Remembering Diana, 20 Years Later

Editor on August 02, 2017

Remembering Diana: A Life in PhotographsPublished as a companion to the National Geographic Channel's Diana: The Lost Tapes, Remembering Diana: A Life in Photographs features more than 100 images of the People's Princess spanning her life  from her childhood to her efforts as an advocate for the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden. In addition to remembrances from journalists, celebrities, and dignitaries, a foreword by award-winning journalist, editor, and author Tina Brown looks back at Diana Spencer's legacy 20 years after her tragic death.

Brown's words are reprinted here, accompanied by a few images from the book.

Remembering Diana: A Life in Photographs

Foreword by Tina Brown  

Twenty years after her death we miss her more than ever. In a world torn by conflict and blame, there’s still a yawning gap, a public wound that continues to speak to her absence. So deep was the bond of compassion she forged with her admirers that her death in August 1997 at the age of 36 was a universal bereavement -- one that no one who experienced those days will ever forget. 

Diana was always a rebel. In 1994, at the end of a long string of tabloid revelations about the Prince and Princess of Wales’ marriage difficulties, she was summoned, I am told, to a meeting with the Queen and Prince Philip. It was clearly the first royal warning shot that she had better go quietly in what was now her inevitable divorce from Prince Charles. “If you don’t behave, my girl,” Prince Philip told her, “we’ll take your title away.”

Diana gave him a long, cool stare. “My title is a lot older than yours, Philip,” Earl Spencer’s daughter replied.

She has been memorialized her forever as the People’s Princess. But first and foremost, Diana was a Spencer. Hers was a family more than 500 years old, with centuries of experience as power brokers to the throne. She was never intimidated by the royal family or afraid to take them on. In fact, the Hanoverian dynasty, whose descendants became the royal family of today, could not have attained their current heights without the powerful Spencers smoothing their ascent. It’s one of the ironies of Diana’s story that it took a girl from an impeccably aristocratic background to break the monarchy out of the crueler rigidities of class.  


A courtier’s daughter, Diana was raised in the purlieus of Sandringham, where she often played with the young princes as a child. So it’s hardly surprising that the dashing eldest son of the Queen, who flew helicopters and dated a revolving cast of racy blondes, would be the pin-up heartthrob on her bedroom wall. To Charles, however, Diana was the “jolly,” “bouncy” younger sister of Sarah, whom he briefly dated. His future bride wasn’t always a radiant beauty; she became one under the spotlight.  

It was remarkable to watch this change over the years. At the time of her engagement, when she was 19, I was introduced to Diana at the American Embassy in London. She was wearing a pale blue gossamer-light organza dress and was agonizingly shy. No photograph, however, fully captured her exquisite peach complexion, her huge limpid blue eyes, her imposing, slender height. Her small talk was gauche but enchanting.  As she and Charles moved between the guests, she gazed up at the urbane, practiced Prince of Wales with star-struck adoration, hanging on his every word. Seventeen years later in July 1997, when I lunched with her at The Four Seasons in New York shortly before her death, global celebrity had electrified her charisma. It was as if she had been elongated and grown taller still. Impeccably groomed, she strode across the dining room on three inch heels, garbed in a dazzling emerald green Chanel suit, with all the confidence of a supermodel blonde who knew every eye was upon her.


While the royal family should have been jubilant that Diana was reinventing the image of monarchy, court insiders, alert to the jealousies and displaced in their old routines, were dedicated to suppressing her. Unlike Kate Middleton fifteen years later, when the lessons of Diana’s tragedy had been fully absorbed, the 20-year-old Princess of Wales was offered little guidance or protection as she tried to navigate the uncharted waters of royal celebrity. 

And her unhappiness was seeping into the press. In a 1985 Vanity Fair cover story, I broke the news of the behind-scenes storms in the Wales’ marriage. It was clear to me from talking to their friends that Charles and Diana were hopelessly ill matched -- intellectually, sexually and socially –- and were having epic off-stage rows. He was a very old 36, and she a very young 24. Charles was reverting more and more to mystics, environmental gurus and his mistress. The more he spurned his wife, the more Diana sought the reassurance of media adulation. The royal couple’s vehement denials of discord -- and their decision to go on BBC TV and refute my piece -- only confirmed to palace watchers that the stories were true.

The following month, the Waleses came to Washington and put on a royal command performance at a White House dinner thrown by the Reagans. It was an iconic moment in the Dynasty Di mythomania. Wearing a midnight blue velvet off-the-shoulder Victor Edelstein gown and her signature pearl choker, Diana took to the floor after dinner to dance with John Travolta, bringing a Hollywood dimension to the glittering fable of the shy girl who married a dashing prince.

But the pictures flashed around the world didn’t change the real story. As Diana’s global stardom increased, so did her unhappiness. Five years later, after affairs with her bodyguard Barry Mannakee and her handsome riding instructor James Hewitt, Diana was determined to smash the fairy tale that had trapped her. Her decision to break every royal taboo and go public with her marital misery was as breathtaking in its impudence as it was flawless in its cunning. 


Diana’s death had allowed England’s stiff upper lip to tremble at last, and acknowledge that it was no longer a hierarchical, class-bound society imprisoned by the cruel expectations of conformity it had shown the Princess during her life. In the days before the funeral, you could see it in the miraculously new feeling of the grieving crowd: gay couples, interracial couples, the old and the young, the disabled and the fit, the rehabbed and the paroled pouring from buses and trains into London’s streets, impelled by love and loss. Diana had achieved global power in an era before Twitter, before Facebook, before YouTube was there to amplify it.

In 2007, I asked then-Prime Minister Tony Blair what, if anything, Diana’s life had signified. A new way to be royal?  “No,” he replied without hesitation. “A new way to be British.”

Twenty years after her death, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from the example of a woman of privilege who showed the world the importance of humanity: Diana, Princess of Wales.


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