Fifteen years ago this Friday, Diana, Princess of Wales, perhaps the most famous and beloved woman in the world, died in a traffic accident on the streets of Paris, sparking an outpouring of global sorrow that was unprecedented in its depth and magnitude.
She was only 36 years old.
For my generation, this was the most shocking of sudden celebrity deaths. Marilyn Monroe was way before my time; Elvis Presley's death, as disturbing as it was, did not pack the same punch, since he had been out of the limelight for several years, holed up in his Memphis mansion, pathetically overweight and hopelessly addicted to drugs.
John Lennon's murder in 1980 was clearly a monumental event -- but Lennon was also a figure from the past. Indeed, he had ceased to be a relevant cultural figure almost a decade prior to his violent demise.
Diana, in contrast, lived under the global media's persistent glare from the very day she married Prince Charles in July 1981. Much to her consternation and frustration, her photos and daily activities were splashed across newspapers, magazines and television programs around the world. The tabloids -- and a ravenous public -- simply could not get enough of her. She was a bigger celebrity than any movie star or politician or athlete – and, for the most part, she had a good image.
Cynics would declare that, like Jackie Kennedy (her American 'equivalent'), Diana was simply 'famous for being famous.' That is, blessed with good looks, an aristocratic background and wealth, Diana did not really 'accomplish anything' to justify her enormous fame and acclaim. I would agree with this assessment... up to a point.
The incontrovertible fact that is Diana struck a powerful chord among hundreds of millions of people around the globe -- including many who did not care at all about the Royal Family.
Diana's formal introduction to the world was nothing less than spectacular -- her wedding to Charles attracted a global TV audience of nearly 800 million people, shattering the myth that the Royals had fallen into obscurity and irrelevance. (Keep in mind; this was lone before the 24-hour monster known as the internet, and just on the cusp of cable TV).
Britain in the early 1980s found itself in dire need of a happy jolt -- high unemployment, recurrent industrial strikes, frequent power cuts, a lost empire, the grim rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the outbreak of race riots on the streets of urban centers all conspired to depress the nation's mood.
Like Britain itself, the Royal Family was also in a rather moribund state. Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed near-universal adoration, but other prominent members of her family either elicited the public’s disdain or apathy, particularly her son Charles.
Even Elizabeth, who was about 55 then and had lost her youthful beauty and become a rather dowdy middle-aged woman, was viewed by many younger Britons as an anachronism, a fragile link to a glorious (but distant) past.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the stunningly beautiful Diana Spencer appeared like a shining star – providing the Royal Family with a dash of glamour, sex appeal, and, most importantly, a sense of 'accessibility’ and relevance that it badly needed.
Almost overnight, Diana became a widely-admired (and imitated, at least with respect to her short haircut) symbol of beauty, grace and charm. The Royals had a superstar in their midst and the public responded with overwhelming approval.
I, too, was caught up in this sweeping love-fest – Diana was unlike any Royal that came before her. Before her emergence, I had no interest in the monarchy whatsoever. She seemed like a “normal, modern girl” thrust into an ancient tradition that she probably did not understand nor was prepared for.
And that was a correct assessment, indeed!
A 'royal wedding' is essentially an 'arranged marriage' – the two protagonists may not even be in love with each other. I believe this was the case with Charles and Diana – even before their nuptials, I heard rumors that Charles (who had led a promiscuous sexual life and was already in his mid-30s) was pressured to marry in order to maintain the Royal lineage.
Why Charles agreed to marry Diana (and vice versa) remains a mystery. In fact, consider that Charles had already been involved with Diana's elder sister Sarah (among many other women during his freewheeling bachelorhood).
In any case, Diana subsequently gave birth to two boys, William and Harry, and seemingly devoted herself to various charitable causes, including a campaign to remove landmines from former war zones and the fight against homelessness, drug addiction, AIDS and leprosy (that is, the types of causes previously unheard of for a female royal to undertake).
Despite all the glamour and glitter of her privileged life, there were undercurrents of trouble brewing, almost from the outset of the ‘fairy tale’ marriage.
For one thing, as an apparently 'normal' modern, young woman, Diana found the strictures of the monarchy claustrophobic. Worse, her marriage to Charles was less than stable – rumors eventually circulated that both partners were cheating on each other (she with Major James Hewitt, her former riding instructor; he with a woman named Camilla Shand.)
Rumors even emerged that Diana's second son, Harry, was fathered not by Charles, but by Hewitt, or someone else.
It was later revealed in the tabloid media that Diana entertained thoughts of suicide since she was trapped in an unhappy marriage (and divorce was unthinkable).
By 1992, the charade had crumbled – media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic feasted on reports and rumors of a royal marriage collapsing. Diana took the unprecedented step of confessing her sorrow and her affairs to British media.
An ugly soap opera erupted that could only have disgusted Queen Elizabeth. But even she realized that a divorce was the only viable option for her son and estranged daughter-in-law.
That divorce was affected in August 1996, long after the actual marriage has finished.
Thereafter followed a round of recriminations from both sides – as well as questions about what 'royal titles' Diana was still eligible to hold.
I have to admit that by this point I had become bored with the Diana saga.
That changed the following August when I heard the terrible news of her death and was suddenly reminded what a magical presence she had so many years before.
In the aftermath of Diana's sudden death (and the massive tearful memorials in London), conspiracy theories abounded.
Perhaps the most sensational (and completely unfounded) allegation held that Buckingham Palace itself “engineered” her death due to Queen Elizabeth's outrage over Diana's relationship with two Muslim men.
Dodi Fayed, the son of an Egyptian billionaire businessman, accompanied Diana as her consort when she died. But reports later emerged that the true love of her life was a handsome Pakistani surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan. Diana apparently started a relationship with Fayed simply to make Khan jealous, but no one really knows for certain.
As a defender of the faith, Elizabeth found these relationships intolerable.
Fayed's father, Mohammed, openly accused Elizabeth’s husband Prince Phillip and Britain's MI6 intelligence agency of somehow 'staging' the Paris car crash.
In the fifteen years since her passing, the British public's adoration of Diana seems to have been transferred to her eldest son, William. So popular is William (and still so unpopular is Charles, who later married Camilla), that there has been speculation that once Elizabeth dies, William will become king, rather than his father. (It is not clear if that would require a special dispensation by the government)
Diana has since ascended to the level of 'legend' – I would compare her to both Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, a beautiful and tragic heroine that the world will never forget.