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The James Dean of the Royal Family


When the BBC announced to viewers that the Princess of Wales had died in a car crash early Sunday, it did so to the image of the Union Jack waving at half-staff and the strains of "God Save the Queen."

And indeed, to some extent, Diana may in death serve her country and the monarchy at least as well as she did in life, and perhaps better--an irony, considering how much she came to loathe both the Windsors ("After all I've done for that f---ing family," she railed in one taped phone conversation with a friend) and some elements of the nation she said she would be glad to leave altogether if it weren't for her sons.

(The amazing irony, of course, is the mileage that the royal family may be able to getout of Diana's death.)

Diana died as a kind of martyr--not the kind she would have been had her car hit one of those land mines she campaigned against so visibly in Bosnia, or if the Irish Republican Army had blown her up, as it had once reportedly plotted to do.

The royals haven't had a real martyr since King Charles I was beheaded by his fellow Englishmen about 350 years ago for being so stubborn about the divine right of kings business.

In dying as a collateral victim of the "stalk-arazzi," running from cameras the way the rest of us would run from a gunman, she bought the royal family--certainly her own sons--at least some temporary measure of respect and distance from unrelenting publicity onslaught. Killing the golden goose that was Diana may well rein in the paparazzi in a way that even the Queen of England's personal pleas had never managed to do.

And then, too, Diana died just at the point in her life when, whatever her personal happiness, she had the potential to become what the royal family had always feared the American-born, twice-divorced Duchess of Windsor would become, and Sarah Ferguson has--an embarrassingly footloose ex-royal divorcee, living the louche life among Onassis-like folk of undeniable bank balances and dubious character.

Nor will she now ever become a Caroline of Brunswick, wife of George IV. The couple bedded once, on their wedding night, and split--he to his mistresses and tailors, she to rattle licentiously around Europe and return at last to London, where she literally hammered on the closed doors of Westminster Abbey during her husband's coronation.

(Certain elements in Britain cannot have been pleased with the mother of the future king consorting with men of duskier hue, however rich; Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Mountbatten, who was Prince Charles' great-uncle and "honorary grandfather," scandalized her peers more than 50 years ago by carrying on romantically with Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru.)

Diana's death can be thought of as so tidy an ending that Internet conspiracists are even now suggesting in chat rooms that the palace machine arranged it all.

She was the James Dean of the royal family, a rebel who finally found a cause.

In that smarmy, overused tabloid word "caring," Diana's causes, her compassionate work among the poor and suffering, touching lepers and AIDS victims, built upon an already deep-rooted royal tradition--especially as practiced by women who married into the family.

A hundred years ago, Alexandra, the Danish-born wife of King Edward VII, was visiting a lame man and assured him that her own leg, crippled by rheumatic fever, was still useful. "Look what I can do," she said, and swung the stiff leg over a chair.

A young female royal, on a visit to British casualties during World War I, complained to Queen Mary, "I'm tired and I hate hospitals." Queen Mary told her: "You are a member of the British royal family. We are never tired, and we all love hospitals."

The present queen mother would play a round of snooker with reporters and draw a pint of ale in a London pub, all for the cameras.

Diana built solidly upon this, with her charm and very unroyal capacity for at-ease small talk; broadcasters recalling some kind gesture of hers teared up like Walter Cronkite announcing JFK's death. An English friend of mine, walking in Kensington Gardens one winter afternoon, got whacked by a snowball thrown by one of the little Wales boys, whose mother, Diana, ran up to apologize.

The difference with Diana is that it was about herself too. She was the premiere member of the Oprah Generation, for whom the public confessional was always good for the soul, and no topic too intimate for discussion, ad nauseam, from psychic advisors to high-colonic therapies.

That has its uses. When famous people talk about their suicide attempts or bulimia, we commoners are comforted in our failings. But what was good for her was not good for the royal family.

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