Diana, Princess of Wales
1961 - 1997
could we not avert our eyes from her? Was it because she
beckoned? Or was there something else we longed for?
By IAN BURUMA for Time Magazine
it about Diana, Princess of Wales, that brought such huge
numbers of people from all walks of life literally to their
knees after her death in 1997? What was her special appeal, not
just to British subjects but also to people the world over? A
late spasm of royalism hardly explains it, even in Britain, for
many true British monarchists despised her for cheapening the
royal institution by behaving more like a movie star or a pop
diva than a princess. To many others, however, that was
precisely her attraction.
Diana was beautiful, in a fresh-faced, English, outdoors-girl
kind of way. She used her big blue eyes to their fullest
advantage, melting the hearts of men and women through an
expression of complete vulnerability. Diana's eyes, like those
of Marilyn Monroe, contained an appeal directed not to any
individual but to the world at large. Please don't hurt me, they
seemed to say. She often looked as if she were on the verge of
tears, in the manner of folk images of the Virgin Mary. Yet she
was one of the richest, most glamorous and socially powerful
women in the world. This combination of vulnerability and power
was perhaps her greatest asset.
Diana was a princess, but there are many princesses in Europe,
none of whom ever came close to capturing the popular
imagination the way she did. Princess Grace of Monaco was
perhaps the nearest thing, but then she had really been a movie
star, which surely provided the vital luster to her role as
figurehead of a country that is little more than a gambling
casino on the southern coast of France. The rather louche
glamour of Monaco's royal family is nothing compared with the
fading but still palpable grandeur of the British monarchy. To
those who savor such things, British royals are the first among
equals of world royalty, the last symbols of an aristocratic
society that has largely disappeared in most places but still
hangs on, with much of its Victorian pomp intact, in Britain.
Even the Japanese Emperor Hirohito never forgot being overawed
by the style of his British royal hosts on his first trip to
Europe in the 1920s.
Diana not only married into the British monarchy but was the
offspring of a family, the Spencers, that is at least as old as
the British royal family and considers itself in some ways to be
rather grander. It is not rare in England to hear the Spencers'
Englishness compared favorably with the "foreign" (German)
background of the Windsors. The famous speech, given by Diana's
younger brother, the Earl of Spencer, at her funeral in London,
with its barely contained hostility toward his royal in-laws,
moved many people at the time but was in fact an exercise of
So Diana had snob appeal to burn. But that alone would not have
secured her popularity. Most of the people who worshipped her,
who read every tidbit about her in the gossip press and hung up
pictures of her in their rooms, were not social snobs. Like
Princess Grace of Monaco, Diana was a celebrity royal. She was a
movie star who never actually appeared in a movie; in a sense
her whole life was a movie, a serial melodrama acted out in
public, with every twist and turn of the plot reported to a
world audience. Diana was astute enough to understand the power
of television and the voracious British tabloid newspapers. And
she consistently tried to use the mass media as a stage for
projecting her image — as the wronged spouse, as the radiant
society beauty, as the compassionate princess hugging AIDS
patients and land-mine victims, and as the mourning princess
crying at celebrity funerals.
However, like many celebrities before her, she found out that
she couldn't turn the media on and off at will, as though they
were a tap. They needed her to feed the public appetite for
celebrity gossip, and she needed them for her public
performance, but what she hadn't bargained for was that her
melodrama ran on without breaks. Everything she said or did was
fair copy. After deliberately making her private life public,
she soon discovered there was nothing private left.
In a sense, the quasi-religious mystique of royalty came full
circle with Diana. Monarchy used to be based on divine right.
But just as monarchy used religious trappings to justify its
rule, modern show-biz celebrity has a way of slipping into a
form of popular religion. It is surely not for nothing that an
idolized pop singer of recent times so successfully exploited
her given name, Madonna. One of the most traditional roles of
religious idols is a sacrificial one; we project our sins onto
them, and they bear our crosses in public.
