WE WILL NEVER FORGET WHERE WE WERE when we heard the news. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the death of Princess Diana was one of those occurrences that seemed to divide time itself into all the days before, when such a thing seemed impossible, and the days after, when we knew better. In her emergence from shy Di to the triumphant public figure of her last days, in her accomplishments, her acts of mercy, even her fumbles and frailties, Diana was one of the preeminent personalities of the 20th century.
Diana died on the cusp of a new life. In the months that followed her August 1996 divorce from Prince Charles, she was tasting the pleasure of real independence and casting off the weight of the past. She gave up her round-the-clock security guards. At the urging of her son William, she gave away 79 of her most glamorous gowns for a New York City auction that raised more than $5 million for AIDS and breast cancer charities. Her altruism had entered a new, more ambitious phase—a campaign against land mines that would take her to Angola and Bosnia to see for herself the devastation those weapons could cause. She told friends that from now on she would be traveling light.
By the summer, she had also entered into a quickly maturing romantic relationship with Dodi Fayed, a wealthy Egyptian film producer and playboy whose father, Mohamed, owns Harrods department store in London. There were rumors that the two were thinking of marriage. After cruising the Mediterranean with Fayed, Diana called her boys to tell them that she would meet them on Aug. 31 in London. But first there would be a last romantic night in Paris with Dodi. That night ended instead in a fatal crash and a hundred questions that all amounted to, Why? For months and years to come, the world will wonder about the culpability of the Al Fayeds, about their driver Henri Paul, who took the wheel with nearly four times the French legal limit of alcohol in his blood, and about the paparazzi who pursued Diana to the very end.
The tide of flowers that washed over England after her death has receded. What did she leave? Diana modernized the British monarchy, of course, making it simultaneously more glamorous and more mundane, so that both Charles and Queen Elizabeth now understand the British people want a royal family that is less remote. “Diana has taught them all that compassion is just as important as duty,” says James Whitaker, who covers the royal family for Britain’s Daily Mirror.
More than that, Diana left the example of a life devoted to good works in a way that went far beyond her royal obligations or even the shrewd management of her public image. It was common to compare the princess’s life to a fairy tale. If that’s what it was, then her death reminded us of how often fairy tales move down dark tunnels toward unhappy endings. But the magic she created will outlive the shock of her death. For years to come she will remain a kind of traveling light.