Kensington Palace, a London royal residence for over 300 years, is the most intimate of royal palaces. There, on January 24 1986, the Prince and Princess of Wales – Charles elegant in a navy blazer, buttoned-down collar and regimental tie, Diana exquisite in a simple creation of red – welcomed prime minister Shimon Peres for lunch.
It was an informal, cozy affair, presaged by drinks in a comfy, happy-looking parlor, papered in a bold flower design and draped with curtains that gave off a pinkish tint. Following a prelude of pleasantries, the suave and urbane Shimon Peres said with a hint of a smile, “Your Royal Highnesses, I come carrying gifts from Jerusalem” and, half bowing, presented to Diana a Roman coin bearing the likeness of Diana the goddess of the hunt, and to the avowed equestrian Charles a statuette of a terra cotta horse of ancient Greek provenance, both unearthed in Jerusalem.
Diana inspected her coin with huge delight while Charles handled his horse a tad awkwardly, saying, “Wonderful piece! Most appreciated! But I’m afraid my gift to you is far less grand,” and he picked up two volumes from a piano top. “You have a reputation, prime minister, of being a man of letters,” he said, “so I pray you will find these of interest. They are the latest biographies of our poet, T.S. Eliot, and of my late great uncle, Lord Mountbatten of Burma – victim of IRA assassins, as you know.”
“They come highly recommended,” chirped a jovial Antonia Fraser, the prolific writer of historical biographies and wife of playwright and Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter.
“And they will make a fine addition to your library, I promise you,” guffawed the famed academic Lord Annan, a vaguely soldierly type in his early seventies, with a glossy pate as bald as a billiard ball.
Shimon Peres expressed gratitude and resolutely said as if proposing a toast, “It is my privilege, Your Royal Highnesses, to extend to you an invitation to visit Israel at a time of your convenience, where you will be received as most honored and welcome guests.”
DIANA’S EYES sparkled, and her husband responded, “How kind! We’d love to come,” but then, with the silkiness of his royal breeding, deftly qualified his acceptance with the reservation, “at the appropriate time.”
“Lunch is about ready,” said the Princess with an easy smile, and she led us into a homely dining room, graceful with time worn distinction, its windows framing a view of a splendid walled garden. We were 11, amicably seated at a single round table under a chandelier whose radiance cast a flaxen light on a tableau of Constables, Hogarths, and Gainsboroughs.
“Tell me, is Mr. Peres married?” whispered Princess Diana hurriedly into my ear as she sat down. (I was ambassador to Britain at the time). “Very much so,” I whispered back. “But his wife, Sonia, prefers not to get involved in his public activities.”
“I totally empathize with her,” hissed the Princess enigmatically.
“Come to think of it,” said Prince Charles mirthfully to the whole table, “I almost did visit Israel once. It was last year – illegally.”
The high-pitched chatter ceased as we all beamed at the prospect of a yarn. “Oh yes, indeed,” the Prince continued in his Windsor top drawer fashion. “I was in Jordan, you see, guest of King Hussein, and I was water skiing in Akaba Bay. Suddenly” – his voice took on a mischievous tone – “my speedboat was chased by Jordanian coastguards. They began blaring at me through a klaxon to turn around immediately otherwise I’d be accosted by the Israeli Navy in Eilat waters – something like that.”
“Pity you turned around,” said Peres grinning. “Our coastguard would have cast a red carpet upon the waters in your honor.”
We all chuckled politely, while a butler refilled our glasses.
“MR. PERES, I always think of Israel as a plucky little country,” said Diana, resting her chin on her hand, a bemused smile on her lips.
“That is kind of you,” said the premier graciously.
“As for me, I always find the Middle East so full of impenetrable intricacies,” brooded Charles. “Do you think a day will ever come when you and your neighbors will get along together?”
“One day,” said Peres wistfully. And then, with his propensity for hyperbole and poetry, “One must remember, as a bird cannot fly with one wing, as a man cannot applaud with one hand, so a country cannot make peace just with one side, with itself.”
“Of course,” said Charles pensively, and went on to express high praise for the kosher menu, engendering a discourse of veneration for the virtues of tradition. This was followed over desert by gossip and funny stories concerning world leaders whom the royals and their guests had met, and it was during this chitchat that Princess Diana, her big, dazzling eyes focusing beseechingly on my wife, Mimi, leaned over to her, and quietly said, “Do me a favor. Please tell people I’m not anorexic. Look, I’ve just taken a second helping of pudding.”
She chuckled to herself at that, and joined in the general conversation about the London arts scene, Mr. Peres saying he had caught a brief glimpse of it the evening before at a fine production of Les Miserables.
“Oh, I saw that,” said Diana gamely, “when it first played at the Barbican before it moved to the Palace Theater. The trouble with the Palace, it’s so hard to find parking there.”
“You, a royal princess, have problem parking?” asked Peres in astonishment.
“Not now,” replied Diana demurely. “I’m talking about before I became a princess.”
“Are you going to allow us to see the little princes?” ventured Antonia Fraser. “How are they?”
“True little devils!” laughed Diana infectiously, somehow managing to be regal and jolly at the same time. “They’re up to all kinds of tricks! William is four and Harry is two, and yesterday, at Buckingham Palace, I let William loose in the throne room. That child is an absolute bull in a China shop. He went running around the thrones going ‘Bang! Bang! Bang.’” She said this aiming two fingers at her husband like a pistol.