Princess Diana loved America, and America loved her back. As the 20th anniversary of her death approached, USA TODAY spent three months examining why that might be, digging through our archives, re-reading biographies and her own words, watching documentaries and talking to royals experts, historians, her friends and fans. What we found is a long list of multiple and diverse legacies that Americans could admire: on her charitable work, her fashion and style, on the media and the paparazzi, on the royal family and the monarchy as an institution. She left behind two sons who continue in her philanthropic footsteps, and friends and fans who continue to tell her story. Her death helped to feed an appetite for conspiracy theories, and her life continues to affect public opinion about her ex-husband and his second wife. What we found is someone who mattered in important ways — to Americans and to the world.
Twenty years later, it's as if she hadn't died. Once again, America's attention is haunted by lost Diana, Princess of Wales, the undisputed queen, then and now, of Yankee hearts.
Pick up any device, peruse any newsstand or bookstore, switch on your TVs, and there she is, glowing in the strobe lights, beaming that megawatt smile, batting those intensely blue eyes — permanently young and beautiful at just 36.
"People who die young are forever trapped in amber," says best-selling American royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith. "No one can imagine what Diana would have looked like as 56-year-old."
It was hard to take in when she was killed in a Paris car crash, on Aug. 31, 1997: How could such a charismatic presence suddenly vanish, and in such banal circumstances?
It's the question Britain and the world are still asking, but especially Americans. The country that threw off the royal yoke 241 years ago clasped the aristocrat-turned-royal Diana to its breast when she was alive, and embraces her still all these years later.
"The fact that 20 years on we still talk about Diana, that she still captures and enthralls in equal measure and remains to a degree a mystery and a dichotomy, are testimony to her legacy and the deep impression she left," says Katie Nicholl, the British journalist, royal biographer and commentator whose next book, Harry: Life, Loss and Love, comes out next year.
Americans treasure their memories of Diana in America, especially her first visit in 1985 when she wore blue velvet to dance with John Travolta at the Reagan White House. The excited crowds in Washington were so large they threatened to block traffic. Even "serious" news reporters were star-struck, leaving off reporting about budget talks and arms control negotiations to flutter about Diana, according to The New York Times.
She especially liked New York and visited often, going to a homeless shelter and an AIDS clinic in 1989, attending a charity gala in 1995, and auctioning her dresses for charity in June 1997, just weeks before she was killed.
One of the key characters in the 2014 hit stage play, Charles III, in which the Prince of Wales becomes king and improbable chaos ensues, Diana puts in spectral appearances as a blond Banquo's ghost haunting her ex and her sons. But she haunts everybody and Americans more than most.
Christopher Andersen, the American royals author whose best-selling 1998 book The Day Diana Died has been reissued as an ebook, says Diana has always been "more popular in America" than even in Britain.
"The revisionism about her, depicting her as neurotic, grasping, a villain, Americans never bought into it. It didn’t appeal to their idea of the fairy-tale princess," Andersen says.
People like Andersen, Smith and Nicholls, who watched Diana for years, think Americans projected their fantasies on Diana but also picked up on her vulnerabilities: her bulimia, her unhappiness and divorce, her many childhood traumas.
Americans connected with Diana's obvious warmth, so much a contrast to the icy, standoffish royals, Andersen says.
"She was human, that was the key to her," he says. "People could identify with some aspect of her personality whether it was depression or bulimia or trauma or being a young mother. We recognized something of ourselves in her."
She reached out to people in a way no other royal had done, as the first royal to embrace AIDS patients, for instance. "That resonated with Americans," who were reminded of former first lady Jackie Kennedy," Andersen says. "The level of their celebrity has not been matched by anyone else since then."
Plus, don't underestimate the power of Diana's stunning looks, says Smith, the author of Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess (1999), and Prince Charles, The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life (published in April). She says Diana was at the height of her allure when she died.
"She had just been photographed by Mario Testino, she looked beautiful, but most people didn't realize she was spinning like a top," Smith says. "Diana projected an image of strength, recovery and vulnerability. She projected innocence and wonderment. She was an object of great sympathy. And everybody was just completely captivated by her beauty."
She was rich, beautiful, the mother of a future king and a woman beloved by millions — but not by her husband, the Prince of Wales, who was in love with someone else and had been since before their gloriously romantic royal wedding in 1981. He knew it, she knew it, but we didn't know it — not until much later, when it all came to tears. Many, many tears.
"When you think 'princess,' that was Diana, the emblem of the term," says Victoria Arbiter, the British-born CNN royal contributor in New York who lived in Kensington Palace in her teens as the daughter of Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the queen.
"She was a beautiful woman who felt injured and hurt by her husband, so there was a massive sense of public sympathy for her," Victoria Arbiter says. "People could relate to her, wanted to be her, wanted to be her best friend."
This was true especially of Americans because their attitudes toward celebrities are different from those of the British, she says.
"(The British media) often show celebrities falling out of nightclubs, looking rough and flaunting their underwear," she says. "What (the American media) do is show them on red carpets looking great. They're celebrated, they're seen as bettering their life. In England, it's seen as jumping your class."
So, at the 20th anniversary, Britain naturally is deep-diving into Diana memories. Even Prince William and Prince Harry decided they would mark the anniversary not with a charity pop concert, as they did for the 10th, but by agreeing for the first time to be interviewed in a documentary about their mother, her legacy and her life. This won't happen again, they said.
But the American media, especially the TV networks and cable channels (even National Geographic and the Smithsonian Channel), also are making this summer all about Diana, with multiple documentaries and specials scheduled or already aired.
Why else would they do that except they know audiences will devour them eagerly?
America is ready for a long look back at Diana, and for a good cry about what might have been.
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