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From Sheltered Life to Palace Life, To a Life of Her Own

Diana in Washington Princess Diana at a White House breakfast last September.(File Photo/Reuter)
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 1, 1997; Page A26

Princess Diana, who died yesterday in Paris at age 36 of injuries she sustained in a car crash, spent half her short life under a spotlight of almost unimaginable intensity. Her passages -- from ingenue to royal bride to young mother to estranged wife to independent-minded divorcee -- attracted a global audience and made Diana the world's most famed and photographed woman.

In an era when the concept of royalty is much devalued, Diana imbued her role as royal princess with vitality, activism and, above all, glamour. She was young and beautiful, and people seemed never to tire of watching her clothes, her jewelry, her hairstyles. The penultimate public chapter in her life, in fact, was the charity auction of 79 of her dresses, gowns she had worn while nibbling at state dinners with presidents and prime ministers or dancing with Hollywood stars.

The last public chapter in Diana's saga was her romance with Dodi Fayed, the son of an Egyptian-born tycoon who owns the London department store, Harrods. It was her first romantic affair since her divorce a year ago from Prince Charles, 48, heir to the British throne. Pictures of Diana and Fayed together on his father's yacht -- and word apparently from Diana herself that she had "found love" with Fayed and was "besotted" -- created a sensation in Britain.

One reason for the intense interest, perhaps, was that these two bookend loves of Diana's adult life could hardly have been more different. Charles is stiff, perhaps a bit dour, with his defining characteristic being the intense sense of duty he feels toward his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, the rest of his family and the nation he one day will rule as king. Fayed, by contrast, is the quintessential playboy, with his yachting vacations, his private jet, his tolerant and ultra-rich father, Mohamed Fayed, and his long string of gossip-column items linking him with beautiful women, among them Britt Ekland and Brooke Shields.

Was the contrast between these two men in her life some kind of statement, meant to be deciphered by the millions who followed her triumphs and trials? She never said.

"She did everything from the heart," Rosa Monckton, who vacationed in Greece with Diana this summer, told the Associated Press. "Her heart ruled her head, which is why, I think, she was so often misunderstood."

There was more to Diana than gossip fodder, however. She conducted high-profile campaigns for AIDS research and against land mines, and those who knew her well say she was serious about the causes she espoused. Her romance with Fayed was disclosed this year while she was on a widely publicized trip to Bosnia to focus attention on the millions of deadly land mines that litter the country.

"It was from her heart more than it was cerebral," Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post Co.'s board of directors and a friend of Diana's, said of her activism. "But I just admired and liked her a whole lot. One thing I particularly admired was that she said, `I don't want to talk about things I haven't seen, so if they want me to talk about those things, I've got to go there and see for myself.' And that's what she did."

Diana at age 2 Diana Spencer, daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer, at age 2 at Sandringham estate in Norfolk.(File Photo/Reuter)

She was born Diana Frances Spencer on July 1, 1961, at Park House on the royal family's Sandringham estate in Norfolk. The Spencers, while not royal, are A-list British nobility. Her father was the eighth Earl Spencer in a line whose grand seat, Althorp, was established in 1508.

Some of the bluest of English blue bloods maintain that the Spencers, related to Kings James I and Charles II, are in fact more noble of bloodline than the family Diana married into -- the House of Windsor, which was the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha before deciding to rename itself after Windsor Castle during World War I, fearing that the family's original name sounded too Germanic.

As a child, Diana and her sisters and brother played with Charles's younger siblings. She led a sheltered life until 1969, when her mother and father went through a bitter divorce that received extensive -- and sensational -- coverage in the London tabloids. Her mother, born Frances Roche, left to marry wallpaper heir Peter Shand-Kydd. Diana and her siblings remained in the custody of their father at Park House; Earl Spencer's second wife, Raine Legge, whom he married in 1976, is the daughter of bestselling romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland.

Diana as student Diana Spencer as a student in 1970.(File Photo/AP)
She was educated at home by her governess, Gertrude Allen, and later went to West Heath school in Kent. Her academic performance usually is described as "undistinguished." But she was given a special service award when she left the school at 16 in 1977, and according to Current Biography, her school records call her "a girl who notices what needs to be done, then does it willingly and cheerfully."

Shortly before she left school, the story goes, she went home to the Althorp estate for a weekend pheasant hunt. The occasion was in honor of Charles, Prince of Wales. This seems to have been the first time the two really noticed each other as anything but familiar children, but at the time Charles was seeing Diana's oldest sister, Sarah.

