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Diana's Life on Display: Sometimes Storybook, Sometimes Soap Opera

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 1997; Page A01

Her adult life was never really her own.

Diana, Princess of Wales, was barely past adolescence when she shouldered the world's fairy-tale dreams, and by the time she died of injuries suffered in a car wreck in Paris last night she had endured years in the media spotlight as the British monarchy eroded.

She was 36.

It is possible that on some distant steppe or desert there are people who never saw a picture of the world's most photographed woman. But it was not for lack of trying by the celebrity-fueled press that has come to girdle the globe. Nor was it for lack of glamor on the part of Diana Spencer.

Her face was instantly recognizable -- especially in her iconic pose: her chin cast shyly downward, while her eyes caught the camera from beneath her golden bangs.

Through years of palace turmoil that ran like a soap opera in the tabloids -- while doing serious damage to the institution of England's royal family -- she remained highly popular. She was widely judged a good mother to her two sons, William, the future king, and Harry. She and her sons were photographed at school, with ponies, on ski slopes and gamboling in parks. Those with long memories recalled that she was a child-care worker before she became a royal.

And she was widely praised for her charitable works, most recently as a proponent of a worldwide ban on land mines.

It was this crusade that took her recently to Bosnia, but by the time she arrived she was once again in the middle of a press frenzy.

She had found love -- that was the latest turn in her remarkable story. Early in August, the British tabloids that lived and died by the latest Diana tidbits had broken a significant new scoop.

The princess was seen aboard the $32 million yacht of controversial London businessman Mohamed Fayed, in the company of his son, Dodi. And Diana was "telling friends" -- tabloid code for speaking to reporters -- about a new love in her life.

Dodi Fayed was "the man who will take me out of one world and into another," Diana was quoted as saying. "I trust him."

Fayed, 42, also was killed along with Diana in a car crash in a tunnel under the Seine River in Paris. Her driver may have been trying to elude photographers chasing them.

Big as Di's romance was in the United States, it is hard to put into American terms what a spectacular story it was for England. Mohamed Fayed, father of Dodi, is perhaps as near an opposite as one could find to Diana's former in-laws.

Dodi Fayed was the only son of the Egyptian entrepreneur who swept onto the British stage about the time Diana was marrying Prince Charles and grabbed some of the nation's proudest possessions. He bought Harrods Ltd., London's greatest department store, and more recently acquired a leasehold on the Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and will auction off the contents next month at Sotheby's. (The Duke of Windsor, uncle to Queen Elizabeth II, starred in his own amazing palace tale, abdicating the throne to marry an American divorcee.)

At the Windsor Horse Show, which he sponsors, Mohamed Fayed sits in the Queen's Box. He was a friend of Diana's father, the late Earl Spencer.

Revelations of Mohamed Fayed's questionable payments to Conservative Party members of Parliament were considered a nail in the coffin for former Prime Minister John Major in this year's elections that brought the Labor Party to power for the first time in two decades.

His son was one of Europe's most gossiped-about playboys, romantically linked to the likes of Brooke Shields, Britt Ekland, Valerie Perrine, Tina Sinatra and the American model Suzanne Gregard, to whom he was married for eight months in 1986.

Like his father, he was dark, round-faced and a bit pudgy. He looked glamorous when photographed beside a princess on a yacht from 100 yards or more away.

Diana was quoted by the Mirror in London as saying, "I just love his gentleness, his kindness and his almost dull way of living. For someone like me, who has lived a goldfish-bowl type of existence, I can't tell you how comforting this is. I like the way he sends me flowers."

But Dodi Fayed's "dull way of living" included two Ferraris, at least one vintage Rolls-Royce, a Sikorsky helicopter -- which ferried Diana to that first and famous Mediterranean cruise; another followed soon afterward -- a Gulfstream jet, a castle in Scotland and homes in New York, Dubai, Geneva, Genoa and on posh Park Lane in London.

Dodi wooed Di at the Ritz in Paris (his father owns the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels) and at the Park Lane apartment. There, on Aug. 7, they dined from silver trays and Diana was seen leaving at 1 a.m.

"Diana," it was said, "is besotted."

London tabloids were rife with speculation that the entire romance was cooked up by Mohamed Fayed. After all, the papers theorized, he engineered the first meeting of Diana and Dodi, back in 1986, when his polo team -- his son included -- took on Prince Charles's team at Windsor Great Park.

The senior Fayed has been denied citizenship ever since he took over of Harrods, and the wags guessed that he was taking his revenge on British society by having his son woo the mother of the future King William.

But Diana's flashy step-grandmother, the romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland, told People magazine that the British had their chance. "She's been with an Englishman and it was terrible," she said of the marriage to Prince Charles.

It had begun with such spectacle and seeming perfection. Diana, daughter of an earl, was the picture of the fairy-tale princess when she walked down the aisle of St. Paul's Cathedral in a white gown with a train pooled behind her on the scarlet carpet. The Archbishop of Canterbury performed her marriage to Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, until then the world's most eligible bachelor. New Zealand's great soprano Kiri Te Kanawa serenaded her. She rode away in a horse-drawn carriage enclosed in glass.

And for a time the Buckingham Palace script played out nicely. Charles and Diana -- people felt so fond of them they called them Chuck and Di -- were seen walking on the moors at Balmoral, posing on the slopes at Gstaad, reviewing troops at Buckingham Palace.

The early years of their marriage may, in the eyes of history, be seen as a last triumph for the House of Windsor, the monarchy that has been both a symbol of England's glories as its empire withered and a cash cow for the nation's tourist trade.

For as Diana's marriage crumbled, the stature of the royal family went with it. A biography of Diana by British journalist Andrew Morton detailed a loveless marriage and a suicidal princess. Soon, the British papers were buzzing with royal intimacies snatched from mobile telephones.

Charles was caught talking dirty to Camilla Parker-Bowles, a former flame. Diana was overheard exchanging love talk with James Gilbey, related to a British gin fortune. A riding instructor with flaming red hair and a sly grin wrote a kiss-and-tell book about his affair with Diana.

The Queen of England was surely thinking at least as much of her son's public disgrace as of a fire at Windsor Castle when she declared 1992 an "annus horibilis."

Diana's children were reported to be with her husband in Scotland. The royal saga will continue -- recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior clergyman in the Church of England, expressed strong reservations at the idea of a remarried King at the head of the nation's official church.

Her death will supply another ocean of headlines, tell-all books and television interviews. Perhaps all of it will one day give the world Diana as she really was.

More likely, though, she has disappeared forever into the myths of time.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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