Originally created 08/30/98

Remembering the unforgettable Diana



LONDON -- A year after Princess Diana's death, the tears have dried and the mountains of flowers have been cleared away. But Diana's image remains indelible, and her memory a force for change at the heart of the monarchy.

Bouquets with handwritten notes still appear faithfully at the gates of Kensington Palace, where the world kept a televised vigil in the days after her death in a Paris car crash.

They are tokens of remembrance. But there is little chance of forgetting.

The familiar smile and the famous blue eyes still shine from the covers of glossy magazines and newspapers on every newsstand in the country. The tiara glitters on her short blonde hair on calendars, coffee mugs and carousels of postcards.

"If you had been asleep that week, you might be misled to think she was still with us," says Hugo Vickers, a royal historian and commentator. "Her memory, her soul, hasn't been allowed to settle."

On videotape, Diana and lover Dodi Fayed walk again and again through a corridor of the Paris Ritz Hotel on the way to their deaths in a tunnel by the River Seine. Over and over, the princess walks through the same Angolan minefield in documentaries and news broadcasts.

AND NOW DIANA the schoolgirl flirts day after day with her father's home-movie camera in a film shown at her ancestral home, where admirers pay to see her report cards and to gaze across a lake at her island grave.

But while Diana's memory seems trapped on automatic replay, the monarchy slowly shifts and her sons move on. They grow up largely outside the public eye, fiercely guarded by palace and family.

Their occasional public appearances with Prince Charles suggest a warm and affectionate relationship -- a surprise, perhaps, to those who heard Earl Spencer's funeral oration for his sister as an attack on stuffy royal child-rearing, "immersed by duty and tradition."

William and Harry have chosen to be with their father at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on the Aug. 31 anniversary of their mother's death, rather than with the Spencer family, which is marking the day with a service at Diana's grave.

"All three princes are evidently very proud of each other," the Daily Telegraph's royal correspondent, Robert Hardman, wrote after the trio's vacation trip to Canada in March.

Hamming it up for the cameras in their new red-and-white Olympics jackets, Prince William, now 16, Prince Harry, 13, and their father seemed "a formidable triple-act," Hardman wrote. "That there is now a powerful bond and team spirit for the future is beyond doubt."

The future is looking a lot friendlier and more up to date at Buckingham Palace, where the heavy draperies of protocol and tradition are easing apart. Queen Elizabeth II has even hired a public relations professional to help improve her communication with the people.

DIANA'S DEATH death and her life "had an impact on the way people see the monarchy," the queen's press secretary, Geoffrey Crawford, acknowledged as the anniversary of the crash approached. "It has a resonance not only in this country but abroad, and it's not lost on the queen. And you see that in the way we're doing our business now."

"The point is that there's no revolutionary change," Crawford added, but "the way people do their business and how they're perceived -- I think that will change."

A key to that public perception is the press.

The chastened tabloids, accused of pursuing Diana to her death, have reined in their coverage of the royals a bit. But the circulation battle waged over the minutiae of Diana's and Charles' lives and loves continues.

William and Harry remain objects of fascination, and the press commitment to leave them alone appears to be flagging.

Only last month, The Sunday Mirror revealed the boys' secret 50th birthday treat for their father -- an original skit -- spoiling the surprise. And The Sun made front-page news of William's first meeting with Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles' longtime companion.

Lord Deedes, former editor of The Daily Telegraph and an ally of Diana in her campaign to ban land mines, remains skeptical about tabloid restraint.

"The fact is, nothing has altered at all really," he says. "Intense competition will always elbow out good manners."

At the same time, the palace has realized the value of allowing photographers into events where the queen speaks informally with people.

Now, instead of just standing grimly on podiums and clasping bouquets, the queen is photographed laughing with a pink-haired rock singer, chatting in a pub or running across a field to catch sight of her husband in a coach-driving race.

ONE MORNING this summer, The Times covered the top of its front page with a picture of the queen visiting a McDonald's, although it carefully noted she eschewed a Big Mac and fries.

"The people longed for a less remote monarch: yesterday they met her," the headline said.

When the country awoke a year ago to hear Diana had been killed with Fayed and their chauffeur Henri Paul, the royal family was in Scotland.

Caught up in what was for them a personal crisis, the royals failed to see the immediate need to communicate with the rest of the country, which was taking the loss personally, too.

