Total Eclipse of the Heart: Remembering Princess Diana

‘When [she] shall die, take her and cut her into tiny stars and she shall make the face of Heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

                               Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 2) William Shakespeare

  Photo by Mario Testino

Photo by Mario Testino

This week is the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s sudden, unexpected and tragic death. There have been seemingly endless documentaries attempting to finally “tell the truth” about her life and whether they have achieved that I'm not certain, but what is true, is that Diana’s story was and still is, the story of our lives.  

Every woman’s life.

While 20 years ago there may have been mystery about the sources of Diana’s deep depression and personal misery until she had the courage to stand up for herself and reveal the cracks behind the perfect Royal façade, the real enigma is how she was able to transform that pain with her grace, grit and gumption. Princess Diana showed us with her inimitable compassion, courage, charm, sense of duty, style, beauty and kindness how to go on and begin again when real life does not turn out the way we dreamed it would be, especially if you marry Prince Charming.  

However, after two decades, one’s past life shifts from the personal to the historical, if it is remembered at all; and the private struggles and challenges faced and overcome become footnotes in biographies, tell-all memoirs, documentaries, films and ancestral research instead of personal recollection.  With the generational gap, we forget that before someone becomes an icon, she was flesh and bone, tears and fears. The Google generation can gather facts and juicy bits about Princess Diana’s brief, glittering, flawed and dramatic life.  However, regrettably they will never know or understand why Diana was such a powerful, glimmering Star in the Divine feminine firmament, a woman who became a legend in her own time by revealing her personal vulnerability until it became her greatest strength.

“Twenty years after her death we miss her more than ever.  In a world torn by conflict and blame, there’s still a yawning gap, a public wound that continues to speak to her absence.  So deep was the bond of compassion she forged with her admirers that her death in August 1997 at the age of 36 was a universal bereavement—one that no one who experienced those days will ever forget.” Tina Brown observes in Remembering Diana. “With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, the wrong perpetrated on the young Diana by the crown seems unconscionable. They gaslighted her, and they isolated her…Worse, they were jealous…[But] pain made her luminous. She sublimated her lovelessness into acts of humanitarian leadership boosting the efforts of the Red Cross, advocating for others with eating disorders, and ministering to the homeless, to orphans, to AIDS patients, and to the disabled.  Charles’s circle mocked her ‘saintly’ acts as self-promotion—but none who experience Diana’s natural wells of kindness ever forgot how it felt.  Her compassion was real, and the realization of how much her outreach could matter to those she touched gave her a purpose that now propelled her life.”

Until suddenly, without warning, it was over.  Just as she was reaching for another chance at happiness, she was snatched away.      


Like other shocking events, such as the assignation of John F. Kennedy and 9/11 or news of personal tragedy, our minds instantly rewind back to the ordinary moment before our hearts froze with fear and we were sent reeling with the news. “Have you ever thought when something dreadful happens, a moment ago things were not like this; let it be then not now anything but now? The English novelist Mary Stewart asks.  “And you try and try to remake then, but you know you can’t.  So you try to hold the moment quiet still and not let it move on and show itself.’

My daughter and I were in Aspen, just finishing a group vacation over Labor Day, 1997. That Saturday night, the grown-ups went out to dinner and left the teenagers to babysit.  When we returned shortly after midnight, all the children and teens were crying. Back then, there were no smartphones, Facebook and Twitter so the children had been anxiously waiting for us to come home to share the terrible news together.  

“Oh, Mom, Princess Diana has died!”  

