In the outer morning room of a gentlemen’s club in Pall Mall, a tall, languid figure stoops over a table. The day’s papers are fanned out in front of him. As he browses, he purses his lips and nods to himself.
I can’t believe it, I say as I walk over and join him. He hasn’t made it on to a single front page.
‘I know,’ he says with a soft, joyless laugh. ‘It’s been three whole days now. It’s like being in cold turkey.’
Ah yes, that headline in last Sunday’s News of the World: RAT HEWITT 3-IN-A-BED AND A RABBIT FUR GLOVE. And all the headlines over the past four weeks excoriating him for writing his memoirs about his affair with Diana, Princess of Wales. It must be interesting being James Hewitt. I indicate a couple of armchairs in the corner, under a portrait of a glowering First World War general. The 41-year-old former Life Guards officer tucks his furled umbrella under one arm and saunters towards them. ‘So,’ he says. ‘You planning a hatchet job?’
Well, it is traditional isn’t it?
‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ he sighs. ‘People are frightened of going off on another tack. It’s easier just to repeat the usual crap. And I suppose papers that have written badly of me in the past can’t suddenly turn round and write nice things.’
As you would expect, he pronounces yes ‘yah’, off ‘orf’, room ‘rum’ – and he peppers his speech with words like golly, chap, and ghastly. He has an occasional stammer and his delivery is gentle, slow and ponderous, in the manner of one suffering shellshock. It soon becomes apparent, though, that this tone is not that of the bewildered or traumatised but of the blithely complacent.
James Hewitt sinks low into his chair. He is wearing a dark double-breasted suit and as he unbuttons it – revealing felt braces – he grimaces jokily and mouths the words ‘Got a bit of a hangover.’ He bumped into Marco Pierre White for the first time last night and the chef had insisted on buying him drinks. Such is Hewitt’s insouciant charm. But strangers also seek his company because they find him morbidly fascinating. After all, it’s not every day you meet The Most Hated Man in Britain. This is what the tabloids dubbed James Hewitt. The Daily Mirror even invited its readers to attempt a citizen’s arrest under the Treason Act, should they ever encounter him. A few weeks ago someone did accost him in the street with the words ‘Oy James!’ As he turned around to see who was shouting at him the shouter added: ‘You’re an arsehole!’ He must get that quite a lot. ‘You know,’ Hewitt says, ‘I’m not hated or thrown out of restaurants or treated differently from anyone else. On the contrary, sometimes people give me the better table in a restaurant or upgrade me on an airline. I mean, these are stupid little examples but if you believe what you read in the papers then I am shunned by the whole of society.’
He checks his slicked back, strawberry blond hair with a hand. ‘It’s true,’ he continues. ‘I do get recognised in the street. Great deal of nudging with elbows after I’ve gone past. You know, “Did you see who that was?” But I’ve never been spat at or abused or shouted at.’ Pause. ‘Once, actually, in Ebury Street, but they were drunk and they would have shouted at anyone. Nevertheless, it still affects you. I would be insensitive to say it’s water off a duck’s back. But I think it affects my family and friends more.’
He still has friends, then?
‘Well, you see, there you are being affected by what you read in the tabloids. Yes, I do. I have a very strong intimate circle of friends. Real friends who stick with you through thick and thin.’
Can he give me their names and phone numbers for character references?
‘You want to contact them? Yes. They will probably be cagey unless I tell them you are calling. Rupert Mackenzie-Hill, who was in the Gulf War with me. Great friend. Um. Francis Showering. Mark Macauley. Um. Um. Paulie Andrews. Simon Nunes. I think, for a lot of people, friendship goes untested. There have been a few friends who I thought were friends who haven’t spoken to me for a long time. Army. I suppose they see themselves as being caught between two loyalties and they see their career as more important, which is fine. I can think of one who still asks after my health when he sees my mother. So I haven’t really made any enemies or at least none who are man enough to come forward and tell me they are. Apart from Piers Morgan [editor of the Mirror]. But I shouldn’t think he’s got the balls to come up to me face to face.’
Hewitt smoothes his silk tie and draws his leg up defensively, so that his right ankle is resting on his left knee. His black brogues glint with fresh polish. He seems composed today but I have heard about his bouts of depression and heavy drinking: has he ever feared for his mental health?
‘Some people would suggest I have completely broken down. It’s difficult. I do try and keep a balanced view and a sense of humour. You would think from reading the tabloids that I would have been shot by now on the streets of London. The mob would have come and taken me away. The reality is very different. I’ve never been refused anything by anybody. Never been ostracised.’
