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Diana, Princess of Wales
1961 - 1997

 

 

 

Why 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
 

What was 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 extraordinary hauteur.

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.
 


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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 duties.

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 strength."

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 down.

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 being."

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: 09 December, 2008