We were stunned. When? How? Where? On the television ashen faced BBC broadcasters were trying their best to deliver the heartbreaking announcement as calmly as possible.  But no matter how it was articulated, it was impossible to process how the most famous woman in the world could die so needlessly and so tragically in a violent car crash in a Paris tunnel relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi.  There were simply no words to express or console.  No explanation, no reasoning, no belief big enough to surmount the unfathomable. Where was her protection detail? Oh, that’s right, it was taken away from her after the Royal Divorce.  Then where, for the love of all that’s holy, was Heaven? How could a universal Light so bright be snuffed out, “like a candle in the wind,” as Elton John would sing at her funeral a week later.   We now know her last words were: “My God, what’s happened…?” Yes, My God, what did happened? The shock was so staggering and unexpected and so wrong that the world was suddenly catapulted into the anguished realm of the unspeakable.

  Photo by Mario Testino

Photo by Mario Testino

Like many women around the world, I loved and admired Diana. How could you not?  I remember dragging myself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning with a cup of tea and a comforter to the couch in July 1981 mesmerized by her romantic fairy tale nuptials.  Lady Diana Spencer was only 19 years and truly the blushing bride when she emerged from the gold and glass carriage, all incandescent innocence. Her beaming radiance beneath her sparking veil bespoke happily ever after. Her beautiful voluminous silk taffeta and lace dress complete with a 25 foot train took the world’s collective breath away,  as she walked down the red carpet of St. Paul’s Cathedral on her proud father’s arm to her Prince Charming.  As the Archbishop of Canterbury said as they made their vows, “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made.”

Certainly, especially if the fairy tale was written by the Brothers Grimm.  Did you know that fairy tales were originally meant to scare and frightened little children?  They were cautionary tales on how to stay safe in this cruel and dangerous world.  And Princess Diana’s fairy tale was a perfect fit for a handmaiden’s tale. She was young, a virgin, and selected for her breeding, “a brood mare” to produce a royal heir and a spare. While she was desperately in love with Prince Charles, he was pressured to do his duty and get married. Later, in her own words and voice she would say, “I was the sacrificial lamb.”  But on that day, her heart was filled with love, hope and trust.  And so were ours for her.

  Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day.

I experienced Diana’s death in a very unexpected and surreal unfolding which ended up profoundly changing the trajectory of my life. I’ve never recounted the story before as it occurred but I’ve been mulling it over for years. 

On Thursday afternoon, September 4th at 3:45 pm, my agent telephoned me and asked if I had plans for the weekend.  Since I was on deadline for Something More, I had only planned to be writing. 

People Magazine just called and asked if you’d be a Special Correspondent covering the funeral.”  

I was flabbergasted. “Why?”

“They want you to finds ‘lessons from the princess’s vibrant life and wrenching death.”  Huh?

The next thing I remember, Kate was helping me pack. We threw everything black into a suitcase.  A car was waiting to take me to Dulles airport and four hours later I got the last seat on the last flight from the U.S. to London before the funeral.

When I arrived in the U.K. on Friday morning, after I checked into what I was told was the last hotel room in London, I immediately went to People’s London office and was given the assignment to mingle with the people on the street, not as a member of the media but as another mourner.  I was to walk between the three royal palaces—St. James, Kensington and Buckingham which were now linked by an ocean of flowers.

  An aerial view of the flowers left before Diana's funeral.

An aerial view of the flowers left before Diana's funeral.

What I didn’t realize until later was there had been much public anger, first with the press who the public blamed for the Princess’s death, and now the Royal Family who had remained silent and out-of-sight at Balmoral in Scotland.

I remember vividly that London was very hot and the first thing you noticed was the scent of the flowers. An aroma that enveloped you like a hug from an rich aunt who was drenched in too much expensive scent. The fragrance was heavy, humid and mixed with the warmth from the bodies of thousands of people lining every available space. An ocean of saltwater tears were shed on those streets. I’d never seen so many people in my life milling about. There were thousands of people walking or huddled in small groups, families holding hands, pushing baby strollers or walking slowly, helping elderly members with walkers or canes. Later police would say there were over a million people there. Everyone was crying, hugging, saying prayers; there was no pushing or shoving as you might expect in such a large crowd. Everyone waited their turn to lay down their remembrance and everyone was carrying flowers.  

