By Laura DeBrizzi
In May, television viewers were met head on with an onslaught of primetime Princess Diana specials to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the trailblazing royal’s shocking end in the early morning hours of August 31st, 1997, in Paris, at the age of 36. In death, much like she had in life, the Princess of Wales could still draw large numbers; not that my fellow Generation Xers or any previous nicknamed generation required a history lesson on the woman once referred to as Lady Diana Spencer, but to pay no homage whatsoever to a woman who possessed far-reaching global appeal due, in large part, for her ability to tap into the pain of others – psychological and physical -would be viewed as a crime. Still, I struggled over whether or not to tune in (to the multiple broadcasts) because for the greater part of her life, Diana, had never known a moment’s peace what with the unwavering intrusion of paparazzi and the betrayal of sycophantic friends. Ultimately, I lost the battle and relived the tragedy that was Diana…
Newly graduated from Drew University, I chose to close out the summer with a night saturated in high revelry and participated in the kind of hijinks common among inebriated twenty-somethings who stayed long past last call. My head hit the pillow at around four in the morning and what seemed like only seconds later but, in reality, two hours passed, my mother burst open the door and cried out: “It’s all over the news! Princess Diana is dead.” The crack of light let in by the slightly ajar door burned my barely open eyes and I instinctively crawled even deeper under the blankets for a few more hours of slumber. When I awoke, the wall-to-wall coverage which had startled my mom now greeted me: I stood in front of the television, speechless, as I listened to broadcasters identify both the unfamiliar (Henri Paul; Trevor Rees-Jones) and familiar players (Prince Charles; Queen Elizabeth) when, at long last, footage zeroed in on the image of the mangled Black Mercedes where Princess Diana’s near lifeless body had been trapped until Emergency Services could arrive. Without warning, I began to weep.
Diana was a rare princess of sorts in that not only did Diana not enjoy a “happily ever after,” but she would also not be granted the time to recognize that she was indeed worthy of love, far from “thick” (American translation? Dumb) as categorized by her family, or silence the inner self-loathing and doubt born from an unharmonious childhood. Even as an adult, Diana came to be viewed as problematic among elder members of the Royal Family because she ditched the century-long protocol which called for small chitchat – always at an arm’s distance – before unveiling a plaque to a new wing of a building and making a quick getaway. The flawed Princess, on the other hand, was to forge her own path in which she exhibited how important a role simple human contact such as a hug plays in comforting everyone from the terminally ill and the homeless to battered women and the mentally impaired. Dutch-Diana’s nickname-also possessed an easy rapport with everyday citizens and chatted with many along walkabouts, accepted bouquets, and giggled over inaudible jokes much to the dismay of the envious Charles who had long been centerstage.
I had never come to meet Shy Di – a nickname coined by the media for the aristocratic English 19-year-old fiancé of the Prince of Wales – however, she remained an embedded fixture throughout childhood, beginning with her nuptials to Prince Charles at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1981 when I was 6-years-old and extending far into my adolescence with me catching glimpses of salacious headlines linked to the couple’s faltering marriage spread across the covers of tabloids my mom brought home from the supermarket.
In truth, the dangly Prince never loved Diana and she quickly caught on that theirs was an arrangement immersed in duty (produce an heir) and tradition (a virgin bride) but not affection; Charles soon began a clandestine affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles that hit the Princess particularly hard setting her off to channel the pain via rampant bulimia and orchestrating several failed suicide attempts. Her spouse’s lack of interest in her also sent an already self-conscious Diana into the arms of men who did not have her best interest in mind. One in particular, James Hewitt, penned a tell-all book about their dalliance. For Charles’ part, he admitted having committed adultery with Parker-Bowles “only after the marriage had irretrievably broken down.” The public unanimously sided with Diana and thought her mistreated by the Windsors. In 1995, Diana secretly granted an interview to air on Panorama where she publicly acknowledged, “There were three of us in the marriage so it was a bit crowded.”
Adding to the divide of the Wales’ marriage was the factor that Diana was 12 years Charles’ junior, and so, from the onset, the Princess was unknowingly placed at a disadvantage; 19-year-old Diana was suddenly plucked from her world, where she gossiped into the night and loudly sang along to Duran Duran records with her flat mates, and awkwardly dropped into the esoteric social circle of her soon-to-be husband’s whose idea of fun was to droll on about philosophy and gardening. The missteps continued until the two divorced in 1996, however, they did manage to have two children: William and Harry.
Despite the inner chaos and pain, Princess Diana became the focal parental figure for her sons, never denying either a hug or encouragement when she personally dropped off each at pre-school. It was William and Harry’s mum who also ensured that her boys experienced some semblance of normalcy with outings to McDonald’s and trips to Disney World.
Not even in the early hours of that last day in August back in 1997 was Diana shown mercy: There were 4 passengers traveling in the Mercedes and of the quartet 2 died instantly, 1 survived, and the last, Princess Diana, her breathing labored, trapped in the wreckage with photographers surrounding her and snapping away before being hailed off to jail, held on for a few hours, until the self-proclaimed “Queen of People’s Hearts” quite literally died of a broken one. And the entire civilized world grounded to a halt so that it could properly mourn their Princess for an unprecedented length of time: A full week.