Diana’s Public Life, in Photos and Headlines


With Britain commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on Thursday, we looked at archival photographs and the pages of The New York Times to remember how her life was seen as she lived it.

Thrust Into the Spotlight

Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on July 29, 1981.CreditAssociated Press

Tabloids called it the “wedding of the century.” The BBC estimated that 750 million worldwide watched it on television. The Times did not make Diana and Charles’s wedding the top article on its front page the next morning — the honor went to a 25 percent tax cut —but a photo of the couple was prominent. Our correspondent R.W. Apple reported:

All the panoply of monarchy was deployed on this, one of the great days in the history of the House of Windsor: the stirring music of Handel and Purcell and Elgar; the Household Cavalry, in their burnished breastplates and helmets with red plumes; the stately royal horses, caparisoned in silver; almost all of the reigning sovereigns of Europe, come in their finery to share in the happy occasion, and the royal bride herself, resplendent in a gown of pale ivory, with puffy sleeves and a train 25 feet long.

The marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to the Prince of Wales vaulted her into the role of a national emissary for Britain as a member of the royal family. When she and Charles visited the White House in 1985, The Times treated it with excited front page coverage, declaring, “The British Have Landed and Washington Is Taken.”

CreditThe New York Times

Frances X. Clines, reporting for The Times that day, noted a sense of spectacle in a usually demure press corps:

“A crush of American journalists, inquiring after the Princess’ wardrobe and whims, camped around the capital to record a varied itinerary that was protected by a throng of security guards. ‘What happened to her red hat?’ a reporter shouted at a royal spokesman at the White House, asking about the hatless Princess in a ‘news’ exchange typical of the day.”

President Ronald Reagan, left, and the first lady, Nancy Reagan, second from right, with Diana and Prince Charles in the White House in 1985.CreditMary Anne Fackelman-Miner/White House

During that same Washington trip, she gave a new look to what it meant to be royal, taking over a dance floor with John Travolta in front of guests including Tom Selleck, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gloria Vanderbilt.

John Travolta dancing with Diana at a dinner at the White House in 1985.CreditRonald Reagan Library, via Associated Press

Building a Life

Diana often expressed a desire for a degree of normalcy, a goal that her son Prince William has also embraced as he develops a public profile.


For Diana, normalcy was a multifaceted goal. It was intended to give her children a sense of the upbringing she had experienced, but also to introduce the royal family to a more modern world, in which she felt comfortable.

Charles and Diana and their sons, Princes Harry, left, and William, on vacation in the Scilly Isles, England, in June 1989.CreditAssociated Press

It also undergirded her interest in charitable causes with a sense of genuine involvement. Charity galas at opera houses were preceded by personal visits to places like the Henry Street Settlement House, an organization to assist the homeless, in New York.

CreditThe New York Times

The Divorce

A little more than a year before her death, on July 13, 1996, the details of a divorce settlement between Diana and Prince Charles were formally announced, and were tucked toward the bottom of The Times’s front page:

CreditThe New York Times

The untangling of the royal marriage had been watched carefully for years, and her departure from the royal family did not dull public interest in her.

About a year later, on June 26, 1997, The Times reported on “a boisterous auction that brought in $3.25 million for 79 cocktail and evening dresses belonging to the Princess of Wales, an average of more than $41,000 a dress.”

Viewers inspected items from Diana’s wardrobe at a preview for a Christie’s auction in New York in June 1997. The 79 dresses brought in $3.25 million.CreditMike Segar/Reuters

She continued to draw intense admiration for her charitable work, especially her willingness to confront stigmas as she worked with people living with AIDS or disabled by land mines.

Diana among graves in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1997 to highlight the plight of land-mine victims.CreditIan Jones/Reuters

Diana’s Death

The death of Diana after a high-speed car crash shocked the world and convulsed her followers with grief.

CreditThe New York Times

The pageantry that introduced her to the world stage was bookended at her funeral. And as at the wedding, R.W. Apple was there to bear witness:

“The silence — the awe-struck, reverent, almost worshipful silence — was positively deafening.

Scarcely a sound rose from the millions who packed central London Friday night and this morning for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was a crowd unmatched at least since the end of World War II in this stately old city that has known so many moments of regal and imperial triumph and tragedy. Yet for all the emotion, only the tread of the horses’ hooves, the thwack-thwack-thwack of police helicopters, the tolling of church bells and the occasional wail of agony from a mourner pierced the stillness today as the cortege wound its slow, sad way to Westminster Abbey.”

The flag-draped casket of the princess was drawn through London on Sept. 6, 1997.CreditBarry Bachelor/Reuters Crowds lined up to leave flowers and look at mementos left at Kensington Palace in London on Sept. 3, 1997.CreditSantiago Lyon/Associated Press

The Times has published 200 stories about Diana since her death, revisiting her life and examining how she is perceived posthumously. Though younger Britons are less likely to see her as a national hero, for many, she is still considered a symbol of her era.

Source: New York Times



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