SEPT. 5, 1997
Thoughts on the Passing of a Princess
Anne Somme and the Associated Press, U.S. A. and London
What can be said, or written, about a woman who has had more of her personal life exposed to the public than any pop icon in recent history? She was every little girl's fairy princess personified, every young woman's role model of fashion and society, and in her charity work, she was everyone's best chum.
In an earlier interview, months ago, she said she no longer cared to be Queen of England, only Queen of people's hearts. With the worldwide mourning for "Lady Di," it seems she's gotten her wish. Lady Diana was one of the few people in the world that everyone had an opinion about. You either loved or hated, supported or criticized her. The untimely death of the Princess of Wales lifts her to the status of other legends such as John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean.
We all have our time-fixes in life, where we can remember where we were or what we were doing when something happened. Earlier generations can remember where tbey were when men first walked on the moon, or when JFK was shot, or when Elvis died. For this generation, it's the space shuttle Challenger's explosion and the death of Diana.
Scanning the Associated Press wire in my newsroom, I find stories from my collegues, domestic and overseas, of her past, her style, her motherhood and her charity work. She was a vibrant and energetic figure in her openness with the public and her royal accessibility. Judging from London news reports, her death seems to have prompted a national call for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles to rebuild the monarchy's prestige by following her example. It's about time.
In life, her behavior sometimes raised an eyebrow or two, but in death all is forgiven, it seems, for the "people's princess. "Diana dead may threaten their stability and tranquility as strongly if not more so,than the divorced Diana they could not silence," said Polly Toynbee, a columnist for The Independent, in London. "Diana the difficult was a problem the palace could tackle, but Saint Diana is something it can never contend with."
Her marriage to Prince Charles on July 29, 1981, was one of those events that people recall more vividly than other moments in their lives. Some remember being awakened by mothers at 3:30 a.m. to watch the wedding broadcast live. Others took off work, or skipped school, to witness a modern day fairytale come true. An estimated billion people around the world watched the ceremony. It was the fairy-tale romance so many of us wished for, and in that couple, we found an outlet through which to live out our fantasies of castles and queens and a love that would never die.
But, "never" came rather quickly. When the fairy tale fractured, we saw another story, altogether. It was one that many, particularly women, could relate to. This princess had her twentieth century problems, bulimia, the twentieth century disease of low esteem and the desire to 'find herself,' to give her life meaning.
Though the royal family wished the spotlight would go away, we learned of Prince Charles' admissions of adultery and heard embarrassing, tape-recorded endearments to his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. We also learned of Diana's accounts of descents into eating disorders self-mutilation, suicide attempts and retaliatory adulteries with men not chosen for any sense of discretion. Guess who we cheered for...
Yet in her work for people with AIDS, she broke through her difficulties and found an outlet for her emotions and her beliefs. She sought out the untouchables of our society and she touched them. Her campaigns took place in a world beyond politics as, unerringly, she found issues in which the moral high ground could and should be seized.
Her most recent work was campaigning against land mines. The campaign by Diana and The Halo Trust helped focus international attention on the issue and forced President Clinton to enter the United States into negotiations with about 100 nations, aimed at banning anti-personnel land mines by the end of the year.
Delegates to a global conference on land mines stood, silently, this past Monday to pay tribute to Diana, the world's most visible advocate of banning the deadly devices. The roughly 400 delegates from 100 nations rose at the opening of the Oslo, Norway conference for a moment of silent reflection on Diana's efforts to draw attention to the 26,000 people killed or maimed by land mines, each year.
The conference began Monday, the day after the crash that took Diana's life. "We shall spare no effort at this conference to achieve the goals she set for herself," Norway's Foreign Minister, Bjorn Tore Godal, said.
Though the marriage ended, officially, with their divorce just over a year ago on August 28, 1996, the rivalry between Diana and Charles for public approval continued until her death. In recent weeks she posed, knowingly, on Mediterranean holidays with her friend, Emad Mohamed Fayed, known as Dodi, apparently in an effort to show the world that the once-troubled young woman had found personal happiness.
Reports came in after the crash that Diana was presented with a diamond ring, worth more than $200,000, at dinner a few hours before the fatal crash. There were also reports that Diana was preparing to change the way she lived life. "She told me she had decided to radically change her life," the Daily Mail's royal reporter, Richard Kay, wrote in Monday's editions of the newspaper. Kay, one of Diana's favorite media contacts, said she had telephoned him six hours before the accident. "She was going to complete her obligations to her charities and to the anti-personnel land mines cause and then, around November, would completely withdraw from her formal public life," Kay wrote. "She would then, she said, be able to live as she always wanted to live. Not as an icon, how she hated to be called on, but as a private person," Kay said. Kay said the influence for the change was 36 year-old Diana's relationship with Dodi Fayed. "She was in love with him and, perhaps more important, she believed that he was in love with her and that he believed in her. They were, to use an old but priceless cliche, blissfully happy," Kay said.
Diana had announced a withdrawal from most of her public work on Dec. 3, 1993, but it didn't last. Kay said that, on Saturday, she also talked of plans to open a series of hospices around the world. The reporter said that after detailing her plans, Diana said: "But, I sometimes wonder what's the point? Whatever I do, it's never good enough for some people."
It seems that Diana's eldest son takes after his mother. Over the objections of Buckingham Palace, Prince William has insisted on leading the procession behind his mother's coffin, Saturday, en route to the funeral in Westminster Abbey. Skeptics wondered why the royal family resisted 15-year-old's desires.
Did it stem, less from concern for any emotional stress he might endure, than from fear that his starring role in a drama that will be viewed around the world by an audience estimated in the billions might renew suggestions that the handsome, young prince, and not his divorced father, Prince Charles, would be a more fitting direct successor to Queen Elizabeth II? The dust-up, one of many that has plagued planning for the princess's last rites, is a stark reminder that even in death, Diana could mean trouble, and perhaps eventual extinction, for the monarchy.
Ironically, the funeral will be the biggest event London has seen since the wedding in 1981. Her life ran the gamut for the royal family, from their finest hour when the couple wed, to their most difficult hour in balancing the approval of the public with the desire to do things by the royal "book." It is far too early to say whether Diana's funeral will mark a real change in the way the palace conducts its affairs, or whether this is merely a respectful dispatch of the biggest thorn that was ever in the monarchy's side.
If Charles "and his entourage think that after the solemnities of the funeral it will be business as usual, they are misleading themselves," the Independent said Tuesday. On Wednesday, the paper declared: "What would really do the monarchy good, and show they had grasped the lesson of Diana's popularity, would be for the Queen and Prince Charles to break down, cry and hug one another on the steps of the Abbey" after the funeral. "That such an event is unthinkable," added the newspaper, "shows how great the gap is between the people mourning 'their' princess and the royal family to which she never, quite, belonged." Now we all prepare for Saturday's funeral, tissue box on one side, coffee on the other (the funeral is being broadcast at 2 a.m. in the midwestern US). We will bid her goodbye in our own way.
Icons invade the public consciousness, they are dazzling and controversial characters who enhanced others' lives in some way, only to have their own lives cut short, with much left unfinished. They are the modern day gods of Mount Olympus, beings who still have power in our minds even though we can not see them, or hear them. We still have the memories of Diana and her good works, and we have her son William, touted in the British press as the last, best hope for the continuation of the monarchy.
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