Princess Diana was the hostess.
Yes, the princess would see me - at 11 a.m. sharp, the fax specified. She was at home - at Kensington Palace - relaxed, independent. It was probably the only place where she didn't risk being targeted by camera zooms.
She was wearing a short, sleeveless dress, matching her eyes, unless they were reflecting its color. She wore a necklace of large pearls, high heels and a quiet assurance demonstrated by her smile and her friendly way of proffering her hand. Above all, she seemed free, and her simplicity was a nice surprise coming from someone whom protocol dictates should be addressed as "Ma'am."
Diana led us to a private reception room on the second floor, a warm, feminine room decorated in pastels and beiges, with a few pieces of antique furniture and comfortable armchairs and, everywhere possible, wood- and silver-framed photos. They were mostly of her two sons, William and Harry, and also of her two sisters and brother, and her late father, Baron Spencer.
She had accepted the idea of an interview focused on a photograph of her. It seemed that the princess had drawers full of pictures. But it was our selection that interested her immediately - no stolen, private or intimate shots, but known pictures of the public personality that reinforced the legend of the warm-hearted princess focusing on a social problem or a humanitarian cause.
Diana looked at them one at a time, giving a spirited account of each: where, when, with whom.
"I pay a great deal of attention to people, and I remember them," she said. "Every meeting, every visit is special."
She passed in review a children's hospital, a shelter for the homeless, a jobless center, an AIDS research lab, a battered-women's hospice, a leprosarium tent in Zimbabwe, a nutrition camp in Nepal.
Then Diana stopped at a photocopy of a picture taken in 1996 in Pakistan.
"We were in Pakistan, in Lahore at the Shaukat Khanum Hospital, which specialized in cancer treatment. I had come for a day to see the ailing children, to encourage the staff and perhaps help in raising funds. My visit had been announced beforehand, and there was an atmosphere of friendly and joyful excitement. I was talking to different people and lingering over some of the children. Later on there was going to be a distribution of sweets and a show put on by 40 little patients in costume. But a sick child suddenly caught my attention.
"He was a serious little boy with sad eyes and a worn body. And I only had eyes for him. I can't say why. I knew he was going to die.
"I asked his mother, 'May I take him in my arms?' She smiled.
She was delighted. We were laughing softly as she was giving me the child. Then, he said in a little, worried voice, 'Please don't make fun of me.'
"My God! How could we? I was speechless. His mother explained to him that we were just talking. But the child couldn't see, not anymore. Yes, that child was blind. A tumor was ravaging his brain. I hugged him very tight.
"The child died very soon after that. I was told so on a later visit. I can't forget him."
She put it aside on the sofa and continued to look somewhat distractedly through the other pictures. She laughed out loud occasionally over some that caught her being too formal. But she returned to the picture of the child.
"If I have to pick one out, without any hesitation, it's this one," she said.
The photo showed a human experience, not an official duty.
"It's really a private moment in a public event - a private emotion that a photo turns into public behavior. It's a curious coming-together of things. Still, if I had the choice, it's in that kind of surrounding, where I feel perfectly in harmony, that I prefer to be photographed."
Private, public, where's the distinction?
A very public life
The princess created confusion by shattering the borderline between the two spheres, by introducing privacy into the public space. She put feeling and emotion into her official duties and obligations. There was no defensive outer armor. The commitment was sincere, and she put her best into it.
It was also risky. The public had felt it from the start, under the spell of her compassion and her identification with common people. The Establishment, the politicians and princes of appearance were far less appreciative. In a flash, the princess revealed their coldness, their distance, their cynicism.
Look at her gestures with the Bosnian grandmother she took to her bosom, with a young man afflicted with AIDS whose hand she held between hers so long, with the little one-legged Angolan child who sat on her lap. She kissed, caressed, embraced.
"Yes, I do touch. I believe that everyone needs that, whatever their age. When you put your hand on a friendly face, you make contact right away; you communicate warmth, show that you're close by. It's a gesture that comes to me naturally from the heart. It's not premeditated."
Her enthusiasm had raised many a royal family eyebrow. The Lady Di style was laid-back - especially when it became clear that beyond projecting a more modern image, it reflected a new relationship with people. The young woman had to hold herself back, and she sometimes had doubts about her role.
