It’s remarkable how much Diana and Meghan’s mother have in common

Born worlds apart, but it’s remarkable how much Diana and Meghan’s mother have in common: Both were under eight when their parents divorced and both married men 12 years their senior

  • Marriage will mark the crowning work of two other lives:  those of their mothers
  • One tall, one short. One blonde, one dark-haired. There are many differences
  • Many people would say, however, that the two things they did have in common were more significant than their differences 

The old maxim that ‘it’s not where you come from that counts, it’s where you’re going’ could have been written for Meghan Markle.

But in a way, as she and Harry stand together before the altar today, the moment will mark the crowning work of two other lives — those of their mothers.

No two women could have been more different.

One tall, one short. One blonde, one dark-haired. One born into aristocratic comfort and privilege, the other into the workaday family of a market stallholder. One carved out a career, the other did part-time work until a teenage engagement took her into a gilded but doomed marriage.

Diana, who would have been 57 on July 1 had she lived, was just 20 when she married the Prince of Wales at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981

Many people would say, however, that the two things they did have in common were more significant than their differences.

Both came from broken homes. In fact, both were under eight years old when their separated parents divorced. Yet both emerged as strong mothers described by their children as ‘wonderful’.

Indeed, Princess Diana and Doria Ragland, one living in a palace in London, the other 5,500 miles away in a suburb of Los Angeles, even felt the same emotional urge to take their children to deprived areas where they could see just how difficult life was for those with virtually nothing.

Both women married men who were 12 years their senior — and both marriages foundered.

Diana, who would have been 57 on July 1 had she lived, was just 20 when she married the Prince of Wales at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981.

Doria, now 61, was 23 when she married TV lighting director Tom Markle in Sunset Boulevard’s Self-Realization Fellowship Temple two days before Christmas 1979.

All the dreams, hopes and ambitions that now face their children, Harry and Meghan, faced them.

Doria, now 61, was 23 when she married TV lighting director Tom Markle in Sunset Boulevard’s Self-Realization Fellowship Temple two days before Christmas 1979

Doria, meanwhile, despite her early promise, did not go to university but started work selling jewellery, almost certainly to help the family finances

So let us go back in time to when Doria Ragland (she now uses her maiden name) was a little girl.

Her mother, Jeanette, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the daughter of a bellboy and a lift operator, both of whom worked at the smart, whites-only, five-star St Regis Hotel.

Jeanette had been previously married to a professional roller-skater, by whom she had two children — Doria’s half-brother and sister.

When he skated out of her life, she was left to bring them up alone. After five years struggling as a single mother, Jeanette fell for snappy-dressing, smooth-talking Alvin Ragland and married again.

Barely had Charles and Diana returned from their honeymoon when, in Los Angeles, Doria was giving birth at West Park hospital in Canoga Park to a baby girl

Their only child, Doria, arrived in 1956 and it was soon after her birth that Alvin uprooted the family and set out to make a new life and better himself across country in California.

He had relatives on the West Coast and for a time worked for a real estate business run by his aunt Lillie. Later, by the time Doria was five and he was setting up his modest bric-a-brac and antiques business in central Los Angeles, the marriage was crumbling.

At around that time, in Norfolk, England, Diana Spencer was born — not yet Lady Diana, as her father, Viscount (‘Johnnie’) Spencer, had not then succeeded to the ancient earldom.

Spencer, a former officer in the Royal Scots Greys, had been equerry to both the Queen and her father, George VI, while Diana’s mother, Frances, was the younger daughter of the 4th Baron Fermoy.

Meghan Markle and her mother Doria Ragland leave the Windsor Estate after tea with the Queen 

Doria Ragland in the Range Rover which took her from tea with the Queen at Windsor to the hotel this evening

Royal fans took pictures of Harry as he greeted crowds outside Windsor Castle this evening 

They lived on the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Park House, a lovely Victorian pile that is now a hotel for the disabled. Park House was, in fact, where Frances was born: her late father was a great friend of the King and her mother a confidante of the Queen, later the Queen Mother.

