Exclusive: Charles Spencer on His ‘Killer’ New Book, Memories of Princess Diana
By Diane Clehane on Jan. 21, 2015 – 6:40 PM
There are Michael’s lunches and then there are Michael’s lunches. In the nine years I’ve been coming to 55th and Fifth to document the doings of the famous and fabulous, rarely have I been this excited about dishing with my dining companion. I wasn’t disappointed. I scored an exclusive sit-down with Charles Spencer (the ninth Earl Spencer and brother of the late Princess Diana) on the occasion of the U.S. publication of his latest book, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, a best seller across the pond, which hit shelves here on Tuesday. Over the course of a two-hour lunch, he was utterly charming and surprisingly candid in a far-ranging conversation arranged by PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky. We covered plenty of territory, from the incredible real-life historical events behind his new book, to his favorite American television shows (Modern Family, Fargo and Homeland) to, of course, Diana. It was a true Anglophile’s dream.
DIANE CLEHANE AND CHARLES SPENCER
Ask most people the first thing that comes to mind when you mention Charles’ name, and more than likely they’ll recall his deeply emotional and eloquent eulogy of his sister, which elicited an unprecedented tidal wave of applause that literally swept through the streets of London and washed over the mourners at Westminster Abbey. I was among the tens of millions of people who awoke before dawn to watch the live broadcast around the world and I remember standing up in my living room having joined in the ovation. “I’ve never seen it,” he told me when I mentioned I’d just rewatched it on YouTube last night. “It’s quite distant,” he said, referring to the memory of his extraordinary speech before continuing, “People do still talk to me about it and it’s quite interesting that my kids [he has seven children and two step-children] learned about it as part of British history in school. It’s hard to distinguish what I remember from what I’ve been told about it, but I do remember using my stomach muscles to stay upright by the end. It was much worse, though, walking behind the casket.”
I first met him very briefly in 1998 the summer he opened Althorp, the ancestral home of the Spencer family for more than 500 years, to the general public a year after Diana’s death. My first book, Diana: The Secrets of Her Style, was about to be published and I’d made a pilgrimage of sorts to the estate to pay my respects to the woman who had occupied my thoughts virtually every minute of the previous year. We had a momentary exchange in the gift shop where he was graciously chatting with visitors. Alas, it was the pre-selfie era, so I have no photographic evidence. He told me the estate is still open 60 days a year to the public during the summer months. The Diana exhibition is no longer on view because, he explained, when Prince Harry turned 30 last September most of the items went to him as was specified in Diana’s will. Today visitors come to see the truly spectacular house and grounds. Charles laughingly told me he loved it when the Los Angeles Times, when reviewing the PBS special he’d done on the estate, said of Althorp: “It makes ‘Downton Abbey’ look like ‘Downton Shabby.’” He added: “I sent Julian [Fellowes] a note about it.” Charles also hosts the Althorp Literary Festival, which he founded in 2003, every summer at the estate. “Authors are generally not treated very well [when they’re out on the lecture circuit] and when they come here, we like to spoil them.” Among the honored guests scheduled to speak at this year’s event: historian Antonia Fraser and Julian Fellowes. The bar is set high for those chosen to participate in the festival. Charles explained, “There are authors and then there are famous people who write books.” Indeed.
A direct descendant of King Charles I, Charles was educated at Eton College and earned a degree in modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the author of four books. His first, Althorp: The Story of an English House, chronicled in detail about the art (the house’s Picture Gallery includes Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s “War and Peace”) and architecture of the great house where he still lives much of the time today. (He also has homes in London and Southern California, where his wife, Karen Spencer, runs the charity Whole Child International.) His other books, all nonfiction, are The Sunday Times best seller Blenheim: The Battle for Europe (shortlisted for History Book of the Year, National Book Awards) and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier. He also contributed a chapter to British Military Greats (Cassell, 2005) and two of the 100 chapters of The Art of War: Great Commanders of the Modern World (Quercus, 2009). When I asked him if he’s ever considered writing fiction, he told me “I’m really a nonfiction kind of guy; my dialogue gets a bit stuck” and is far more comfortable mining the annals of British history for compelling stories for his books.