Diana was a sacrificial symbol in several ways. First she became
the patron saint of victims, the sick, the discriminated
against, the homeless. Then, partly through her real suffering
at the hands of a rigidly formal family trained to play rigidly
formal public roles, and partly through her shrewd manipulation
of the press, Diana herself projected a compelling image of
victimhood. Women in unhappy marriages identified with her; so
did outsiders of one kind or another, ethnic, sexual or social.
Like many religious idols, she was openly abused and ridiculed,
in her case by the same press that stoked the public worship of
her. And finally she became the ultimate victim of her own fame:
pursued by paparazzi, she became a twisted and battered body in
a limousine. It was a fittingly tawdry end to what had become an
increasingly tawdry melodrama. But it is in the nature of
religion that forms change to fit the times. Diana — celebrity,
tabloid princess, mater dolorosa of the pop and fashion scene —
was, if nothing else, the perfect idol for our times.
Diana, Princess of Wales
Lady Diana Frances Spencer (1961-1997) married Prince Charles in
1981 and became Princess of Wales. Retaining her title after the
royal couple divorced in 1996, Diana continued her humanitarian
work. She died in a tragic car accident in 1997.
Lady Diana Spencer began enchanting the public and international
press shortly before July 29, 1981, wedding to Prince Charles of
Wales, heir to the British throne, in a ceremony that was
broadcast worldwide. The media's obsessive fascination with the
Princess of Wales hardly waned over the years and at times
became frenetic, particularly in the mid-1990s as her marriage
to Prince Charles became increasingly unstable.
On February 29, 1996, the Princess announced that she had agreed
to a divorce. True to her high-profile image, in March of 1996
Diana suggested to Charles that they announce their divorce on
television; according to The Daily Telegraph, Diana argued that
such an appearance "would help the nation as much as
themselves." After some stalling, Prince Charles agreed to the
request and a hefty financial settlement of almost $23 million,
plus $600,000 a year for the maintenance of Diana's private
office. Diana, meanwhile, lost her title of Her Royal Highness
and right to the throne, but kept the moniker Princess of Wales
and continued to live in Kensington Palace. Just over a year
after the divorce, Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris.
Rumors about the stability of Charles and Diana's marriage
surfaced repeatedly over the years. Many royal watchers say the
union was destined for trouble because the fairy tale wedding
raised expectations that most couples would find impossible to
meet. Others cited the difference in the couple's ages and
interests, and Charles's long-time friendship with Camilla
Parker Bowles, a woman he had once asked to marry him.
Diana Frances Spencer was born on July 1, 1961, in Norfolk,
England, the third of the Lord and Lady Althorp's four children.
She grew up at Park House, a mansion in Norfolk located next
door to the royal family's Sandringham estate. One of Diana's
playmates was Prince Andrew, Charles's brother. Diana's mother,
the Honorable Frances Shand-Kydd, is the daughter of a wealthy
Anglo-Irish baron. Lady Fermoy, Diana's grandmother, was for
years chief lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother. Diana's father,
the Viscount Althorp who became an earl in 1975, was a remote
descendant of the Stuart kings and a direct descendant of King
Charles II (1630-1685). The Spencers have served the Crown as
courtiers for generations and are related to the Sir Winston
Churchills and at least eight U.S. presidents, including George
Washington, John Adams, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Diana's
younger brother Charles is Queen Elizabeth's godson, and her
father was the late Queen Mary's godson and former personal aide
to both King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Diana, a quiet and reserved child, had a relatively happy home
life until she was eight years old, when her parents went
through a bitter divorce, and her mother ran off with the heir
to a wallpaper fortune. Her father eventually won the custody
battle over their son and three daughters. Diana, who remained
close to her mother, subsequently became depressed. In 1976 the
Earl Spencer married Raine Legge, the daughter of British
romance novelist Barbara Cartland. Apparently, the Spencer
children and their stepmother had a stormy relationship.
Diana's academic career was unremarkable. She was tutored at
home until the age of nine, when she was sent to Riddlesworth
Hall in Norfolk. Her "major moment of academic distinction,"
according to People, was when she won an award for taking
especially good care of her guinea pig, Peanuts. At the age of
12, Diana began attending the exclusive West Heath School in
Sevenoaks, Kent, where she developed a passion for ballet and
later Prince Charles. She hung his picture above her cot at the
boarding school and told a classmate, as reported by People," I
would love to be a dancer - or Princess of Wales."
