September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

The gold-embossed invitations had already gone out when Diana attended a palace garden party honoring the Year of the Disabled Person on a soft summer day. Wearing her $42,000 sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring, she shook hands with guests and asked one man, “Will you be watching the wedding?”

“Yes,” he replied. And then, momentarily confused by the radiant princess-to-be, he asked, “Will you?” “No,” she said with a laugh, “I’m in it.”

On July 29, 1981, Diana, of course, became the centerpiece of the wedding of the century. So timid that she once agreed to be in a school Christmas pageant only if she didn’t have to speak, she now stepped with an endearing mix of anxiety and pluck onto the world stage that would be her home for the rest of her life. In great part, it was she who made the pageantry resonate so far beyond the venerable walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral. At a time when the British economy was sagging badly, when urban unrest erupted on the streets of Liverpool and trouble boiled once again in Northern Ireland, this joyous ceremony boosted the national spirit and captivated some 750 million people around the world who watched on TV. Among the 2,500 guests were Princess Grace of Monaco, First Lady Nancy Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The palace staff worked to acknowledge some 47,000 letters of congratulations and 10,000 presents, and $400 million worth of wedding souvenirs were sold worldwide. Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie caught the import of the affair perfectly when he said during his sermon, “May they always know…that they were surrounded and supported not by mere spectators but by the sincere affection and active prayers of millions of friends.”

The previous evening, Diana received a signet ring from Charles. The accompanying card read, “When you come up, I’ll be there at the altar for you tomorrow. Just look ’em in the eye and knock ’em dead.” She complied. Descending the Clarence House stairs in a voluminous wedding gown by David and Elizabeth Emanuel made from 40 yards of ivory English silk, Diana took nearly everybody’s breath away. “It was the first time in my life,” her brother Charles later recalled to biographer Andrew Morton, “that I ever thought of Diana as beautiful.”

Under the lenses of 21 TV cameras, they stumbled over their vows. She called him Philip Charles Arthur George instead of Charles Philip Arthur George, and he forgot to repeat the word “worldly” when he promised to share his worldly goods. But after Charles placed on her finger a simple band of Welsh gold, Diana dropped a perfect curtsy to her new mother-in-law.

When the newlyweds appeared later on a Buckingham Palace balcony, Charles gave his wife her first public kiss. As Diana waved to the crowd below, she may have forgotten that a tiny gold horseshoe had been sewn into her gown for good luck. In the exhilarating and difficult days to come, she would need it.

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