October 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Americans are always ready for a Cinderella story. But on a chilly day in 1981, less than a month after Ronald Reagan’s opulent inaugural had swept the last peanut shells out of Washington and whetted our appetite for splendor, we were particularly ready. And so we listened eagerly as Charles, Prince of Wales and scion of a royal line that traces back to Alfred the Great, confirmed what the British press had been predicting for months: that he intended to marry a bashful 19-year-old kindergarten teacher named Lady Diana Frances Spencer. Though a blue blood herself, Shy Di, as the headlines dubbed her, was the perfect storybook heroine: blond, blue-eyed, bedimpled—and a virgin when such creatures were as common as unicorns.

At first, Diana could barely manage a syllable that wasn’t scripted. But like many another woman of the ’80s, she flung herself into her job. Diligently studying her photos in British tabloids, she analyzed her hairdo, her makeup, her posture and her presentation, and then, with the help of fashion experts (and some coaching from film director Sir Richard Attenborough), she executed a miraculous make-over. Before our eyes the pleasantly frumpy schoolgirl who favored Laura Ashley ruffles and bows was transformed into a svelte, stylish, self-possessed young woman with a smile more dazzling than the crown jewels. She became the embodiment of the new-fashioned old-fashioned girl, someone as comfortable wearing a Walkman as a tiara, the first postfeminist princess.

After producing an heir (William) and a spare (Harry), Diana took on another ’80s role: Working Mom, though one with enviable hours and fringe benefits. Between cutting ribbons, accepting posies from bashful children, waving and smiling from banner-decked balconies and cuddling young hospital patients, she clung firmly to palace and kids, involving herself with gusto in the day-to-day drama of runny noses and tiny tantrums. Indeed, her frequent nocturnal visits to the nursery have more than once put the royal nanny in a swivet.

Yet perhaps what best defined Diana as a woman of the ’80s was the way she dealt with the all-too-evident difficulties that soon began to dog her marriage. As the first rapture of romance faded, Charles found he had little in common with his spectacular spouse and began to spend weeks, even months at a time away from home. At first Diana agonized, and the British press floated rumors of a royal divorce. But there was the dynasty as well as the children to consider; and besides, after decades of epidemic divorce, couples in the ’80s have increasingly tended to hang tough and work it out. That’s what Diana did. Like many other women of her generation she has developed an identity quite separate from her husband’s. She no longer needs Charles to define her. She is her own self.

In maturing, Diana perhaps has lost a bit of the fairy-tale glamour that once haloed her. But on the cusp of the ’90s she has acquired some recompense: our respect. Our hearts—well, those she has had all along.

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