By People Staff
May 24, 2007 12:00 PM

An overlooked moment in the storied annals of England – the night the Windsors ate at Sticky Fingers. A London burger spot owned by ex-Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, the eatery played host to Princess Diana and her young sons William and Harry. Their dad, Prince Charles, wasn’t a fan of such places “because he didn’t like the food,” recalls Ken Wharfe, Diana’s former bodyguard. But Mom and the boys had a blast. “That’s where kids of that age would eat, and that’s what Diana wanted her kids to do,” says Wharfe. “It wasn’t the food that mattered, it was the experience.”

This was the magic of Princess Diana, a woman burdened by impossible fame yet beloved the world over for her common touch. Nowhere was this more evident than in the way she raised her sons, sharing with them her joyful spirit, showing them the world’s beauty and its pain, wishing for them a future filled with love and normalcy. And Will and Harry basked in her affection, as if when they were with her they weren’t royals at all but rather just boys and their mum. One time, “William asked, ‘Can we go on a bus?’ so we all hopped on one and later got on the tube,” remembers Wharfe. “Not for a minute did anyone think they’d see the Princess of Wales and her son on the Piccadilly line. But that’s what Diana was like.”

Once known as "the heir and the spare," Will and Harry (at Sandhurst military academy in '06) are now seen as a new breed of royal. "They are redefining the role of prince," says Ken Wharfe, Diana's former bodyguard.

Now it has been nearly 10 years since Diana’s fatal car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, and in that time her influence over her sons – and indeed the monarchy – has become only more apparent. In one of their first joint ventures as adult members of the royal family, Will, 24, and Harry, 22, will host a star-studded concert to honor Diana on July 1 – her birthday – as well as a memorial service on Aug. 31. The princes intend to use these events, say those who know the young men, to make a statement about their mother’s legacy. “It has come to haunt them that she has never been honored in a suitable way,” says Diana’s friend Vivienne Parry. “They are doing something the royal family should have done 10 years ago.”

Yet the most meaningful tributes to Diana are her sons themselves. Each has in his own way absorbed the lessons she taught them and displayed the traits that so endeared her to the public. Like her, they have become thoroughly modern royals – bound to duty and the demands of the job but also connected to the world around them. With their commitment to charitable work, their relationships with women, their insistence on living as normally as possible, Will and Harry “are keeping Diana’s memory alive,” says a family friend.

Will and Harry walked behind Diana's casket at her Sept. 6, 1997, service; Harry also left a note for "Mummy" on her coffin. "Ever since our mother died," Harry said in 2005, "amp#91;Willamp#93; is the one person on earth who I can . . . talk to about anything."

When her sons were young, Diana took them along on some of her visits to shelters. “She said, ‘I want them to see what it’s like for the homeless, the down-and-outs,’ ” says Wharfe. Years later Diana’s influence was unmistakable during Harry’s 2004 trip to the impoverished African nation of Lesotho. Like his mother, one of the first well-known figures to be photographed touching a person with AIDS, Harry met with AIDS orphans and underprivileged children. “He’d go to places, and within two minutes of the formalities he’d say, ‘I want to walk around,’ ” says Lesotho’s Prince Seeiso, who with Harry formed Sentebale, a charity that benefits disadvantaged kids. “Soon there would be two and three and then 50 children around him.”

Will has lent his support to several charities, including Centrepoint, which helps homeless young people (his mother was a patron). “He came in once and took part in a workshop where two girls and him were taught to cook lasagna,” says Centrepoint chief executive Anthony Lawton. “He gets on easily with all sorts of people.” Their father, Charles, is also heavily involved with numerous charities. But the ease and charm William and Harry have shown in their own philanthropic work can be traced directly to Diana.

The popular version of the Windsor family story is that Diana was the nurturing parent while Charles, 58, could be distant. In fact, says a royal source, William and Harry (in Switzerland in 2002) were very close to Charles throughout their childhoods.

Diana also taught her sons to accept the inevitable burdens of being royal. “She dealt with the media incredibly well and taught Will and Harry that it’s part of their life too,” says Wharfe, who recalls Diana lecturing Will after the youngster cowered from photographers. “She said, ‘You better get used to it. Just smile and wave and move on.'” But Diana made sure their childhoods did not resemble their father’s strict, isolated upbringing; she dressed them in jeans and took them to movies and amusement parks. Today neither Will nor Harry “live in a gilded cage like their father did,” says a family friend. Harry in particular “is desperate to be like everyone else,” says Ingrid Seward, author of a book on the princes, William & Harry – a wish reflected in Harry’s desire to be sent to Iraq to fight with his regiment.

Yet it was having to grow up without their mother – Will was only 15 when Diana died, and Harry 12 – that perhaps most shaped the princes. “I always thought William and Harry were lost boys without Diana,” says royals writer Judy Wade, noting how quickly each entered into long relationships with the first women they seriously dated. Will recently broke up with Kate Middleton, 25, his girlfriend of nearly five years. But Harry and Chelsy Davy, 21, are still going strong after three years, often expressing their affection in a way Diana – who pushed her boys not to bottle up their emotions as she felt their father did – would have approved. “They seem very much in love,” says someone who saw the couple hugging and kissing at the Badminton Horse Trials May 5. “You can see it in their eyes, their body language, how close they are.”

Diana (top, at a Brazilian hostel for abandoned children in '91) had a passion for helping the underprivileged; now her sons have it too. Harry (bottom) bonded with Mutsu, 6, on a trip to a Lesotho children's home in '06. Says Lesotho's Prince Seeiso: "He took to Harry like a fish to water."

And just as Diana carved her own path through the hazards of royal life, Harry and Will are trying to decide for themselves what roles they will play in the monarchy. “I’m not going to be some person in the royal family who just finds a lame excuse to go abroad and do all sorts of sunny holidays and whatever,” Harry declared in 2005. “I can see myself doing as much as I can in the position that I’ve got.” Their upcoming tributes to Diana, for example, were entirely their idea, and both are actively involved in planning them. “The 10th anniversary comes at a time when William and Harry are just entering their adult lives,” says a senior palace source, “and they feel ready to make a statement about how they want their mother to be remembered.”

Many would say Will and Harry – older and wiser than when they ate at Sticky Fingers, but still, in some ways, the same sweet kids – make that statement every day. “The most important thing to Diana was to make sure her boys grew up to be normal human beings,” says a family friend. “And apart from the fact that everyone in the world knows their faces, they are very normal boys. That is Diana’s legacy.”

• By Alex Tresniowski. Reported by Simon Perry, Ellen Tumposky and Liz Corcoran in London