An Icon for All Seasons

Trying to make sense of the Di phenomenon

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 15 1997

An Icon for All Seasons

Trying to make sense of the Di phenomenon

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 15 1997

It may have been the long, long hours of waiting in line, an excess of emotion, or a simple trick of the light. But there came a moment last week amid the astonishing outpouring of grief for Diana, Princess of Wales, when some of the solid, down-to-earth Londoners who had queued up to sign the Book of Condolence in St. James’s Palace came out swearing they had seen something a bit, well... unearthly. In the top right-hand corner of a portrait of Charles I (the king who lost his head to a burst of republican enthusiasm in 1649), there appeared an image of Diana herself, wearing a tiara and cupping her face in her hands. It was, they said, a little shadowy but absolutely unmistakable. “It was Di,” one shaken man said as he emerged from the palace. “Seriously. I kid you not. It’s absolutely spot on.”

This is the sort of thing that, until last week, Britons condescendingly associated with poorer, more emotional, more Catholic countries. Places like Mexico, where ordinary folk flock to marvel at weeping images of the Virgin Mary on subway walls, or Argentina, where the people have also been known to lose their hearts to charismatic women (comparisons between Diana and Eva Perón were quickly drawn). It is, most emphatically, not the kind of thing that fits the image the world had of Britain—or, for that matter, that Britons had of themselves. Diana changed all that, as she changed so much else. The sheer scale of public distress at her passing went so far beyond what might have been predicted that it entered uncharted territory. Was it simply the cult of celebrity taken to new and dizzying heights? Was it so-called New Britain rising up in a massive rebuke to stiff, stuffy Old Britain? Was it a sign, as London’s Guardian editorialized, of a “spiritual yearning for something larger than ourselves”?

Just what, in the end, was it about Diana that led Britain and much of the rest of the world to open an emotional vein and bleed so publicly?

It was easy last week to lose sight of the fact that she was, after all, a woman with a full measure of human failings. She lived a life of privilege unimaginable to all but a handful of those who grieved for her.

During 16 years as the most celebrated woman in the world, she uttered scarcely a word that anyone remembers. She made disastrous choices in men, entering a loveless marriage and then more than matching her estranged husband in a contest of infidelity. She was no innocent: she manipulated her media image in a carefully calculated, and ultimately successful, battle with the rest of the Royal Family to win public opinion to her side. When she died, she was speeding through Paris in a chauffeured Mercedes with her playboy lover. She left an estate valued at some $90 million. The “people’s princess”? Hardly.

Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s brilliant phrase perfectly captured the popular mood—as well as, not incidentally, laying claim to Diana’s legacy for New Britain and his own new Labour Party. Despite her obvious flaws—indeed, largely because of them—Diana was the people’s princess simply because they claimed her as their own. That was painfully obvious from the Niagara of grief and affection that filled the streets of London as well as the 43 condolence books (up from the five the palace originally put out), newspaper letter columns from Venice to Vancouver, even memorial Internet sites. The tone was more than admiring; it was intensely personal. “Although I didn’t know her and had never met her, I feel like I have lost a friend,” wrote a woman from New Zealand. Another mourner: ‘Tour life had great meaning to me, your happiness was important to me. I never wanted you to suffer.” A third: “Not since JFK has the tragic public passing of a vibrant, charismatic life touched the world so deeply.” A man from South Africa: “This marks the most tragic day of my life.” The people took possession of Diana: after being passive spectators of the unfolding royal soap opera for so long, they leaped onto the stage and elbowed the actors aside.

The emergence of such a cult (it’s the only word) is, by definition, something mysterious. It stirs the depths of personal and national psyches. Some of the ingredients are obvious. She died young, like John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis Presley (not to mention Jesus Christ). Age will not weary her, nor the years condemn her to dwindling public interest or more tacky escapades. Another script might have turned her into a sorry joke: Diana AÍ Fayed, Dodi’s trophy wife, aging queen of the Euro-trash. Instead, she is frozen forever at the height of her fame, a lasting rebuke to the Royal Family and to her hapless ex-husband, Charles. A British constitutional histo£ rian, David Starkey, put it 5 like this last week: “She is a the eternal good woman. I He is the eternal bad man.” 1 That is the shadow she left ° over the monarchy.

