Diana, Princess of Wales: 1961-1997 | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Diana, Princess of Wales: 1961-1997

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 8, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

They kept trying to take her picture even after the car stopped careening off the concrete wall, even as she lay dying in the back of its tortured chassis. She was their prey.
Diana and Charles
HRH Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales with Prince William following the christening service at Buckingham Palace, 1982. Image: London Pictures Service/Royal Collection Trust/\u00a9 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.\r\n
Memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Al-Fayed at Harrods

Diana, Princess of Wales: 1961-1997

They kept trying to take her picture even after the car stopped careening off the concrete wall, even as she lay dying in the back of its tortured chassis. She was their prey. So the photographers snapped away, the lights from their cameras flashing in the tomb of a tunnel that sweeps along the right bank of the Seine River in Paris - capturing on film the mayhem of crushed metal and broken bodies in the Mercedes 600. The driver was dead. A bodyguard lay gravely injured behind the spilled canvas of an air bag and the points of the car's front grill. But the celebrity they were after was trapped in what had been the backseat, her companion already dead beside her in the wreckage. Diana, Princess of Wales, 36 years old, a mother of two sons, was unconscious, her chest and lungs crushed. No doctor would be able to save her from the tear in her left pulmonary artery or the heart seizure that would follow. And still, amidst the trauma and the broken glass and the eerie siren of the car's horn in the tunnel, the photographers kept snapping their pictures.

The shocking accident in the early minutes of a Paris Sunday morning brought a tragic end to one of the most talked-about lives of the century. Fairy-tale princess and vengeful divorcée, fashion-plate beauty and social do-gooder, media victim and manipulator, caring mother and confessed adulteress, savior and later scourge of the monarchy - Diana was all that and more and the public could not get enough of her. Her death was stunning on several levels. It was sudden. It was violent. It sent those she had touched through her charity work into heartbroken mourning, and saddened millions more who had never met her but who had followed her troubled - and sometimes troublesome - life with the intimacy that modern celebrity affords.

Within hours of her death, hundreds of people arrived at her Kensington Palace home in west London to lay flowers, teddy bears and messages of sympathy at its gold-flecked gates. "Utterly devastated," was British Prime Minister Tony Blair's description of his feeling and those of Britons. "They liked her. They loved her. They regarded her as one of the people," said Blair, choking back tears. "She was the people's princess and that's how she will remain." In Canada, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien echoed those sentiments, saying Diana had captivated "the imagination of the people around the world, and in the past few years she had devoted a lot of her time and energy for the causes that affected the weakest in society."

But Diana's death was also linked to the culture of celebrity, that late-20th-century infatuation with the lives of the rich and famous that she represented better than anyone else in the world. The media attention that had smothered Diana from the moment she became engaged to Charles, the Prince of Wales, in 1981, was not only present at the end, but may have actually contributed to her death. She did not die in some champagne-addled plunge off a Côte d'Azur cliff. The crash that killed her came as she was fleeing paparazzi who were reportedly chasing her through central Paris on motorcycles. They were in search of yet more pictures of Diana with Dodi Al Fayed, the wealthy film producer whose early stages love affair with the princess had provoked so much curiosity. Whether the car carrying the couple was forced to swerve to avoid the motorcycles was not immediately known, but French police detained seven photographers at the scene for questioning.

"I always believed that the press would kill her in the end," said Diana's brother, Earl Charles Spencer, reading a statement to reporters outside the gates of his Cape Town home. "Not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case." A composed Spencer attacked the media for its relentless pursuit of his sister over the years. And he suggested that the competitive drive to publish ever more intimate pictures of the princess led newspapers and magazines to offer lucrative cash incentives that made it worthwhile for photographers to risk such dangerous, high-speed pursuits. "It would appear that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana's image, has blood on his hands today," said Spencer.

