September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

Designer Victor Edelstein was fitting Diana for an evening gown the day before she first extended an ungloved hand to AIDS patients in a London hospital in 1987. “I said to her, ‘What will you say to these people?’ ” recalls Edelstein, who was horrified by the then-hopelessness of the disease. Replied the princess: “I’ll know when I get there.”

Born with an extraordinary gift of compassion, Diana always knew what to say—and she spoke directly from the heart. It was because of her own unhappy life, she told the BBC, that she “found an affinity” with people rejected by society. “When you shook her hand, she zapped you with a friendly tonic,” says Gary Aldridge, an HIV-positive charity worker who met her in 1996. In all, Diana aided more than 100 charities. She called it her work, and it took her into cancer wards, homeless shelters and splintered countries littered with land mines.

Many of her goodwill visits went unseen by cameras. Bridget Barford, a cleaning woman at the Spencer family’s Althorp estate, was amazed in 1987 when the princess showed up unannounced to visit Barford’s son Shaun, who was dying of cystic fibrosis in a London hospital. “I walked in, and she was sitting on my son’s bed,” Barford recalls. “It made his world.” And hers as well. “When you discover you can give joy to people like that,” Diana told The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief Tina Brown, “there is nothing quite like it.”

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