Is it a myth, then, that his local hunt returned his membership cheque?
‘No. That’s not a myth. That is true.’
So there is an example of his getting the cold shoulder.
‘All right, yes. And I am no longer a member of the Life Guards Officers Club, the Life Guards Association, the Cavalry and Guards Club or the Special Forces Club. In fact, I don’t have a club any more. There is an arsehole called Christopher Doyley who became a lieutenant-colonel in the Life Guards – I don’t think I’d have him as my corporal. He’s the sort of person who wears nylon breeches, you know. He caused my cheque to be returned from the South Devon hunt, which used to be quite a good pack. But the Eggesford, the Mid-Devon, the Taunton Vale and one or two other packs wrote to me and said you are welcome to hunt with us. So I sort of lost one and gained five. Actually, I don’t hunt much now. Had to sell my horse.’
James Hewitt is an amiable fellow with an unexpectedly dry sense of humour, but he is also pathetic. He bemoans his notoriety yet seeks to make a living from it. And his motto seems to be once bitten, twice… bitten. The recent spate of hostile press coverage about him has been prompted by the news that he plans to publish his memoirs, Love and War this week, shortly after the second anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Yet he refers to his decision to collaborate on an earlier book, Princess in Love, written by Anna Pasternak five years ago, as the biggest mistake of his life.
It presented the story of his affair with the princess as a Mills & Boon romance. He was paid an advance for it, something which he repeatedly denied at the time, but now admits. The initial print run of 75,000 copies sold out in a day and the front page of the Guardian carried the headline ROYALS MADE LAUGHING STOCK. Hewitt went into hiding in France with his mother. Over the next few days he went for lone walks in the woods, always feeling sick. He contemplated suicide. And, as his shotgun was back in England, he decided to buy a hose pipe and gas himself using the exhaust of his car. But when the time came he couldn’t go through with it – because he couldn’t stand the thought of hurting his mother.
What on earth has possessed Hewitt to put himself through it all again? Can he really be so naive as to imagine his second book will be better received than his first? ‘I didn’t really want to write it,’ he tells me. ‘And by choice I wouldn’t have because I’m too lazy. But I decided to do it when my letters were stolen from my house by Piers Morgan. I decided to say something rather than say nothing. Put the record straight. Because I tried to say nothing and they wrote about me anyway. Mostly untruths.’
In March last year James Hewitt’s then fiancée, Anna Ferretti, broke into his safe in his house in Devon and stole 62 love letters written by Diana, Princess of Wales, to Hewitt. She tried to sell them to the Mirror – which has admitted it egged her on – but they handed them over to Kensington Palace and Ferretti was subsequently arrested but not charged. The Mirror claimed that Hewitt was planning to sell the letters. Hewitt denied this, though acknowledged that he had been offered millions of dollars for them in the past. Kensington Palace officials tried to keep the letters but Hewitt threatened to take them to court and, after months of legal negotiations, he was finally given his property back.
There has been speculation that Love and War includes extracts from the Princess of Wales’s love letters. It doesn’t – although they are paraphrased on occasion. It is a self-justifying book, full of bitterness and paranoid theories that the Army, the press, the police and the Palace were all conspiring against Hewitt. It is not, contrary to rumour, a particularly vulgar book, though there are odd details about the time the major and the princess spent together at Highgrove, Kensington Palace and Hewitt’s mother’s house in Devon that will raise eyebrows – if only because they reveal that the couple were able to conduct a fairly open and normal relationship, in spite of the princess’s high public profile. He would buy her chocolates and cuddly toys. They would regularly watch EastEnders together.
Large sections of the book are devoted to Hewitt’s memories of the Gulf War. He was mentioned in dispatches, got so close to the enemy he was able to lob grenades into their trenches. The squadron of 14 tanks he commanded advanced 300 kilometres, attacked ten positions, killed or wounded 1,000 Iraqis and destroyed more that 40 tanks and armoured vehicles. He had a good war, didn’t he?
‘Yes, I did have a good war. Did well. Not me personally but my squadron.’
Diana, Princess of Wales, wrote more than 120 letters to Hewitt during the build-up to the Gulf War, sometimes as many as three a day. Hewitt sent many of them home to his mother, but he burnt others, with the rest of his identifying documents, on the eve of the attack. He feared then that he might be killed in action. Now he sometimes wishes he had been. ‘There is something noble and romantic about dying in war, serving your country. It’s an easy way out. I was prepared to die. Many of us out there were expecting to. I think sometimes you acquit yourself better if you are not worried about being killed.’
