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By Gina Bellafante

Sept. 22, 1997

Earl Spencer's 1,200-word eulogy, that chided the royal family for its aloofness and derided the tabloid press, was instantly hailed by the British public. At age 33, he faces renewed celebrity and influence, but little in his erratic past indicates that he can handle it.

Early in 1971 the future 8th Earl Spencer, two years divorced, found himself casting about for a new nanny to tend to the day-to-day needs of his youngest children, Diana, 9, and Charles, 6. He had sent his two older daughters Jane (today the wife of the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes) and Sarah away to boarding school, but he needed someone to watch over the younger children, who were living with him at Park House, a 10-bedroom manse on the grounds of the Queen's Sandringham estate. His daughter Diana was sufficiently lively and social for her age, so he searched specifically for someone who might help his young son come out of his shell. Spencer was worried that Charles was ill prepared for the boarding-school life that soon awaited him. The boy was simply so shy.

When Charles, now the 9th Earl Spencer, was introduced to most of the world from a pulpit in Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6, he did not seem to be a man innately diffident. As he paid tribute to his sister's glorious, pained life in the most watched eulogy in history, he inveighed against a rapacious press, denounced, however subtly, the monarchy's benighted stoicism and emerged sud- denly as a controversial hero in the drama of Princess Diana's death--a power- ful executor of her spiritual will.

While his speech, which he reportedly showed no one prior to delivering it, obviously had detractors among Windsor-family loyalists and some others, Spen- cer's sentiments largely drew applause around the globe. Encouraged by the 27,000 letters he received in support of his criticism of the media, Spencer on Thursday met with Chancellor Gordon Brown to discuss plans for a memorial for Diana and ended up pressing the government to enact privacy legislation. Partly as a result of Spencer's oration, many British tabloids had already announced that they would respect the privacy of Princes William and Harry while they are young, committing themselves to publish only those photos of the boys issued by the royals.

By virtue of his 1,200 words, Spencer, it seems, has been assigned a more prominent position in Britain's history than he might have anticipated. As Burke's Peerage publisher Harold Brooks-Baker boldly put it, "He will be seen as the catalyst who will bring about a change that will give us and the Com- monwealth either another thousand years of monarchy, or a republic."

Whether or not Earl Spencer's speech ends up as a watershed moment in the history of the royal family's relationship to the people of Britain, it should, many hope, mark a profound personal turning point in the life of a man who at 33 has often conducted himself with an embarrassing lack of gravitas. Although he received good grades as a student at Eton and then at Oxford University, he was dubbed "Champagne Charlie" by the press for his partying ways. In 1989, at 25, Spencer became engaged to Victoria Lockwood, a fashion model whom he had known for just 10 days. Serving as best man at his wedding was Spencer's Oxford chum Darius Guppy, who was later imprisoned for staging a jewelry theft intended to collect $2.8 million in insurance money from Lloyd's of London. Spencer has stuck by Guppy, first supplying half his bail and later allowing the former convict to live in a house on the Althorp estate, the family's Northamptonshire ancestral seat.

Spencer's marriage was troubled from the beginning. Sixteen months after the wedding, Spencer confessed to London's Daily Mail that he had had an affair with Tatler magazine cartoonist Sally Ann Lasson in Paris, "a second one-night stand, four years after the first." The move was intended as a pre-emptive strike against plans by News of the World to tell Lasson's account of the couple's trysts. In the midst of all this, Lockwood was battling anorexia, a condition, it appears, Spencer did not always deal with sensitively. In a widely reported incident, Spencer apparently told guests at his 30th birthday party that his father had always advised him to find a woman who would stick with him through thick and thin and that "those of you who know Victoria know that she's thick, and she certainly is thin." Spencer and Lockwood claim that this was said in jest, but the comment seems rather harsh nonetheless.

That Spencer, like his famous sister, would find romantic relationships especially unmanageable comes as little surprise given their home lives as children. As the younger siblings, Diana and Charles Spencer bore the brunt of their parents' breakup. In 1967 their mother Frances left the family to be with her lover, wallpaper heir Peter Shand Kydd. The two later married and eventually moved to a farm on the tiny Isle of Seil in western Scotland. Spen- cer won custody of his daughters and son. (Mrs. Shand Kydd, who recently con- verted to Catholicism, continues to live there today; her husband left her in 1988 for another woman.)

A number of nannies came through Park House and later Althorp, where the children moved with their father in 1975. According to biographer Andrew Morton in Diana: Her True Story, the future 9th Earl did not sit down to a meal with his father in the downstairs dining room until he was seven. The arrival of a new mistress in 1977 brought no burst of happiness to the manor. Charles first discovered that his father had married Raine, the former Countess of Dartmouth and daughter of novelist Barbara Cartland, from his headmaster at boarding school. He and Diana quickly came to dislike their stepmother, dubbing her "Acid Raine."

After his father's death in 1992, Spencer spoke openly in the press about his distaste for Raine, likening her redecoration of Althorp to "the wedding-cake vulgarity of a five-star hotel in Monaco." This, as well as the Lasson episode, was one of the many instances in which Spencer, like the Princess of Wales, used the media to his advantage, despite a long-expressed loathing of its intrusiveness. In fact, after university, Spencer joined the press corps, taking a job as a light-news correspondent on NBC's Today show, for which he reported directly from the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York. In a truly paradoxical move, Spencer appeared on the scandal-mongering, syndicated American tabloid show Inside Edition in 1994 to blame the press for the breakup of his sister's marriage and to deem the British media, in particular, "the biggest cancer in society today." Well, perhaps not the biggest. That same year he posed happily for a lengthy cover story in Britain's Hello! magazine with his newborn son.

The question now is, What course will Spencer's life take next? At his father's death he inherited the family's 8,500-acre Althorp estate, complete with a 121-room house, but he left England last year for Cape Town, South Africa. Lockwood and the children--Kitty, Katya, Eliza and Louis--are there too, although the couple are separated and planning to divorce. Proceedings scheduled to begin last week have been postponed. In Cape Town Spencer has found himself the subject of some scandal. He had been seeing South African fashion designer Chantal Collopy, whose husband brought suit against the earl for ruining their marriage after his wife left him. More recently, Spencer has been linked to another South African, model and fashion editor Josie Borain.

Meanwhile, Althorp is not a burden the earl can avoid. The maintenance, costing some $700,000 a year, is enormous, and revenue for the compound has come mostly from renting out portions of it for corporate entertaining. Rumor said that Spencer was thinking about building houses and, astonishingly, a super- store on the estate to add to its earning potential. "Althorp," notes Brooks-Baker, "is not a place you leave."

But leave Spencer did, which raises the question of how, from so far away, he can keep his moving promise to involve himself in the lives of Princes William and Harry. Spencer was not always the most generous brother to Diana. In 1993 he reportedly rescinded an offer he had made to let her use the Garden House, a four-bedroom property at Althorp. She had hoped to create a cozy escape from the pressures of London. The first letter Diana sent to Earl Spencer pleading her case was returned to her unopened. A second was never answered.

Earl Spencer ultimately decided his sister's presence would bring too much commotion to Althorp. But now her legacy to him is celebrity. And the world is watching.