Princess Diana: 20 years after her tragic death, we pay tribute to the People’s Princess
The Diana effect
On August 31, it will be 20 years since the premature death of Diana, Princess of Wales, rocked the world. In a poignant and insightful tribute, royal biographer Christopher Wilson investigates Diana’s legacy and her continued inspiration and influence on her boys, Princes William and Harry.
The memory is as fresh as the scent of a newly plucked rose, while the legacy grows more powerful as each year goes by. For most people, even today, 20 years after her death, the name Diana needs no suffix. Come late August, the floral tributes will once again pile up outside Kensington Palace – fewer now, the donors older – but the worldwide passion for Diana, Princess of Wales, remains as potent a force as ever.
For Prince William and Prince Harry, the grief has gone, but the longing remains. For the rest of us, it’s as if she never went away. As William himself says, “Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows her.”
And on this 20th anniversary, the Princes have begun talking about their mother like never before – blowing the cobwebs away, dusting down her reputation, encouraging others to take a fresh look.
“All I want to do is make my mother proud,” says Harry. “It’s she who inspires the work I do. When she died, there was a gaping hole, not just for us, but also for a huge amount of people around the world. If I can try to fill a very small part of that, then job done.
“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12 had quite a serious effect on not only my personal life, but my work as well.”
William speaks equally lovingly about Diana. “I would like to have had her advice,” he says.
“I would love her to have met Catherine and to have seen the children grow up. It makes me sad that she won’t, that they will never know her. I still find it difficult now – the shock is the biggest thing and I still feel it 20 years later about my mother. People think shock can’t last that long, but it does. It’s such an unbelievably big moment in your life and it never leaves you.”
With two upcoming documentaries on television and a slew of interviews, the creation of a memorial garden at Kensington Palace and the promise of a new statue for Diana, the
Princes’ desire to reinforce their mother’s place in history may seem disproportionate, given the passage of time. Yet they’re determined she will not be forgotten.
She is everywhere you look – Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, wears her engagement ring. Two-year old Princess Charlotte bears her name. The House of Windsor changed its tune in deference to her. Pages of history are devoted to her achievements.
And a whole new generation, as yet unborn at the time of Diana’s passing, has grown up feeling that somehow they knew her.
“Not quite a saint, but most definitely one of the angels,” said her dearest friend Lucia Flecha de Lima, just before her death earlier this year.
“A combination of beauty, pluck and compassion” is her former private secretary Patrick Jephson’s recollection. “The Diana story continues to strike a chord.”
Why, though? Why, in this year, should we take special notice, when so many have passed away since her tragic death in a Paris tunnel in 1997? The answer lies with her two sons, freed at last from self-imposed restraint, who feel strongly that as their father fast approaches kingship, their mother should have her rightful place in history, too.
Inevitably, this new Diana campaign of theirs will cause discomfort to Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall – who, on their upward path to full public approval as a couple, would feel a lot happier with less mention of the “D” word. And though the Palace machinery – more media-savvy these days, largely thanks to Diana’s hefty contribution decades ago – is capable of withstanding suggestions of a rift, some seasoned observers sense a recent distancing between father and sons.
The Princes are right, of course, to want their mother accorded full recognition in the history books. Diana became not only the world’s most famous woman, she brought a new lustre to the British royals, gave them a new sense of direction, freshened up their outlook and opened the door to previously unthought-of possibilities. Today, to a large extent, her two sons are fulfilling her own personal ambitions and live in the glow she has cast down the years.
The compassionate Princess
What made Diana so remarkable was her unique combination of compassion, glamour and an unerring instinct when it came to the media. Particularly after the breakdown of her marriage, her
charity work became her inspiration and often a lifeline to normality, too. “She was drawn to the vulnerable, the weak and the unrecognised,” says her biographer Sarah Bradford. “It touched a personal chord with her, linking with the rejection and marginalisation she felt she herself was suffering.”
“Accompanying her to a children’s hospice or the bedside of a dying refugee was to witness a woman who never let her emotions take charge – but who never entirely masked them either,” recalls Patrick Jephson. That was the key to Diana’s success.