This is an officer and a gentleman speaking. But because Hewitt tries too hard in presenting himself as such, wearing cravats that look absurdly out of place in the modern age, he has become a parody of one – and journalists have cast him as that most old-fashioned of scoundrels, the cad. He is, is he not, a cad?
‘Or a love rat.’
Or, indeed, a love rat. It’s good joke, but then cad as a term of abuse is a bit playful, isn’t it?
‘True, I don’t think the word cad is particularly vicious. I’ve got to learn to live with it. I think I can.’ Is he familiar with the dictionary definition?
‘Cad? I haven’t really analysed it. Actually. Strange that, isn’t it? Cad? Cad? I think it is a bit of a derogatory term – more than just a joke.’
A cad is someone who behaves dishonourably.
‘Is it? I don’t think I’m dishonourable. At all.’
Has he ever felt shame?
‘Yes. About my life and the heartache I’ve brought on my family. But it’s not a lasting shame. Yes, when I analyse the whole situation, I suppose it is a bit shameful. It’s not what I would have wished.’
Wouldn’t his problems have been alleviated and his public image improved if he had just thrown up his hands and said, ‘Mea culpa. I’m a sinner. I ask for forgiveness?’
‘I think that’s what I’ve done.’ Pause. ‘I’m not saying I am without sin, for heaven’s sake. But there are more important things in life than writing about me. I’ve made mistakes but I am not in any way mean or vindictive or horrid at all. I think quite the contrary, actually. Take this book, I don’t think it can be described as salacious or tittle-tattle.’
But he must have known that whatever he wrote he was going to be criticised?
‘Yes, I could have written about Andy Pandy and the rubbish the tabloids came out with would have been the same. I mean, the Sunday Express had “Cruel Hewitt claimed to be father figure of the boys.” I don’t think I’ve suggested that ever. And it was going on and on about the ghastliness of writing about the book and yet there they were reporting it. And if I say nothing they write more. So I am in a no-win situation here.’
Presumably the father-figure story arises because in the book he describes reading bedtime stories to the two princes, as well as having pillow fights with them. ‘Yes, perhaps. But it depends how you put things. I never claimed to be a father figure. I played with them, swam with them, taught them to ride.’
So what does he think is behind this idea that he is the most hated man in Britain? ‘I think, OK. Um. Let me get my mind behind that. I’ve become a hate figure and I haven’t been able to defend myself so it has just gone on and on and they are not going to stop. Um. So it isn’t exactly a risky business for an editor. It was, for instance, risky for them to attack Diana. There is a need for people out there to have someone to throw darts at. And, well, holding out over this last barrage has been quite difficult, really. I would prefer to be in Iraq, I have to say.’
Why does he face it? Why not disappear to South America, grow a beard, change his name by deed-poll? ‘Because I don’t want to run away. I want to fight and succeed here. And then it’s my own choice to disappear if I want to… It would be quite nice to find a country that isn’t attacking and jealous and hypocritical. But I am not going to run away. I have done nothing wrong. That is the whole point. You would think I had done something worse than a child-killer. I’m sure if I was part of an ethnic minority they wouldn’t be allowed to do what they are doing. But instead it’s open season on me and has been for a long time. I don’t mean to sound whingey. But I think I’ve been in the dock without my defence counsel having spoken and so I’m doing that now – that is one reason why I have done the book.’
Another reason is that he is going to profit from it.
‘I think people understand that if an author writes a book he gets paid for doing so. I mean, why not? People say it’s despicable that he is profiting from his book but if they stand back and think about it they should think, “Well, why shouldn’t he?”‘
One reason is that Diana, Princess of Wales, probably wouldn’t have wanted him to write this book. And another is that she is no longer around to defend herself against the suggestions he makes in it.
‘I’m sure she would be absolutely thrilled with it,’ Hewitt counters. ‘Absolutely thrilled. To put across a more accurate, the accurate version. I don’t think my book says one nasty word about her. I think it’s honest, it doesn’t make her out to be a saint. But I believe she was a good person inside and I think that comes across. And I don’t think it will hurt her boys in any way at all.’
But if he was going to write it, wouldn’t it have been better to wait ten or 20 years – give it historical distance?
‘Yes, I did think about that but I thought. Um.’ Pause. ‘Everyone would have forgotten about me then, hopefully, and so it would be stupid then to rake up trouble for myself all over again. But then, balanced against that, I didn’t want to go to my grave with tabloid headlines engraved on my headstone, you know?’