The violent death of a 36-year-old woman whose warmth and vulnerability touched so many people brought an outpouring of public emotion that looked briefly as if it might get out of hand. Grief and anger rattled the palace gates. The crowd and the tabloids demanded a display of mourning.

A shocked queen left her grandsons in Scotland and returned to London to pay tribute to Diana in a rare live TV address. "There are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death," she said.

She seems to have studied the lessons closely.

The senior royals commissioned an opinion poll to get a clearer picture of where they stood with the public. Though the results remain private, leaks indicate the royals were found to be remote and poor value for money -- although as individuals the queen and her daughter, Princess Anne, particularly, retained their solid standing.

THE BIGGEST image change has been for Charles, cast for so long as the heartless villain in the Diana soap opera. Without the mistreated heroine, there's not much need for a bad guy.

"I think he's possibly a little surprised to find there is a lot of sympathy for him, for his role as a single parent," says Vickers, the historian.

"For 17 years, he was eclipsed by the marriage and its failure, held to account because of his marriage rather than the things he achieved. She cast some pretty public javelins at him," Vickers says. "But I don't think he ever publicly said anything nasty about his wife."

Less than four months after the crash, a MORI opinion poll suggested public approval of Charles had leaped nearly 20 points, from 42 percent in August to 61 percent in December.

The Sun, which dispensed its share of vitriol at Charles' expense in the bad old days, slapped him on the back this summer and advised him to go public with Camilla Parker Bowles -- the most vilified woman in the land when Diana was alive.

"Show us you love her," The Sun's front page entreated. "Clearly, a love that lasts more than two decades -- and survives both marrying someone else along the way -- is very, very special," the newspaper gushed.

In life, Diana's magnetism and appeal very nearly swamped her in-laws. When she was around to be photographed, it was easy to overlook the hundreds of thousands of children Princess Anne's charity helped in every destitute corner of the globe.

Charles talking with a disabled worker was never likely to be a Page One photo. But if an editor had a snap of Diana going to the gym in her workout clothes, there was no contest.

That is a tabloid fact of life, and Diana was skilled at getting almost as much from the tabloids as they got from her. As her marriage fell apart, she was accused of creating photo opportunities to coincide with Charles' important speeches.

"Every time he said something, he found out his wife was saying something else or his wife was wearing a new outfit," Vickers says. "Now he knows that's not going to happen. He is not a new man, but a man who has been able to come out of his shell, without fear of being contradicted."

THE PALACE is also trying to show it is not just reacting, but is actively involved in the evolution of a modern monarchy.

Senior royals and top advisers have been irked when they weren't given credit for their initiatives -- like the queen's decision in 1994 to pay income tax, and moves this year to give royal daughters equal rights with sons to inherit the throne.

The palace has been tightening its belt for years, but now seems to be picking up speed and efficiency.

The royals underspent their travel budget, funded by the taxpayers, by 10 percent last year. Prince Philip, the queen's husband, and Princess Margaret, her sister, did their bit by using their senior citizens' discounts to buy train tickets.

The size of the working royal family seems due to shrink, too. Unconfirmed reports indicate the designation "HRH" -- His or Her Royal Highness -- may be limited in future to children of the monarch and the heir to the throne.

It was after her August 1996 divorce from Charles that Diana lost her HRH, a point that rankled for the remaining year of her life.

That resentment was one of the many contradictions of the woman whom her brother, Earl Spencer, called "the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana."

SHE OFTEN dispensed with formal protocol and identified with the world's disenfranchised, but was angry at losing membership in the very select royal club. She repeatedly aired her contempt for her husband, but wanted to remain married to him. She was a devoted mother and fiercely protective of her sons, but made the marriage failure public in a way that could only bring them pain.

It was her brother who warned right away against the public instinct to turn Diana into a saint.

"There is a temptation to rush to canonize your memory," he said in his Sept. 6 eulogy at Westminster Abbey. "There is no need to do so. ... Indeed to sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being."

On Aug. 31, when people around the world stop to think about Diana, many will remember her as they knew her -- a mischievous sister, a hard-working charity patron, a demanding employer, a loyal friend, a dedicated follower of fashion, a dazzling dinner companion. And regiments of photographers on every continent will remember Diana the chameleon, flirtatious and elusive, the ultimate quarry.

But far more people will be remembering a woman they never met. They are free to remember the Diana they wanted her to be.