On Wednesday July 29th, 1981, I had been with a gathering of my favorite friends, including me new boyfriend (now my husband) to watch the television broadcast of the wedding of Prince Charles of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral. We had a special royalty-themed party with champagne and a bunch of laughs, yet the entire gang ended up inexplicitly in tears. Famous figures attended the wedding included royal families from across the world, heads of state, celebrities, and members of the bride’s and groom’s families. Their marriage was considered the “wedding of the century”. The broadcast was watched by 750 million people. The United Kingdom had a national holiday on that day.
But, it wasn’t a fairytale marriage. Charles and Diana separated in 1992 and divorced on August 28, 1996.
Diana remained the object of worldwide media scrutiny during and after the marriage. She became the most famous and most photographed woman on the planet.
Diana began her work with AIDS victims in the 1980s, when the plague was new. In 1989, she opened Landmark AIDS Centre in South London. Unlike most everyone in the world, Diana was not afraid to make physical contact with people with AIDS. At that point, it was still unknown how the disease was spread. Diana was the first British Royal to acknowledge AIDS. In 1987, she held hands with an AIDS patient in an early effort to de-stigmatize the disease. Princess Diana noted:
“HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it. What’s more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys”
To Diana’s great disappointment, Queen Elizabeth II did not support this type of charity work, and she suggested that Diana get involved in “something more pleasant”.
In October 1990, Diana opened Grandma’s House in Washington DC, a home for young sufferers of the plague. She was also on the board of The National AIDS Trust. In 1991, she famously hugged a patient during a visit to the AIDS ward of the Middlesex Hospital. She was the patron and frequent visitor of Turning Point, a London HIV health and social care organization. She was a leader in fundraising campaigns for HIV/AIDS research.
In March 1997, Diana visited South Africa, taking a meeting with President Nelson Mandela. Together they announced that the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund would join the Princess Of Wales Fund to help people with HIV. They had planned the combination of the two charities just a few months before her death. Mandela:
“When she stroked the limbs of someone with leprosy or sat on the bed of a man with HIV/AIDS and held his hand, she transformed public attitudes and improved the life chances of such people, Princess Diana had used her celebrity status to fight the stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS”.
The 36-year-old princess died in the early hours of August 31, 1997. Her Mercedes, pursued by paparazzi, crashed into a concrete pillar in the Alma Tunnel in Paris while traveling at more than 70 miles per hour. Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul were all killed. Conspiracy theories still swirl around this event. Was she murdered? Was it planned? Was it simply a horrible accident?
Like most of the planet, I was drawn to the stories and scandals that surrounding Diana before and after that car crash. On this day in, August 31 in 1997, I was at my job as a bartender when I heard the news. I customer told me, having heard it on a car radio. This was before cellphones, but the news spread with great speed. I was shocked and began to cry. I pulled myself together to appear professional, but by this time all the patrons were offering their stories about how she touched their lives. It was a collective grief shared with strangers. I bought everyone a round of drinks. I called the boyfriend, but he already had seen it on television.
It was one of those pivotal, unforgettable moments like the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy, John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr.; the Challenger Disaster, and the election of the 45th President of the United States; when there was a collective shock and then a terrible ache that was shared by friends, family and strangers, an event that you can say: “I remember exactly where I was when I heard the terrible news”.
Diana’s two sons participated in a BBC documentary, Diana, 7 Days, which will premieres on NBC on tomorrow and looks at the week after their mother’s death.
“I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted to cry as loud as they did and show such emotion as they did when they didn’t really know our mother. Looking back over the last few years I’ve learned to understand what it was that she gave the world and what she gave a lot of people.“
The two princes also helped to produce Diana, Our Mother: Her Life And Legacy, currently streaming on HBO.
“She was very informal and really enjoyed the laughter and the fun, but she understood there was a real life outside palace walls and she wanted us to see it from a very young age.”
“I genuinely think she got satisfaction out of dressing myself and William up in the most bizarre outfits, normally matching… It was weird shorts and, like, shiny shoes with the old clip-ons. And looking back at the photos, it just makes me laugh. I just think, ‘How could you do that to us?!'”
Her good friend Sir Elton John, who famously performed at Princess Diana’s funeral:
“It was considered to be a gay disease and for someone who was in the royal family and who was a woman and who was straight and to have someone care from the other side was an incredible gift.”
John tweeted a photo of him and Diana this morning with the caption:
“20 years ago today, the world lost an angel. #RIP #Diana20”