James Hewitt believes that, right from the start of his affair with Diana, there was an understanding in Palace circles that Charles had Camilla therefore it was all right for Diana to have him. Doesn’t he wish now that he had been more like Camilla in other ways, that he had remained silent and enigmatic?
‘Yes, um, yes… I think Camilla is brilliant. She has had a very bad press, like me. She’s very nice. I don’t think she’s an evil woman at all. I think she’s wonderful for him and they should get married – don’t see why they shouldn’t – it’s a load of bloody poppycock, really. She has been supported hugely by Charles, which makes a difference. I mean, had Diana not asked me to speak to the press, you know. I would still have been kicked out of the Army – probably – but at least I would be in another job now. I have to work.’ He shoots his cuffs and looks away. ‘I never wanted to speak to the press at all. In fact I hate being in a situation where I am a public figure. I never wanted that. I would have become an actor or an MP or singer if I had wanted that. I never wanted anything other than to be a soldier and to serve my country.’ He knits his freckled brow. ‘I was really asked to talk to the press by Diana. That was where it all started. The downward turn. In 1993.’
She wanted him to clear the air?
‘No, she wanted me to lie about the depth of our relationship. Which I did. But it didn’t work.’
He means by saying that it wasn’t physical?
‘Yes. But people tapped telephones and were aware. It was fatuous to do what I did because people wouldn’t believe it. It would have been far better to say nothing. But Diana was about to be divorced and I suppose it would have been unhelpful for her to be seen to be having an extramarital affair. So I did it and it was the cause of my downfall. But the story had first appeared in the News of the World when I was in the Gulf. So to suggest that I kissed and told was wholly inaccurate. It was more a damage limitation exercise that turned badly wrong… Anyway, I think it must be borne in mind that both Diana and Charles spoke to people before I did.’
So what about Anna Pasternak? He gave an interview to her for the Daily Express and then she came back with an idea for a book? Or was it his idea?
‘No, she approached me. She said I approached her and begged her to do it which is wholly inaccurate and very naughty of her. Um. In fact I tried to stop her from doing it in the end, when I saw the way it was going… I didn’t really have anything to do with it. I’ve never read the book.’
Come off it, I say. He must have. It would be inhuman to be so lacking in curiosity. ‘Well, it’s partly so I can say I have never read it. Stand back from it. I’m not curious at all. I know the true story is in my book. Anyway, I hear the Pasternak book is not very well written. Have you read it?’
I, er, dipped into it yesterday actually.
Hewitt laughs. ‘You can admit to reading it, you know!’
Well, I found it pretty hard to get beyond the first few pages, to be honest – her arms ached for him, their eyes met etc.
When Diana, Princess of Wales, did her Panorama interview in 1995 and said of Hewitt, ‘Yes I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down,’ she was obviously referring to the Pasternak book. Yet Hewitt maintains that she was referring to his decision in 1989 to accept a posting to Germany, rather than stay at the Knightsbridge barracks where he could be near to her. ‘I don’t think she was bothered by the book, to be honest,’ Hewitt tells me. ‘I think she was more bothered by the effect that it had. Really. She was quite clever in the way that she used people and I do think she used me. Um. That interview was well-rehearsed and well-orchestrated and worked rather well. I mean she wasn’t asked about any of the other chaps in her life. She was able to say I let her down and she didn’t expand on it. And the interviewer didn’t ask her to. It just served its purpose. She admitted that she had been unfaithful to her husband and then she immediately turned the sympathy back on herself by suggesting I let her down.’
So when the princess said those actual words, well, the rest of us were on the edges of our seats, what must it have been like for him? How did he feel? Flattered or devastated?
‘Both really. Flattered that she admitted she loved me. I mean I’d have preferred not to have been mentioned at all. I mean, why not Will Carling or whoever else? Um. The interviewer had agreed not to ask about him, of course. Just about someone who could be used… It was a heart-racing moment. I was in Devon and the whole place lit up. Blinding white light. Five minutes after the programme finished. They were waiting on the hillside outside my house. There was a fucking great light the size of that mirror.’ He nods at an 8ft by 12ft mirror above the fireplace in the room. ‘An enormous searchlight of the kind anti-aircraft gunners used in the Second World War. A dozen television cameras were trained on the house like snipers – I was under siege in my own house and it was more than a week before I went out.’
Unorthodox though it is to say it, I don’t think James Hewitt qualifies as a proper cad. Whether it is because he is just amoral or too thick I can’t say, but he simply doesn’t appear to understand why he has been vilified. And a true cad would. A true cad would instinctively know that a gentleman doesn’t talk about a woman with whom he has been intimate – but callously do it anyway.
