TEARS FOR A PRINCESS

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - Fol­low Sneed on Twit­ter: @ Sneedlings Sneed. Michael Watch for Spe­cialty Print Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a Texas cor­po­ra­tion with its en­tire plat­form in Illi­nois, to dis­patch 45,000 bot­tles of wa­ter via truck at its Niles fa­cil­ity Fri­day to Hur­ri­cane Har­vey- pelted

On the 20th an­niver­sary of Diana’s death, Sneed looks back at the somber scene of her funeral

I was an eye­wit­ness to his­tory. Only this time, my eyes were filled with tears.

I had never be­fore cried so much in my life. And not since. And I didn’t even know her. How do you cal­cu­late grief so pal­pa­ble it makes you choke?

All sto­ries are unique. I’ve cov­ered quite a few in my 50 years in jour­nal­ism.

But this was dif­fer­ent — a time when sor­row was as in­va­sive as a tear- duct virus — bid­ding good­bye to a woman the coun­try called their English rose.

On this, the 20th an­niver­sary of Princess Diana’s death, al­low me to take you back to early Septem­ber 1997, shortly af­ter the 36- year- old exwife of Prince Charles — the fu­ture king of Eng­land — was killed in a car crash speed­ing through a tun­nel in Paris with her lover.

The city of Lon­don was in mourn­ing, and the world was be­gin­ning to catch up.

In what turned out to be an in­spired move, I checked into the Kens­ing­ton Palace Ho­tel — which hap­pened to be next to an aerie of grief: Princess Diana’s home at Kens­ing­ton Palace, where her funeral cortege would be­gin its trip to West­min­ster Abbey nearly a week later.

Luck­ily, I had taken a co­terie of Brit’s top royal jour­nal­ists ( James Whi­taker, Richard Kay, pho­tog­ra­pher Ed­ward Ed­wards) to din­ner dur­ing Princess Diana’s much­bal­ly­hooed visit to Chicago in June 1996, to help raise money for the North­west­ern Univer­sity hospi­tal’s can­cer cen­ter.

So I phoned up a lit­tle pay­back from the pre­mier royal watch­ers, who tended to pop up like mush­rooms af­ter rain wher­ever Princess Diana went, to check out the lay of the land. I didn’t have to go far. The world of sor­row gen­er­ated by Princess Diana’s cruel death had cho­sen to camp out in front of the palace, giv­ing me a bird’s- eye view from my win­dow. It was ex­tra­or­di­nary. The Brits’ stiff up­per lips were mov­ing; men were un­con­trol­lably weep­ing; traf­fic was a mess.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of mourn­ers were now trekking to Kens­ing­ton, Buck­ing­ham and St. James’ Palaces; march­ing and kneel­ing and sob­bing; bear­ing wreaths of flow­ers in cel­lo­phane wrap­pers; clothes­pin­ning po­ems to the Hick­ory and Hawthorne trees in Kens­ing­ton Park; leav­ing be­hind cards, bal­loons and sweet, child­ish toys at the palace gates.

And at night, a sea of twin­kling can­dles ig­nited by mourn­ers lit up Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens, where the si­lence of sad­ness in­cluded the smell of can­dle wax, the scent of fra­grant tuberoses and the click click click of baby car­riages.

Princess Diana’s army was car­ry­ing flo­ral ban­ners to the Kens­ing­ton Palace gates, in­stalling a royal car­pet where they be­lieved the pop­u­lar princess of the peo­ple re­ally lived: out­side the palace walls.

Here is a sam­pling of what I penned in 1997 un­der the head­ing of “Post­cards from Lon­don.”

◆ “The city is in mourn­ing. Dur­ing Di’s funeral, the na­tional lot­tery will not be drawn, shops will close and the Ori­ent Ex­press will not head to Venice.”

◆ “The pa­parazzi are be­ing pil­lo­ried for iron­i­cally killing their ‘ golden goose.’ It’s ironic the ele­gant princess, who loved high fash­ion, was wear­ing a black jacket and white pants when she was killed.”

◆ “And the ‘ cad’ ap­peared. Ma­jor James He­witt, who kissed and told and broke Di’s heart, is­sued a state­ment as he choked back tears: ‘ I loved her and miss her ter­ri­bly.’ ”

◆ Richard Kay says she called him six hours be­fore her death.

“Said Kay: ‘ She was as happy as I have ever heard her . . . . She told me she had de­cided to rad­i­cally change her life. She was go­ing to com­plete her obli­ga­tions to her char­i­ties . . . and then, around Novem­ber, would com­pletely with­draw from her for­mal life. She would then, she said, be able to live as she al­ways wanted to live.

“Not as an icon . . . but as a pri­vate per­son.”

◆ “Prince Charles wept as he walked across the moors around Bal­moral Cas­tle, re­port­edly stay­ing up late the night be­fore drink­ing gin mar­ti­nis and call­ing friends into the wee hours of the morn­ing.”

◆ “Charles’ in­amorata, Camilla Parker Bowles, has been out of sight. It is ex­pected she will main­tain a low pro­file.”

◆ “Prince Charles not only had re­port­edly sent Diana a re­cent note be­gin­ning ‘ My Dear­est Diana,’ and end­ing ‘ lots of love,’ but Di’s close re­porter pal, Richard Kay, claims Charles and his lover, Camilla Parker Bowles, hadn’t been to­gether for more than a month. Oh, well.”

◆ “Su­per­model Cindy Craw­ford says she got a call from Diana 24 hours be­fore her death, telling her: ‘ For the first time in my life, I can say that I’m truly happy.”

◆ “A Pales­tinian has of­fered $ 1 mil­lion for the wreck of the crushed Mercedes, Diana’s death car. He says he wants to turn it into a me­mo­rial for the princess.” In the end, it wasn’t over. Princess Diana is dead.

But her death made us feel what we suspected all the time: that this shy, but sly, English girl with the back­ward glance was only try­ing to give the world a hand.

Princess Diana | AP

Prince Wil­liam ( from left), Earl Charles Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles ap­proach the car­riage with the cof­fin of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Lon­don on Sept. 6, 1997, dur­ing her funeral pro­ces­sion.

| AP

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