Diana became bored with academics and dropped out of West Heath
at the age of 16. Her father sent her to a Swiss finishing
school, Chateau d'Oex. She became homesick within a few months
and returned to Norfolk. For a while she hired herself out as a
cleaning woman, eventually finding work as a kindergarten
teacher's aide. Her father bought her a three-bedroom flat not
far from fashionable Sloane Street and Knightsbridge, where
Diana helped her three roommates with housekeeping and cooking
Although Prince Charles had known Diana, literally the girl next
door, for virtually all of her life, he regarded her as a
playmate for his younger brothers. He later dated Diana's older
sister, Lady Sarah, who eventually became Mrs. Neil McCorquodale.
Lady Sarah reintroduced Charles and Diana at a 1977 pheasant
hunt at Althorp. "[Diana] taught him how to tap-dance on the
terrace," a family friend once told McCall's. "He thought she
was adorable … full of vitality and terribly sweet." Charles was
struck by "what a very amusing and jolly and attractive
16-year-old she was," Time reported. Diana concluded that the
prince was "pretty amazing."
Charles thought Diana was too young to consider as a marriage
prospect, however, and the romance didn't bloom for another
three years. In July of 1980 Diana visited the royal family's
Balmoral Castle in Scotland to see her sister, Lady Jane, who
was married to Robert Fellowes, the queen's assistant secretary.
Once again Diana ran into Charles, and the two walked and fished
together. Charles was quoted as saying in Time, "I began to
realize what was going on in my mind and hers in particular."
Diana was invited back in September.
Soon afterward, reporters began to suspect the nature of her
relationship with Charles and began to hound Diana mercilessly,
photographing her with the prince at her London flat and once
while holding one of the children at the nursery school where
she taught. To her horror, the sun behind her back clearly
outlined her thighs through her skirt in a photo that has since
been reprinted many times. At one point Diana's mother fired off
a letter to the London Times, demanding, "Is it necessary or
fair to harass my daughter daily?," as quoted in Time.
Charles proposed to Diana at dinner in his Buckingham Palace
apartment on February 3, 1981. Diana was the first British
citizen to marry the heir to the throne since 1659, when Prince
James - later James II - married Lady Anne Hyde. In addition,
Diana was an Anglican, presenting no legal obstacles to marriage
with the man who, as king, would head the Church of England. Her
past was pristine, a matter of great importance to the royal
family. A well-known saying soon made the rounds in the press:
Diana had a history, but no past.
According to a Time interview with the royal couple, Charles
said the courtship was conducted "like a military operation" on
national television. He proposed over dinner for two before
Diana's February 6 departure for a vacation in Australia. "I
wanted to give Diana a chance to think about it - to think if it
was going to be too awful. If she didn't like the idea, she
could say she didn't. … But in fact she said …." Diana
interrupted, "Yes, quite promptly. I never had any doubts about
it." When Diana returned from her trip, Charles asked the Earl
Spencer for his daughter's hand. Diana resigned her teaching
post and moved into the palace's Clarence House with the Queen
Mother, where she was instructed in royal protocol.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and 25 other clerics officiated at
the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana on July 29, 1981. A
congregation of 2,500 and a worldwide TV audience of about 750
million watched the ceremony under the dome of St. Paul's
Cathedral. Five mounted military police officers led Diana in
her glass coach from Clarence House to St. Paul's. Two million
spectators - whose behavior was kept in check by 4,000 policemen
and 2,228 soldiers - jammed the processional route.
Soon afterward, Diana's professional life became an endless
round of ceremonial tree plantings, introductions, and public
appearances. She was scheduled for 170 official engagements
during the year following the royal wedding. In their first
seven years of marriage, the Prince and Princess of Wales made
official visits to 19 countries and held hundreds of handshaking
sessions. But Diana was shielded from the press, never making
any public statements - except for those approved by the palace
- or giving a private interview to any reporter.
