James Whitaker, one of Britain’s best known royal journalists, died this morning after a long illness.
He was known as ‘The Bid Red Tomato’, a name apparently coined by the late Princess Diana in recognition of the bright red skiing suit he often wore and because of his often florid complexion.
He knew Diana from April 1978 when she was a 16-year-old bridesmaid at the wedding of her sister Jane. He saw her develop from an awkward schoolgirl to the ravishing beauty she became. He joyfully reported her wedding in 1981 and, with great sadness, her death and funeral in 1997.
James Whitaker was one of the few reporters Diana trusted. He used to chat to her outside her flat in Coleherne Court, London, when she was dating Prince Charles and awaiting a proposal. Yet, he kept her confidences at a time when she was being besieged by the press.
He was an honest man who always liked to do things the right way — you simply cannot imagine him hacking phones or computers to gain stories. He would get annoyed if any story he wrote proved less than 100% accurate, and that was at a time when false rumours swirled, and some of the royals themselves were busily briefing favoured writers and editors and often planting stories about each other.
I recall how furious James was when it turned out that the Duchess of York’s onetime close friend John Bryan claimed to be just her ‘financial adviser’ when he and Fergie were secretly involved in a relationship. The truth came out when photos of Bryan sucking Fergie’s toes on a Riviera holiday were published.
I have a few personal memories of James. I once saw him perspiring profusely at Ascot on an unusually hot June day, but he would not remove his waistcoat as it wouldn’t be the right dress code and he was a stickler for form — a bit like the royals themselves!
James was one of the many royal writers who turned up to see Diana’s brother, then Viscount Althorp, marry for the first time in 1989. It was a day of notable rainstorms, when everyone got drenched. James got a plastic sack and tidied up rubbish that had drifted in front of the church so that it had a neat appearance for the ceremony.
With his private schooling background and loud voice he sounded authoritative when interviewed but he was actually not a pompous man. One reporter rang me this morning after she heard of his passing to tell me how kind he had been when she was just a novice on his paper.
A producer I often work with last interviewed him over a year ago in Spain, where he had a holiday home. James was thinner and paler, but he had lost none of his old sparkle when asked about the Royal Family and he was looking forward to seeing Kate Middleton joining them.
James’s death marks the end of a great era of royal reporting. I think the last word should go to Andrew Morton, TMR’s publisher and onetime colleague of James. Andrew says:
"James always used to say that he was the sorcerer and I was his apprentice. I learnt a lot from James, not just the art of royal watching but a way of living. He was a great enjoyer of life who effectively lived by the royal motto: Never complain, never explain. During his battle with stomach cancer he never complained and, perhaps appropriately, he suffered his final breakdown whilst watching the Six Nations rugby at Twickenham. That was James, enjoying every moment. He was a genuine Fleet Street legend and a genuine and generous man. He will be sadly missed.”