  Floral tributes and balloons laid in the gardens of Kensington Palace.

Floral tributes and balloons laid in the gardens of Kensington Palace.

In England and the continent when you buy a bouquet, it’s always wrapped in cellophane, and so, the people’s memorial was a sea of cellophane, along with stuffed teddy bears, balloons, pictures and personal notes.  All the shop windows had been dressed in black crepe, or displayed portraits of Princess Diana and lovely bouquets of flowers.  Most shops were closed, except the chemists, food stores, newsstands and of course, florists. But the shop assistants, like their customers, cried openly and didn’t try to conceal their grief which was raw, powerful and came in waves.   The veneer of the stiff upper lip, stoic Brits was completely washed away by a tsunami of anguish that moved from one person to the next.  Complete strangers were consoling each other and waiting. Waiting for something, even if they didn’t know what exactly they were waiting for.  Perhaps it was, as one tabloid headline screamed next to a picture of the Queen:  SHOW US YOU CARE!

On Friday afternoon, finally the Queen and Prince Philip arrived back at Buckingham Palace. There had been so much anger at the Royal Family in both Diana’s life and now death, no one knew how the people would react.  But the Queen’s car stopped before the Palace gates and she tentatively walked up to the crowds accepting bouquets to place at the flower memorials.  Later that afternoon the Queen would give a live televised speech which was only the second time in fifty years she had done so. In it she would express her sorrow as a grandmother and explain the family's retreat— that she and her family were trying to take care of the children who had just lost their mother.  

  Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip survey the tributes to Diana.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip survey the tributes to Diana.

After her broadcast, I went back to my hotel and fell asleep.  I needed to be up at 4 am and go to Hyde Park and cover the funeral procession and ceremony in Westminster Abbey.  There were over 100,000 people camped inside the Park in tents and sleeping bags.  Giant screens, the kind used for rock concerts and sporting events had been erected, along with speakers along the funeral route, so that the ceremonies could be televised.

Saturday morning when I arrived at Hyde Park before dawn, there were thousands of little candles flickering in the morning mist.  A profound sense of quiet grief hovered in the air.  You know how you feel after you’ve had a long, hard cry, and it literally hurts to breathe?  That is what it felt like.  An exhausted public waiting to say goodbye to a woman they adored. At 9:08 AM, the first tolling of the bell rang and continued on, every minute during the entire, slow, two-hour procession from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey .  That bell, the horses hooves, the carriage wheels, and stillness. No birds, no planes, no traffic.  

And then when her coffin finally came into view the wailing began:  “Diana, we love you Darling.”

There were many heart-breaking, hushed moments, the memory of which twenty years later are still unbearable—  Diana’s young sons, William and Harry, their heads bowed, walking behind their mother’s coffin. The grim faces of their father, grandfather and uncle. The card on the coffin which read “Mummy.” The heavy load on the shoulders of the young Welsh Guards as they took the weight of the lead lined, oak coffin, and carried the Princess into the Abbey.

People Magazine Diana edition with SBB article Sept 22 1997.jpg

And then, the surprising eulogy from Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer which began “I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock.”  He would go on to say, what all the people had been saying to each other, what everyone knew and why everyone grieved, not just for her loss, but because she did not know how much we loved her.  And when he finished the people stood up in Hyde Park as I did and began to clap in thunderous applause for at least ten minutes.  I had never heard clapping at a funeral before, but it was the most fitting gesture of love and it spread throughout London into Westminster Abbey on waves of sound. And after all this was done, I went back to my hotel room to write the most important assignment I’d ever been given. Twelve hours later I filed it.  It appeared in People on September 22, 1997.  Twenty years later, I still feel the same way.  I guess I did learn a heartfelt lesson afterall.

