She entered the room and brought with her a halo of light: a tall, coltish, impossibly elegant young woman; her cheeks flushed, her skin like English cream; a nose like that of a Greek statue; eyes the color of sapphires and hair like a crown of shining gold.
Dressed in a lipstick-red suit with a white shawl collar and wearing stiletto-heeled shoes that made her long, suntanned legs -- she wore no stockings -- seem even longer, Diana, Princess of Wales, had the effect she always had: She stopped traffic.
It has been a dozen years since I watched Diana, accompanied by Prince Charles, enter the drawing room of the British Embassy residence in Washington to have tea with a small group of selected members of the press.
Billed as "an informal social occasion" in honor of Diana's first visit to Washington, the assembled reporters were served assorted hors d'oeuvres on silver trays and beverages by tuxedoed embassy staffers.
But the food and ambience were not what we'd come to see. What we had all come to see was Diana. Reporters were just as fascinated with her as the crowds who lined the Washington streets to cheer Diana! Diana! Diana!
Charming and without affectation, Diana did not disappoint as she chatted informally about the weather -- "Lovely!" -- and her lack of sleep -- "No one seems to believe that even a young person can get very tired on such a grueling trip as this one."
She laughed, shyly, as she told reporters she was a fan of the American TV show "Dynasty" and the cartoon strip "Peanuts." Reporters laughed, too.
But beneath the laughter, even then, there was a sadness about her. In repose, her face often seemed shadowed with a weariness beyond her years. And, of course, there was the way she looked at you: sideways or with eyes downcast or half-closed.
Perhaps such a way of seeing protected her from being overwhelmed by the attention that followed her everywhere.
Or perhaps it was her way of not seeing the cameras constantly thrust into her face and the screaming headlines that stripped away almost every vestige of a private life.
From the first pre-marriage pictures of an unsuspecting Diana snapped in a dress made diaphanous by sunlight to the recent tabloid photos of her Mediterranean tryst with 41-year-old Dodi Fayed photographers tracked her down.
Nothing about Diana, it seems, was off-limits.
On Saturday night, her public life ended the way it began: with Diana running from the paparazzi.
Now the world's most photographed woman has passed into legend. But not before giving us a tantalizing glimpse of the woman she might have become.
Start with the look.
A recent Vanity Fair cover shows a new Diana. Gone is the bulimic-looking, overdressed and coiffed Diana. In her place we see a healthy, toned-and-sleek Diana with minimal makeup and a wash-and-wear hairstyle.
Gone, too, is the downcast look. This Diana gazes openly into the camera. She looks like a woman ready to get on with the next part of her life.
"There is a kind of serenity about her," Gianni Versace told Vanity Fair at the time the photograph was shot. "It is a moment in her life, I think, when she's found herself -- the way she wants to live."
But how did Diana want to live? What could she draw on to propel herself from the old life to a new and better one?
After all, she had gone from a painful childhood bereft of parental love -- her mother left the family when Diana was 6 -- and a painful, loveless marriage during which she was publicly rejected by her husband.
She had gone from blushing ingenue to fairy-tale princess and mother; from a woman scorned to a single, divorced parent. Along the way, she had starved herself and made some half-hearted suicide attempts.
Little help came from the Royal Family -- or "The Firm" as they like to call themselves. Bred to be stiff-upper-lip and rigid in their monarchic lifestyle, the Royals didn't seem to understand Diana.
What were they to make of a young woman who could cry openly at the sight of a child dying from AIDS?
In all her life, it seems, Diana had no one to turn to.
And yet, Diana herself was to become known and loved as a warm and compassionate woman. Against all odds she was, at her deepest core, a woman of strong maternal feeling.
Battered women, AIDS patients, lepers, sick and handicapped children, the homeless. To much of society, they were the "untouchables."
Not to Diana: She was always there, touching them, stroking their hair or holding a hand. And she used her news value to see that photographers were there to call attention to the plight of such people.
In the last year of her life, things seemed to be coming together for Diana. It appeared she had shaken off her sadness about the breakup of her marriage and was carving out a life in which charity projects figured prominently. In Britain she was deeply admired for the seriousness of such efforts, particularly her recent campaign to ban anti-personnel land mines.
Sense of compassion
But her deepest devotion was reserved for her two young sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. She was determined, she said, to counteract the stiffness and rigidity of the monarchy by instilling in her sons a sense of compassion and sympathy.
She was determined to make them feel loved, too. She was going to give them "plenty of kisses and comforting, too."
Diana always seemed to be comforting someone. From a small girl who lost her legs to a land mine to Elton John at the funeral of Gianni Versace, Diana was not afraid to reach out.
But she was still searching, it seems, for a satisfying personal life.
To an observer, her choice in men seemed precarious. She seemed to be looking for a man who would offer her unconditional love and a safe haven from an unstable world, much as Jackie Kennedy Onassis did. It is the kind of love a child seeks from a parent; the kind of love that if you had as a child, you don't need as an adult.
Still, it seems clear that Diana was trying to move forward in her life. Some say she was on the threshold of a new and better life.
Now we will never know.
Instead we are left to wonder about the road Diana, Princess of Wales, might have taken had she lived; about the influence she might have had on Prince William, the future king of England; about the personal happiness -- or sadness -- she might have known.
Now that Diana is a part of history, how will we remember her?
Some say it is her beauty and grace we will remember. Others say her legacy lies in the compassion and love she brought to all she met.
But perhaps we should also remember Diana, Princess of Wales, as we remember a lost child.
She is like the child who dies on the cusp of coming into her own; the child whose promise is cut short, leaving us to grieve what might have been.
Now Diana is gone, leaving a small darkness where her light once shone.
How strange it feels without her.
Pub Date: 9/01/97