I don’t think Hewitt knows why he shouldn’t do it. In Hewitt’s world he thinks Diana, Princess of Wales, used him and then failed to support him when he needed help. When their relationship began she was feeling trapped in a loveless marriage. She was suffering from bulimia and low self-esteem. According to Hewitt, she believed that British Intelligence officers had arranged the motorcycle accident that killed her bodyguard Barry Mannakee. And Hewitt rebuilt her confidence, gave her the approval she craved and then, when she felt she was back in control of her life, she dropped him.
And he thinks the main reason men hate him is that they envy him for having slept with the Princess of Wales. Also, he may go through the motions of saying he feels guilty and depressed about what he has done – because he thinks that is what people want to hear – but I don’t think he understands why it is bad form to profit from revealing secrets about your lover. His view seems to be that others have made money from their memories of the princess, so why shouldn’t he? Is that about the strength of it?
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m not prepared to pass the buck and say because they’ve done it, why can’t I? I mean, it would be a bit like saying, they have murdered so why shouldn’t I? I haven’t kissed and told. I’ve never gone out deliberately to make money. I’ve gone out to try and redress the balance and in doing so have been paid. Now I’m hardly likely to say, “No, that’s all right, you keep the money.” You know, to say I don’t want the money. I mean, I have to live.’
What sort of money are we talking about?
‘I think I’ve lost a lot more than I have been paid. In almost every respect, actually.’ He means emotionally, I mean in terms of his bank balance.
‘I don’t know how much I’ve been paid. And I don’t think necessarily that that is important.’
£1 million. Does that sound about right?
‘Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Not at all.’
The investigation revealed that he had been paid £150,000 for tabloid interviews; £100,000 for the Daily Express serialisation..
‘Nope. Nope.’ The Pasternak book, £100,000 plus… ‘Nope.’ £600,000 for the serialisation of his memoirs…
£600,000 for the serialisation of his memoirs…
‘Well I haven’t been paid that, so you can scrub that right off. And also you have to deduct the £70,000 it has cost me in legal terms. To be advised on libel cases. And also to get my property back, the letters stolen by Piers Morgan and handed to Kensington Palace – eventually – after he had copied them and made use of them. Ask him how much he has made from Diana…’
But I suppose…
‘That’s his job, is it?’
No, but he was never the lover of Diana, Princess of Wales. He was never in love with her, nor ever had that love reciprocated.
‘Um. I don’t know. There seems to be some kind of hang-up about that. I have no easy answer. I have explained my actions… You know I’m not a man of huge means. I haven’t got a job. I’ve tried to get one. Tried to do it but haven’t been allowed to. I’ve tried to shut up and disappear. But it doesn’t work and I’m not prepared to be slandered any more. I’m prepared to fight, right or wrong, live or die. I don’t mind if I am told to go and shoot myself in a library after this book has been read, at least I’ll have had my say.’
Hmm. The smoke-filled room, the revolver, the bottle of Scotch. We are in the realm of the Boy’s Own comic again. Hewitt says that when he began his affair with the Princess of Wales, he looked up the definition of treason in an encyclopaedia. It said that to violate the consort of the monarch’s eldest son and heir was an act of treason. What did it feel like for Hewitt, a cavalry officer, to know he was a traitor? ‘At the time it just seemed like any man and any woman in a relationship that’s gone wrong. I thought of it like that really. I mean, Charles and Diana were just individuals, fellow human beings. One was so involved. But when you stand back from it, and look from a distance – and one should probably do that more often than one does – um, it’s only in that sense that it had far-reaching effects. No other personal thoughts. I like the chap actually [Prince Charles]. I think he’s all right. I think he’s been much maligned as well.’
James Hewitt has met Prince Charles on numerous occasions, at social gatherings and on the polo field, before, during and after his affair with the princess. He says the prince has always been civil and friendly to him. ‘Quite clearly he [Prince Charles] knew about our affair while it was happening. Although at the time one didn’t necessarily think about that, or rationalise to what extent people would know. Again, foolishly, I suppose. Of course the Establishment knew… The bottom line is that, yes, I have been ill-advised and naive and sometimes very foolish in the past but I haven’t been treacherous or evil… I wonder what he [Prince Charles] felt when he was seeing Camilla, knowing she was a brother officer’s wife? I think it [treason and adultery] does matter. I think it mattered terribly to me. But then there was a young lady who needed help and I thought that was more important.’
