Where I was when Princess Diana died

I’ve watched The Crown since it started. Until now, season one was my favourite, with Claire Foy doing an exquisite job of portraying the young monarch. Then came season four.

I’m only a few episodes in, but with the incredible Emma Corrin having perfected Princess Diana’s voice, posture, and mannerisms, I’m finding myself overly emotional every time she is on screen.

You see, I loved Diana.

From afar, of course like most people, but she was … I cannot put into words what it was like growing up with her as an icon – of femininity, sure, but also of compassion, bravery, and humanity. She was an extraordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. I admired her and, yes, from afar, I loved her.

I was touring when she died – running a five-week tour for fifty 18-35 year olds and we were in Austria when the news broke the morning after a brilliantly fun dress up party.

This is an excerpt from my travel diary:

The kitchen was oddly quiet, only one rep, John, there preparing breakfast instead of the six or seven I expected. I asked where everyone else was and he casually replied, ‘Oh, haven’t you heard? Diana’s dead.’ Diana, who? I thought.

‘Diana who?’ I voiced aloud, still nowhere near connecting the dots.

‘The Princess.’ He continued his preparations, seemingly unaware of the bombshell he’d just dropped, so I thought he must be joking.

‘That isn’t funny, John.’

He stopped what he was doing and looked at me. ‘No, I’m serious.’

‘Well, you’d better be bloody serious, because I’m about to walk in there and tell fifty people,’ I said, indicating the dining room where my tour group was having breakfast.

‘It’s true, listen.’ He switched on the radio and the announcer was, of course, speaking German, but I could make out, ‘Prinzessin Diana ist tot,’ and had enough of the language under my belt to understand – the language at least. I still couldn’t comprehend the meaning of those words.

I fiddled with the dial on the radio, hoping to find an English speaking station, and finally found the BBC. ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, has been confirmed dead, killed overnight in an automobile accident in a tunnel in Paris.’

Well, there was no mistaking that.

Princess Diana was dead.

Without another thought, I walked through the swinging doors to the dining room and called for quiet, not looking at any of their faces. Some people still spoke, and I shouted, ‘Listen!’ I never spoke to my group like this and the tone of my voice must have conveyed the seriousness of the situation. There was immediate silence.

My eyes locked on the tiled floor, I said, ‘Last night, Princess Diana was in a car accident in Paris. She died.’ No one spoke, or maybe they did, but I choked back a sob and pushed back through the swinging door into the kitchen, vaguely aware that some of the people on my tour followed me, consoling me then crowding around the radio.

My sister! Victoria lived in London and she would be distraught. I needed to call her. It would be expensive, but she’d need me.

My fingers were shaking as I dialled the number and I made a mistake and had to start again. She answered sleepily on the third ring. ‘Hello?’

‘Hi, it’s me. Are you okay?’

‘Yes. Did you call me at 7:30 in the morning just to ask me that?’

She doesn’t know, I thought. ‘Vic, have you heard the news?’

‘What news?’ Oh, god.

‘It’s bad, Vic. Princess Diana died last night.’

Her screams, then her wailing, were so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Tears streamed down my face and I caught the eye of several others who were also crying. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and someone handed me a napkin.

When Vic calmed down enough to talk to me – I could hear the news blaring from her TV in the background – I made her promise to call someone so she wouldn’t be alone and we hung up.

I made my way back into the dining room where someone had turned on the TVs, all tuned to BBC news. Fifty of us – give or take – sat either in silence or sharing quiet murmurs as we watched footage from Paris – the mangled car, the tunnel, and the security footage of Diana and Dodi al Fayed leaving the hotel. And scenes of the thousands of people converging on central London bearing flowers, cards, and signs, and wearing their grief for all to see.

I both could and couldn’t believe it.

The following days of the tour – we were only about 3 weeks in – were spent scouring English newspapers and watching newscasts where possible. As we headed towards the last leg of the tour, I had to tell the same group that Gianni Versace had been murdered outside of his house in Miami, and then on the last day of the tour, that Mother Teresa had died. A few people thought I might be joking – too many sad announcements for the same group – but no.

That day also happened to be the day of the cortege, September 6th. In the late afternoon, as we drove into London, it was like a ghost town. I had never seen the city deserted before and likely wouldn’t again. It was eerie, disturbing, and unsteadying.

At the hotel, we said our goodbyes – for most of us, long and tearful and I felt especially close to this group. Alone in my room, I watched a replay of the full cortege, my heart breaking as I watched 12-year-old Harry and 15-year-old William walking behind their mother’s casket, that handwritten card on top, the envelope reading, ‘Mummy’. Those brave, brave boys.

Why was I so sad? Why had the death of a woman I didn’t know affected me so acutely?

I think it was especially tragic, as she finally seemed happy. She’d endured a trying marriage, and she’d been in the spotlight for her entire adult life, enduring scrutiny and criticism for every move she made. Yet she’d emerged more beautiful than ever, as though a light had been switched on inside her. That she should die at 36, at the beginning of her newfound life, was a cruel twist of fate.

Image by Mario Testino

Someone on the tour said, ‘This will be our Kennedy.’ That was true then and still is today.

4 thoughts on “Where I was when Princess Diana died

  1. I remember my Pops gently shaking me awake, that morning, to tell me Princess Diana has died. It was awful.
    We had a function to attend at the temple, that day, and all you could hear were quiet mumblings, and upset faces, as everyone slowly came to terms with the devastating news. The priest spoke of her in the prayers, too, blessing her soul as it departed.
    She was truly a Princess for the People. Every community out there in the world, was affected.

  2. Great piece, Sandy. I am the same age and star sign as Diana, I always felt so strongly about her, as I know many women did/still do. At the time of her death my brother worked for the Royal Family and had done for some years, so I kind of had this extra link. Weirdly, like we often do with celebrities, I thought I knew her, and her death hit me hard. How could someone this beautiful die just, as you say, she seemed to be finding happiness? It was like snuffing out a dream.

    • Absolutely. When I turned 36, the age she was when she died, I spent a lot of time thinking about how every year I had from then on was especially special, as that was all she had.

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