By Richard Lacayo
Updated March 15, 1999 12:00 PM

In the end, it’s a paradox. Diana, Princess of Wales, lived a life like no one else on earth. Yet millions came to identify with her and, when she died, felt as though they had lost a friend. Though the evidence points to the conclusion that her 1997 death was a tragic accident—a high-speed paparazzi chase into a Parisian tunnel, a drunken chauffeur—conspiracy theories still collect around the white Fiat Uno, as yet unlocated, that may have grazed her car just before the crash. Maybe that’s no surprise. Conspiracy theories, even the most outlandish, are almost a comfort compared to the cold reality: that a woman so privileged, so protective toward others, could herself die so stupidly.

But even sainthood is an unstable condition these days. During the past year, Diana has been reexamined. In November 1998, British author Penny Junor published Charles: Victim or Villain?, an account of the royal marriage that was highly sympathetic toward the Prince. It included the much-publicized claims that she, not Charles, was the first to have an affair when she took up with her personal security officer, Barry Mannakee.

Does any of that really matter to her fame? It is Diana’s all-too-human romantic foibles that continue to fascinate. With perfect hindsight it has become clear there was trouble from the start. During her courtship by Charles, she seemed as forthcoming as the signature on a valentine. The Prince, in contrast, displayed all the traits of an Egyptian hieroglyphic: stiff, upright and hard to decipher. Trouble was in attendance at the wedding itself. Charles’s mistress, Camilla, was in the pews. On her honeymoon, Diana saw two pictures of her rival spill from her husband’s diary, then later spotted the cuff links that Camilla gave Charles, with two C’s entwined.

Soon after the birth of second son Prince Harry, in 1984, the marriage was in ruins. But it was not until the early ’90s that Diana fought back in public, first by secretly cooperating with Andrew Morton on his 1992 book Diana: Her True Story, and three years later by granting a BBC interview in which she described her marriage as “a bit crowded” by Camilla. With that she unbundled herself as no royal had done before.

In need of comfort herself, she became a celebrated source of comfort to others. Diana in the hospitals. Diana among the land mines in Bosnia and Angola. “Maybe it was because she felt she was an outsider,” says Vivienne Parry, a former trustee of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund (which has raised about $136 million since her death). Along the way she also shed the sackcloth of British royal women—dresses that might as well be barrels trimmed with doilies—and found her way to brisk haircuts and gowns by canny designers like Versace.

In the years just before her death, Diana had consolidated all the aspects of herself that would make her unforgettable—vulnerability, durability, compassion and style. Just before her divorce in 1996 she could even show up at a friend’s home wearing a Chanel belt with its familiar logo—entwined C’s—and jokingly suggest, “It’s for Camilla and Charles!” All that remained was for her to find her way to renewed happiness in her personal life.

Some think the last real passion of her life was Dodi Fayed, the Egyptian playboy who died with her. Others believe that she took up with Fayed to arouse jealousy in Hasnat Khan, a Pakistani surgeon from a London hospital. Christiaan Barnard, the heart specialist who was a friend, says that in 1996 she begged him to get a job for Khan in South Africa, in the hope, Barnard believes, that they might both live there. “She said she wanted to remarry and wanted to have two daughters,” he says. The truth was something she took with her when she died.

What did she leave behind? For one thing, a royal family more available to the ordinary charms and obstacles of life. During the past 18 months, Charles has been able to offer more public expressions of affection to Princes William and Harry. Even the Queen has found herself visiting McDonald’s and entering a pub. But there’s more. What Diana legitimized—for the royals, but maybe also for the rest of us—was this: frailty, candor, impishness and glamor. But also uncertainty, outreach, imperfection and personal renewal after a life so complicated you might almost think it was your own.

Richard Lacayo

Simon Perry in London