One of the most defining images of her much-photographed life came in April 1987, when she opened the first HIV/AIDS ward in Britain and shook the hand of an AIDS sufferer. World opinion changed overnight, according to the photographer who took the shot, Arthur Edwards, “People were amazed to discover this wasn’t a disease you ran away from; it was perfectly safe.”
Diana herself explained: “HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug – heaven knows they need it.”
She had started the Palace revolution. Initial reaction to the pictures from diehard courtiers was one of outright disapproval – the Princess appeared too human, too compassionate – although perhaps their concerns were that the other royals might look less sympathetic by comparison. Or maybe it was just the nature of HIV/AIDS which they disliked. Whatever it was, soon their ideas would be swept away by the winds of change as Diana threw back the shutters and let in daylight to the stuffy royal house.
When she died, her friend, Sir Elton John, who rewrote his hit Candle in the Wind to perform at her funeral, donated the royalties to The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund in honour of the AIDS work she had done. The sum he gave was £38 million ($67 million) – one of the biggest charitable donations ever in the UK – but just a drop in the ocean of funds she raised over her lifetime.
In 1989, she performed the same miracle of transformation, travelling to Indonesia to visit leprosy patients in Jakarta. Peter Waddup, National Director of The Leprosy Mission, told The Australian Women’s Weekly, “Diana had an astonishing impact on the work we did when she was our patron and we were devastated by her death. Leprosy was, and still is, a highly stigmatised disease and Diana’s actions were transforming in tackling the stigma. She held hands with people affected by leprosy when she visited our hospitals in India, Nepal and Zimbabwe, and spent time with every patient in turn. I doubt any individual will have such an impact again.”
Just as memorable an image is of Diana walking across a field sown with landmines. Today, her impact on world peace and safety is as strong as the day she died, according to Major General James Cowan, head of landmine clearance organisation The HALO Trust. “The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, signed in Ottawa 20 years ago, was one of the great moral statements of the 20th century,” he says. “Princess Diana was an inspirational figure in this effort – her visit to a minefield in Angola in 1997 catalysed the world’s attention – and that continues still.
“Her intervention was a major contribution to the Mine Ban Treaty.”
The work goes on. In April this year, Prince Harry, together with an unprecedented collection of ministers, diplomats and philanthropists, met at Kensington Palace to remember her contribution and celebrate 20 years of humanitarian anti-mine action.>>
There has been a flurry of Dianastyle initiatives in recent times. With his brother, William, and sister-in-law Catherine, Harry has created Heads Together to raise awareness and money for mental health services and to encourage people to talk in a way the Princes themselves felt unable to do after their mother’s death.
By way of explanation, another close friend of Diana, Rosa Monckton, talking about mental health, says, “It’s a huge issue with the youth of today [they hide it away] – but it was in the public domain that Diana had these problems. To have overcome them in the way she did while being in the public eye was extraordinary.”
Rosa’s daughter, Domenica, who has Down syndrome, is Diana’s goddaughter. In March this year,
Rosa confirmed that in a moving act of friendship, Diana had offered, in 1994, to bury her friend’s stillborn baby, Natalia, in the gardens of Kensington Palace – yet another tantalising insight into the Princess’ complex nature.
Discovering her style
No recollection of Diana would be complete without talk of her clothes. She led fashion, followed fashion, was a fashion victim – occasionally – and in the end settled for unshowy simple lines which emphasised the serious role she undertook for herself in her final years, helping to make her a leading fashion icon of the
Her life with clothes is rivetingly captured in an exhibition at her old home, Kensington Palace, which will continue through until 2019. Diana: Her Fashion Story has already more than doubled visitor numbers to the ancient palace and the exhibition, according to its curator Eleri Lynn, shows the Princess “intelligently communicating through her clothes. This is a story many women around the world can relate to.”
Centre stage at Kensington Palace is the midnight-blue gown – arguably her most famous – in which Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House in 1985. Today, its creator, Victor Edelstein, recalls his first encounter with the Princess just after she had given birth to Prince William, at Kensington Palace, “She was so beautiful and sweet, and she seemed so vulnerable. I walked down the stairs afterwards and I was almost on air. She had that effect.”
