Friday, August 31, 2012

The Shocking Death of Princess Diana

If you live for any length of time at all, there will be things that will shock you.

In my case, some of these things were private matters. At this point in my life, I have known several people who have died — some were old, some were young, a few were sick and their deaths were anticipated, but most came out of the blue.

I was shocked when my mother died in a flash flood in 1995. I was shocked a couple of years ago when an old friend and schoolmate died after being hospitalized with pneumonia. I was shocked earlier this summer when my father had a heart attack.

And, of course, I have been shocked by very public events — such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, the explosion of the Challenger. If I had been old enough at the time, I guess I would have been shocked by the JFK assassination.

But nothing has ever shocked me quite like the death of Princess Diana 15 years ago today.

There were all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating in the days and weeks after her death — a lot of finger pointing. There were also a lot of efforts to come to grips with a truly upsetting event. One of my most enduring memories is of Dan Rather getting choked up the following day during his televised retrospective on Diana's oh–so–short life and his observation that all Diana — who had more than her share of conflicts with the royal family (and knew she would never be queen of England) — really wanted was to be the queen of the public's collective hearts.

In the first week of September 1997, it would have been a pretty safe bet to say that she had succeeded.

I have seldom seen an outpouring of global grief comparable to what I saw when Diana died. There had been reports all that summer of Diana's blossoming love affair with Dodi Fayed, the son of a billionaire businessman. The two had been relaxing on the Riviera for about a week and stopped over in Paris on their way back to London.

In late August, the two had dinner together on a Saturday evening at a Paris hotel owned by Fayed's father, then they tried to give the slip to the photographers who had been hounding them, leaving from the rear of the hotel with the hotel's acting head of security at the wheel of the getaway car. Their destination was a nearby apartment also owned by Fayed's father.

They never got there.

Among the many tragic stories circulating after Diana's death was one that held that Fayed had an engagement ring waiting at the apartment — and that he planned to propose to her that evening.

At the time of her death, Diana was surely one of the most popular women on the face of the earth. I guess she had been ever since it was announced in the spring of 1981 that she would be Prince Charles' bride that summer, but her popularity seemed to take on a life of its own after Charles and Diana split up.

The paparazzi who followed her everywhere in the next 16 years — and played important roles in the accident that took her life — plunged her into the spotlight the day her engagement was announced.

In fact, they had been following her for nearly a year, ever since she and Charles started dating. Diana was a naive preschool teacher at the time and had no idea of the challenges her new status would bring.

I always felt Diana was a remarkable person, but she seemed to keep much of it under wraps during her marriage. It was really after her divorce from Charles was finalized in August 1996 that the world began to see how truly remarkable she was with her activism against landmines (for which she was branded a "loose cannon.")

Merely days before her death, she visited Bosnia. She was particularly concerned about the damage that was done to children by landmines long after a conflict had ended.

Her advocacy for children always reminded me of my mother.

She was said to have influenced, posthumously, the signing of the Ottawa treaty later that year. The Ottawa treaty imposed an international ban on landmines.

It was an appropriate tribute.

I will always remember the night Diana died. I had switched on my computer, and I was casually browsing the internet when I decided to look through some newsgroups. And that was when I stumbled onto a conversation in which someone was reporting to several disbelieving people that Diana had been in a crash and had died.

The crash occurred shortly after midnight Paris time, and Diana was pronounced dead around 4 a.m. Paris time. There is a seven–hour difference between Dallas and Paris, and I heard about Diana around 10 p.m. so it must have been about an hour after she was declared deceased.

It wasn't unusual to see Diana on the news. She had been in the news all year. She could draw attention just for being somewhere — anywhere. She didn't have to open her mouth, but she made headlines all the time in 1997 with her crusade against landmines, her romance with Fayed, even her visit to the United States a month before her own death to attend the funeral of a friend, fashion designer Gianni Versace.

Versace was murdered less than seven weeks before Diana's death. In my mind's eye, I can still see Diana mourning for him at the funeral, seated next to another Versace friend, Elton John, who rewrote the lyrics of his song "Candle in the Wind" in a tribute to Diana after her death.

Grief–stricken though she was, Diana seemed to be intent upon comforting the other mourners. In hindsight, I felt that was typical of her — selfless.

That stood in poignant contrast to Diana's funeral nearly two months later. There was no Diana to comfort the mourners on that occasion.

"Candle in the Wind" began its existence two decades earlier as a rather nice tribute to Marilyn Monroe, but it became a global sensation after Diana's funeral. It is the only single ever certified Diamond in the United States.

Another example of how unique Diana and her public appeal were.

I felt at the time — and I still feel today — that Diana's death at 36 was an appalling waste.

And I also felt her brother, Earl Spencer, summed up the sense of loss admirably in his eulogy.

I supposed he could be forgiven for being somewhat bitter. "It is a point to remember," he said, "that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age."

But he promised Diana's sons that her family would "continue the imaginative way" Diana had been raising them.

I don't know if that promise was kept — until Prince William's wedding last year, Diana's boys were shielded from public view — but the conclusion of Spencer's eulogy certainly suggested that it would be.

"[W]e give thanks," he said, "for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds."

If you were born after her death — or if you were too young to remember her — you really missed someone special.

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