The true story behind Andrew Morton's Princess Diana biography

"I've tried everything," says Elizabeth Debicki's Princess Diana on the new season of The Crown, explaining why she has decided to help journalist Andrew Morton write a book about her. "I've confronted my husband about his mistress and I've been dismissed. I've gone to The Queen, it's like facing a blank wall. And it finally dawned on me that unless I get my side of the story out there, people will never understand how it's really been for me."

Diana's collaboration with Morton would result in Diana: Her True Story. Published in July 1992, the book revealed the Princess' unhappiness with her marriage to the unfaithful Prince Charles, her battle with bulimia, and her feelings of isolation and depression. While Morton denied at the time that Diana had helped him write the book, Diana: Her True Story became a publishing sensation, translated into 29 languages and reportedly selling five million copies around the world. Morton's work effectively signaled the end of the royal marriage, and in December 1992 Prime Minister John Major announced that the couple had separated.

So how did Diana come to help Morton with his explosive book? And what has the writer been doing in the years since?

Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton
Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton

Simon and Schuster Cover of 'Diana: Her True Story'

Morton began his journalism career in the '80s, working for British tabloid newspaper The Daily Star, first as a general reporter and then royal correspondent. The writer, who stands at six feet four inches tall, would claim that he was given the latter job because of his ability to see over crowds. Morton wrote books about both Prince Andrew and his wife, the Duchess of York, and in 1990 published the unauthorized Diana's Diary: An Intimate Portrait of the Princess of Wales. The journalist was keen to write a more substantive biography of Diana and cultivated the friendship of the Princess' friend Dr. James Colthurst, who Morton met while covering Diana's visit to a hospital. When Morton suggested, via Colthurst, that Diana help him write a biography of her the Princess proved open to the idea.

"Diana had a nagging fear that, any moment, her Palace would have her classified as mentally ill and locked away. Where to turn?" Morton recalled earlier this year in a first-hand account published by The Daily Mail. "It had dawned on her that unless the full story of her life was told, the public would never understand the reasons behind anything she decided to do."

As depicted on The Crown, Diana declined to be interviewed by Morton directly but taped lengthy answers to the writer's questions at her Kensington Palace home, with Colthurst acting as a go-between. When Morton began listening to the results, he was amazed at the candor shown by the princess. "Turning on my tape recorder, I listened with mounting astonishment to the unmistakable voice of Princess Diana, pouring out a tale of woe in a rapid stream of consciousness," he recalled this year. "She was talking about her unhappiness, her sense of betrayal, her suicide attempts — and two things I'd never previously heard of: an eating disorder called bulimia nervosa and a woman called Camilla."

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana on 'The Crown'

When the book was published, Morton only admitted to speaking with friends of Diana, although there was little doubt that his sympathies lay with the princess rather than the royal family.

"Checkout girls in the supermarket get more training for their jobs than Diana did," Morton told The New York Times in Dec. 1992. "And that antipathy has been going on for 10 years. Eventually you would have thought they would come around to examine the problem. But nothing gets tackled until it becomes a crisis, which is a fundamental weakness in the organization."

While Diana: Her True Story inspired many people to view Diana in a more positive light, Morton was also criticized for writing the book.

"It was all, 'How dare you write about this?' and 'How much money are you making?'" he later told The Toronto Sun. "The questions were never about the story, they were about the periphery of the story. They lost sight of the first rule of journalism, which is to tell the story."

The year after publication, Morton's book was turned into a TV movie starring Serena Scott Thomas as Diana and David Threlfall as Charles. "Like all classic romantic couples — Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher — the Prince and Princess of Wales were destined to be mythologized as pop icons of the first order," EW's Ken Tucker wrote in his review, concluding that the result was "a classy-looking movie about a distinctly un-classy aspect of the British upper class."

Morton faced further criticism when, in Oct. 1997, just two months after the princess' death in a Paris car crash, Morton published a new edition of the book titled Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words. This time, the author made clear that Diana had been the principal source for the original book and included edited transcripts of the princess' recorded responses to his questions. The Guardian writer Mark Lawson called Morton a "moral leper" for publishing the new edition of the book, criticizing the journalist for "deciding that promises of confidentiality are not posthumous."

Andrew Morton
Andrew Morton

NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images Author Andrew Morton

In the years after the publication of the revised edition of his most famous book, Morton wrote biographies of Monica Lewinsky, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Tom Cruise. "It's easier to do Hollywood celebrities [than members of the royal family]," Morton told EW in 2011. "First of all, there's an arc about their lives, in the sense that they have to push through to show their talent — in Angelina's case due to her parents, her famous father, her mother's psychological problems — it's an arc of revelation. With Tom Cruise, it's asking questions of how and why he would be involved with something like Scientology. So with both of them, it's a very different trajectory to, say, Prince William."

In more recent times, Morton has repeatedly returned to the British royal family as his subject matter with books like 2011's William & Catherine: Their Story and last year's Elizabeth & Margaret: The Intimate World of the Windsor Sisters.

Morton has yet to weigh in on season 5 of The Crown, which finds him portrayed by Andrew Steele (Outlander). We do know he is a fan of the show and in particular of Emma Corrin's portrayal of Diana in season 4, which he described to Vanity Fair as the most realistic he had seen to date.

"I found the buildup to the wedding very affecting, as there was a slowly unfolding realization on both sides that they were heading toward an unwanted and unhappy outcome, namely the royal wedding," Morton continued. "It reminded me of what a close friend of Diana's said about the whole wretched mess when I was researching Diana: Her True Story: 'I am sorry for the tragedy of it all. My heart bleeds for the whole misunderstanding but it bleeds most for Diana.'"

Season 5 of The Crown is streaming now on Netflix.

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