This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 8, 1997
In more genteel times, she would have inspired poetry. Taking a cue from Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, who habitually and flatteringly referred to Queen Elizabeth I as "Diana" in their poems, some courtly versifier would no doubt have picked up on the allusions of her name, drawing comparisons to the Roman goddess of the moon. The literary device would have been apt, providing rich fodder for describing her many phases and moods, her luminous beauty, her omnipresence. And yet, in the sad, ultimately tragic life of Diana, Princess of Wales - cut short last week in a violent car crash - there was little poetry. Instead, the saga of Diana was the stuff of scandal sheets, tawdry biographies and well-publicized indiscretions. Her life, perhaps to the very end, was immortalized not in sonnets or gilded metaphors, but in the glare of the paparazzi's flashbulbs.
In the end, both the woman and her legacy defy idealization. She was more complex than either her friends or her foes - and there were many - usually cared to acknowledge. A shy teenager who seemed destined to be a faithful consort to the future king, she became a Gucci-suited jet-setter who knew how to play a crowd. She was a caring mother and (for a time) devoted wife, and a confessed adulteress whose actions embarrassed Prince Charles and the entire Royal Family. She was a victim of media intrusions, and yet she was also a sly manipulator of public opinion who engaged in off-the-record tabloid wars with her husband when their marriage was falling apart.
A tireless and sincere worker for dozens of charitable causes, she went a long way towards earning the self-proclaimed title of "queen of the people's hearts." But with her indiscretions, she also shook the real British monarchy to its core. And despite her oft-repeated claims to desiring a simple, unexamined life, she became a pop icon, the most photographed woman in the world. She was, for good or ill, a creature of her times.
It is difficult now to imagine a time when the world was not fascinated with Diana. But much of her young life was spent in relative, if aristocratic, obscurity. The third of four children, Diana Frances Spencer was born on July 1, 1961, at Park House, an east England estate that her parents rented from Queen Elizabeth II. Diana's father, Viscount Althorp, Earl Spencer, was descended from a centuries-old line of loyal servants to the Crown; the late Earl himself served as equerry to both Elizabeth and her father, King George VI. Much of Diana's early life was spent at Park House and at the family home of Althorp, in the Midlands north of London. It was, in some respects, an idyllic childhood of nannies and nature walks, where Diana - a child of privilege and substantial, if declining, wealth - developed a love of the outdoors and her skill as a horseback rider.
Even then, however, Diana was no stranger to family discord. For much of her first six years, her parents struggled to hold together a troubled marriage that, in many ways, foreshadowed the union of Diana and Charles years later. Her father, an emotionally distant man, and her mother - who in the mid-1960s conducted an extramarital affair with a dashing businessman, Peter Shand Kydd - were simply incompatible. In 1969, after attempts at reconciliation and a trial separation, the marriage dissolved. Diana's father won custody of the children; her mother, Frances, married Shand Kydd in the same year.
A quiet student who seemed to enjoy domestic duties, Diana's first formal education was at Riddlesworth Hall, an all-girls boarding school in Norfolk, where she won a commendation from the headmistress for "helpfulness." Later, Diana attended West Heath school in Kent, and then an expensive finishing school in Switzerland, becoming a competent skier and honing her fluency in French. (Meanwhile, her father remarried, to Raine Cartland - daughter of the romance novelist Barbara Cartland - despite the opposition of his children.) By the time she returned to London in 1977, Diana had blossomed from a somewhat dowdy, slightly overweight girl into a pretty and composed 16-year-old.
That November, Charles visited Althorp for a shooting expedition - and, reportedly, to court Diana's elder sister, Sarah. But the then 29-year-old heir to the throne was clearly taken with the young Diana, a "very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old - full of fun," as he would later recall his first impressions of her. Over the next three years, from acquaintance through friendship to romance, their relationship blossomed - and so did the media's fascination with Diana. As rumors of Charles and the young aristocrat's courtship spread through London, photographers and tabloid reporters converged on her outside the fashionable Young England school in Pimlico, where she taught kindergarten. And when a photographer snapped a now-infamous photo of the shapely Diana clad in a diaphanous dress backlit in the sun outside the school, a media sensation was born. On Feb. 24, 1981, Charles and Diana announced their engagement. Five months later, on July 29, the two were wed in a sumptuous ceremony in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Televised to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, the wedding of Charles and Diana was a defining moment of the early 1980s, putting the phrase "fairy-tale wedding" into the common parlance. Suddenly, after years of slow decline in influence and popularity, the scions of the British monarchy were fixtures, from television reports and newspaper headlines to bumper stickers and commemorative plates. For a time, it seemed, the Royal Family had been rejuvenated - thanks in large part to Diana. That sense was heightened on June 21, 1982, by the birth of the couple's first son, William Arthur Philip Louis - a male heir to the throne of England.
The reality, however, was starkly different from the dream. In their demeanor and interests, Charles and Diana diverged widely. He was reserved, with a philosophical turn of mind, while she was young and down to earth, and clearly uninterested in her new husband's passions for hunting and architecture. And there was some question about the depth of their feelings for each other, even then. In an interview during their engagement, Charles avowed his love for Diana - and then followed up with a befuddling caveat. "Whatever 'love' means," he said.
Diana often seemed ill at ease with her new, public role - at times clearly not engaged by her husband's speeches, and emotionally distant from him even in unguarded moments. Diana's relationship with Charles's mother, meanwhile, proved difficult - Elizabeth was much more taken with Sarah Ferguson, later the Duchess of York and wife of Charles's younger brother Andrew. And the press followed Diana everywhere, even capturing a bikini-clad and visibly pregnant expectant mother on film while on a Caribbean vacation. A telling exchange came during the couple's Italian tour in 1984, just before the birth of second son Harry, when they visited a Venetian art gallery. With media in tow, Charles ruminated about how wonderful it would be for he and Diana to return to the gallery some day and "look at this on our own." Diana replied: "But we never are alone, are we?"