He’s certainly found one this time. Charles’ good friend Fellowes, who knows a thing or two about storytelling, has said of Killers of the King: “History with the pace of a thriller and I learned much I never knew.” In his new book, he explores the violent (and, at times, gruesome) tale of betrayal and revenge surrounding the execution of King Charles I in 1649. When his son Charles II was restored to the throne, let’s just say all bets were off and everyone that had anything to do with the deadly act was paid back — and then some. It’s the best kind of historical nonfiction because it reads like a can’t-put-it-down novel with the shocking stories — and the fascinating fates — of the men who signed Charles I of England’s death warrant. Think “Game of Thrones” — but it’s all true! “I like to visualize scenes when I’m writing rather than just focus on dusty old facts,” he told me between bites of his salmon. Incredibly, he told me he got the idea for the book when he happened on a website, ExecutedToday.com and discovered that very day was the anniversary of the death of Charles I. “I knew it was a great story — real fireworks.” The book is a best seller in England and Lionsgate and Brad Pitt‘s production company, Plan B Entertainment, have expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen. We both agreed that Colin Firth would be perfect as the storyteller and central character and Benedict Cumberbatch (who else?) is Charles’ top pick as the “quirky spycatcher.”
Charles told me he spent two and a half years working on Killers of the King, writing five hours at a time (“I tried to do eight once, but the words started running together”) and despite getting “a much higher financial offer” from another publisher, decided to work with Bloomsbury Publishing because, he explained, “the editor Michael Fishwick ‘got’ the potential of the story, which was very important to me.” When discussing the inner workings of the publishing industry, we both agreed that it’s terribly frustrating when an author’s instincts go unheeded, and Charles shared an important victory with me. It turns out the powers that be at the publishing house came up with a clunky title for the new book that Charles felt would doom it to the remainder bin. Instead, he said, inspired by Bill O’Reilly‘s runaway “Killing” series of books, he came up with the current catchy title and suffice to say it’s far more enticing than what could have been.
I had to ask Charles, who worked for NBC News as an on-air correspondent from 1986 to 1995, what he thought of the current state of the coverage of the British royal family. “I’m always amazed that there’s more coverage here than in Britain. There seems to be something about them every day,” he told me. With virtually all the coverage being positive and done from an arm’s length away (“William and Harry have a team around them that keeps them separate from all that”), I remarked it was a far cry from the treatment Diana suffered at the hands of the media. He reiterated his belief that the press was responsible for her death. “It’s been proven now, hasn’t it?” Then continued, “When we were in South Africa right before she died, [the paparazzi] were everywhere and it was very dangerous.” That final summer, he recalled, “There were members of the British press stalking her. The money [being offered] was so huge — $250,000 — for those last sets of photographs [taken while she was vacationing in the weeks before her death].” He said the outpouring of emotion after that fateful night in Paris stunned him. On his flight to London, upon hearing the news, he recounted that a flight attendant told him when he learned of Diana’s death, he had to pull over on the side of the road because he was crying so hard. “Everyone was very kind,” he recalled. When I said it was because Diana had been so universally beloved, I detected a touch of wistfulness in his reply: “It’s such a pity she didn’t know that.”
So what’s next for Charles? Tonight he’s speaking at the Core Club and will be giving lectures about the book in Connecticut and Philadelphia. A talk at the Smithsonian is scheduled for next month. “CBS Sunday Morning“ is planning a segment on Killers of the King. As for his next book, he told me he’d considered doing something on the Mayflower, but has moved on since discovering it’s in the works elsewhere. His other idea: a book about the Duke of Windsor, “as something of a snapshot of the empire from 1920 to 1935″ because “he’s a much more complex character” than what he’s perceived to be “when he made a difficult romantic decision.” But don’t look for a tawdry retelling of his affair with Wallis Simpson. He’s “not interested” in the scandalous tales involving the personal lives of the British royal family. I can’t say I’m surprised.