Dickie Arbiter, an energetic 74-year-old who still works as a television commentator on all things royal, was press secretary to the royal family through difficult times for twelve years. Born to Jewish German refugee parents, He was appointed press secretary in the summer of 1988. However, for all his obvious devotion to the Queen and senior members of the royal family, it was with Princess Diana that Arbiter spent the most time. He clearly adored her, particularly after she threw a party in Kensington Palace to mark his 50th birthday. Arbiter was her servant, yet she put as much of herself into organising his party as for a member of her family.
The princess loved surprises, but decided to tell Arbiter about the party in advance so he could bring his mother, his second wife Rosemary and his daughter, Victoria, to share the moment. His daughter, who had been told merely that she was going to lunch in London, until she arrived at the gates of Kensington Palace, curtsied to the princess, who won her heart by telling her she had performed the best curtsy of the day. The princess had decked dining tables with balloons, streamers and poppers, had her chef bake a cake in the shape of Arbiter’s ever-present mobile phone, and gave him a cashmere jumper that he has never worn for fear of damaging it. He said: "I felt incredibly privileged when she threw a party in my honour. She loved to surprise people, but I don't think she'd ever laid on a party for a member of staff before. When we [his family] arrived [to the party], we were shown into Princess Diana's drawing room, which was homely and covered with family photographs. A champagne reception ensued, followed by lunch in the dining room. But the pièce de résistance was my birthday cake, fashioned in the shape of my mobile phone because I had a reputation for never being without it."
The 1990s were one of the most tumultuous periods for the royal family since the abdication crisis in the 1930s. Much as he liked Prince Charles and Princess Diana, he could only look on helplessly as their marriage disintegrated before his eyes. He said with a slight German accent: "It was really tragic actually because theirs was a marriage that should have lasted and could have lasted. It was unfortunate that they couldn't sneeze in public without attracting headlines, or cough without someone saying they had bronchitis." He nailed what he views as the myth that it had been a marriage of convenience for Prince Charles. He said: "They were certainly in love with each other at the beginning. It was terrific. He couldn't keep his hands off her in public. He'd pinch her bottom. But when babies come along, the father is invariably jealous because all the [media] attention is on them and not him. That might have been a factor. Intellectually, they were different and the constant scrutiny could not have helped."
Arbiter is also critical of both for going public. He said: "Diana realised it was wrong to do her infamous interview with Martin Bashir. That was an absolute mistake, as was the assertion that the royals all ganged up on her. That is absolute rubbish. They didn't gang up on her. Both the Queen and Prince Philip were very fond of her. Prince Charles should not have given the interview that he did in 1994 either. Neither of them should have washed their dirty linen in public." Arbiter attributed equal blame for the break-up. And he was sometimes left in despair as carefully arranged trips dissolved amid press speculation about their situation; rumours Prince Charles and Princess Diana did nothing to discourage. He said: "There were times you could have driven a coach and horses through the two of them, such was the hostility. The body language left much to be desired. He would look one way and she would look the other. It was all there for the press to see, so you can't argue with them for running a story."
Arbiter left the princess’s side to work for the Royal Collection. "What the ---- do you know about art?" the princess joked when he got the job. He was not always in favour with her; she would often sulk and freeze him out for weeks at a time if he disagreed with one of her ideas. "In the years I had acted as press spokesman for her and Prince Charles, she had frustrated me more than once. But the good times had far outweighed the bad," he said. In one instance, during a solo trip to Egypt, photographers found out she was swimming in the pool at the ambassador's residence and took candid shots over a fence. He recalled: "I banned them from all foreign tours. She thought I had gone too far and told me not to make an example of them but I said: 'If you're going to do that, you might as well invite them into the garden and let them do it properly.'" But, eventually, the princess would phone him for a favour, to which he would reply: "Are we talking again then?" He said: "She would giggle, and just like that I would be back at her bidding."
The last time Arbiter saw the princess was at Kensington Palace in 1997, two weeks before her death, when she left for the South of France. He said: "A car approached as I walked up the private road towards the palace. The driver’s window slid down as the vehicle slowed, and I realised that it was Princess Diana. She smiled and waved as she always did. She looked happy." For Arbiter, the princess’s death was a personal tragedy. He recalled the midnight phone call: "Just after 3 am, the phone rang. The caller was Penny Russell-Smith, the palace duty press secretary. 'She's gone,' was all she said." Arbiter twice sat alone with her coffin as she lay at rest in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace, first venting his anger at her neglecting to fasten her seatbelt before the car crash that killed her, then returning to quietly thank her for the kindness she had shown him and to say goodbye.
In his memoir, he descirbed his last two silent meetings with his employer: "'Why, Ma'am?' I asked her aloud. Why didn't you put on your seatbelt? How could you have been so stupid? I must have vented my fury for at least half an hour. A rush of sorrow was building up inside me for such a terrible waste of a young life and at a time when it was just becoming whole again. I got up and turned to leave, knowing that I would be back. On the eve of the funeral, I stood beside the casket for the second time, my fingertips lightly resting on the fabric of the Royal Standard, I felt nothing but warmth and affection for the woman that I had known. I talked to her about the good times we'd had over the years, all the royal tours, the jokes and silly games. I don’t know how long I spent with her, certainly no more than 40 minutes. I placed a hand fully atop the casket and rested it there a moment in a final farewell. I said 'Goodbye Ma'am and thank you.' I bowed from the neck, and left the chapel."
Arbiter retired from Buckingham Palace in 2000.
On Duty With The Queen: My Time As A Buckingham Palace Press Officer, By Dickie Arbiter. Publication Date: 01 October 2014
Princess Diana With Dickie Arbiter On A Royal Engagement At Hendon Police College In 1991
Dickie Arbiter At His 50th Birhday Thrown By Princess Diana At Kensington Palace In 1990