To her lasting credit, Diana turned her fame towards good causes: by the early 1990s, Buckingham Palace listed the Princess of Wales as a patron of no less than 90 charities. She took a courageous and timely stand on AIDS, a disease to which she lost a longtime friend, London art dealer Adrian Ward-Jackson, in 1991. Indeed, as far back as 1987, Diana was photographed shaking hands with an AIDS patient - a controversial gesture at a time when fear was rampant that the disease could be contracted through casual contact. "You can shake their hands and give them a hug," she later said of people with AIDS. "Heaven knows, they need it."
As she transformed herself from "Princess Shy" to "Princess Di," and then, thanks to her charity work, to "Saint Di" in the popular imagination, Diana's personal life was falling apart. As early as 1991, when she and Charles visited Canada for their third and final extended tour, royal-watchers were already saying that the marriage was effectively dead. A year later, the publication of biographer Andrew Morton's tell-all book, Diana: Her True Story, confirmed much of the speculation. In the book, Morton - with whom Diana co-operated through friends - painted a picture of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage that exacted a harsh physical and psychological toll. Following the birth of William, she suffered severe post-natal depression, a condition that, she later recalled, "gave everybody a wonderful new label - 'Diana's unstable and Diana's mentally unbalanced.' " By 1986, the book revealed, she had developed the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. And, the book contended, she weakly attempted suicide to attract the attention of Charles - who had renewed his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, a romantic interest from before his marriage. "I did inflict upon myself," she later confirmed. "I didn't like myself, I was ashamed because I couldn't cope with the pressures."
There was more to come. In the summer of 1992, British tabloids reported taped conversations Diana had had with distillery heir James Gilbey, who called her "Squidgy" and repeatedly professed his love for her. (She later denied having an affair with him.) That November, she and Charles toured South Korea, and it was an unprecedented disaster of verbal snipes and clear distance between the two. It came as little surprise, then, that in December, Prime Minister John Major rose in Parliament and announced the formal separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
With the couple separated - but still, Major said, with no plans for divorce - Charles and Diana's relationship descended into a bickering match waged in the media. And the floodgates for scandal were well and truly opened. In September, 1994, the book Princess in Love alleged that Diana had an extramarital affair with a handsome cavalry officer, James Hewitt. The book was widely condemned - and Hewitt was ostracized by other officers in his elite Life Guards regiment, who accused him of betrayal. But in late 1995, Diana herself confirmed the affair during a sensational BBC television interview watched by millions. "Yes, I adored him," she said of Hewitt. "Yes, I was in love with him."
It was not the only stunning revelation arising from the interview. At the outset of their marriage, she recalled, she was "desperately in love" with Charles, and thought they would "make a good team." But the media attention soon proved to be daunting. With it "came a lot of jealousy, a great deal of complicated situations arose because of that," she said. Diana also implied that the charges of an affair with Gilbey had been leaked to the press by a royal faction loyal to Charles - "my husband's side," as she called it. "It was done to harm me in a serious manner," she said. Most controversially, she suggested that Charles may be unsuited to his destiny: becoming king. "Because I know the character, I would think that the top job, as I call it, would bring enormous limitations to him," Diana said, "and I don't know whether he could adapt to that."
Royal-watchers interpreted that November, 1995, interview as a bid to wreak revenge on Charles - who had confessed earlier to biographer Jonathan Dimbleby that he had himself conducted an affair with Parker Bowles. For Queen Elizabeth, it was clearly the last straw. In December, Buckingham Palace officials confirmed the Queen had written Charles and Diana, urging them to divorce. On July 12, 1996, after weeks of contentious negotiations, they agreed to terms: Diana would receive a reported $36-million settlement but would be stripped of the title Her Royal Highness. On Aug. 28, a British court granted a decree absolute, officially ending the couple's 15-year marriage.
After dropping her patronage of some 100 charities - saying she wanted to give them an opportunity to find another royal patron - Diana adopted a new crusade: ridding the world of anti-personnel land mines. She travelled to Angola last January, and then to Bosnia last month, drawing attention to the plight of civilians disabled or killed by mines. Despite her occasional missteps, Diana at 36 seemed to have grown comfortable in her role as humanitarian and celebrity. Perhaps, even, with Egyptian-born millionaire Dodi Al Fayed, she had found romantic happiness. For Diana, divorce seemed to signal a personal and public rebirth. Throughout the foibles, the scandals and the tabloid-style confessions, she maintained her popularity - among the people of England and around the world - with her charm, style and easy grace.
No longer royalty, but still a queen of the public heart, she was one of the most revered and recognized people in the world. And what will be Diana's legacy? For her children, with whom she was always loving and close, the loss is inestimable. For the Royal Family - its reputation sullied by scandals, not all of Diana's making - the future of Charles as a bachelor king, and of the British monarchy, remains an open question. For her millions of fans, some of whom gathered outside Buckingham Palace last week, there will be continued grief and outrage. For the rest, who knew Diana only through the myriad headlines, the photos and the books, her death nonetheless marks the end of an era. For them - love her, hate her or somewhere in between - there is no getting around the sense of loss, of something significant passing away. The death of a familiar image, perhaps. Or, as the poets might have put it, the disappearance of the moon from the night sky.
Maclean's September 8, 1997