Then there was the sheer ubiquity of Diana. She was, as was endlessly noted, the most photographed woman in the world. This week’s issue of People magazine marks her 44th appearance on its cover—more than any other person. She has been on the cover of Maclean’s 12 times, and on Time and Newsweek seven each. While other modern masters of the media connect with voice and video, Diana was the queen of an older but enduringly potent form: the still image. She patented the famous Look— head lowered, chin tucked into her chest, eyes glancing up in an appeal that was simultaneously submissive, vulnerable and alluring. She grew into her beauty; more precisely, her appeal was such that standards of beauty were redefined in her own image. Words often failed her, but the camera never did. She may have been, as the American cultural critic Camille Paglia once noted, “the last of the silent film stars.”

Diana did not triumph by glossing over her personal struggles, but by sharing them with the world. The childhood scarred by divorce, the doomed marriage, the eating disorders, the painful and public divorce—all made her more human, more approachable to her public. Women, in particular, related her private grief to their own lives. Prince Charles, the Queen and the other royals suffered their own share of woe, but in true Hanoverian style they kept it in. Diana let it all out. Even last week, despite the Queen’s unprecedented TV address, the royals upheld the traditional British value of the stiff upper lip. Diana defeated them by holding out a new ideal: the trembling lower lip. She gave the British permission to unclench, to finally let go—and let go they did in spectacular style. They cried her a river. It was a victory for the confessional style in public life.

Like U.S. President Bill Clinton, another famous lip-biter, she felt the people’s pain, and they felt hers.

There was also, of course, her good works. She lent her name and her time to the cause of AIDS patients, the homeless and, most recently, the eradication of land mines. But it was not the public o. causes that people dwelled on last week. They wanted to possess Diana in a personal, visceral way, and so there was a stream of testimony from people who had been touched by the princess—often literally (unlike the Queen, she wore gloves only when meeting people on formal occasions). A security guard named Vincent Seabrook claimed that Diana actually saved his life when he was a vagrant living on the street, by bringing him food and arranging for a place for him to stay. Others spoke of receiving cards and calls from Diana long after she visited them in hospital. Over and over again, they were nominating and seconding her for secular sainthood.

Diana’s saga was no mere media concoction.

It connected with some of our most powerful images and myths.

Paglia—reflecting on her life as presented in the 1992 book that blew § the lid off the marriage,

Andrew Morton’s Di| ana: Her True Story— S noted that she tapped | into a series of archetypes of womanhood that have deep and enduring cultural roots. She was first seen as Cinderella—the shy teenager working at humble jobs (cleaner, nursery school teacher) who was swept up by a dashing prince. Soon, she became the Betrayed Wife as Charles resumed his liaison with his old, and current, lover, Camilla Parker Bowles. Surrounded by courtiers intent on breaking her spirit and making her conform to royal ways, she became the Princess in the Tower, cut off emotionally from Charles and physically from her friends (they jokingly called her the Prisoner of Wales). Her other personas included the Mater Dolorosa—the sorrowing mother of William and Harry, reminiscent of a tear-streaked Madonna—and, of course, the Hollywood Queen of glamor and extravagant gesture.

The images are rich and complex and sometimes contradictory. Like other cultural icons, Diana had universal appeal because her public could find in her anything it wanted. There were uneasy jokes last week about the canonization of Saint Diana, and of course the modern world likes to think it is beyond such things. But there are, in fact, rich parallels between the feeling surrounding Diana and the ancient Catholic tradition of the saints. David Hugh Farmer, editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, writes that when early Christians began to venerate special people as saints, they were chosen by “popular acclaim.” It was only centuries later that the church hierarchy took control, imposing its own strict system for deciding who should be canonized, which continues to this day. And, notes Farmer, a vital part of turning a martyr into a saint was that the burial ceremony and veneration at the tomb involved “not only the family, but the whole Christian community.” Last week, the crowds in the streets of London refused to let the Royal Family dictate how Diana’s funeral would be conducted. They claimed it for themselves, forcing the royals to make concession after concession, and so took possession of Diana herself.

Once upon a time, there was a real-life Saint Diana. She was a Dominican nun who died in Italy in the year 1236. Not much is known about her, but The Book of Saints compiled by Benedictine monks at an abbey in Ramsgate, England, notes: “After a very worldly youth, she embraced religion against the wish of her family.” If AIDS work and campaigning against land mines are the late-20th century equivalent of getting religion, then the parallel is uncanny. Before the modern Diana was in the ground, some of her admirers were seeing apparitions of her. She will remain a force to be reckoned with—even from beyond the grave. □