It seems like just yesterday that I was tooling around London in a cab or zipping along underground on the Tube. My college’s commitment to semesters abroad for all students sent me and two dozen or so others to stay in London for the fall term of our senior year. Mere days after our arrival, while we were still jet lagged and adjusting to the concept of “English food,” Diana, the Princess of Wales, was killed in a car accident, an event that reverberated around the world. I had grown up watching the Charles and Diana romance on TV, though I wouldn’t say I was “obsessed” as others may feel they are. Still, so many memories came rushing back as I wandered through the Diana exhibit at the Frazier History Museum. The exhibit is a collection of Diana stuff – letters, toys, photos, clothes, books.
I didn’t linger in the room that talked about her death. A video was on a loop, there were photos.
The morning of her death in 1997, I was just back from a jog in Regent’s Park. The lobby was abuzz when I walked in and was accosted by a woman with a large tabloid-style newspaper. My first reaction was that it was a sick joke – the paper looked like the American ‘rags’ that offer dust-based diet recipes and proof of alien life in South Dakota. “No,” the woman insisted. “It’s real.”
That night we went to Kensington Palace, Diana’s official residence until her death. There were piles of tributes – flowers, candles, stuffed animals, balloons – everywhere. People, everywhere, crying.
In the Frazier exhibit, there is a photo taken perhaps a day or so after her death. The piles grew massive by the time the photo was taken, covering the walkways.
No one had TVs in the dorms – we were encouraged to get out and explore. (I would argue that British TV would have been an excellent method of learning culture but no one asked me.) At some point, we talked one of the residence staff into letting us find a TV to watch the Queen’s address to the country after Diana’s passing. In a tiny room, we crowded around a tiny television to watch as the woman who had lived through the blitz and countless other tragedies in her country pays tribute in her stiff upper lip English way. You can see the video here. She starts at around 1:00. I can’t get through it myself, even now.
For the funeral, we stood along the road to Buckingham Palace. It was a pretty day, but so quiet. We stood fairly close to the street to watch. In one of my more idiotic moments, as the coffin came by, drawn by horse, I tried to snap a photo. This was back in the days of actual film in cameras and mine had just run out. I hissed, “SHIT.” And I thank those around me for not shoving me into the street to be drawn and quartered for my lack of respect. I asked a friend for copies of her photos (back in the days when you asked for ‘doubles’ from friends who had different pictures from you).
As we made our way around to Westminster, we became disoriented. There were maybe six of us. Four pointed to bits of a map while L and I stood at the curb. I was still a little jet lagged, still reeling from the news, when around the corner came a smart burgundy car. It was the Queen and Prince Phillip. I swear, she looked right at me. I probably had my mouth hanging open. She probably said, “There is the disrespectful Yankee who uttered a swear word just now.” In moments of levity, L and I were rather obnoxious about having seen the Queen. “Heeeyyy did you see the Queen today?? No?? Oh, we did!”
I don’t even like the song “Candle in the Wind” but if you are standing outside Westminster Abbey listening to Elton John sing his “Goodbye England’s Rose” version, you, like me, will be hard pressed not to get a bit weepy.
The whole thing was incredibly surreal. I can’t think of anyone for whom I might grieve in this way. Perhaps it was because I was there, in England, near these places. Perhaps it was just too sad a story to ignore. But going through the Frazier exhibit, I feel even more connected to the experience.
Some things I didn’t realize about Diana:
- She was 5’10”. I didn’t know she was so tall.
- She collected little animal figurines when she was a kid – JUST LIKE ME. I even had a similar white wicker shelf thingy for them.
- She was super-into dancing. But at 5’10”, you’re a bit tall for the ballet.
- The wedding dress is so much prettier in person, I think. 25′ train!!
If you have a chance, I highly encourage a visit to see the collection. It’s historical, it’s romantic, it’s interesting. Something for everyone.
This is one of my favorite pictures of the Princess. It looks such a combination of elegant and relaxed. This tiara was on display at the Museum but curiously they would not let me try it on.