Diana still reigns in our hearts
20 years after her death, Princess of Wales keeps a grip on America
Twenty years later, it’s as if she didn’t really die. America’s attention is again haunted by Diana, Princess of Wales — queen, then and now, of many a Yankee heart.
Pick up any device, peruse any newsstand or bookstore, switch on your TV, and there she is, glowing in the strobe lights, beaming that megawatt smile, batting those intensely blue eyes — permanently young and beautiful at 36 years old.
“People who die young are forever trapped in amber,” says best-selling American author Sally Bedell Smith, who has written biographies of Diana, Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II. “No one can imagine what Diana would have looked like as
56-year-old.” It was hard to grasp when she died in a car crash in Paris, 20 years ago on Aug. 31,
1997: How could such a charismatic presence suddenly vanish, and under such banal circumstances?
It’s the question Britain and the world are still asking. Americans, too. The country that threw off the royal yoke 241 years ago clasped the aristocrat-turned-royal Diana to its breast when she was alive, and embraces her still all these years later.
“The fact that 20 years on we still talk about Diana, that she still captures and enthralls in equal measure and remains to a degree a mystery and a dichotomy, are testimony to her legacy and the deep impression she left,” says Katie Nicholl, a British journalist, royal biographer and commentator whose next book, Harry: Life, Loss and Love, comes out in 2018.
American fans of Diana treasure their memories of her in their country — especially her first visit in 1985, when she wore blue velvet to dance with John Travolta at the Reagan White House.
She especially liked New York and visited often, going to a homeless shelter and an AIDS clinic in 1989, attending a charity gala in 1995, and auctioning her dresses for charity in June
1997, just weeks before she died.
In the 2014 hit play Charles III, in which the Prince of Wales becomes king and improbable chaos ensues, Diana puts in spectral appearances as a blond Banquo’s ghost haunting her ex and her sons. But she haunts everybody — and Americans more than most.
American author Christopher Andersen, whose 1998 best-seller The Day Diana Died has been reissued as an e-book, says Diana has always been “more popular in America” than even in Britain.
“The revisionism about her, depicting her as neurotic, grasping, a villain — Americans never bought into it. It didn’t appeal to their idea of the fairy-tale princess,” Andersen says.
Observers such as Andersen, Smith and Nicholl, who watched Diana for years, think Americans projected their fantasies on Diana but also picked up on her vulnerabilities: her bulimia, her unhappiness and divorce, her many childhood traumas.
Americans connected with Diana’s obvious warmth, which was so much a contrast with the icy, standoffish royals, Andersen says. “She was human, that was the key to her,” he says. “We recognized something of ourselves in her.”
She reached out to people in a way no other royal had done, as the first royal to embrace people with AIDS, for instance. “That resonated with Americans,” whom she reminded of former first lady Jackie Kennedy, Andersen says. “The level of their celebrity has not been matched by anyone else since then.”
Plus, don’t underestimate the power of Diana’s stunning looks, says Smith, author of Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess (1999), and Prince Charles, The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life ( published in April). She says Diana was at the height of her allure when she died.
“She had just been photographed by Mario Testino, she looked beautiful, but most people didn’t realize she was spinning like a top,” Smith says. “Diana projected an image of strength, recovery and vulnerability. She projected innocence and wonderment. She was an object of great sympathy. And everybody was just completely captivated by her beauty.”
She was rich, beautiful, the mother of a future king and a woman beloved by millions — but not by her husband, the Prince of Wales, who was in love with someone else and had been since even before their gloriously romantic royal wedding in 1981.
He knew it, she knew it, but we didn’t know it, not until much later when it all came to tears. Many, many tears.
“When you think ‘princess,’ that was Diana, the emblem of the term,” says Victoria Arbiter, a British-born CNN contributor in New York who lived in Kensington Palace in her teens as the daughter of Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the queen.
“She was a beautiful woman who felt injured and hurt by her husband, so there was a massive sense of public sympathy for her,” Victoria Arbiter says. “People could relate to her, wanted to be her, wanted to be her best friend.”
This was especially true of Americans, whose attitudes about celebrities are different from those of the British, she says.
“(The British media) often show celebrities falling out of nightclubs, looking rough and flaunting their underwear,” she says. “What (the American media) do is show them on red carpets looking great. They’re celebrated, they’re seen as bettering their life. In England, it’s seen as jumping your class.”
So, as the 20th anniversary of her death approaches, Britain naturally is deep-diving into Diana memories. Even Prince William and Prince Harry decided they would mark the anniversary not with a charity pop concert, as they did for the 10th, but by agreeing for the first time to be interviewed in a documentary.
The American media are filling the summer with Diana, with multiple documentaries and specials scheduled or already aired.
Why else would they do that except that they know audiences will devour them?
America is ready for a long look back at Diana, and for a good cry about what might have been.
“People could relate to her, wanted to be her, wanted to be her best friend.”
Diana, Princess of Wales, arrives at the American Red Cross in Washington in June 1997. She was there to discuss the effort to ban land mines worldwide, one of the princess’ signature causes.
Welsh Guards carry Diana’s casket, topped with the royal standard, out of Westminster Abbey after her funeral.
Horse guards pass mourners outside Buckingham Palace on Sept. 1, 1997, a day after the Paris car crash that killed Diana.
Walking behind the coffin: Prince Philip, the queen’s husband; Prince William; Charles, Earl Spencer, the princess’ brother; Prince Harry; and Diana’s ex-husband, Prince Charles.
A photo and plastic flower are left in memory of Princess Diana on the grounds of Kensington Palace in 2007. The palace is where Diana lived even after her divorce from Prince Charles.
Elton John plays a special version of Candle in the Wind, re-written as Goodbye English Rose, during the funeral service.