Swept along by the crowds—feeling less a member of the media than a mourner among her masses—there’s not a doubt in my mind that this glorious woman, so adored and admired for her beauty, style, devotion, sense of honor, conviction and compassion, was deeply, passionately and, in the end, unconditionally loved.  But the tears I shed for her come from a harrowing sense that Diana never realized the depth of love the world held for her.  We were too stingy with our praise and thanksgiving, too generous with our disdain and criticism.

And though many people surely tried to express their gratitude to her in kind and thoughtful ways, how could Diana have understood the impact that her cuddling a child dying of AIDS or her shaking a leper’s hand had on millions of people around the world? The hidden sorrow of Diana’s death is the mystery of how a woman who sought nothing more than the rest of us do—caring, communication, companionship, connection, commitment—spent nearly her entire adult life lonely, isolated, harassed, blinded by the harsh glare of flashbulbs, public opinion and our insatiable need to live vicariously. A note with a small bouquet of flowers picked from a garden read, “We didn’t deserve you.”  I agree.


Many misguided individuals spend their lives seeking celebrity only to discover, when they achieve it, that the more public their persona, the more isolated they feel.  Inevitably their circle of intimates must shrink for their own sanity and protection.  Isolation is one of fame’s more uncomfortable footnotes.  Often in the rush to live Technicolor lives, we forget to read the fine print.  Stop wishing this instant to be living anybody else’s life.  As Diana taught us so tragically, life is too short not to start living it.

Now, I don’t believe Diana sought celebrity; she just made a bad choice before she was 20 and got trapped in the most unfortunate of webs.  By the time your celebrity lands you on the cover of PEOPLE—and Diana graced it more than any other person—you’re lucky if you have one or two confidantes in the world you can call at 2 a.m. when you can’t get out of your hotel without being chased by the paparazzi.  Is that how you’d like to live?  Me neither.  And while accolades, acclaim and awards are often agreeable fellows to have a drink with, they make lousy dinner partners. Their conversation rarely moves past small talk.  

Outside Westminster Abbey, a hairstylist in her 20s confessed to me that she and her friends felt a bit guilty about Princess Diana’s death, because “we all did want to read about her, didn’t we?”  And we did, myself included, which in the end is why she died at 36-years-old. Let’s face it:  Reading about someone larger than life is much easier than investing the time, creative energy and emotion it takes to make our own lives fulfilling.  

Passion is color; most of us live in black and white.  For me, Diana’s great gift was that she was willing to embrace her passion, to attempt to live authentically.  The lesson she taught us is how to live.  She lived at full throttle while most of us go about our lives as if we’re on life support.  Every choice Diana made, right or wrong, she made with a beating pulse; the rest of us play it so safe that we don’t even realize we risk everything by failing to take risks.  Sure, that’s a paradox; living is a paradox.


Somewhere during her difficult journey, a princess in pain realized she could no longer deny her passion.  If Diana’s death imparts only one lesson, it is that passion is holy, to be embraced, even as we tremble in fear that love will hurt us.  As, of course, it will.  Her extraordinary, courageous and authentic life is a powerful reminder that we are conceived in passion, born in passion and often die in passion, whether it is in a hospital bed or in the backseat of a speeding car, trying to outrun destiny.

As beautiful as Diana’s send-off was, it was still a parting, and there is nothing good about saying goodbye to someone you love and nothing fair about saying farewell to one taken away too soon.  At the end of the day—or the end of a life—all that we have is ourselves and each other.  All that has ever mattered and all that will ever matter is one question:  Did we love ourselves and each other deeply, passionately, unconditionally?  Diana did.  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be miraculous if, when I die, someone writes, “The only pain she ever caused was when she left us.”  Now there’s a celebrity worth pursuing.

There is a story that says the gates of Heaven are guarded by a fierce angel brandishing a sword.  When we arrive at the gates, we are told that only those who life was pierced by the sword of love are allowed entry into paradise.  Was yours?  The gates were wide open for Diana, Princess of Wales.

Blessings on your courage, Diana.  

With dearest love and deepest gratitude,