25 years after Princess Diana’s tragic death and a funeral watched by billions around the world
The Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed was in England after Diana’s Aug. 31, 1997, death to cover the outpouring of grief and services for the beloved icon.
All stories are unique.
And I’ve covered quite a few in the past 53 years.
Only this coverage required a special calculus, grief so palpable it made you choke.
Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the cruel death of England’s Princess Diana, the iconic 36-year old “Lady Di” — ex-wife of the future King of England, Prince Charles — who was killed in a late-night car crash with her lover, Dodi al Fayed.
Who knew this car speeding 85 mph through a tunnel in Paris would careen into history, the fodder of headlines and hoopla, the stuff of dreams and dross?
A year earlier, I had taken a coterie of Brit’s top royal journalists (James Whitaker, Richard Kay and photographer Edward Edwards) to dinner in Chicago during Diana’s much ballyhooed visit here in 1996 to raise money for Northwestern University Hospital’s cancer center.
Dispatched immediately to London hours after the car crash by the Sun-Times editor, Brit Nigel Wade, I phoned up a little payback from those premier royal watchers to check out the lay of the land.
I didn’t have to go far.
The following edited excerpts are from numerous Sneed columns written from my unbelievably lucky hotel window perch overlooking Kensington Palace, where Diana lived before her death on Aug. 31, 1997. A world of sorrow had engulfed the area as countless mourners camped out there and where her funeral cortege began its trip to Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6, 1997.
Postcards from London: Mourners flock to the palace
• It was extraordinary. The Brits’ stiff upper lips were actually moving, men were uncontrollably weeping, and traffic was a mess.
• It was hard not to get caught up in this floodgate of sorrow. It was everywhere. I had never before cried so much in my life before. And I didn’t even know her.
• The paparazzi are being pilloried for ironically killing their “golden goose.” It’s ironic that the elegant princess, who loved high fashion, was wearing a black jacket and white pants when she died.
• Hundreds of thousands of mourners trekking, marching, kneeling and sobbing bearing wreaths of cellophane-wrapped flowers; clothes-pinning poems to the Hickory and Hawthorne trees: and night lighting a sea of twinkling candles in Kensington Gardens, amid silence, the smell of candle wax, the scent of fragrant tuberoses, and the eerie “click click click” of baby carriages.
Postcards from London: Plans for the funeral unfold
• The “Cad” appeared. Major James Hewitt, who kissed and told and broke Di’s heart, issued a statement as he choked back tears: “I loved her and miss her terribly.” Gag.
Tenor Luciano Pavarotti, invited to the funeral, nixed an invitation to sing for fear of crying. “I cry every day since her death,” he said.
• During Di’s funeral, the national lottery will not be drawn, shops will close, and the Orient Express will not head to Venice.
• The public is straining for Di minutiae: The press noted Di’s car hit the tunnel’s 13th pillar; that 117 steps were taken by pallbearers carrying her coffin from the airplane, and 11,000 lightbulbs that lit Harrods’ exterior were switched off the night Di and Fayed, whose father owns the iconic London store, were killed.
• Royal watcher Richard Kay, who had a close relationship with the Princess, said she called him six hours before her death.
• “She was as happy as I have ever heard her ... had decided to radically change her life …going to complete her charities obligations ... then, around November, completely withdraw from her formal life … to live as she always wanted to live. Not as an icon ... but a private person.”
• Charles, distraught, drinking gin martinis and calling friends into the wee hours of the morning while his inamorata, Camilla Parker Bowles, has been out of sight.
• Prisoners across Britain wearing black ribbons and signing books of condolences.
• Questions. Questions: Did Dodi buy Di a $1.6 million ring? Did he purchase it next door to the Ritz Hotel in Paris? Were bits and pieces of it found in the car?
Postcards from London: The Royals emerge
• Where was the queen? Why wasn’t she in London with her grieving people? Why no public pronouncement about Diana’s death from the royal family? Why no word from Prince Charles? Why was the flag over Buckingham Palace not at half-staff?
• And then came a peep of royal response: Charles had dispatched flowers to Diana’s charities.
• “It wasn’t enough,” said a woman outside Kensington Palace. “I’m fed up with the royal family. They are out of touch. It was Diana who took the boys for a Big Mac.”
• Finally: The royal family emerges: Princes William and Harry, Diana’s beloved “boys,” exit Balmoral castle, where they have been living since their mother’s death. … Charles looked haggard; William had his hands in his pockets. Queen Elizabeth looked tired (but had finally agreed to address the nation via live TV in Diana’s honor).
But Prince Philip kept pointing at all the condolence notes. Alas, nothing equaled the size of the public’s finger pointing back at them!
Postcards from London: The funeral, Sept. 6, 1997
• Finally! The funeral cortege began directly under my hotel room window at 9:08 Saturday morning. It should come as no surprise that not one member of the royal family will speak at the funeral. No one asked. No one volunteered.
• Criki! The “Cad,” uninvited and not at the funeral, still has the 50 love letters Diana wrote to him lodged in a bank vault because he fears theft … in advance, one presumes, of selling the letters himself.
• The king’s way: Spain’s King Juan Carlos missed the funeral to attend a bullfight.
More Sneedservations from the funeral:
• Queen Elizabeth brushing a tear when Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind.” … Nicole Kidman’s funky hat; hubby Tom Cruise’s new haircut ... Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood sunglasses … Prime Minister’s Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, hatless in a sea of chapeaus. ... Diana’s mother, Catholic convert Frances Shand Kydd, attending an earlier Catholic service for her daughter conducted by Basil Cardinal Hume. … Elton John, singing a new version of his classic “Candle in the Wind,” confessed later he and Di weren’t talking until recently but settled their differences two months before her death.
Back to today ...
In the end, it’s really never over.
Although I have covered the weddings of Prince Andrew to Fergie, the Duchess of York; been invited to the queen’s garden party; awaited the birth of the first child of William and his wife, Kate, outside the hospital; as well as hauling my pen several weeks to London each year covering the royal family at play for decades it wasn’t until covering the wedding of Charles to the third person in Diana’s marriage, Parker-Bowles, that everything came full circle for me.
Now that Harry has fled the royal coop with his gorgeous, brainy, Brit tabloid vilified African American wife, Meghan Markle — and choosing to raise their children on the non-royal compound of Montecito, Calif., new post “Di” press fodder is now mega press tinder.
But at the time, Diana’s cruel death made us feel what we suspected all the time: that this shy, but sly, and troubled English girl with the backward glance, had somehow managed to calm the world in the midst of all the turmoil.