To mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, National Geographic is releasing a book of more than 100 photographs, including images from Diana’s childhood, her courtship with Prince Charles, the birth of her children, and her life as an international advocate. In this passage from the book’s foreward, Tina Brown, a friend to and biographer of Diana as well as former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, remembers that awful night in late-summer, 1997, when Diana died, the funeral that followed, and the legacy of the”People’s Princess.”
At six minutes past midnight on August 31, 1997, guided only by Dodi’s chaotic plan to elude the Paris paparazzi, he and the most famous woman in the world descended in the service elevator of the Ritz, exited the hotel, and slid into the backseat of a black Mercedes. The car, driven by the drunk-acting head of security, Henri Paul, who had been recalled unexpectedly from his night off, took off at breakneck speed into the Pont de l’Alma tunnel.
As Diana heard the ascending buzz of the paparazzi’s motorbikes behind, did she think of her two young sons asleep in a Scottish castle? Did she wonder what she was doing here beside a feckless playboy whose values were the opposite of her own, pursued again by the wolves of the tabloid press? Tragically, the woman who had walked through a field of unexploded land mines did not feel the need to buckle on a seat belt.
The crash and the frantic, unsuccessful attempts to save her at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital were followed by “the Great Sorrow” — a wave of pain that swept the British Isles and the world as a numb and disbelieving public learned of Diana’s loss. Today the courtiers who work at Buckingham Palace refer to the upsurge of anger against the Queen’s refusal to return from her Scottish palace at Balmoral as “the Revolution” — because it nearly was. Ironically, it was perhaps the only time in the monarch’s life when duty yielded to family. The Queen felt her bereft grandsons needed her more than the British public did.
It could be argued that only the imagery of Diana’s monumental funeral saved the monarchy in these extraordinary days. The moving sight of the four royal men — Prince Philip, Prince Charles, the two young princes, William and Harry — along with her brother, Charles, Earl Spencer, walking behind her casket as it wound its way past St. James’s Palace; the silent, weeping crowds; the representatives of the princess’s charities processing somberly behind; the velvet silence in the heart of grief inside Westminster Abbey before Elton John sang his unforgettable anthem.
It was as if Diana’s death had allowed England’s stiff upper lip to tremble at last, and acknowledge that it was no longer a hierarchical, class-bound society imprisoned by the cruel expectations of conformity it had shown the princess during her life. In the days before the funeral, you could see it in the miraculously new feeling of the grieving crowd: gay couples, interracial couples, the old and the young, the disabled and the fit, the rehabbed and the paroled pouring from buses and trains into London’s streets, impelled by love and loss. Diana had achieved global power in an era before Twitter, before Facebook, before YouTube were there to amplify it.
In 2007, I asked then prime minister Tony Blair what, if anything, Diana’s life had signified. A new way to be royal? “No,” he replied without hesitation. “A new way to be British.”
And so she did. As her exhausted funeral procession reached Althorp, where the casket would be rowed out to its burial place on an island in the lake, her brother declared, “Diana is home.”
He could not have been more wrong. Althorp had not been home to Diana for a long time. Perhaps it never was. It represented what she had suffered through so much to escape. Twenty years after her death, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from the example of a woman of privilege who showed the world the importance of humanity: Diana, Princess of Wales.
Excerpted from Remembering Diana by National Geographic with foreword by Tina Brown. Copyright © 2017 by National Geographic Partners. Available August 1, 2017 where ever books are sold. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Diana jumps off the slide into the swimming pool at her family’s home at Park House. Her swimming badges are sewn on to the bottom of her bathing suit.