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The Last Princess. How Could There Be Another?

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 1997; Page D01

You heard that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in a car crash in Paris, and you thought: She was the last princess.

The innocence of those vast, shy, sidelong glances at shouting crowds, the blossoming of her wedding gown into a grandeur of delicacy in our memories, her two beautiful sons, the rumors of desperation and scandal that only royalty can generate.

Who could make it happen again?

"Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission . . . which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life . . . the nurse of manly sentiment and heroick sentiment is gone!" This elegy for the last princess was written 200 years ago by Edmund Burke, who had once seen Marie Antoinette as a princess at Versailles.

An era ended with her, the way it does with all last princesses.

When Grace Kelly's car plunged off a mountain road in Monaco, of which she was Princess, the era ended when we could still imagine the daughter of a Philadelphia bricklayer marrying a crowned head of Europe.

When Jacqueline Onassis died in the silence of her Fifth Avenue cancer, the era ended when we believed we deserved a national goddess, a princess elevated to eternal life, it seemed, by her grace in the horror of her husband's death.

Now, Diana. She's the last princess, too, though defining her era will take much thrashing out by journalists, historians and the public.

At the very least, if every woman wants to be the only woman in the room, Diana seemed like the only woman in the world each time you saw her on television, tucking a strand of hair behind her left ear before offering one of a thousand handshakes that ranged from businesslike amid the land mines of the Third World to balletic as she reached out from the fortress of one of her million gowns. In those jeweled and tiaraed moments she seemed to have almost a mysterious horizontal joint in mid-chest that allowed her to lean forward and back at the same time, close and far, public and private, in the balancing act that was her life as a princess and a woman, too.

Women sensed in her what they sensed in themselves -- an agony of equilibrium between the sacred and the profane, between (as it turned out) the satisfactions of ceremony and the heavy-lidded happiness of rumpled-sheet squalor as chronicled, say, by the dastardly Maj. James Hewitt, riding instructor.

She had a wariness -- Shy Di -- hinting at a judgmental reserve, which might actually have been resentment that she was not notably bright or educated. She had mystery, but it was the mystery of transparency rather than some run-with-the-wolves feminine darkness. She had honor and precedence -- she turned every other woman in the room into a bridesmaid, and every man into a big brother.

She had beauty, a characteristic that both men and women in our culture find suspicious, even shameful.

On the steps of the British Embassy yesterday morning was a card that said: "Diana -- You showed the entire world the power of a beautiful woman. Thank you."

The Castillo family of Ecuador had driven down from Webster Street NW to leave flowers: Eva, Carmen, Sara, Jose and Ingrid.

"It's a figure, a female power figure, the beauty and the grace," said Eva Castillo, adding that yes, it was like Eva Peron.

"It's a mystery," said Sara Castillo, the mother of the family.

But haven't we left the feminine mystique behind? Isn't female power nowadays supposed to come from having a big job with an important title, just like a man's?

"That's just playing a role," Eva said.

Diana had innocence. Even Puritans can understand that, though they don't believe in it. It was in her voice. If Prince Charles spoke with royal hesitations that implied he was creating each word as he said it, Princess Diana spoke with her own elegance, as if she were a medium who opened her mouth and the language poured out in that unmodulated upper-class accent, the sound of innocence, a little breathy.

It was innocent even though it breathed out of tapes of telephone conversations between her and a lover who called her "Squidgy." Much embarrassment. She made a fool of herself with obsessive calls to another man who didn't love her as much. That voice announced to her husband a very small suicide attempt that might have seemed like manipulation in another woman. The innocence endured. She had made a fool of herself the way a lot of other women around the world knew they'd made fools of themselves, and so they forgave her. When you forgive the rich and powerful, it's love that's at work. (Why else would you forgive them?)

Her last love came in the form of Egyptian playboy Dodi Fayed. He'd been linked in the press with so many other misfit princesses, though of realms more vulgar: Brooke Shields, Britt Ekland, Valerie Perrine and Tina Sinatra, to name only a few.

Like all princesses in the public mind, Diana was always on the verge of happiness. She was reported to have said that Fayed was "the man who will take me out of one world and into another." Mythology is full of the hazards of moving from one world to another. So are old newspapers. Look at the public disgust with Jackie Kennedy when she married the troglodytic Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis. She may well have married him to escape the Kennedy family, and for enough money to live like the princess we thought she was, but we only forgave her after years of silence that followed Onassis's death.

Look at the the weird and endless silence that was the price of Garbo's return from goddess to mortal. Look at the price Frances Gumm paid to become Judy Garland; that Marilyn Monroe paid when Hollywood become intolerable and the Kennedy family became irresistible. Was Princess Grace as happy as she might have been if she'd been able to stay home and swap wisecracks with her Irish cousins at family holidays?

Unless they are born as princesses, there has to be a metamorphosis. These women awake one morning after troubled courtships to discover themselves transformed into giant butterflies whose wings never quite seem to dry.

A goddess who believes she deserves to be a mortal may be suffering from no less pride than a mortal who aims to be a goddess. In any case, you'll always see the goddess in her, the way you can't watch a magician drop coins in a vending machine without seeing the flair.

"There was nowhere to run," Clive James wrote in "Fame in the 20th Century." "If the Princess of Wales had gone to a nunnery the Mother Superior would have been Oprah Winfrey. . . . [Her] best hope was that we would understand. . . . She was the biggest female film star in the world but she didn't have to act. All she had to do was be. Not even the most hardened cynic was tactless enough to point out that the almost inevitable consequence of the whole world's media going bananas was that the person they went bananas about went bananas too."

Not really. She was sane enough to engineer a divorce from the Prince of Wales while surrendering few of her royal perks. Her popularity even grew.

Either a dumber or a smarter woman might not have brought it off -- at first those visits to AIDS patients and land mine victims seemed a little presumptuous, like Jimmy Carter's private diplomacy. But she not only got away with them, she turned herself into the biggest media saint since Mother Teresa. Such is the power of beauty, among other things. Her saintliness, in turn, made it possible for her to hang around with Dodi, who sent her flowers and seemed to like her a lot. He could have bought her privacy, with all his father's millions, but what's the point of going out with Diana, Princess of Wales, if you're going to stay home and watch TV, even if home is a yacht, or their pick of Ritz hotels?

No. The point, after her grueling stepmothered childhood and her sacrifice upon the altar of Windsorian propriety, was to have a little fun for a change. And -- keeping in mind the obscenity of the paparazzi chasing her death car on motorcycles -- nobody gets that much publicity without wanting some of it. And nobody has that transparency of beauty without wondering who she is once in a while, a wonderment that can be resolved for a moment by reading the latest newspaper story or seeing the latest television movie about life as the Princess of Wales.

Her death ended an era for the royal family, certainly. Suddenly, they revert with a startling atavism to the stuffy, closed and not terribly bright world of Queen Victoria, who still runs that family the way Franklin D. Roosevelt still runs Washington.

As for America, Britain's errant child, they're the only royal family we've got, and Diana was a princess who seemed to understand us in her wanderings through the Banana Republic (size 6 jeans) and her social and charitable triumphs. America is a country that is desperate to be understood. We may have needed her more than Britain did.

She had beauty, she had power. She was 36. And yesterday she was the last princess.

A poem left on the British Embassy steps said: "I never met a princess and now I never will."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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