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Living in the limelight

Print edition : Sep 06, 1997 T+T-

THE death at 36 of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris brought to a tragically premature close the life of someone who had gone from being a shy young society girl to one of the world's most glamorous and attention-getting women.

An estimated billion people around the world watched her wedding to Prince Charles, heir to the British throne and 12 years her senior, on July 29, 1981. The unravelling of her marriage was just as public, marked by a series of confessional episodes that were as tawdry and tasteless as the circumstances of the joining of their hands at St. Paul's Cathedral had been grand and timeless.

From the Prince came admissions of adultery and embarrassing tape-recorded endearments to his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles. From the Princess came accounts of her descent into eating disorders, self-mutilation and suicide attempts and retaliatory adulteries with men illchosen for any sense of discretion.

Though the marriage ended officially with their divorce just over a year ago, on August 28, 1996, the rivalry for public approval continued until her death. This year, the Princess took trips to Angola and Bosnia in a high-profile campaign against landmines, and in recent weeks she posed knowingly on Mediterranean holidays with her friend, Emad Mohamed Fayed, known as Dodi, apparently in an effort to show the world that the once-troubled young woman had found personal happiness.

Prince Charles, for his part, held the first photo calls at the royal family's vacation home in Balmoral since the early days of his marriage, making a soigne appearance in kilt and Tattersall shirt. At his side were the couple's two sons, Harry, 13, and William, 15, next in line for the throne after his father.

After recent years of loneliness, wounded vulnerability and feelings of rejection, Lady Diana struck friends this year as having acquired long-sought self-regard and hope for the future. She acted as if she was aware that she had developed a common touch and direct communication with the public that have eluded other members of the royal family.

LADY DIANA SPENCER was born on July 1, 1961, in Sandringham, Norfolk, daughter of the eighth Earl of Spencer, who died in 1992, and she was brought up on the family estate, Althorp, in Northamptonshire.

Although at the time of her marriage she was touted as a "commoner," she was a member of an old English family with a number of dukes in its past, and she came into a sizable financial inheritance while still in her teens.

Her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, who had divorced her father in 1969, was told of Diana's death by her parish priest on the Scottish island of Seil. Diana's two sisters, Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale, accompanied Prince Charles on the trip he made to Paris to bring the body of his former wife back to Britain. Diana's brother, Charles, the ninth Earl of Spencer, learned of the fatal crash in Capetown, South Africa.

Her son William was born in June 1982, thus providing continuity to the monarchy and elevating Diana to the position of mother of a king-to-be. By 1986, the first press stories about cracks in the marriage appeared, at a time, a revelatory biography of the princess has said, when Charles had resumed his relationship with his married friend Parker-Bowles.

The book Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton, published in June, 1992, said the Princess, feeling "trapped in a loveless marriage," had started dating a cavalry officer, James Hewitt. The affair would have disastrous consequences when he gave her up and produced a bodice-ripping, kiss-and-tell account of it called "Princess in Love."

THE royal couple had few common interests. Charles loved horses, his garden and traditional architecture; she loved buying clothes, listening to pop music on her Walkman and gossiping on the telephone.

Three years into her marriage she was suffering from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa and had made a number of suicide attempts. Most people had no knowledge of that, but they noted that the Waleses seldom made appearances together and that when they did they were sullen, with no perceived communication.

There were frequent reports and just as many denials from Buckingham Palace that the marriage was in trouble and that Charles and Diana were thinking of splitting up. Then, in December 1992, Prime Minister John Major told a packed House of Commons that they had agreed to separate.

IN 1994, Charles took part in a BBC documentary in which he admitted his adultery and dismissed suggestions, allegedly from Diana, that he was not fit to be king. She retaliated in 1995 with an equally bold television interview confessing her own extra-marital relationships, her anger at the royal family, her feeling that she was resented by her husband for attracting more favourable attention than he and her conviction that Charles would not make a good king. There were widespread reports that she wanted to see the crown go directly to her son William, familiarly known as Wills.

The British public has always been more smitten with Diana than with Charles, a figure perceived as remote, cool and unpleasantly eccentric. Her television interview was seen as much more convincing than his, increasing her popularity and putting the British more than ever off the man destined to become their monarch. A recent poll said that for the first time, a majority of the public did not believe that Britain needed a monarchy anymore.

With the divorce, she had to give up being addressed as Her Royal Highness, the honorific that separates the royal family's inner circle from other nobles and aristocrats. But she was able to keep the title Princess of Wales, and she obtained a lump sum payment of $22.5 million and $600,000 a year to maintain her offices. She also got to keep her five-bedroom, four-reception-room apartment at Kensington Palace. Maybe most important, she gained equal access with Prince Charles to her two children.

In her television interview, Diana said that she wanted to transform herself into the "queen of people's hearts," and that seemed to be the thrust of her last year as she focussed in on the charities she cared most about - organisations addressing AIDS, leprosy, homelessness, cancer research and the treatment of sick children, along with the English National Ballet. She travelled the world to war and poverty zones in support of her favoured causes. She had been to Angola, Bosnia, India and Pakistan and had scheduled trips to Afghanistan and Cambodia.

When some of her involvements brought rebukes from British political figures that she was meddling in partisan areas off limits to members of the royal family, she replied: "I am not a political figure. I am a humanitarian figure, and I always will be."

That she had succeeded in the effort to change her image perhaps more than she knew was borne out on August 31 in the numbers of tributes by charity groups that she had identified herself with and from young women enduring some of the trials she did.

While the rivalry for favourable attention continued between Charles and Diana, the recriminations that had led the press to call their relationship "the war of the Waleses" had subsided. The two appeared at school events with their children, and Charles asked the Queen to include Diana in a pre-Christmas lunch, an invitation she declined.

There remained occasional irritations. She hated to see her sons take part in blood sports and carry guns and bridled at pictures of them on shooting expeditions with their father in Scotland. He was angry when she took the boys to see the movie The Devil's Own in London, both because the film was closed to young people under Britain's strictly enforced age restriction code and because it depicted Irish Republican Army violence against British officers.

With Dodi Fayed she may have briefly found the love she had yearned for since the collapse of her marriage and the series of relationships with people like Hewitt and Will Carling, captain of the national rugby team. Though she and Fayed had met a decade ago, their friendship became intimate only in the last month, and she was pictured on his family yacht in the Mediterranean kissing and embracing him.

"Princess Diana has embarked on her first serious romance since she and Charles divorced," said Richard Kay, the royal correspondent for The Daily Mail, whom Diana often called with confidences about her life.

If there was a new expectation in her personal life, there may also have been some satisfaction in her having found a way to devote her exceptional notoriety to good causes and a new appreciation of the connection between royalty and members of the public.

New York Times Service