There seemed to be no doubts about Charles and Diana's love for
each other in those early days. "Diana seems absolutely floating
on air when she's around the Prince - squeezing his hand,
nuzzling his cheek or leaning her head on his shoulder," Rita
Lachman, a close friend of the Spencers, observed in McCall's.
"And although the Prince's training has made his behavior more
restrained, it is obvious how he feels about her." Later
developments would make it appear that the relationship was
rocky even before the marriage, but the public would only see
the fairy tale facade.
On November 5, 1981, the palace announced that the Princess of
Wales was expecting a child. Charles was present when his wife
gave birth at London's St. Mary's Hospital 11 months after the
royal wedding. Dr. George Pinker, Queen Elizabeth's gynecologist,
attended the birth. Prince William, nicknamed Wills, was born in
June of 1982. A second son, Harry, was born two years later in
September of 1984. Diana was said to be a doting mother, trying
to raise the children as normally as possible, away from the
glare of publicity.
After giving birth, Diana dropped 30 pounds from her 5-foot
10-inch frame, according to a People correspondent, "leaving it
lean and elegant - a splendid rack for the designer rags she
assembled with impressive taste. Almost overnight a pretty girl
was transformed into a statuesque belle." Around that time,
reports alleging that Diana suffered from anorexia nervosa first
began to surface.
Over the years, Diana immersed herself in numerous charitable
causes. She became involved in such social issues such as
homelessness and drug abuse, visited leprosariums in Nigeria and
Indonesia, shook hands with patients at an AIDS ward in a
Middlesex Hospital, and once visited victims of an IRA (Irish
Republican Army) bombing in Northern Ireland. In 1990, People
noted, Diana was the patron of 44 charities, making more than
180 visits on their behalf the previous year. "I don't just want
to be a name on a letterhead," the princess was quoted as saying
in the Saturday Evening Post.
In 1989 Diana became a patron of Relate, Britain's leading
marriage counseling agency. She once addressed a crowd at
Relate's Family of the Year ceremony, as quoted in People:
"Marriage offers stability, and may be that is why nearly 7,000
couples a week begin new family lives of their own. Sadly, for
many, reality fails to live up to expectations. When that
happens, most couples draw on new reserves of love and
Ironically, Diana's own marriage apparently had been ailing for
years. Rumors about marital problems surfaced just a few years
after the wedding. The couple's first public spat, at a pheasant
hunt at the queen's Norfolk estate, was followed two days later
by another public row. The fairy tale turned into a soap opera,
according to a British gossip columnist who characterized the
situation as "Dallas in the palace." Many reports alleged that
Charles quickly became disenchanted with his bride and that he
was henpecked and obsessed with organic gardening and
spiritualism. Diana was said to be bored, temperamental,
self-absorbed, and clothes-mad.
Over the next few years Charles and Diana's widely varying
intellectual and social interests became apparent: He was an
intellectual who preferred to read philosophical and
thought-provoking literature, while Diana was partial to romance
novels. Charles enjoyed polo and horseback riding; Diana once
fell off a horse and had lost any passion she had for riding. He
enjoyed opera; she preferred ballet and rock music. The media
began tracking the number of days the two spent apart, noting
Charles's lengthy stays away from home. Diana once said in
public, People reported, that being a princess "isn't all it's
cracked up to be." Buckingham Palace maintained a stony silence.
The public's fascination with Diana fueled the media's
insatiable hunger for sensational news about the princess.
Coverage of the royal family was said to be more critical and
crudely inquisitive than at any time since the early nineteenth
century. As Suzanne Lowry, a writer for London's Sunday Times
once wrote, according to Time: "What Diana clearly didn't
understand when she took that fateful step [of marrying Charles]
was that she could never get back into that nice, cozy private
nursery again. … As James Whitaker [the London Mirror's royal
watcher] might say to Diana with a nudge, 'You didn't know you
were marrying us too, did you?"'