One of the reasons we all found it so hard to believe that both the Prince and Princess of Wales were having extramarital affairs so soon after their marriage was that theirs seemed to be a fairytale wedding, the most dramatic in history, and we all witnessed it on television. Could they really have been that cynical? James Hewitt now says that the princess once told him she was having doubts even as she walked up the aisle. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ he says. ‘I never wanted them to break up. I thought they made an ideal couple, whatever that means. I don’t think it was calculated on his [Princes Charles’s] part. I think he might have wanted to give it a try. I think, actually, he is quite a good man. And clearly he knew about me but he just didn’t react. What was he meant to say? You bounder! You cad! Meet me at dawn with pistols. He was perfectly civil. Very well mannered. Someone suggested I shouldn’t play against him in that post-Gulf War polo match but Charles said I should. Probably wanted to hit me on the field or something. But why should he? He was having an affair. He wasn’t in love with his wife. His wife was being made happy by me, what’s wrong with that? Actually, what is wrong with that?’
And Hewitt was being made happy by Diana. But is he happy now?
‘No, I am not happy. No. No. Not yet. But I’m ever the optimist… I suppose winning the case over the letters made me feel… Well, actually, why should I have felt vindicated and happy just about getting my property back?’
We’re back on to the letters. One of them said, ‘Please can you burn my letters after reading them now, in case they get into the wrong hands.’ Hewitt thinks the significant word is ‘now’, as in ‘from now on’ and not including all the correspondence of the past five years. Yet according to the journalist Richard Kay, who was something of a confidant – and propagandist – to the Princess of Wales, Hewitt once assured Diana that his mother had burnt all the letters. Not believing him, she set off to drive down to Devon to try to persuade Hewitt to destroy the letters – then changed her mind. According to Simone Simmonds, the princess’s spiritual advisor, she was even prepared to buy the letters from Hewitt. Whatever actually happened it remains a mystery why Hewitt doesn’t just spare himself a lot of humiliation and burn them now. ‘I might have burnt them,’ he says when I put this to him.
Well has he?
‘It was a matter of principle that I should get them back. No one came to me from the Palace or from the Spencer family and spoke to me sensibly, man to man, about them. And no one has about this book. They have probably read it now anyway. I should think they have sent a spy in to the printers. They really behaved disgracefully over the theft of the letters.’
Before they would hand the letters back to him, Kensington Palace officials wanted Hewitt to sign a form saying that they should be destroyed after his death. Correct? ‘I wanted my property back. I don’t know why people can’t understand that. Then I would make a choice whether to burn them or paper my loo with them or wear them as a hat or keep them locked in a bank vault.’
So are they in bank vault at the moment? ‘I don’t know where they are. My solicitor has taken care of them. I have not had them alone since they were returned to me. Because when Piers Morgan sells his copies of them, he won’t be able to blame them on me.’
Again, wouldn’t it be a good idea for Hewitt to just burn them now and make a press statement to that effect? ‘What? For the sake of it being a good idea? I think it would be irresponsible of me to burn them. I would probably like to, but in 70 years time they will be important historical documents. They are wonderful letters. There is nothing horrible in any of them. You know, there’s nothing like “Wasn’t it fantastic when you bent me over the sofa,” there’s nothing like that in it.’ He chuckles at his own coarseness. ‘Not that I ever did that!’
But Diana wanted you to burn them?
‘I did burn many, in the war.’
Because she was afraid they would fall into enemy hands rather than because she thought you would try to sell them?
‘Has she said any different?’
Does he think that the princess’s romantic nature was fired by the notion that her lover was at war and might not return and that she had to declare her love for him in letters before he died?
‘Probably. We were deeply in love at one stage.’
Was the love equal on both sides?
‘Yes but probably not at the same time. Occasionally, yes. It was very difficult. It was always tense. It was a very difficult situation. But, yes, it was mutual.’
Did he ever fall out of love? Long pause. Only the ticking of a clock on the mantelpiece disturbs the silence.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
James Hewitt was introduced to the Princess of Wales in 1986. He was 28, she 25. She said she felt nervous about riding horses after falling off one as a child. He offered to give her lessons to rebuild her confidence. She accepted. This meeting occurred at a drinks party given by Hazel West, wife of Lt-Colonel George West, the Assistant-Comptroller in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. At the time, Hewitt thought it odd that he, an ordinary soldier, should be invited to drink with senior courtiers. He now believes that the introduction had been planned because he, a single handsome Guards officer, would be the ideal person to keep the princess quiet. Does he now wish he had never gone to that party?
