YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'She Was the People's Princess'

Icon: Diana embodied the loving mother, the 'queen of hearts' and the forsaken wife.


LONDON — "A perfect woman, nobly planned, to warn, to comfort and command, and yet a spirit still, and bright, with something of angelic light. Rest in peace, dear lady." So read the handwritten note--quoting a William Wordsworth poem--tacked to the gate of Kensington Palace, home of Diana, the princess of Wales.

The fairy-tale princess is dead, and her realm--from the docks of east London to the dhows of East Africa--is ripped by a grief only the world's most ordinary of extraordinary people could evoke.

For all her glamour, good looks and royal credentials, it was the aura of Diana the Ordinary--vulnerable, demure and exceptionally unassuming amid the pomp and circumstance--that separated her from the family Windsor and so endeared her around the globe.

"She was a wonderful and warm human being," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "She was the people's princess."

From working-class Britons to Americans who watched the passing royal show with hungry interest, Diana's death seems to have touched some chord. "Everyone I've spoken to today has been up all night," said Lynda Resnick, the co-owner of the Franklin Mint, which spent $151,000 to buy one of Diana's evening dresses at the highly publicized charity auction of her clothing at Christie's in New York two months ago. "I didn't sleep at all. I was so tormented by the senselessness of this."

In Los Angeles, in front of the British Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard, people left flowers and candles, and a woman sat crying softly.

Certainly the violence and untimeliness of her death have something to do with the depth of worldwide reaction, but the extent of the sadness and the public expectation of a state funeral in Britain--no matter what the protocol is--only confirm the global appeal Diana commanded during her roughly 17 years on the public stage.

In an era of cynicism, Diana seemed to cast a spell on all: the flower-wielding well-wishers who waited behind barricades, the ill and infirm she visited in hospitals, the high and mighty who supped with her. Museum directors and fashion editors went giddy in her presence. Phil Donahue turned pink with pride when he danced with her at a Chicago event last year. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger beamed as he dined alongside her at a formal event a year or so ago.

Unflinching feminist Camille Paglia dissected the princess--"Diana's behavior has an operatic Mediterranean theatricality," she wrote in an essay--and waxed fondly about her too. At a televised gathering of feminists last year, Paglia was among those saluting Diana as a "female icon"--in the company of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, among others.

Diana as a Postmodern Icon

David Cannadine, a professor of history at Columbia University who has written about 19th and 20th century Britain, speculates that it was Diana's embodiment of several images at once that made her so appealing.

"She was the postmodern multiple-identities icon," Cannadine said. "Ingenue, devoted wife, thwarted wife, international sex symbol, international charity worker. And not just one to another in a single progression. One day, she's romping on a yacht, the next day she's doing work on land mines in Bosnia. Whether these images were really her or our imagination, I don't know. She was Mother Teresa one day and Marilyn Monroe the next. And it was irresistible to some."

Outside the gilded gates to her palace Sunday, as thousands of mourners from Britain and abroad laid flowers 4 feet deep, the softly spoken and often teary tributes were directed at the Diana who embodied several of the images that people had come to embrace: Diana the loving mother, Diana the "queen of hearts," Diana the goodwill ambassador and Diana the forsaken wife.

No one spoke of Diana the almost-queen.

"She was just a normal person, unlike anyone else in the royal family," said Mary Poleon, 60, a retired railroad worker from east London. "No matter who you were, she shook your hand without a glove."

Possessing an unremarkable education, wealthy by birth, Diana would probably have led a comfortably anonymous life had she not married Charles, the prince of Wales. But Diana turned out to be everything the fusty British royal family was not--warm, genial, engaging, unpretentious and beautifully dressed.

From 'Shy Di' to People's Princess

The public had seen her in the last few years as a humanitarian, traveling the world, making passionate and pointed speeches--too pointed, some British politicians had recently said. They may have forgotten that during the first years of her marriage, she barely uttered a public word, too shy and nervous to make public speeches.

It didn't matter. Her smile seemed genuine, her small talk sincere, her complexion English rose. Crowds who waited for the royal couple's public appearances hoped that Diana, not Charles, would work their side of the barricade.

Los Angeles Times Articles