"From the first day I joined that family, nothing could be done naturally any more."
The public gradually gave her self-confidence. It was the ill, the children, the excluded whom she visited with unprecedented diligence who persuaded her that she had the right approach and a gift for human contact.
"I feel close to people, whoever they are. We're immediately at the same level, on the same wavelength. That's why I upset certain circles. It's because I'm much closer to the people at the bottom than the people at the top, and the latter won't forgive me for it. I have a real feeling of closeness with the most humble people. My father always taught me to treat everyone as an equal. I've always done so, and I'm sure that Harry and William will follow in my footsteps."
There were values over which the mother of the next king would not compromise. She was a determined young woman, a 36-year-old princess who didn't yet know what course her personal life would take but who wanted to maintain her commitment, no matter what.
"Being constantly in the public eye gives me a special responsibility, particularly that of using the impact of photographs to transmit a message, to sensitize the world to an important cause, to defend certain values."
As an ambassador? As a prestigious spokeswoman?
"If I must define my role, I'd rather use the word 'messenger.'"
Her official obligations ended with her divorce, and her initiatives became the ones she chose herself.
"Nobody can dictate my conduct. I work on instinct. It's my best adviser."
Her campaigns against land mines, against AIDS, for cancer research, for lepers were her priorities. The photo showing her holding the hands of lepers did more to demystify the illness than the press campaigns of the past 20 years.
But at the cost of so much controversy, humiliation and talk!
"Every single time," she sighed.
When she visited a shelter for the homeless, she was accused of endorsing the Tory government. When, in the early 1980s, she made a tender gesture to an AIDS patient, certain conservatives saw it as a culpable indulgence of immorality.
When she attended a heart transplant in an African hospital, she was accused of indecent coquetry. The papers homed in on a close-up of her wearing a surgical mask and - horrors! - makeup on her eyes.
"The press is ferocious," she said. "It pardons nothing. It looks only for mistakes. Every intention is twisted, every gesture criticized. I think things are different abroad. I'm greeted with kindness. I'm accepted as I am, without prejudices, without watching for every faux pas. In Britain, it's the other way round. And I think that in my place, any sane person would have left long ago. But I can't. I have my sons to think about."
The most striking incident was probably her trip to Angola earlier this year. The princess had planned for a long time the visit organized by the Red Cross to call attention to the tragedy of the 70,000 land mine victims in the country and support the world campaign to ban them. She was seen spending hours listening to young people mutilated by mines, to doctors, to mine clearers.
Mines abroad and at home
But it was London that set off the headlines.
L "A loose cannon," shot an aristocratic member of Parliament.
"A totally ill-advised and unrealistic utopian," said another parliamentarian.
"Misinformed," said a news announcer. "The subject is much too complicated for her little bird's brain."
The government maintained official silence, but its anxiety was clear, given its insistence that certain types of mines are "effective and necessary for our armed services."
Diana was deeply hurt. But the Tory campaign forced the press to focus on Angola.
"The polemics ruined a day's work, but it multiplied the press coverage," she said.
So she did not hide her joy over the immediate decision of the new Labor government to join the countries favoring a ban on land mines.
"Its position on the subject was always clear. It's going to do tremendous work. Its predecessor was so hopeless. I hope we manage to persuade the United States to sign the treaty ban in Ottawa this December."
For her, it was a long-range commitment. She didn't play politics but "humanitarianism." She intended to follow up, regardless of the nettles she might have encountered.
"Over the years, I had to learn to ignore criticism. But the irony is that it gave me strength that I was far from thinking I had. That
doesn't mean it didn't hurt me. To the contrary. But that gave me the strength I needed to continue along the path I had chosen."
The coverage of the kiss on a yacht did not make her give up her mid-August trip to Bosnia. Diana proved that she would no longer be intimidated, that the paparazzi didn't govern her life and that she was staying on course.
"Nothing gives me greater happiness than trying to help the weakest in this society. It's a goal and, from now on, an essential part of my life. It's a sort of destiny. I will run to anyone who calls to me in distress, wherever it is."
Pub Date: 9/07/97