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Why Diana's lover Hewitt was doomed to obscurity after his 15 minutes of fame were up

The archetypal cad, now gravely ill, will only be remembered for trashing Princess's memory, writes Gail Walker

As the late Princess Diana's lover James Hewitt fights for his life in a hospital bed following a serious stroke and heart attack, it is hard not to feel a smidgen of sympathy for him.

It's a classic irony that one of the most 'English' of modern villains - parody military moustache, captain in the Life Guards, quintessential Ladies Man, something of a cross between Nigel Havers and Peter Bowles - should in fact have been born in Londonderry.

In any case, the trademark good looks, the wry uplifted eyebrow, the off-centre grin have all given way, over time and the ravages of illness, to a gaunt frame. Now, contemplating the recent days of this once-dashing figure, it's like looking at a phantom, a ghost, a figure from the past. The fact is James Hewitt stopped being a real person a quarter-of-a-century ago with the tragic denouement of the Diana saga, preserving him in a kind of moral amber.

He was The Cad, The Bounder. The man who, despite appearances and protestations to the contrary, was not in fact a gentleman. With the dreadful documentary-cum-memoir Princess In Love written by Anna Pasternak with Hewitt's co-operation, he spilled the beans on their affair, going into lurid detail about their relationship while she was still alive and no one could have had any idea of the tragedy just three years off. After her death, Hewitt attempted to flog her love letters to him for £10m.

While Diana was semi beatified, Hewitt - as in all good morality plays - was cast into the darkness. The eternal heartless upper class toff with no principles and a small heart.

It must have been tough to live with that sort of opprobrium, to become a scapegoat, a stereotype, a pantomime villain. There is also the certainty that he will be remembered as a bit player in history - forever a creature of those fevered years, forever dressed in polo kit or absurd white linen trousers. He would also know that the headline on his obituary will be variations on 'Diana lover dies' - remembered only for his association with an icon.

Like many others from those torrid days, whether 'on her side' or not, Hewitt is doomed to be tarnished. Paul Burrell, Charles Spencer, Andrew Morton and a dozen others of more or less centrality to the sad journey of Diana Spencer, have found themselves at first struggling against the burden of their own momentary fame and finally succumbing completely to living off the reflected glory of her life.

They are hopelessly mired in the era and seem now like men out of time. They are like one-hit wonders on those nostalgia shows beloved of Channel 5, artistes who bring a whoosh of remembrance followed swiftly by a pang of melancholy and the thought that they weren't that good after all.

Only Prince Charles - the man at the absolute centre of it all - has managed, against seemingly insurmountable odds, to fashion a life and a role for himself as a father, husband and heir which have made those astonishingly fervid years seem like they involved different people entirely. But in these days, there is a place for some effort at rescuing Hewitt. After all, he is no insubstantial person. Sandhurst-educated, rising through the ranks, serving as a tank commander in the Gulf War, mentioned in despatches for his behaviour in action during June 1991, he was no academic star, failing his exam for Major three times, finally achieving that rank only after he had retired.

There was little enough to go on in Hewitt's life, despite that evidence of personal courage. His looks and his dashing persona were a godsend and the entry of Diana into his life must have seemed like destiny smiling on him.

Of course, he was never going to be the leading man for such a charismatic and successful woman. Of course, he was always going to be sidelined ultimately by men with greater wealth and more power. Of course, he was always going to succumb to the financial temptation of kiss-and-tell, like the most dishonourable gigolo one could imagine.

The one item which kept him in the public eye, if only by proxy, was the persistent rumour that he was the true father of Prince Harry - a rumour only bolstered and strengthened by the simple fact that, despite every assertion that Harry looked like him, the two people resolutely refused to resemble each other, whether boy or man!

Wishful thinking among the diehard Diana groupies or among those who harboured nothing but ill-will towards the royals was never enough to sustain that rumour, which in any case and appropriately always owed more to The Prisoner of Zenda - does anyone remember the tiny moustaches of Ronald Colman or David Niven? - than to any likely intrigue at Buckingham Palace.

As the years have passed, Harry has come to display more and more of the tics and habits of the Windsors, root and branch, even down to his recently-admitted predisposition to melancholia. Paradoxically for the myth, it is William who is the one who has come more and more to resemble their mother.

With the fading of any plausibility for that old rumour, Hewitt drifted deeper and deeper into the background and not even reality TV could save his profile from the gradual extinction which he now faces.

It is a salutary lesson for all of us, in fact. It is not common for a society to witness a figure as garish and dashing and seductive as Beau Brummell or the Scarlet Pimpernel and also witness his fall from grace, all the in space of a few dramatic decades.

This is no time for recrimination, certainly, any more than for false sympathy or whitewashing of a chap whose name will live on only because of how he trashed the memory of a woman he professed to love.

On the other hand, charity asks us to remember a vintage English bounder and wish him well in his grave illness. He may have had a lack of morals, loyalty, decency and self-respect.

But, in the best traditions of the cad, he had a down side too.

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