While some of Charles and Diana's problems were blamed on
incompatibility, many royal watchers speculated that trouble
stemmed from the attention lavished on Diana, while Charles was
largely ignored. When the prince delivered a serious speech, for
example, the newspapers would mention it briefly below a large
photo of Diana in her latest fashion. One longtime insider
revealed in People, "The problems of the marriage have come out
in the open because Di's self-confidence has developed. She now
appreciates her own incredible sexuality and the fact that the
world is at her feet. This adoration used to terrify her. Now
she quite enjoys the effect she has."
Media coverage of the royal family only increased after Prince
Andrew married Sarah Ferguson in July of 1986. As People
characterized it: "After five years in a corset of decorum, Di
was ready to bust loose, and fun-loving Fergie was just the girl
to help her unlace. … Soon the merry wives of Windsor were
cutting up in public." Charles reportedly scolded Diana once for
"trashing the dignity of the royal family," People reported, and
Diana chided him for being "stuffy, boring and old before his
time." The princess eventually tired of the antics and settled
In June of 1991, young Prince William sustained a skull fracture
after being hit in the head with a golf club. Diana spent two
nights with her son in the hospital, while Charles reportedly
dropped in once, on his way to an opera. From that point on,
Time pointed out, the "tabloids have smelled blood." A month
later, Charles and Diana spent her 30th birthday apart. The
press relished the news, ignoring the fact that Diana sported a
new gold and mother-of-pearl bracelet the next day.
One of three biographies of Diana published in 1992, Andrew
Morton's Diana: Her True Story alleged that Diana attempted
suicide five times in the early 1980s - the first only six
months after the wedding, while she was pregnant with William.
The episodes were characterized as cries for help rather than
serious attempts to end her life. Morton's book, along with the
others, also claimed that Diana suffered from bulimia.
Morton's biography, sympathetic to Diana, is said to be the most
damaging to the prince, portraying Diana as a martyr with a cold
fish for a husband. The book was given more credence than others
because, as Newsweek reported, the "revelations were unusually
specific, extraordinarily well sourced and … they [made] sense
in light of Charles and Diana's recent public behavior." Rumors
surfaced that Diana collaborated with Morton - or at least
approved the project, giving close friends and relatives
permission to be interviewed. Diana's father, who died of a
heart attack on March 29, 1992, had sold dozens of her childhood
photographs to Morton's publisher.
Amid rumors in the fall of 1992 that a Wales separation
announcement was forthcoming came intense media scrutiny of
Diana's male friendships. A retired bank manager contacted the
Sun in 1990, offering a tape recording of a chummy 1989 cellular
telephone conversation between a man - supposedly Diana's close
friend, James Gilbey - and a woman he believed to be Diana. The
press subsequently resurrected old tales about an alleged
dalliance between Diana and her riding instructor, Major James
Hewitt. These claims were spelled out in Anna Pasternak's book
Princess in Love. On December 9, 1992, it was formally announced
that the royal couple was separating.
In 1993 Diana announced that due to exhaustion from the intense
media scrutiny, she would be withdrawing from public life,
though she would continue her charity work. For the next two
years, with a few exceptions, she kept a fairly low media
profile. During this time she sought government advice about how
she might have some role as an ambassador for Britain, but no
firm arrangements were made.
In 1994, Prince Charles granted a wide-ranging television
interview to Jonathan Dimbleby, which was broadcast at the same
time that Dimbleby's biography of Charles appeared in
bookstores. In an uncharacteristically frank interview, Charles
admitted his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, though he
claimed this relationship began only in 1986, after his marriage
with Diana had completely broken down. However, after the
couple's divorce was announced in 1996, it seemed apparent that
Charles had carried a torch for Camilla Parker Bowles since
before his marriage to Diana, and it was speculated that he
would marry her.
In November of the following year, Diana responded with a frank
interview of her own, on BBC's Panorama program. The interview
was particularly controversial because Diana had informed Queen
Elizabeth of the interview only after it had already taken
place, and just days before it was scheduled to be broadcast.
The interview drew the largest viewing audience in Panorama's
43-year history - 21.1 million viewers, from a total British
population of 57 million. Typically, Diana's interview drew more
attention than Charles' had; only 14 million people had watched
his interview the year before.