Diana then spent a few months at the exclusive Chateau D'Oex finishing school in Montreux, Switzerland, where she became a good skier and apparently worked on her French. But she quickly returned to England and her parents bought her an apartment in the fashionable South Kensington section of London. She shared the flat with three young friends, and after trying her hand at being a nanny or a governess, she settled on a job as a teacher at the Young England Kindergarten School in the Pimlico district.

Prince Charles, at the time, was considered perhaps the world's most eligible bachelor -- "I've fallen in love with all sorts of girls, and I fully intend to go on doing so," he famously said. But he kept coming into contact with Diana, and by 1980 the couple had fallen in love. In the fall of that year, the London tabloids exposed Diana as Charles's new love interest.

Her private life had ended. Her life in the spotlight had begun.

A Royal Romance

Suddenly she was not Diana but "Lady Di," a shy teenager with huge eyes and a sweet smile. She was slim, blond, stylish, pretty, demure -- the perfect heroine for a fairy tale. And that is what she quickly came to live: a fairy tale, in which the world required her to be Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty rolled into one. Her prince had come; he had swept her off her feet; she had swooned; they were in love.

And now, they would be married. Charles proposed early in 1981, and on Feb. 24, Buckingham Palace announced the engagement.

Over the past several hundred years, it had become an exceedingly rare event for an English woman to marry the heir to the throne. She apparently was the first woman of any nationality to have held a paying job before becoming engaged to the heir. To say that the nation, and the world, were infatuated with the royal couple is to understate drastically.

Everything about the wedding seemed to further the notion of a fairy tale come to life. Charles presented her with a walnut-size engagement ring that included an 18-carat sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds. St. Paul's Cathedral was chosen for the ceremony, instead of the traditional Westminster Abbey, in part because St. Paul's could hold more people. Factories began churning out Charles-and-Diana plates, Charles-and-Diana posters, Charles-and-Diana coffee mugs, all at an astounding rate.

They were married on July 29, 1981, before royalty, heads of state and some 2,700 guests -- along with nearly a billion television viewers worldwide. Charles Philip Arthur George was 32; Lady Diana Spencer was 20. The long white train of her gown filled the aisle of St. Paul's like a river of satin. They drove away from the ceremony in a horse-drawn carriage, just as princes and princesses drove away in fairy tales.

Diana with Prince William Diana and Prince Charles with Prince William in London in 1982.(File Photo/AP)

The following year, Diana did the one thing that was absolutely expected of her -- she produced a male heir, a future king, Prince William, born June 21, 1982. Two years later, her second son, Harry, was born.

Diana long was viewed as a devoted mother who took an active role in her children's upbringing and schooling. Her relationship with her boys was close and affectionate, even in front of the cameras from which she often shied. The boys stayed with her often and spent many vacations with her -- skiing in the Austrian Alps, cruising in the Mediterranean or touring historic sites in Wales. She insisted that her sons experience a normal childhood -- trips to amusement parks, movies, hamburgers. But she also tried to instill in them a concern for the less fortunate. She took William to meet homeless people and discussed with the boys her campaigns to help AIDS sufferers and ban land mines.

Diana adored her sons, and they reciprocated. "Both boys have emerged as pleasant, polite and well-adjusted," Richard Kay, who covers the royal family for the Daily Mail, told the Associated Press.

There obviously was love between Charles and Diana, at least at first. Diana received some mild criticism for her penchant for shopping, especially for clothes shopping, and Charles was mildly rebuked for seeming a bit stiff and distant. But for several years, it seemed a passable marriage.

By the early 1990s, however, the strain on the couple was evident. Their joint appearances became increasingly rare; and more shockingly, at least to those who follow royal events closely, when they did appear in the same place at the same time, they seemed almost to go out of their way not to interact. She no longer gazed at him with moonstruck eyes.

From Romance to Rift

In June 1992, the fairy tale ended.

Journalist Andrew Morton, one of the more persistent of the royal-watching journalists who populate the London tabloids, published a book titled "Diana: Her True Story." Obviously having relied on interviews with Diana herself, Morton reported that Diana was unhappy to the point of having tried to commit suicide. The book portrayed Charles as cold and unfeeling, and worse: It said the central issue in the couple's private life was that Charles had resumed a relationship with an old flame, Camilla Parker-Bowles, the wife of a good friend.

