Today, July 1st, would have been Lady Diana, Princess of Wales’ 50th birthday. Although she died fourteen years ago in a tragic accident in Paris, as her limo tried to evade an ever-intrusive corps of tabloid photographers, her power over the hearts of billions remains forever strong. Diana is a tragic figure, beloved but forever haunted. Judy Bachrach writes about the People's Princess’ troubled marriage and untimely end. Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.
On July 29, 1981, Lady Diana made what would be the worst mistake of her life and married the Prince of Wales. She was just 20 years old, tall, inexperienced, pretty and faintly plump. “As far as I was concerned I was a fat, chubby 20-year-old,” she would later recall, “and I couldn’t understand the level of interest.”
In fact, she understood little, and initially was so shy she said even less. After an indifferent education at the elite West Heath school in Kent, she flunked all the exams necessary to pursue a degree. She had worked, briefly, as a part-time aide at the Young England kindergarten. That was the sum of her experience.
All one could see of her as she stepped out of the coach, trailed by a 25-foot train, and entered London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, where she listened to the anthem “I Was Glad,” were the tips of her white pumps. She was swathed in thick pale taffeta, her hands crammed with white freesia, golden roses and gardenias, and except for a few vagrant strands of blond hair, her head was immured behind five feet of veil held in place by a diamond tiara, the one object that belonged to her own family.
In a sense these sartorial impediments to clear vision and freedom of movement came to symbolize the rest of her unhappy life.
Her husband, Prince Charles, who stood at 5’9” an inch shorter than the bride, had signaled at the time of their engagement his views of the impending marriage. Asked if he was in love, he replied, “Whatever love means.”
In fact, however, the heir to the British throne, 32 when he married, had been in love with Camilla Parker Bowles, a well-born daughter of a British army officer, ever since 1970 when they met at a polo match. Indeed they shared some royal history together. Camilla’s great-grandmother, Alice Keppel, was – as she informed Charles right away – the last mistress of Charles’ own antecedent, Edward VII. (“So how about it then?” Camilla blithely suggested). Charles readily agreed to that proposition, but no other. In 1973, tired of waiting for her prince, Camilla married Andrew Parker Bowles; the couple’s only son, Tom, born the following year, became Charles’ godson.
Unsophisticated though she was, Diana was no stranger to ugly scenes and marital strife. Her own father, Johnnie, the eighth Earl Spencer, and her mother, Frances, separated when Diana was just 6; she and her three siblings had been brought up by her father, a well-meaning but clueless aristocrat whose ancestral home, Althorp, was open to the public. There tourists wandered past walls denuded of paintings that had long been sold off. Diana’s mother, deprived of custody of her own children, remarried and eventually became an alcoholic.
Diana was also aware of her husband’s past with Camilla. What she didn’t expect was that during their honeymoon, Charles would wear the gold cufflinks his former girlfriend had once given him. The royal couple was dining with Anwar Sadat, then president of Egypt, and Sadat’s wife, Jihan, when the bride spotted the offending cufflinks, engraved with intertwining C’s.
Years later Diana would tell the biographer Andrew Morton that this was a defining moment, devastating in its impact. Indeed, she added, the marriage was over almost as soon as it began.
Diana, 1983 (Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Although two handsome sons came along – William, born in June 1982, and Harry, two years later – five years after the wedding Charles renewed his relationship with Camilla, an affair of which Diana was made acutely aware: She saw changes in Charles’ behavior, she told Morton, and people loved to gossip.
A desperate Diana cut her wrists, and also developed what she called “a secret disease,” the eating disorder bulimia. “You don’t think you’re worthy or valuable,” she explained; filling up and then purging “gives you a feeling of comfort.”
Comfort was clearly in short supply. Her husband’s allies, she insisted, were plotting against her: “indicating that I was again unstable, sick and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better.” She was, she added, “so fed up with being seen as someone who was a basket case” that she began talking to a sympathetic biographer about the travails of being a princess stuck with an indifferent prince.
Perhaps it was for this same reason – being fed up – that Diana, in turn, launched her own series of love affairs: the cavalry officer, James Hewitt; a bodyguard, Barry Mannakee; her confidant, James Gilbey. But her selections of lovers were as desultory as her choice of husband.
By the end of 1992, the couple was separated, and she moved into Kensington Palace. Four years later they divorced. Diana received a lump sum payment of $34 million, in return for which she was forbidden to discuss the details. She was also stripped, much to her surprise, of the title “Her Royal Highness.” She had been married 15 years.
More lovers came her way: the rugby player Will Carling; the respected heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, whom she desperately wished to marry (a desire he did not return); and her last and perhaps most unfortunate romance, the aimless playboy Dodi Al-Fayed, son of Mohammed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods.
These, however, were by no means her only pursuits. In the last years of her brief life, Diana championed causes no member of Charles’ royal family would touch: most particularly AIDS, leprosy, and homelessness. In 1997, she flew to Angola on behalf of the Red Cross to highlight the misery of land mine victims. Virtually every newspaper and news program featured a photo of the princess, dressed in jeans, blouse and a visor, walking through a cleared minefield. (She made sure of that. When certain photographers complained that they hadn’t gotten a good shot, she repeated her steps.)
Diana in Angola (AP Photo)
On Aug. 31, 1997, she and Fayed dined in Paris at the Ritz Hotel, which was owned by the playboy’s father. Afterwards, Henri Paul, the Ritz driver, was ordered to speed them away from the scrutiny of the press. Unfortunately, Paul was drunk. He did indeed speed away – pursued by an army of photographers – and crashed into a pillar on the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel, killing himself and Dodi. Diana died from her injuries a few hours later.
But her mystique, her memory, and the massive popular sympathy she aroused lived on, along with her informal title: the People’s Princess. In the years since her death at 36, it is that title – rather than any of the others she acquired as Charles’ innocent bride – that has stuck. In part this was the result of Diana’s own carefully crafted image, which, after jettisoning her shyness, she worked on over the years. Asked on the BBC whether she thought she might ever reign alongside her increasingly distant husband, she replied, “No, I don’t believe so. I would like to become the queen of people’s hearts. But I don’t see how I can become the queen of this country. I don’t believe that many want that – namely the establishment that I married into.”
Charles’ mother, Elizabeth II, who never understood or cared for her former daughter-in-law, especially after that interview, was roundly criticized for not grieving openly. In fact, so great was the public outcry and what many saw as the likely damage to the monarchy, that she had to go on live television the day before Diana’s funeral, to pay tribute to the “exceptional and gifted human being” who would never succeed her as queen.
Memorial to Diana (flickr/Paul-in-London)