Swiftly, Victor became one of the most powerful weapons in Diana’s armoury and she returned often to his atelier. “At the last fitting for the Travolta dress, Diana was so pleased she said, ‘I must show this to my husband,’” he recalls. “Off she went and came back with the Prince of Wales. It was very funny because he was obviously going out somewhere – he was covered in ribbons and decorations, but he was very nice about the dress.”
Reportedly, the Prince liked it less when Diana danced with the Grease star for half an hour.
Many visitors who make the pilgrimage to Kensington Palace also take in the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain in nearby Hyde Park. Situated close to the Serpentine Gallery – where the Princess made one of her most spectacular appearances, in 1994, wearing the iconic figurehugging Christina Stambolian black silk dress – the fountain brilliantly reflects her more spiritual side, with water gushing in circular motion through blocks of granite, the piece specifically designed to reflect her love of children.
Heavily criticised after its unveiling by the Queen in July 2004, the fountain offers a soothing memory of Diana and its popularity has slowly grown. So much so that The Royal Parks, which administers it, revealed to
The Australian Women’s Weekly that annual visitor figures will soon pass the one million mark.
To some, it’s a more fitting tribute to the spirit of Diana than an oldfashioned, conventional statue, but in this Prince William and Prince Harry appear to disagree.
At the beginning of the year, they announced a statue had been commissioned and would stand in the gardens of Kensington Palace. At the same time, the new temporary White Garden, planted with white roses, scented narcissus and a carpet of forget-me-nots, was announced – both tributes to be made accessible to the public. Many Diana fans will appreciate the gesture, if not all.
It was, of course, possible to love Diana and be infuriated by her at the same time. One untold story from her last days on earth features James Whitaker, the most famous and celebrated of the royal press corps, who had met Diana in her pre-Prince Charles days and whom she jokingly dubbed the Big Red Tomato. It’s true to say James, a close friend of this writer, was devoted to Diana and, on several occasions, she would ask his advice. Given their relative positions, their relationship was a surprisingly close one.
In the summer of 1997, the world’s press had descended on the South of France, where Diana and Dodi Fayed were attempting to holiday aboard the yacht Jonikal. The relationship was new and – so it seemed to the outside world – inexplicable.
In the intense heat, Diana did not respond well to the feverish attention – posing for photographs one minute, sending out threats through emissaries the next. It’s fair to say she was not behaving with customary decorum and when James caught up with her, he pleaded, “For heaven’s sake, Ma’am, you are the Princess of Wales – please act like the Princess of Wales!”
James spoke for many who felt that her life at that juncture had taken a wrong turn. What might have been
It’s anyone’s guess what would have become of her relationship with Dodi – or indeed any other man who might have succeeded him in her affections. She had become such a colossal figure on the world stage that it would have been impossible for most men to compete with the many demands for her attention.
Impossible to guess, too, what Diana would have made of the young Kate Middleton and, just as interesting to speculate, how happily she would have shared grandmother duties with Carole Middleton (not well, perhaps?).
Twenty years then since the world came to a standstill with the shock news of Diana’s death. The question often asked is – if she had lived, what would she be doing now?
“She might be solving conflicts, feeding the world’s hungry or breeding spaniels in happy rural obscurity,” says Patrick Jephson, her former private secretary.
“We will never know.”
ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Diana in tears with a patient at a children’s cancer hospital in Pakistan in 1996. William gives his son, George, a hug while on the royal tour of Canada in 2016. Harry cuddles a child at a centre for children with disabilities run by the charity he cofounded, Sentebale, in Lesotho, in 2014. OPPOSITE: Diana with William and Harry in 1989.
ABOVE: Diana shone in a deep blue velvet Victor Edelstein gown as she danced with John Travolta at a White House Gala Dinner in 1985. OPPOSITE: The Princess in a photograph by her reportedly favourite snapper, Patrick Demarchelier, taken in 1990.
The same ceremony, 28 years apart. Trooping the Colour sparked cheeky smiles (above, right) from Prince Harry in 1988 and again last year, this time from his niece and nephew, Princess Charlotte and Prince George.