‘My life probably would have been easier. And I probably would still be in the Army. But it did happen, you know. And I did all that I did for the right reasons. Regret is a funny word and I think that, you know, the ride was worth the fall.’
So he still regards Diana as the love of his life?
‘Yes. Yes. Yah. We had a very special relationship and they can’t take that away. Um.’
His mobile phone rings. ‘Is that mine?’ he asks, patting his jacket. ‘Hello.’ he says ‘Are you? It was in my pocket. No, Victoria… It’s in Pall Mall… No, that piece about the glove puppet, you mean?… Anyway. I’ll call you later.’
I ask Hewitt if anyone has ever told him he sounds just like Prince Charles? ‘I can’t help that,’ he says with a gentle laugh. ‘It’s not meant. I have been told that. My publisher says I should go on television without a tie and jacket. But I can’t bring myself to. It’s not what I do.’
Does he ever actually wear cravats or is that just an ugly rumour? ‘I don’t think I’ve ever worn a cravat in the proper sense – things that come out like this.’ He holds his hand several inches in front of his neck. ‘I saw someone wearing one in Zermatt and the poor chap looked like a complete idiot. I do wear a handkerchief around my neck when I am skiing.’
James Hewitt was in Spain on business when he heard the news that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a car crash. Did he go into shock? ‘No, not immediately, I don’t think. I went into a state of suspended animation for four or five days once I got home. Bit numbed. Bit glued to the television, really.’
Did he cry?
‘No, not a lot. I cried. But I don’t really cry a lot.’
He bottles things up?
‘Yes. Totally unhealthy. I should see a shrink.’
Has he ever?
‘No, why should I burden anyone else with my problems? I look on it as, well, I wouldn’t have been much of an officer if every time there had been a problem I had run off to a shrink. One copes and moves on.’
What did he make of the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales?
‘Mob rule, really. Cringe-making. I think it wasn’t a particularly dignified spectacle. A lot of people trying to blame other people. A lot of back-pedalling by the tabloids who had the previous week vilified her. So hypocritical. A few days later calling her a saint. Ridiculous. Swung the other way far too much. Like Kipling’s line: “If you can treat these two impostors the same.” I try and do that. There was a piece in the Evening Standard two days ago by a chap called Wilson which compared me to Rupert Brooke – I love Brooke, I love that line “In the corner of a foreign field there is a part of England” [sic] – and at the end of the article it said, “Hewitt can be called many unkind names, but he is surely not a predator. Like Rupert Brooke, he is a beautiful man whom women adore.” I mean, that’s as fatuous and extreme as calling me a cad rat bastard. You are very good or bloody awful. It means nothing. Two impostors.’
So really we must conclude from that that he has been cursed with good looks.
‘How sweet of you!’
But it’s been his downfall?
‘I don’t think I’m good-looking. I really don’t. I don’t see that at all.’
I have been told by someone who knows Hewitt socially that when he is in a bar beautiful women he has never met before come up to him and give him their phone numbers. He must be aware of the effect he has on women?
He laughs. ‘Hmm. Yes. Perhaps. I just like to joke about it. If they do find me attractive, I think it is wonderful because I love women.’
Is there a current girlfriend?
‘I have a friend with whom I am particularly friendly and close – but I don’t have a proper girlfriend because I don’t want to have to put whoever I am going out with through all that I am going through at the moment. When I am in a relationship I give quite a lot and feel guilty if I don’t give – and I’m not in a position to give at the moment, emotionally.’ How many times has he been in love?
Another chuckle. ‘Every time I see a pretty girl! Um. Probably, deeply in love, two or three times. I have had a lot of girlfriends and I do like women, I have to say.’
Has he kept count?
‘Um. No. Um. And if I had, I wouldn’t tell you because you would ask me how many. I don’t see it as a tally, marking a swastika on the side of your Spitfire. It’s just part of the passage of life; having quick flings or longer affairs. I’ve never lived with anybody.’ He checks his watch. Lunchtime. ‘Do they do a good Bloody Mary here? Should we have one? I’m a wee bit hungover from last night.’
We order and, as we wait for the drinks to arrive, Hewitt tells me that he is ‘paranoid’ now that whenever he goes out with a woman she will kiss and tell afterwards – ‘the anxiety normally comes on a Saturday night when I don’t sleep at all, wondering whether another girl has spoken.’
Does he find that women want to sleep with him because they know he slept with Diana, Princess of Wales? ‘I suppose so. Curiosity. I hope not. But I can’t really flatter myself that it’s for any other reason. Probably. But not knowingly.’
