She was born July 1, 1961 amid summer’s flowering and died Aug. 31, 1997 as it withered. And like summer itself, her season was too brief.
Everyone living at the time remembers where he was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But many of us remember, too, where we were when Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident in a Paris tunnel.
I was in my aunt’s room watching TV when a news bulletin came on saying she had broken her arm in the accident. I went to bed and woke up early the next morning – a Sunday, just as Aug. 31 falls on a Sunday this year – knowing without knowing why I knew that she was already dead. Then came the phone call that every journalist simultaneously dreads and lives for, an editor’s voice saying, “Do you have the TV on?” I spent that day, my mother’s birthday, and the rest of the week watching and covering the extraordinary events that unfolded, transforming the Princess of Wales from ex-wife, mother and celebrity into a secular martyr, saint and goddess.
As her death had a transcendent trajectory, so, too, did her life – a far more interesting one. The woman once known as “Shy Di” came of age in a post-feminist era. Slowly, however, her life began to take on a feminist narrative as she moved from preschool assistant to virginal bride to devoted mother to bitter divorcée to compassionate philanthropist and international icon, the so-called “People’s Princess,” as then Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed her. Her willingness to touch a man who had AIDS did more to humanize the disease than anyone else did, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Taylor.
Diana’s identification with Mother Teresa – who would die on Sept. 5 amid the tumult of Princess of Wales’ apotheosis; her decision to auction off 79 of her cocktail dresses and gowns, with the proceeds going to charity (ah, but you see, she was unwittingly preparing to leave, divesting herself of her earthly goods); her embracing the plight of the maimed victims of landmines – all of this made her “The Woman We Loved,” as Newsweek called her in an echo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose house Diana visited with boyfriend Dodi Fayed shortly before the fatal crash. (Ah, the irony.)
That visit signaled the part of Diana that was not the feminist narrative but instead the feminist cautionary tale. For Princess Diana yearned for what Carson McCullers described in her overrated novel “The Member of the Wedding” as the “we of me”: She longed to belong to a man (and who knows? Maybe we’re hardwired to couple.)
Trouble is, she fell in love with a man, Prince Charles, who already belonged to another woman, psychically if not legally, and who deceived her cruelly to beget an heir.
Once the two were divorced, however, all bets were off. She was wiser if sadder – you think of her alone and forlorn at that temple to love, the Taj Mahal, the press trailing her at a safe distance like some determined retinue that doesn’t want to interfere with her grief. Yet still she careened from one disastrous love affair to the next. The one man who seemed to offer her stability and the possibility of soul-mate satisfaction, Dr. Hasnat Khan, rejected her because of the incessant spotlight.
And so to the lightweight arms of hapless daddy’s boy Dodi Fayed and a pilgrimage to that temple of romantic futility, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dinner at the Ritz and that tunnel not of love and immortality.
I’m not suggesting women should close their hearts to coupling but rather that they should bring their minds to it as well. Perhaps it was Diana’s destiny to die in a Paris car accident.
But she might still be alive today had she not in her life let a man slip into the driver’s seat.