September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

Shy Di, they called her at first, the woman chosen to be the wife of England’s future king. So young that her face and figure still revealed the rounded curves of childhood, she stepped tentatively toward the cameras, buttoned up in unfashionable schoolgirl blouses, head bowed slightly, eyes raised only to look with touching adoration upon the face of her prince. She could not know—nor could any of us then—what an extraordinary fate lay before her.

When she died on Aug. 31 under brutal and unforgivable circumstances at age 36, this gentle creature had become the most admired woman in the world. Tall, lean, elegant, with a smile that moved movie stars to blush, she walked as easily among the poor and ailing as among the glittering elite. She cradled children who had lost their limbs in war and reached out to those attacked by such silent enemies as cancer and AIDS. And of course she nurtured her own two sons, wrapping them in tenderness and surrounding them with joy even as she worked to instill the discipline their future demanded.

Estranged from her husband, shunned by his family and eventually stripped of her royal title, Diana became “the people’s princess,” a label bestowed upon her by Prime Minister Tony Blair. She never hesitated to confess her own weaknesses, talking publicly about her depression, her bulimia, an ill-considered affair. “For all the status, the glamour, the applause,” her brother, Earl Spencer, said in his eulogy, “Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart…. The world sensed this part of her character and cherished her for her vulnerability whilst admiring her for her honesty.”

At home in London, more than 1 million waited, some as long as four days, to watch her casket wend its way to Westminster Abbey. Two billion more—in corners as distant as Japan and Argentina—witnessed the funeral on television.

In a life crowded with ironies, perhaps the cruelest was that Diana, a woman who sought, desperately at times, affection and encouragement—who longed, as she would say, “0for a good cuddle”—would not feel that final, unprecedented outpouring of love.

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