Hiring a stranger to work in your home always carries with it an element of uncertainty. They may be the loveliest person you’ve ever met and great with your kids – but you never know the full story. This is what happened to Mary Robertson, an American businesswoman who had moved to London in the 1980s. She hired a polite young teenager to work as a nanny for her young son and thought little else about it. Not until she discovered a slip of paper under her couch, that is, and realized who the new help really was.
When in 1980 Mary Robertson and her husband, Pat, moved from the U.S. to upmarket Belgravia in London, it soon became clear that they would need an extra pair of hands to help look after their eight-month-old son, Patrick. So, they decided to employ a nanny on a part-time basis, and a local bureau duly sent over an 18-year-old woman who was shy but polite and hard-working. Robertson instantly liked her.
“She was lovely, with perfect English skin, a slight blush on her cheeks, and clear blue eyes,” Robertson would later recall of the young woman in a book that she published in 1998. “She looked just like the suburban teenagers I had known in America, only ever so much prettier.” Robertson and her husband, then, welcomed the teenager into the family home.
Robertson paid the nanny just $5 an hour to perform her duties and yet was very pleased with the teenager’s work. She was great with Patrick and happy to pitch in with the housework. She did, however, love to eat. One time, Robertson went to the kitchen to re-heat some stew – only to discover that her employee had cherry-picked the meat from it for her lunch. Other than that, the nanny was a delight and brightened up their London home. Robertson considered her a friend – but was to discover that she was not what she appeared to be.
The businesswoman only discovered who her new employee was when she happened upon a bank deposit slip that had fallen underneath a couch. The information the slip contained was pretty amazing. It confirmed that the nanny had never even remotely needed that $5-an-hour job. Also on the piece of paper was the teenager’s full name: Lady Diana Spencer.
Robertson was downright shocked to realize that a member of the British aristocracy had been playing with her baby and doing the laundry, and she decided to bring the subject up with the nanny as soon as she could. But when Robertson told the teenager how surprised she had been to find out that she was actually a Lady, the young Diana shrugged it off as though it were no big deal.
“I said, ‘It’s quite a surprise for us to have you with your impressive background – I mean a title and all – looking after Patrick.’” Robertson recounted to the LA Times in May 1998. “She smiled, gestured with a toss of her right hand, and said, ‘Oh, that.’ The subject never came up again… In 1980 Diana was a happy, normal teenager.”
She was indeed. In addition to being a part-time nanny to the Robertson family, Diana was also working as a teacher at a London nursery school throughout that year. She utterly loved the work, too, and her passion for caring for children was very much evident to her friend and employer. “I think children were really the focus of her life,” Robertson told the Chicago Tribune in 1997.
Sadly, though, this happy and normal life was soon to be shattered. Diana had already begun dating Prince Charles, immediate heir to the British throne, and consequently the press were keen to track her every move. Shortly after Diana accompanied Charles to the Royal Scottish estate of Balmoral, at the invitation of the Queen herself, the paparazzi turned up at the street the Robertsons lived in. It was very awkward indeed for the shy young woman.
“[Diana] stood in the doorway of the bedroom and asked for my full attention, and said photographers were waiting for her,” Mary Robertson reminisced to Time magazine in 2001. “It was because she had been at Balmoral. She said she had been to see Charles. But she specified that he had not invited her up there – his mother had. Then she added a cute line: ‘Gee, he’s 32. I’m only 19. I never thought he’d ever look twice at me.’”
More and more pressure was heaped on Diana as her relationship with Prince Charles grew serious. Occasionally she would have to phone Robertson and cancel her duties for the day because the press were lurking outside her door, waiting for her to appear. In fact, at one point, as Robertson related in her book, The Diana I Knew, her nanny turned to her and said, “I will simply die if this doesn’t work out. I won’t be able to show my face.”
Eventually, Diana handed in her notice to the Robertsons. But while they were sorry to see her go, it was impossible for her to continue. It was expected that Charles would propose to her soon, and members of the Royal Family simply could not have “normal” jobs. Shortly afterwards, meanwhile, Pat Robinson was re-posted to the U.S. by his employers, and Mary assumed that she would never see Diana again. But she did.
Robertson was delighted when she heard that Diana was going to marry Prince Charles and overjoyed when a wedding invitation arrived for her and her family. She had never expected the beautiful aristocrat to even remember them, but Diana was absolutely determined that they remain friends. At the wedding, she introduced Mary and Pat Robertson to Charles as “Patrick’s parents.” And following the nuptials, the former nanny and her employer continued to exchange letters.
Diana’s missives to Robertson were always full of affection, but she never mentioned how her relationship with Charles was faring. In reality, her marriage proved to be a mistake almost from the get-go – but she never let on. Sometimes, meanwhile, after she had given birth to her own children, Diana would meet up with the Robertsons. “If either of my boys turn out like Patrick, I will have no worries,” she wrote to Mary once. And the two grew closer and closer.
This meant that Robertson was utterly devastated when, in the early hours of August 31, 1997, a friend telephoned her to say that Diana had died in a car crash. The sudden wave of phone calls from the press, desperate to get in touch with Diana’s old friends for interviews, did nothing to alleviate Robertson’s grief, either. She was surprised to learn, however, that she and her family were actually invited to the funeral. The Palace had gone through Diana’s files and found their contact details.
Robertson attended the funeral alone while her husband stayed behind with Patrick and the couple’s second child, Caroline. She paid her respects and then returned to the U.S. But, keen to channel her grief into something constructive, she began writing a book about her experience. The publication of The Diana I Knew was announced in May 1998, with some of the proceeds to go to Diana’s favorite charities.
After the publication of the book, Robertson continued her ordinary life as a businesswoman and mother. She was, however, happy to give interviews about her late friend. In 2007, ten years after Diana’s death, Robertson appeared on CNN and showed some of the correspondence that the late princess had sent her. And those letters would appear again in 2017 when Robertson did an interview for TV news magazine show Inside Edition.
Even some fans of Diana were unaware that she had once worked as a humble nanny. And the story that Robertson told the program viewers – that of people coming together despite differences in social class – touched many hearts. It was clear, too, that she was still sad about losing her old friend.
“Did Diana refer to the time she worked with you as the…?” the Inside Edition interviewer began to ask. “The happiest year of her life, yes,” Robertson finished. She knew – as did the audience – that Diana’s life with Charles had been deeply troubled and traumatic. It must, then, have been reassuring to the Robertsons that Diana had experienced at least some positivity before her marriage and then her untimely death.
After watching their children grow up, with little Patrick attending Brown University, Mary and Pat Robertson continue to enjoy their quiet life. Diana would almost certainly be relieved about that, too, bearing in mind how the lack of privacy in her own life contributed so much to her misery. Mary has thought about that as well. She told People that she has stated in her will that Diana’s letters to her must never be sold. One last favor to an old friend.