His feelings were widely echoed on the streets of London and around the world, where a swelling chorus of outrage condemned the paparazzi's obsessive methods. The fury appeared well placed when Steve Coz, editor of the National Enquirer, reported within hours of the accident that the people offering photos of the death scene were hoping to make $1 million (U.S.) from worldwide sales of them. Even before the extent of Diana's injuries was known, a spokeswoman for The Globe tabloid newspaper had engaged in on-air speculation about what might be a suitable price for the photos, asking the CNN interviewer, "What's his name?" when told that at least one photographer had been at the scene of the crash. The Enquirer's Coz blamed the accident on last month's bidding war to publish the first picture of Diana and Dodi kissing while on a Mediterranean holiday. "To a paparazzo, that's like waving a lottery ticket," said Coz. "This was a tragedy waiting to happen"

But until the moment of impact, the chase through Paris was just another episode in Diana's long-standing mouse-and-cat relationship with photographers. She and Al Fayed had just spent a week vacationing in and around the French resort of Saint-Tropez, dividing their time between the Al Fayed home and yacht, Jonikal. The couple had arrived in Paris on Saturday afternoon, and dined that night at the Espadon restaurant in the opulent Ritz Hotel, also owned by the Al Fayed family. Photographers were tipped off about their presence, and about 30 showed up to stake out the hotel, a handful choosing to keep an eye on a backstreet exit on the Rue Cambon. They were the ones who spotted Al Fayed and Diana hopping into a hotel-provided Mercedes, trying to slip out the back.

As the paparazzi followed on motorcycles - the favored means of transport since it allows them to weave in and out of traffic - the driver accelerated on the road along the Seine. Paris police speculated that the Mercedes, which also carried bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, was exceeding 100 km/h when it sped past the city's fashion district and dipped into the slightly curving tunnel at the Pont de l'Alma bridge. At that point, the driver swerved to avoid another vehicle approaching on his right, striking a central pillar and beginning the fatal spin out of control. Investigators were trying to determine whether the Mercedes was trying to avoid one of the pursuing motorcycles, but the photographers certainly pounced upon the carnage. One had to be rescued by police after angry onlookers began beating him up.

Diana's own complaints about press hounding were well aired. The incessant clicking had gone far beyond the old days of the simple foot chase down a London street. Those encounters, while still irritating to the princess, had more of a slapstick feel to them. More recently, the intrusions had become elaborate and sophisticated. Diana took one British newspaper to court in 1995 for publishing revealing photos of her dressed in workout clothes at her gym, where the fitness centre owner had allowed the photographer to plant a tiny hidden camera.

Diana was used to being stalked from above as well. Toronto media consultant Bonnie Brownlee, who works for Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, recalled attending Princess Beatrice's eighth birthday party last August, when a helicopter hovered into view, bringing a late-arriving guest. Diana "dove under a picnic table to hide because she thought it was photographers," Brownlee told Maclean's. After composing herself in the washroom, Diana told Brownlee: "I'm at my niece's birthday party and I can't even truly enjoy that because I can't just be here, like you're sitting here." Brownlee recalls thinking: "My gosh, this is how tough this life is."

But in turn, some factions of the British press had grown testier with Diana in recent months. Where they once showed sympathy for her version of a hellish life inside the Royal Family, she was now occasionally mocked for her personal habits, such as her dependence on clairvoyants for advice. There was also much muttering about her new relationship with Al Fayed, whose flamboyant and controversial father, Mohamed, owns Harrods department store and who admitted to trying to bribe the previous Tory government into giving him a British passport. Some London tabloids had begun running stories suggesting that Diana's elder son, Prince William, was uneasy with the relationship as well.

The princess had also taken on a more politicized role in the past year. She criticized Britain's former Tory government for its policies on homelessness and its refusal to ban anti-personnel land mines. The latter stand, in particular - supporting the so-called Ottawa Process for an international ban on the mines - had enhanced her reputation at home and abroad as a serious proponent of worthy causes. "On this one, she was like the savior," said Jill Sinclair, director of Canada's arms control and disarmament division. "Because she took the issue, she gave it the profile, she gave it the political attention." But Diana's encroachment on politics - traditionally off limits to royals and, by extension, ex-royals like herself - also added to the press backlash in Britain, leading Diana to wish aloud that she could abandon her country for a life abroad. "The press is ferocious," she told the French newspaper Le Monde just days before her death. "It pardons nothing. It only hunts mistakes. Every intention is misinterpreted, every gesture criticized. I think that in my place, any sane person would have left long ago. But I cannot. I have my sons."

