Remembering Diana, the People’s Princess

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She would have made a splendid Queen.

Two decades after her shocking death in a high-speed car accident, the tragedy of Princess Diana still resonates with so many of us. For her admirers, the most hunted woman of the late 20th century was a brave beacon of empowering womanhood and reinvention; to too many others, she was dismissed as mad and manipulative.

What would Diana be like today, the glamorous divorcee determined to find her new place in the world after her banishment from the royal bubble? What kind of ambassador to her many unfashionable causes, what sort of mother to the future king and granny to his two adorable moppets?

Would she have aged well? Would she have found love and purpose or courted more controversy?

We know this much — despite the best efforts of The Firm to erase her memory and downplay her influence on the monarchy, as much as they’ve tried to push the adulterous Prince Charles as the rightful heir to the Crown and his mistress bride Camilla as his legitimate queen, the troublesome princess and her indelible legacy has reemerged to disrupt it all with a vengeance.

“I won’t go quietly,” Diana had predicted. How wonderfully true that has turned out to be.

Somewhere rings her distinctive giggle. In the wake of several recent documentaries marking the 20th anniversary of her death, a poll found only 14% of Britons want a Queen Camilla. In another, 51% believe Prince William, and not his father, should take over when Queen Elizabeth dies.

After the deceit and betrayal she endured, it’s what Diana herself had slyly suggested in 1995. For a princess wronged at every turn, who could write a better and more vengeful ending than her son usurping his father for the throne?

There is anger still for the fairytale we were sold back then. The romantic, 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer thought she was marrying Prince Charles for love. Instead, she’d been chosen for her virginity and pedigree to wed the future king 12 years her senior, never told his heart would always belong to the married Camilla Parker Bowles. She had an inkling not all was right — in a recent documentary, we heard her confess her 1981 wedding was “the worst day of my life.”

Shy Di and her downcast sapphire eyes conquered wherever she went — along for their royal tour of British Columbia, I watched as people screamed for her during their walkabouts while looking right past the disgruntled Prince Charles. But it was his adoration that she truly craved — and it was always beyond her reach.

Then followed confirmation of Charles’s longstanding affair — am I to be the only Prince of Wales without a mistress? — her bulimia, her dalliances, her torment and finally her divorce. She had her freedom, but cast from the royal household, Diana would lose their protection.

And waiting, were the ravenous paparazzi who stalked her every move, not satisfied until they finally hounded her to death.

“I think one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that the people that chased her into the tunnel were the same people that were taking photographs of her while she was still dying on the back seat of the car,” an angry Prince Harry said in a new BBC documentary that airs Sunday.

Where were you that night?

Seared in my memory is that Saturday evening of Aug. 31, 2007, when the unbelievable news flashed on the newsroom TVs: I scrapped my just-finished Sunday column on the start of school for my youngest son and turned to writing about the horrific car crash in Paris’s Pont d’Alma tunnel. Initially, reports were that Diana had been severely injured with new playboy boyfriend Dodi Fayed.

And then followed the shocking bulletin that she was dead at 36.

Bound for London the next day, I witnessed first-hand the surreal week of mourning that followed; cellophane bouquets and teddy bears that painted floral carpets of grief, the pyre of endless candles, the thousands of mourners who caught officials unprepared — and even themselves — when they felt compelled to queue through the night just to sign a book of mourning at St. James’s Palace and then camp on the streets to witness her funeral cortege.

Diana was indeed the People’s Princess, the Queen of Hearts, just as she’d hoped to be when she realized she’d never ascend the throne. Two million pilgrims from throughout her kingdom — the poor, the disenfranchised as well as the noble and the famous — gathered in London on that sunny day to bid her goodbye. A televised audience of half the planet — an estimated 2.5 billion people — watched her beloved boys, just 15 and 12, march behind the gun carriage carrying their mother’s coffin, Harry’s heartbreaking note addressed to “Mummy” atop a wreath of white flowers.

It was the longest walk of their lives.

“I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today,” Prince Harry told Newsweek this spring.

“I just kept thinking about what she would want, and that she’d be proud of Harry and I being able to go through it,” Prince William said in the BBC documentary, “Diana, 7 Days,” to be aired Sunday.

From my press seat inside Westminster Abbey, I could hear the synchronized shuffle of boots as the Welsh Guards carried her flag-draped casket across the checkered marble floor, the heady perfume of lilies floating in its wake. Prince William hid his pain behind his bowed blond head while his brother, his feet barely touching the floor, wiped away stubborn tears.

And my heart broke then for those motherless children while my own sons waited for me to come home.

Many would later mock the outpouring of emotion, embarrassed at how the legendary stiff upper lip had quivered. Former London mayor Boris Johnson would dismiss it as a “Latin American carnival of grief.” The sophisticated set snidely sniffed that Diana was more clotheshorse and media whore than altruistic do-gooder; more sinner than saint.

Of course she was flawed, openly so, and that she so routinely stepped off her pedestal was the secret to her appeal. She reflected the public that admired her — she was as lost and as scarred as the rest of us — but damn it, if she wasn’t going to persevere and do some good with all she’d been given.

So many AIDS patients were eager to tell me 20 years ago how Diana would slip unannounced into their London hospice at night, with no cameras present, to see who else was lonely, who else couldn’t sleep. She moved us because of that vulnerability, because of her desperate search for what most of us seek: Love, respect, a role to play.

Diana brought humanity and honesty to her privileged position and now her boys are determined to follow her lead.

How proud she’d be of William, 35, and Harry, 32, who’ve inherited her emotional openness and sense of duty. In recent months they’ve mounted a remarkable public campaign to secure their mother’s place in history. They’ve told a new generation how groundbreaking it was for Diana to champion AIDS patients and the homeless back in the 1980s when most people, let alone royals, turned away. They’ve reminded us that when their mother spoke openly about her bulimia, self-harm and suicide attempts, she was revolutionary in bravely discussing mental illness.

For the first time, her sons have also opened up about the pain of her absence and their own struggles.

“She was the Princess of Wales and she stood for so many things, but deep down inside for us she was a mother. And we will miss our mother and I wonder every single day what it would be like having her around,” Prince Harry told the BBC.

They are her true legacy, the best evidence that the emotional and caring Diana has forever transformed the cold monarchy.

“Now all I want to do is try and fill the holes that my mother has left,” Prince Harry explained, “and that’s what it’s about for us is trying to make a difference and in making a difference, making her proud.”

Added the young man who will one day be the rightful King, “If I can be even a fraction of what she was I’ll be proud…and I’ll hopefully make her proud in what I’ve done.”

What a wonderful Queen she would have made and what a fine regent her son will be. Now if only we could skip the man in between. 

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