You don't have to be British to see that the least likely result of Princess Diana's death and the astonishing reaction to it is the undoing of the British monarchy. Britain may now have little need of the monarchy as unifying symbol in time of crisis, but the royal family still has a remarkable hold on the imagination of the British people. And from the day she burst on the scene 16 years ago, Diana was the focus of that. The queen, dignified but dowdy, and Prince Charles, eccentric and cheerless, are a dull lot. But Diana, sexy, stylish, and suffering, was someone to identify with. The royal family nowadays is Britain's national entertainment. The saga of Diana's marriage and divorce from Prince Charles made her the unquestionable star of it. If it weren't for her, the royal family might have bored itself to death.
I spent two weeks in Britain on vacation last month and returned to cover Diana's funeral. One of the best parts of both trips was reading the British press. After devouring the Times of London, the Telegraph, and the Guardian every morning (and occasionally the Sun, the Mail, and the Express, too), going back to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal was like going back to school. Partly, of course, it was the literate and entertaining style of British journalism. Mostly, though, it was reading about Di and Dodi. What a great story! Like many men, I suspect, I saw in Diana, Princess of Wales, every girl I ever knew who was not interested in me. It was fascinating to read of her romance with a rich Egyptian playboy, whose tycoon father had been trying to crack British society for decades and now might be on the verge of doing so through his son's romance with the most famous woman in the world.
And the notion that she was flaunting her relationship with this guy to stick it to the royal family, who were doubtless appalled, made the story even better. The tabloids were in a total frenzy, culminating in the famous pictures of "The Kiss" aboard the Fayed yacht, a set of grainy images that nonetheless made the freelance paparazzo who shot them rich. But the broadsheets were not far behind. Indeed, on some days, the Telegraph and Times ran extensive roundups of what the tabloids were reporting.
The tabloids were gushing, declaring that Diana and Dodi were deeply in love and that she, after all her travails, was happy at last. The broadsheets were deeply skeptical, with the Telegraph harrumphing that Fayed was simply "not an appropriate consort for the Princess of Wales." The editor of Burke's Peerage, expressing the view from Buckingham Palace, said of the affair, "It is not considered suitable behavior." There were tough and searching reports on Fayed's father, Mohammed, owner of Harrods and much else. They chronicled how the construction magnate had tried to buy his way into Britain's famously snooty society. They detailed the bribes he paid to Conservative MPs in the famous "cash for questions" scandal, which had helped bring down the Major government. If his son were to marry Diana, they noted, he would now be related by marriage to Prince William, the future king. How could the government continue to deny him the citizenship he had long sought? Could the British aristocracy still keep him out? And did this mean Dodi, more playboy than producer, was really just doing his father's bidding in pursuing Diana?
Now she is gone, her death greeted by an outpouring of grief that wiped out her green and pleasant land's seemingly inexaustible supply of flowers. Florists sent abroad for emergency shipments. The funeral proved the most watched event in British (and perhaps world) television history, and the crowds that packed London to see it, or merely to bring a bouquet or teddy bear to the palace gates, may never accurately be estimated. Even outside Harrods, the heaps of flowers, cards, and stuffed animals were five-feet high in some places among the Brompton road, which was still choking in traffic 30 hours after the funeral. Would any of this have been true had Diana not been part of the royal family?
The newspapers are once again in full cry, with a host of new questions to plumb. Will the hapless Charles prove a good father? Will he stand up to his stodgy parents to modernize the monarchy? Will Charles ever be king, or might he abdicate to marry the dreary Camilla Parker Bowles and pass the crown directly to Prince William, who is blessed with his mother's looks? Will the British people continue to shell out $ 84 million a year to support all this? That's the easiest question of all. Of course they will. It's a bargain.