Diana still reigns in our hearts

20 years af­ter her death, Princess of Wales keeps a grip on Amer­ica

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Maria Puente

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.”

Vic­to­ria Ar­biter,

CNN con­trib­u­tor

CHARLES TASNADI, AP

DOUG MILLS, AP

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.

PETER DEJONG, AP

Welsh Guards carry Diana’s cas­ket, topped with the royal stan­dard, out of West­min­ster Abbey af­ter her funeral.

PETER DE JONG, AP

Horse guards pass mourn­ers out­side Buck­ing­ham Palace on Sept. 1, 1997, a day af­ter the Paris car crash that killed Diana.

JEFF J. MITCHELL, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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.

LEFTERIS PITARAKIS, AP

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.

PAUL HACK­ETT, AP

El­ton John plays a spe­cial ver­sion of Can­dle in the Wind, re-writ­ten as Good­bye English Rose, dur­ing the funeral ser­vice.

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