EXCLUSIVE: Charles Spencer on His ‘Killer’ New Book, Memories of Princess Diana

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's

Diane Clehane and Charles Spencer
Diane Clehane and Charles Spencer

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.

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.”

Killers of the King

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.