The summer of 1997 was meant to be the beginning of Princess Diana’s new life. As a still fairly recent divorcee (her marriage with then-Prince Charles ended the year before), she spoke to Vanity Fair in June for what would become her last official interview.
At the same time, the famous auction house Christie’s was cataloging some of her most famous gowns to go under the gavel (with all proceeds benefiting charities), and it was clear to everyone in the room that the auction was more than a symbolic move: Diana was free—”free of the restrictions that she had before,” as her friend Rosa Monckton put it.
No one seemed more aware than Diana herself. The late Meredith Etherington-Smith, then the group creative marketing director for the auction house, shared that the Princess of Wales asked to work with a photographer who was new to her because she wanted new everything. “New hair, new makeup. The whole nine yards. She’s a very savvy girl,” Etherington-Smith said.
Monckton and Etherington-Smith weren’t the only friends who had noticed. As writer Cathy Horyn described, the Princess of Wales’ inner circle was using words like “liberation” when speaking of the life she was living.
Many of those friends were given special permission to speak about Diana’s personal life. As one of the most famous people in the world at the time, it would have been easy to assume everyone knew everything about Diana, but the opposite is true. While she was certainly known for her extracurricular activities—weeks on yachts, parties, taking her sons on private retreats with fashion legends Aldo Pinto and his wife, Mariuccia Mandelli—she was also focused on the legacy she wanted to build for herself.
Diana told Horyn, “Nothing gives me more pleasure now than being able to love and help those in our society who are vulnerable. If I can contribute a little something, then I am more than content.”
To that end, she was literally walking the walk. This was the same year in which Diana completed her famous landmine walk in Angola; the same year she met and conferenced with Nelson Mandela at his home in South Africa. While the walk in Angola got a lot of press attention, Diana also spent her time there speaking privately with victims of landmines, sometimes for so long that so-called VIPs had to wait.
Always aware of the power of press attention since she began dating Charles in 1980 and went from a relative unknown to one of the most sought-after women in England, 1997’s Diana was crucially aware of the power her mere presence and interest conveyed.
After Earl Howe, then a junior defense minister in the UK, described her as a “loose cannon” for making the Angola trip she said, “For some time I’ve been aware, through the Red Cross, of the continuing tragedy posed by anti-personnel land mines. But I wanted to do more than just read about statistics. . . . My purpose was simple — to heighten global awareness of the human suffering caused by these evil weapons.”
The irony, of course, was that in leaving her marriage and the royal family — one of the most influential families in the world — she became more powerful than she ever would have been had she stayed. Both walking through a field of mines and even auctioning off her clothes were bold decisions at the time, and decisions the royal family never would have permitted.
The Vanity Fair interview was poignant in other ways, too. Gianni Versace, founder of the storied fashion house and close friend of Diana’s, spoke to the outlet only weeks before his own death on July 15. He said of his friend, “There is a kind of serenity. I had a fitting with her last week for new suits and clothing for spring, and she is so serene. It is a moment in her life, I think, when she’s found herself—the way she wants to live.”
What happened next, of course, has been written about more times than can be counted and is chronicled in the sixth and final season of Netflix’s “The Crown.” Diana spent July celebrating her 36th birthday, vacationing with her sons at Mohamed Al-Fayed’s home in St. Tropez, mourning the loss of Versace, meeting privately with victims of landmine attacks in Sarajevo, and, finally, traveling to the French Riviera, Sardinia, and Paris with Dodi Al-Fayed.
The pair were in a fatal car crash in the Pont de l’Alma in Paris. Dodi died instantly on August 30; Diana, who was still alive when authorities arrived at the scene, died two hours after surgery on August 31.
When it comes to “The Crown” viewers, the car crash will, thankfully, not be shown, but the first four episodes of Season 6 focus heavily on the final six weeks of Diana’s life.
As Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II said in the trailer for the new season, while it’s true “the crown is a symbol of permanence,” perhaps the same is also true of the woman who never had the opportunity to wear it.
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