Her sons no longer have her now. Princes William, 15, and Harry, 12, were on vacation with their father in Scotland when the accident occurred. Prince Charles broke the news, then took the boys to church before leaving for Paris to accompany his ex-wife's body back to Britain. Diana's death seems certain to have a traumatic effect on the boys, Prince William in particular. Diana often referred to William as an adviser and confidant, telling friends that she relied on her elder son for emotional support through the breakdown of her marriage and its nasty, bickering aftermath. She also credited William with having made the suggestion that she auction off her old dresses for charity. Second in line to the throne, William has long been uncomfortable with the royal obligation to pose for pictures. Now, he must grapple with the fact that as a public figure, he will always have to deal with the paparazzi culture in which his mother lived and died.

Of course, if the cult of celebrity is to be blamed for Diana's death, culpability cannot be limited to a handful of photographers trying to make a quick buck one night in Paris. For all the outrage aimed at "the press" after her death, the abundant supply of Diana photos has fed a seemingly insatiable public demand. London's Daily Mirror paid a reported $450,000 to publish the first picture of a kiss and cuddle between Diana and Al Fayed because it knew readers would buy their paper. "Murderers," screamed a crowd of Parisians outside the Salpetriere Hospital at the photographers who arrived to shoot Prince Charles coming to collect her body. But one of the last great photographic scoops of Diana was taken and sold to the press just last month by a young girl with an instant camera. Diana had arrived by the Harrods' helicopter in a Midlands village to visit her psychic consultant, and everyone from children to housewives ran for their cameras.

Even in the hours after the tragedy, the mourners who came to pay solemn respects at Kensington Palace brought their cameras along to record the moment. "It was strange," said Lesley Birchard, a Toronto tourist who joined the massive pilgrimage to the palace. "People would leave messages on the gates saying, 'Why couldn't you have a normal life?' or whispering, 'How could they do this to her?' But they all had their cameras, and everybody had to have their picture taken at the gates, too."

Nor did Diana herself turn her back on the press when she needed its power, particularly during her acrimonious divorce proceedings from Charles. She had a selected coterie of reporters to whom she would often leak her version of events, disguised as the voice of "friends." She had tremendous intuition about how the media works, well aware that her glamor could easily upstage Charles's often awkward attempts at public relations.

Sensitive to charges that they were somehow responsible for the tragedy, some British tabloid reporters fired back at the dead princess. They maintained that her manipulation of the press had continued even after she and Charles supposedly declared a truce in their public battles. For example, Diana chose the day that Charles hosted a 50th birthday party for his longtime mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, to appear in a striking leopard print bathing suit for the assembled photographers. "She walked on the beach, she got on a jet ski, she got on a motorboat," said Daily Mirror royal reporter James Whitaker. "Why shouldn't she do this? I'm not saying she shouldn't. But that was definitely a virtuoso performance for us to get photographs and a story," he said. "It's terrible what happened, but there was an element of use of the paparazzi and photographers in general that Diana used enormously to her advantage." Yet there was little doubt that the Al Fayed romance had pushed a frenzied press into running even greater risks to get pictures of the couple. A spokesman for Mohamed Al Fayed said that, even before the fatal accident, the family had begun legal proceedings to prevent photographers from swooping low over his Mediterranean home and yacht in helicopters.

It will now never be known whether or not Diana had found true love with Al Fayed. Certainly the tabloids thought so: they had described Diana as besotted and essentially predicted the couple would marry. Many of her friends were not so sure, saying simply that the princess was at last enjoying life again, swept up in the swirl of Al Fayed's world.

But Diana's story was always about more than just a fairy-tale love that died. Many of those who mourned her death believed she would be remembered for the way she could reach out to those who suffered, whether from AIDS or homelessness or land-mine injuries. Her brother spoke of her "real sense of duty. She understood the most precious needs of human beings," said Spencer. "I think she was feeling clearer about her public role," added Rosa Monckton, one of Diana's closest friends, who vacationed with her in Greece after the first blush of Dodi-mania. "When she gave, she did it with such compassion that it emptied her."

Hers was a rare life. Perhaps no one has ever lived their adult years under such scrutiny, each private moment of joy or anguish played out before a fascinated global audience. Diana stood atop the mount of celebrity in the media age, her life an open book for anyone who could plunk down the change to buy a paper. Like Marilyn and Elvis, her violent premature death will likely freeze her as an icon - forever young, forever tragic - while the rest of us speculate on how it all might have turned out in the end.

Maclean's September 8, 1997