The lives of the Spencer family and the royals were entwined and the children played together.

Diana was the Spencers’ third daughter but not, alas, the longed for son who would secure continuance of the title. When baby Charles arrived three years after Diana, it was an occasion for a firework display in celebration. As a result, although her mother always denied she was a ‘disappointment’, Diana carried doubts throughout her life.

No such doubts, though, in Los Angeles for Doria, who got on well with her two older half-siblings, Joseph and Saundra, even though it wasn’t long before her father abandoned the family home.

Joseph recalls their mother, Jeanette, having to be ‘both the mother and father of the family, bent on keeping them fed, clothed and together, and succeeding’.

Here was a woman whose determination is seen in the family as having been passed down to her daughter, Doria, as well as her actress granddaughter Meghan.

For Diana, growing up meant a series of nannies as, by the time she was five, her mother was no longer at home, having fallen for wallpaper heir Peter Shand Kydd.

Contrary to popular gossip, her mother wasn’t a so-called ‘bolter’ but fought in court for custody of her children — only to lose, largely because of the infamous intervention of her own mother Ruth, who sided with her son-in-law.

In Los Angeles, Doria’s mother struggled on as a single parent, yet family life in her household was warm and stable.

Doria was turning into a bright child who got a prized place at the formerly all-white Fairfax High School in West Hollywood. But in 1971, when she was 15, her education was disrupted by the San Fernando earthquake.

The quake destroyed nearby Los Angeles High School, so the two schools had to merge. Doria’s school day was rescheduled to begin at 7am and end at noon.

Despite the disruption, she remained one of its brighter pupils, a member of the school’s Apex Club for high achievers.

No such academic high-flying for Diana. She was privately educated at boarding schools in Norfolk — and later in Kent — at a time when, even though the Queen Charlotte’s Ball era of debutantes was over, little more was expected of girls from aristocratic families than to find a suitable husband.

Accompanied by his older brother, Harry was met with loud cheers from the crowd as he emerged from the castle wearing a grey jacket, white shirt and slacks

‘I just want to go to the pub!’: Harry pointed at the Horse and Groom pub behind adoring fans and photographers in Windsor this evening 

Harry and Meghan are pictured among a crowd of well-wishers in the groom’s final public appearance as a single man

Diana was not academically strong and left school with no O-levels. But she was far from being ‘thick as two planks’, as she later self-deprecatingly (and foolishly) described herself.

The phrase stuck and was used to denigrate her later during the ‘War of the Waleses’.

Doria, meanwhile, despite her early promise, did not go to university but started work selling jewellery, almost certainly to help the family finances.

She also assisted in her father’s store, called ‘Twas New, and ran a bric-a-brac stall in a Sunday flea market. She even managed to work part-time in a travel agency.

At this time, Diana was still at West Heath girls’ school in Kent, excelling at swimming, ballet, tap-dancing and piano. For her, there was no question of having to start work when she left West Heath. Instead, it was finishing school in Rougemont, Switzerland, followed by a cordon bleu cookery course in London.

In Los Angeles, Doria was deciding to become a showbusiness make-up artist.

As with everything she put her hand to, she did well and found herself training on the set of ABC’s TV drama General Hospital.

Also there was the large, cheery figure of Tom Markle, the show’s established lighting director, who was divorced with two children.

Before long she had moved in with him. But it wasn’t all plain sailing, as his daughter Samantha was far from welcoming. To friends, she cruelly took great pleasure in referring to Doria as ‘the maid’ on account of her being black.

Even in 1979, mixed marriages were not common in the U.S. But despite family uncertainty, Tom and Doria were married. The venue, the Self-Realization temple, was Doria’s choice because she had started to follow the teachings of Yogananda, a Hindu yoga guru.

Harry holds a teddy bear with a red jumper as he and Prince William greet crowds outside Windsor Castle this evening

Prince Harry walks around in front of Windsor Castle as he greeted well-wishers on his last evening of bachelorhood

Within 11 months, Doria was pregnant with Meghan. It was November 1980.

