Diana was driving through the English countryside one day in 1984 with Michael Shea, press secretary to the Queen, when they noticed a huge billboard ahead with an enormous photograph of Diana's face. "Oh no!" Diana exclaimed. "What's that?" As they came closer, they could see that the billboard was an advertisement for a book that had been written about her. Diana buried her face in her hands, exclaiming that she could no longer tell where her public image stopped and her private self began.
She spoke those words three years into her marriage to Prince Charles, but her anguished confusion stayed with her to the end. From the moment she stepped into the limelight in September 1980 to her violent death seventeen years later, Diana was swept along in an ever-expanding persona, even as she searched frantically for her own identity. When she first appeared on the world stage, Lady Diana Spencer was a nineteen-year-old who had been raised with limited expectations: that she marry a fellow aristocrat and fulfill her duty as a wife and mother. Her marriage to the future King of England thrust on her a public identity that she could never square with her muddled sense of self.
The world probably would have heard little of Diana Spencer had she not married the Prince of Wales. "She would either have been a country-woman, just like her sisters, and dissolved into the atmosphere," said a male friend who knew her from her teenage years, "or she would have married an achiever who offered more of a challenge but would have gone off and had an affair, and she would have divorced the husband in short order."
Diana lived only thirty-six years, all of them amid privilege and wealth: the first half in the rarefied cocoon of the British upper class, the second in the highly visible bubble of royal protocol and pageantry. Her married life was unnatural by any measure--"bizarre," her brother Charles, Earl Spencer called it in his eulogy of Diana. Much of her royal existence was lonely and regimented, but tabloid headlines invested its large and small events with high drama.
Simply assuming the title of princess transformed Diana. As Douglas Hurd, the former foreign secretary, put it, "She needed to be royal to succeed." But others have joined the royal family without becoming larger-than-life celebrities. Diana's extraordinary impact resulted to a great degree from her physical presence.
She was endowed with undeniable attributes. Her beauty was singular, especially her big blue eyes, the most expressive of all facial features. "They look so wondering and modest," a Norwegian photographer once remarked. Her height (five foot ten) and lithe figure allowed her to carry clothing exquisitely. If she had been a haughty ice queen, or even strikingly confident, her appeal would have been limited. What made her so charismatic was the combination of her looks and her air of accessibility. "She has a sympathetic face," her father once said, "the sort that you can't help but trust."
Diana had a knack for seeming to be open with people -- offering the same small glimpses to everyone, while effectively masking what was really going on. "People adore her because whenever she speaks to them she reveals some small nugget of information about herself or her family," observed Catherine Stott in The Sunday Telegraph in 1984. "Nothing she says is ever embarrassing or indiscreet. People feel that they are getting more than they actually are from her." As one of Diana's former aides explained it, Diana knew just how far to go: "People would ask her the most intimate questions, and she knew how to answer them sweetly while actually blowing them off. But because all those intimate details were out there, people felt they knew her."
She lacked arrogance, and she connected effortlessly with her social inferiors. "She had the gift of making other people feel very good" said one of her friends. "She was a princess, but she could step down and make you feel special." With her informality and easy small talk, she seemed an outsider in her own class. Before marrying Charles she even worked as a housecleaner. "I am much closer to people at the bottom than to people at the top," she told Le Monde in the last interview before her death. Yet unlike her sister-in-law Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, Diana maintained a regal dignity.
Copyright © 1999 Sally Bedell Smith .
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