According to a front page story in the Daily Telegraph, "her
composure and fluency could have rivalled that of a statesman."
While the BBC stated that Diana had not been given editorial
control over the program, she was obviously well-prepared for
the difficult questions. The Daily Telegraph's media
correspondent pointed out that "no question took her by
surprise, and no answers were fluffed. Some of the toughest ones
produced distinctly unspontaneous lines, such as 'Well there
were three of us in the marriage so it was a bit crowded,"'
referring to Charles's long-standing affair with Bowles.
The Panorama interview seemed to put to rest any possibility of
a reconciliation between the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Shortly thereafter, the Queen took the unprecedented step of
asking the couple to consider a divorce. On February 29, 1996,
Diana gave her consent to a divorce - though again she violated
protocol by not informing the Queen first. It was announced in
July of 1996 that the royals had worked out the divorce terms.
Diana would continue to be involved in all decisions about the
children and the couple would share access to them, she would
remain at Kensington Palace, and would be known as Diana,
Princess of Wales - loosing the prefix H.R.H. (Her Royal
Highness) and any right to ascend to the British throne.
However, she kept all of her jewelry and received a lump-sum
alimony settlement of almost $23 million, and Charles agreed to
pay for the annual maintenance of her private office.
Diana continued her diplomatic role as Princess of Wales after
the divorce. She visited terminally ill people in hospitals,
traveled to Bosnia to meet the victims of land mines, and met
Mother Teresa in New York City's South Bronx in June 1997.
Romantically, the press linked her with Hasnat Khan, a
Pakistani-born heart surgeon and Dodi al Fayed, whose father
owned Harrods Department Store in London. However, her number
one priority remained her two sons.
As Diana spent more time with Fayed, the paparazzi hounded the
couple, who could not go anywhere without cameras following
close behind. On August 31, 1997, the paparazzi followed the
couple after they dined at the Ritz Hotel in Paris (owned by
Fayed's father). The combination of the pursuing paparazzi,
driving at a high rate of speed, and having a drunk driver
behind the wheel, all played into the automobile accident which
claimed Princess Diana's life. Some witnesses stated that
photographers frantically snapped pictures and obstructed police
officers and rescue workers from aiding the victims. The driver
and Fayed died at the scene; Princess Diana died from her
injuries a few hours later.
Photographers on the scene faced possible charges under France's
"Good Samaritan" law, which requires people to come to the aid
of accident victims on public roads. However, several blood
tests showed that driver Henri Paul was legally drunk. Legal
experts believed that the investigation into Diana's death was
likely to take months, possibly years, to determine how much the
paparazzi, alcohol, and speed were to blame.
The world mourned for "the people's princess" with an outpouring
of emotion and flowers. People waited up to eight hours to sign
condolence books at St. James Palace, and 100,000 people per day
passed through Kensington Palace, where Diana lived. Her mother,
Francis Shand Kydd stated, "I thank God for the gift of Diana
and for all her loving and giving. I give her back to Him, with
my love, pride and admiration to rest in peace."
However, Britons and the British press soon lashed out at the
royal family, who did not share in the public grieving.
Headlines begged the family to "show us you care." Truly
surprised by the backlash, Queen Elizabeth II went on live
television the day before the funeral. It was only the second
time in the queen's 45-year reign that she had appeared on live
TV, not counting her annual Christmas greeting. She spoke as
"your queen and as a grandmother," and stated "I want to pay
tribute to Diana myself. She was an exceptional and gifted human
Diana's funeral was held in Westminster Abbey on September 6th.
Her sons, Princes Willam and Harry, her brother, Earl Spencer,
her ex-husband, Prince Charles, and her ex-father-in-law, Prince
Philip, as well as five representatives from each of the 110
charities she represented, followed the coffin during part of
the funeral procession. Elton John re-wrote the song "Candle in
the Wind" and sang "Goodbye England's Rose" for his close
friend. It was estimated that 2.5 billion people watched
Princess Diana's funeral on television, nearly half the
population of the world. One royal watcher stated, "Diana made
the monarchy more in touch with people."
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This web page was last updated on:
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