It’s hard to believe 20 years have passed since Princess Diana died in a tragic car crash in a Paris road tunnel while fleeing from paparazzi. I was not in Paris on the last weekend of August in 1997, but I remember clearly how I learned of her sudden death the following morning.
My French mother-in-law came running down the stairs shouting, “Lady Di is dead! Lady Di is dead! “
We thought this was a terrible joke. The family was in the south of France where there were no 24-hour-news cable stations nor the Internet. We had retired to our bedrooms long after the last evening newscast the night before. It wasn’t until the following morning that we learned that Princess Diana had been pronounced dead at 4 am following a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel along the Seine. BBC radio would confirm that the world’s most famous and most beloved princess – the People’s Princess – was gone.
Her death was billed as the story of the century. Her funeral was broadcast live around the world and I remember how her sudden passing stole the limelight from Mother Teresa, a missionary and great humanitarian, who perished just a few days later.
The flame statue above the Alma Bridge tunnel instantly became the Princess’ shrine, immortalized by Elton John’s song, “Candle in the Wind,” with words changed to pay tribute to Diana. Mourners and curious onlookers have never stopped visiting the golden flame to lay flowers, homemade posters and cards.
Now, two decades after that fateful night in Paris, August 31st is the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. Her memorabilia is still up for auction, the magazines fill pages with her legacy and the TV screens broadcast 2-hour, even 4-hour specials of the life and death of Diana. It’s Dianamania even though the majority of us never saw the woman in real life.
Why are we still fascinated with Princess Diana?
One and Only People’s Princess
Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales on July 29, 1981. She was just 20 years old at the time of her marriage to Charles, who was 12 years older. Despite the strict protocols imposed by the Royal Family, the young woman evolved into a fascinating role model, showing compassion and demonstrating resilience in fields no Royal had ever tread before.
In 1997 just before her death, Princess Diana walked through an active landmine field and detonated a mine in Angola to endorse a Red Cross campaign for a worldwide ban on mines. She changed attitudes about the HIV virus and AIDS by shaking hands with a patient without gloves and picking up a 7-year-old child with AIDS to hug him. She often spent time visiting the homeless, or terminally ill patients in various hospices.
She became known as the “People’s Princess” for her ability to relate to people and make each one special. Diana even said she hoped people would see her as the “Queen of Hearts” when she lost her title due to her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996.
A tragic love story
I confess that as a young girl I woke up at four in the morning to watch the Royal Wedding in London, England unfold live on North American television. But what started out as a fairytale wedding ended as a tragic love story.
Prince Charles never stopped seeing his ex-girlfriend and now-wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. It not surprisingly caused tremendous friction between the couple, even before Charles’s affair became public knowledge.
The couple’s marriage deteriorated before the world’s eyes and ultimately ended in divorce. Diana became the most famous single mother raising her two sons, William and Harry.
She sought love in the arms of her horse-riding instructor, a brilliant Pakistani surgeon and a millionaire playboy. Her publicized search for love and affirmation is a story that deeply resonates with many women.
Her Spectacular Death
Diana was on holiday with her new boyfriend, businessman Dodi Al-Fayed and their romance was heavily tracked by paparazzi before her death in 1997. After the tragedy, Al-Fayed’s grieving father, Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed, speculated that the car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel was, in fact, a conspiracy to kill Diana. Theories included speculation that the Royal Family was behind the crash and about the mysterious appearance of a white Fiat Uno which caused the fatal accident.
The French investigation into the cause of her death has gone down in history as the most expensive, most thorough and longest case ever undertaken by the Paris Police. The conclusion: Princess Diana died in a tragic car accident due to an intoxicated and drugged chauffeur who lost control of the car while trying to out-speed photographers.
A thorough British Enquiry would back those findings years later.
William and Harry – Royal Human Beings
The most poignant moment of Diana’s funeral for me was when her casket solemnly entered Westminister Abbey with a small envelope posed on the flowers. It read, “Mummy”. Millions were glued to their TV sets, weeping for the motherless boys, but it wasn’t until this year we learned how the sons felt that day.
“My mother had just died, and I had to walk a long way behind her coffin, surrounded by thousands of people watching me while millions more did on television . . . I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today.” – Prince Harry in a Newsweek interview June 21, 2017
In that revealing interview, viewers learned that Harry suffered from depression after his mother’s death and Prince William had encouraged him to seek counseling. We also learned how their mother raised them to be royal human beings.
“My mother took a huge part in showing me an ordinary life, including taking me and my brother to see homeless people. Thank goodness I’m not completely cut off from reality. People would be amazed by the ordinary life William and I live. “ – Newsweek interview June 21, 2017
Diana’s memory lives on through her children and others because during her life she exemplified the role of Every Woman. People could identify with her. She was a wife, mother, sister and a Princess, divorcee and single mom; a woman in search of love, protecting her children and dreaming of a better world to live in.