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1961-1997

Across the Southland, the Wee Hours Belonged to Diana

Mourners--in homes, dorms and pubs--give up a decent night's sleep for their small part of history.

September 07, 1997|KEN ELLINGWOOD and ABIGAIL GOLDMAN and MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Richard Welsh had watched television coverage of Princess Diana all week. He had clipped the newspaper stories for a scrapbook. He had thought a lot about his father, who died 15 years ago.

And at 3:03 a.m. Saturday, nestled before a television set in the quiet back room of a West Hollywood coffeehouse, Welsh wept like a child.

The sight of the princess' flag-draped casket caused a similar burst of emotion among several others in the room--AIDS activists who shrugged off sleep to honor the woman who had done so much to help their cause.

Across Southern California, the wee hours belonged to Diana.

If proof was needed of her profound and far-flung appeal, it could be measured in the emotional clusters of residents all over the region who huddled before TV sets, the closest they could come to being part of Diana's funeral half a globe and eight time zones away.

The mourners gathered in homes, English-style pubs and college dormitories, joining in a ritual of worldwide grief that also offered moments of private ceremony. British-born Zoe Howard, watching in her Glendale home, changed from pajamas into a dress just before the casket was carried into Westminster Abbey in London. At the Cock 'n' Bull pub in Santa Monica, former British serviceman Damian Lunt stood at attention as soldiers carried the coffin. A viewer in a Rosemead home recited the Lord's Prayer.

Heidi Hanzi and Catherine Fernandes set their alarm then fought back yawns as they watched in their Santa Monica apartment.

"She did so many great works that waking up at 2 a.m. to pay tribute to her seems minuscule," said the 24-year-old Hanzi, her gaze fixed on two candles flickering on the coffee table. "It's just the right thing to do, to be as close to it as we can."

Participating in a unique moment in history--that was certainly part of the reason so many gave up a decent night's sleep. There was whispered odds-making about the royal family's future and sympathetic sighs at the sight of Diana's two sons, Princes William and Harry. There were strong mixed reactions to the peppery eulogy by Charles Spencer, Diana's brother, and tears upon hearing singer Elton John's poignant performance at the service.

But the gatherings were also a chance to craft a legacy for Diana. To the group of activists in West Hollywood, she was an AIDS crusader for extending an ungloved hand to a patient to show there was no danger. To a group of first-year female students at UCLA, she seemed the very ideal of modern womanhood--regal, yet caring and down to earth. A British visitor in Orange County said Diana showed "the better side of Britain, the emotional side of Britain, the side that made Britain tick."

Even Diana's failings became points of commonality.

"The powers that be couldn't find a place for her. That's a feeling that people in the gay community can relate to--about being accepted, being judged," said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The group runs WEHO Lounge, which houses the West Hollywood coffeehouse and other services related to acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Those who may have felt the closest kinship were Britons now living in the United States.

Howard and her family were in London last Sunday when they heard about Diana's death. Since their return home Monday, the Howards awaited the funeral as an opportunity to reconnect with their nation and the member of the royal family who they said best represented them.

On Saturday morning, Howard, her husband, Max, and mother, Monica Bright, prayed and quietly sang along with the proceedings in London as more than a dozen votive candles flickered in their Glendale living room.

Expatriates Valerie Lowerison of Camarillo and longtime friend Joan Knight sipped tea and nibbled cucumber and salmon sandwiches while watching the funeral coverage at Knight's Oxnard home. Both are members of a social and charity group called Daughters of the British Empire, whose stiff-upper-lip motto is: "Not ourselves, but the cause."

At the Cock 'n' Bull pub, about 30 regulars sipped tea and coffee and stared in silence at the television coverage. Candles burned beneath half a dozen makeshift shrines to the princess.

"This is the most somber atmosphere I've ever seen here," said pub owner Tony Moogan, who moved from Liverpool in 1980.

But the familiarity bred by media coverage also had left Americans considering the princess one of their own--and they were displaying hurt over her loss.

"I don't think I will see anything like this again in my life," said Rosemead resident Patricia Quinones, curled up on the sofa at home as daughters Samantha, 9, and Erika, 13, sat nearby. The trio on Friday drove to the British Consulate to sign a book of condolence.

Anne Gentling, an American, sat crying in front of the Cock 'n' Bull's giant television screen. She recalled the time in 1981, at the age of 12, when she arose at 4 a.m. to join family and neighbors to watch Diana's wedding to Prince Charles.

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