James Hewitt was given £40,000 in redundancy money when he left the Life Guards and he still receives a pension from the Army of £500 a month. He had been in the Army for 17 years before being made redundant in 1993. He reached the rank of acting major but was never made full major because he failed his promotion exams, twice, by one per cent – something which he considers to be part of the Establishment conspiracy against him. He has made two attempts to set up his own business since leaving the Army – establishing a riding school and a golf course – and both have failed. No one will employ him. Not least, he says, because he is only good at two things, horses and sex. What would be his dream job?
Long pause. Wide grin. ‘A journalist.’
Wherever James Hewitt ends up living, it is safe to assume that his mother, Shirley, won’t be far away. He is the archetypal mummy’s boy. They do everything together and she, clearly, adores him. He, equally clearly, can’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t share his mother’s adoration. He was 25 when his mother divorced his father, John (a captain in the Royal Marines who used to punch the young James in the stomach when he got maths homework answers wrong). How did that affect him?
‘Didn’t really. Saw it coming. There were huge tensions for years. But even inevitable situations surprise you. But it didn’t affect me. Had no one to blame for my shortcomings but myself.’
It may be one of the reasons he has never married, though. He claims, and again we only have his word for it, that he and the Princess of Wales planned to get married. How far did the plans go?
‘Not far. If the timing had been different…’
According to Hewitt the couple selected a thatched Devon longhouse to live in, from the property pages of Country Life – and the princess said she would buy it anonymously. But they wouldn’t have been able to live a normal life together, would they?
‘What? And I have now? No, I could quite easily have seen that scenario work out… But she was a royalist and wanted her son to succeed to the throne. I suppose she could see the alternative which was less attractive. But, you see, when we were having an affair the mere idea of divorce was not something you could contemplate. There was no way out, other than Charles being killed in an accident – something which, incidentally, Diana had predicted for her by a Tarot reader. It nearly came true with the skiing accident. Instead it was poor old Hugh Lindsay.’
I ask Hewitt about the cartoon the Princess of Wales kept on her lavatory wall of a pile of manure swarming with flies. The caption read: ‘What’s that smell? Must be James Hewitt.’ How does that square with his view that she didn’t really mind his being behind the Pasternak book? Does he think she came to…
‘Hate me? No, I don’t think so. Hadn’t really thought of that, actually. I would hope that she didn’t. I don’t think it rubs with the Diana I knew. No, I don’t think she was capable of hate. She had a wicked sense of humour. We would speak on the phone as recently as a few months before her death and I asked her how her love life was and she said she was going to shock the world and run off with a big fat black man. It was nearly true!’ Does Hewitt think the princess went out with Dodi as revenge against the Royal Family?
‘Well, it was very in your face. I suppose if they had wanted to conduct a private affair she could have done it with him – because his money would have allowed them to. But I think she had become much more in control of herself, she said, “Take it or leave it.” Whether they would have got married I don’t know, difficult one that. I don’t think so. Apparently Dodi was a very nice chap. Apart from being a cokehead.’
Does James Hewitt ever fantasise about what might have been with the princess?
‘No. I don’t really dream much. I just want to face up to things. Get this book out and draw a line under the whole thing. Forget the last ten years of my life. I like the idea of doing what that man did in that wonderful film. You know, white suit, he goes away, comes back as one of the wealthiest men, and gets the girl. What’s it called?’
The Great Gatsby?
‘The Great Gatsby. Go away and build a rubber plantation somewhere and then come back. My favourite film.’
I thought that would be The Four Feathers.
‘Yes, another great film, The Four Feathers. I hope I can get a few of mine taken back.’
We part company with this guileless comment still hanging in the air. As I walk out on to Pall Mall I find I can’t shake off a melancholic image of James Hewitt 20 years from now – still wearing his cravats that aren’t cravats; still roaming around the bars of Knightsbridge and Kensington telling the story of his affair to anyone who will buy him a drink; still playing the cad and making self-deprecating jokes about having his name on the gate, about being horsewhipped, about being blackballed from all the gentlemen’s clubs. But all the while still hoping that, one day, his good name will be cleared and he will be able to give his white feathers back.
A year later, in the company of a couple of prosititutes, and while suffering from depression, James Hewitt got drunk and drove at high speed along the route in Paris taken by Princess Diana’s car just before it crashed. He was conducting an experiment, he said, to prove the crash wasn’t an accident.
In the outer morning room of a gentlemen’s club in Pall Mall, a tall, languid figure stoops over a table. The day’s papers are fanned out in front of him. As he browses, he purses his lips and nods to himself.