Meanwhile, Diana was living in a flat in Earl’s Court, West London, bought for her by her mother as an 18th birthday present, and sharing it with three other girls. She worked as a nanny and part-time nursery school assistant.

In July 1980 she and Prince Charles spent a fateful afternoon together at a barbecue in Petworth, West Sussex. He was the most eligible bachelor on the planet, and within weeks he made it known to friends that he had found the woman he wanted to marry.

Exactly a year later, theirs was a typically sumptuous royal wedding, with one sad similarity to today’s event — the frailty of the father of the bride.

Earl Spencer had suffered a stroke and almost died. But he was at St Paul’s Cathedral to give his daughter away, though everyone knew she was largely supporting him on their walk up the aisle.

And so the parallel lives of Diana and Doria continued.

Barely had Charles and Diana returned from their honeymoon when, in Los Angeles, Doria was giving birth at West Park hospital in Canoga Park to a baby girl, whom the happy parents called Rachel Meghan. She was their only child. The date of her birth — August 4, 1981 — was a day the British royals were also celebrating: it was the Queen Mother’s 81st birthday.

Tom Markle had decorated baby Meghan’s room with Disney characters and few would have thought then that the marriage would not last. He and Doria seemed happy. But Tom spent a long time at work, sometimes 90 hours a week, and eventually the strain began to tell.

Meghan had just had her second birthday in 1983 when her parents split up, although they didn’t divorce for another five years.

As for Charles and Diana, William had been born in June 1982 and Harry followed in September 1984. But already there were tensions in this royal marriage.

Doria and Tom agreed to share custody of Meghan, still spent time with each other and even holidayed together.

When Tom worked on a television programme, Doria let Meghan watch it with her, and loved it when their daughter rushed to kiss the screen as her father’s name rolled by on the credits.

Work would have been a big problem for Doria but for the help of her mother Jeanette, who stepped in to look after Meghan.

As her older step-brother Joseph recalls: ‘My mother babysat and when Doria finished work, she’d go over to my mother’s house to pick her up.’

Small wonder that in later years, after Jeanette suffered a stroke, Meghan would sit with her, talking to her granny, holding her hand and cooking for her. Jeanette died in 2000, aged 71.

No such harmony at Kensington Palace. At around the time young Meghan was kissing the TV screen, Diana and Harry were watching a TV programme about Prince Charles which focused on Harry’s father’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. When her name was mentioned, Harry asked his mother: ‘Who’s Camilla?’

The split between Harry’s parents when he was eight was the prelude to years of acrimony. When, finally, they were divorced in 1996, Diana and Charles also shared custody of their two sons.

Harry has subsequently said he doesn’t remember much about it, but friends believe the pain of that time was eclipsed by the death of his mother the following year.

In the last months of her life, Diana’s relationship with her own mother also suffered. They were no longer speaking at the time of the Princess’s death.

For Diana, the unhappiness in her marriage pulled her towards finding consolation in helping others, from Aids and leprosy victims to those maimed by landmines. She was concerned for people at the margins of society.

And in LA, Doria was moving in a similar direction — but hers was a switch in career, from make-up to training as a social worker.

These days, she concentrates on the geriatric community, working for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in West Los Angeles.

Such caring values also dictated Meghan’s upbringing. As a child, Doria wanted to show her there was more to the world than the affluent neighbourhood of Woodland Hills, where they lived. So she took her daughter to see life in the slums of Jamaica and the backstreets of the Mexican city of Oaxaca, where Meghan recalls seeing children playing in dirt roads and hawking chewing gum.

Diana took the same approach. As boys, William and Harry accompanied their mother to meet rough-sleepers on the streets of London and the charity staff helping them to survive.

As Harry and Meghan say their vows today, who could deny that the linking of this couple from two very different worlds would not be quite so smooth were it not for their mothers.

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