She was born at the beginning of one summer and died toward the end of another. And like the season that framed her life – deceptively soft, blinding in its glare – hers was too short.
Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of Diana, Princess of Wales. Time is a funny thing. It heals, they say, all wounds, carrying us out on its merciless tide. But what it really is is another country. The world is a very different place now than the one Diana left. The adulterous ex-husband who was vilified at the time of her death – Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall – has come to be seen in certain revisionist circles as a serious, decent chap who was as tortured by the straitjacket that was traditional monarchy as Diana was. The woman he loved (oh, how that phrase resounds), Camilla Parker-Bowles, is now his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.
His sons with Diana – William, Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry – are in part a credit to her superb maternal instincts. Each is a different side of her, though both have her common touch and compassion. Harry has her raw emotionalism, which sometimes gets him into trouble and makes headlines. But it also makes him a natural charmer who is moved to do things like co-found Sentebale, with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, a nonprofit that helps children there infected with HIV/AIDS. (It was a cause dear to Diana’s heart, and Princes Harry and Lesotho created the charity in memory of their late mothers.)
William has her protectiveness and backbone. He has also married brilliantly to a woman who is in many ways Diana’s revenge on the royals. (What might the relationship of mother- and daughter-in-law have been like?) Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, has managed to fit seamlessly into the royal tradition of duty while echoing her late mother-in-law’s independence. The magnificent sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring, which was once Diana’s, is ever-present on Kate’s hand. The polka dot dress she wore in presenting her newborn son, Prince George, to the world, echoes the one Diana wore when she left the hospital after Prince William was born. William and Catherine’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, was named in part after Diana (full name Charlotte Elizabeth Diana), and she was christened at St. Mary Magdalene in Sandringham, where her grandmother was baptized.
If Diana paved the way for Catherine, Catherine has more than repaid the favor. The great sadness is that Diana isn’t with us to reap what she sowed. Biographers will long argue about the extent to which she – a woman fatally in love with her husband, with the idea of him, romance and marriage, with love itself – was as much a victim of her temperament as she was of men and the media, with whom she had an ambivalent relationship. As I wrote for Gannett at the time of her death, Diana was like two other disparate goddesses – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe – in that she had unfortunate taste in men. But Diana was also born into the tail end of their time when women were still expected to follow men’s lead. Diana took a back seat to a man, Dodi Fayed, quite literally in the end. It would cost her her life.
Grief – “the price we pay for love,” as Diana’s former mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, observed after 9/11 – makes a camera of the mind, holding fast what and whom we loved and lost. We see a date before 1997 and say, “Oh, but she was still alive then.” We see her holding hands with an AIDS patient, a groundbreaking moment in the fight against that scourge, or in that drop-dead black silk dress she wore to the Serpentine Gallery in London after her ex gave an interview in which he said he had never loved her, and we wish we could stop time.
Most of all, we see her in one of her last photographic moments, coming through the revolving door of the Ritz in Paris, and say, “No, wait, go back.” But she and we can’t. That revolving door turns for all of us, just as it led her to the car that would carry her to destiny and legend in the tunnel from which she never emerged.