Charles and Parker-Bowles had been an item before the royal marriage, but the relationship had cooled. Now, Diana was sure it had heated up again. According to Morton, she was miserable because there were "three people in the marriage" -- herself, Charles and the woman to whom she is said to have referred as "the Rottweiler."

From that point on, Diana's became a very different kind of story.

Two months later, while Britain still was digesting the revelations in the Morton book, Britain's largest-circulation tabloid newspaper, the Sun, printed a transcript of a phone conversation between Diana and a man who turned out to be a close friend, James Gilbey. In the late-night chat, Diana tells Gilbey repeatedly that she loves him, although it's unclear whether she's talking about love in the romantic sense or something less sincere.

In a coinage that became famous around the world, Gilbey referred to her affectionately as "Squidgy."

With the Squidgy tape, the relationship reached a breaking point. On Dec. 9, 1992, then-Prime Minister John Major announced to the House of Commons that Diana and Charles were separating, but that there were no plans for a divorce. They would, however, maintain separate residences.

Weeks after the separation, Queen Elizabeth's favorite residence, Windsor Castle, suffered a serious fire. She called 1992 an "annus horibilis" -- a horrible year.

But insults to the dignity of the throne did not stop. In January 1993, the Sun published a transcript of another intercepted phone call, this one between Charles and Parker-Bowles. This midnight chat was even more embarrassing, as not only did Charles and his mistress profess their love for each other, but Charles spoke in sexually graphic terms.

Over the next two years, Charles and Diana led separate lives. Both acknowledged to television interviewers that they had committed adultery -- Charles with Parker-Bowles, presumably, although he was not specific; Diana with James Hewitt, her riding instructor, who had written a kiss-and-tell book that led to his being considered Britain's leading cad.

Meanwhile, public opinion surveys showed that Diana's enormous popularity had survived the separation, survived the adultery -- seemed, in fact, able to survive anything. Charles, on the other hand, suffered in the polls. When Diana said on television that she might never be queen of England but wanted to be a kind of queen of people's hearts, millions of British hearts opened to her. If this was a battle of public images, as many saw it, she clearly was winning.

By December 1995, Queen Elizabeth had had enough. She urged Charles and Diana to divorce at the earliest possible date. Two months later, after what were called arduous negotiations, she agreed. The queen allowed Diana to retain her title as Princess of Wales, but stripped her of her designation "Her Royal Highness." She kept the apartment at Kensington Palace and was awarded a substantial financial settlement. The couple agreed to share the duty of parenting William and Harry, but the boys spent most of their time with their mother.

Following the divorce, Diana devoted more time and energy to her efforts on behalf of charities, especially AIDS and land mines. She also came to Washington, at Katharine Graham's invitation, to appear at The Washington Post's annual fund-raiser for breast cancer research in memory of The Post's longtime fashion writer who died of the disease, Nina Hyde.

"Nothing gives me more pleasure now than being able to love and help those in our society who are vulnerable," she told Vanity Fair magazine earlier this year. "If I can contribute a little something, then I am more than content."

Coming from another woman, those words would sound hopelessly saccharine. But Diana could say them and sound sincere. Even the most cynical journalists were impressed with her performance on a trip she took to Angola to highlight the dangers of land mines. One said that "given the right mission, she almost moves out of herself and becomes a different person altogether."

So she had made the full passage -- almost -- from doe-eyed, love-struck teenager to savvy woman of the world. Through it all, she remained perhaps the leading celebrity in the world. Certainly she was the one for whom the tabloids and glossy magazines would pay most for candid photographs. A group of a half-dozen photographers did nothing but stalk Diana -- in front of Kensington Palace, on her vacations in Switzerland or the Mediterranean, on her way to or from the gym where she worked out.

Sometimes she wheeled on them in tears or anger. The paparazzi were said to have coined a word for these outbursts -- "loon attacks," with Diana being the loon.

The one thing missing in her transformation was a new love interest, and that finally surfaced this summer with the emergence of Fayed as her suitor. Diana was said to have remarked once to model Cindy Crawford that she would never find a man willing to take on all the publicity involved in a relationship with the most photographed woman in the world. But Fayed, whom she had known socially for a decade, seemed unperturbed by her iconic status -- and had the resources and means to create at least some privacy for the couple.

Now, having died young, she enters the sphere of icons where only a few others exist, more as symbols than as real people -- James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe. Diana's story has ended; now, the legend begins.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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