Evans in 1974, and began working for his Sunday Times. She reported from New York for the paper and its colour magazine, then quit to join the Sunday Telegraph in London as she and Evans pursued a romance. Evans divorced his wife in 1978. Evans and Brown were married in East Hampton, New York, at the home of then-Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn on 20 August, 1981.

Brown became editor of Tatler in June 1979 at the invitation of its new owner, the Australian millionaire Gary Bogard; in a short time she quadrupled its circulation to 40,000. After leaving Tatler, she was hired in May 1983 as an editorial adviser to Vanity Fair in New York, and was named editor-in-chief on 1 January, 1984. A pioneer of celebrity journalism, she helped the publication throw off its old- fashioned image, most notoriously with the 1991 cover choice of nude and pregnant actress Demi Moore.

In 1992, she was appointed editor of The New Yorker. Her tenure there was also controversial: many respected writers left or were fired, though others remained, and circulation increased by 30 per cent.

In 1998, she resigned from The New Yorker following an invitation from Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax Films to be the chairman in a new multi-media company they intended to start, with a new magazine, a book company and a television show. In 1999 Talk magazine was launched, but the venture failed and it folded in 2002.

Brown went on to produce a series of specials for CNBC. The network followed up by signing her to host a weekly talk show of politics and culture titled Topic [A] With Tina Brown, which debuted on 4 May, 2003. The programme welcomed guests ranging from political figures, such as Prime Minister Tony Blair and Senator John McCain, to celebrities, such as George Clooney and Annette Bening. The programme ended on 29 May, 2005, with Brown saying she would dedicate herself to writing her book about Princess Diana.