along with millions of other Americans, Camille Paglia stayed up, bleary-eyed,
through the night in 1981 to watch the fairy-tale marriage of Diana Spencer
to the future king of England. In 1992, she wrote an influential piece about
"Diana the huntress" for the New Republic (reprinted in Paglia's book of essays, "Vamps and Tramps"), which royal family chronicler Andrew Morton
praised as the first serious examination of the princess' growing cultural significance.
The following year, Paglia presented a respectful special on Diana for Britain's Channel
4, at a time when "informed opinion" saw the princess as scatty at best and
a loose cannon at worst.
For much of the past 24 hours, Paglia has been glued to the television
screen again, switching between channels, watching the bulletins and the specials
and the endless replays of a crushed Mercedes being hauled away from a
tunnel by the River Seine. Salon talked with Paglia about the wretched
death of a young, once-glorious icon.
At its core, what was Diana's appeal?
She was a new kind of woman who came along at a time when feminism seemed
to have redefined woman as simply the white upper-middle-class professional with
an attache case. It was her freshness, her femininity, her desire for
marriage and children, her glamour.
How important was her glamour? At first, she seemed more like an awkward
She communicated with her body. She managed to make the world fall in love
with her through her body language alone. She'd been trained as a
dancer. Her body movements and her grace and her style, getting out of cars,
looking fantastic in her clothes. And we watched her evolve so swiftly from a
shy, fresh-faced English rose into a sophisticated glamour queen.
Was there a moment when the duckling became a swan?
On her first public occasion out with Charles after they were married, she
wore this magnificent black, very decollete ball gown -- which we later
learned had horrified Charles. She got out of the car and there were these
camera shots from above as she was going up the grand staircase of this opera
house, and we saw this magnificent bosom spilling out of this gown; it was
an enormous break from the shy virgin. That was the moment when we first
saw her ability to manipulate her own charisma and to flirt with the world
media in the way that only great stars of Hollywood and popular musicians have
been able to do -- Madonna, of course, and also Dietrich. There was this
Madonna-Dietrich level of manipulation. The press became her ally against
the fuddy-duddy British establishment; she was frozen out by the bureaucrats and the
House of Windsor, so she turned to the media to get her view out
and her personality felt. The world stage of the media became her avenue of
But there was a price to pay.
let the genie out of the bottle, which then devoured her, and ultimately led
to this disaster. When I wrote in the New Republic how "Diana the huntress"
was now paralyzed in the world's gunsight, I just felt that there were
troubles ahead. And indeed she began to spiral out of control.
I think that's pretty clear in the past couple of years, when you've seen a series of
misjudgments -- one of the greatest being to entrust her life and her
safety to this scumbag Dodi Fayed and the people around him, who are
all incompetent idiots. After all, she was under their care when this crash
As she changed, did your feelings change towards her?
Yes. I thought that having accepted the responsibility of being the mother
of the future king of England, that perhaps self-actualization should not
always be her aim. And I felt that there began to be a dizzying oscillation
betweeen the fast-track life of the European beau monde and the very
ostentatious displays of her charity. There was something increasingly
artificial about it. She has a genuine human touch with people, and when she
embarked on these compassionate missions it seemed that she genuinely felt them. But as time went on,
I felt there was an increasing staginess or rigidity -- and desperation --
in this yo-yo pattern she was involved in.
What might she have done differently?
I personally feel that once she separated from Charles, she could have gotten
the media off her back by undertaking a more reserved lifestyle. If she
had comported herself in a very reserved and dignified manner, the world
would have continued to be interested, but we wouldn't have seen this mad obsession. It seems as if she felt that she could stop the media frenzy, like a magic formula, by simply saying
the words, "OK, I'm done with that now, I've made you pursue me all
this time, now the chase is over." She began to waste her enormous gift.
At one point she had said that a fulfilling job is
better than a man to give your life meaning. I wish she had pursued that
avenue, because I think this is a very tacky end -- to die in the car of a
gigolo playboy in flight from the Ritz.
You said that Diana's end was "tacky -- to die in the car of a gigolo
playboy in flight from the Ritz." Whose fault was it -- the paparazzi who
are sitting in a Paris jail? Does the tabloid media, like Diana's
brother said, have blood on its hands?
I'm sorry, but I don't see it that way. It was via the tabloids that the
world fell in love with her. Yes, I hope that the paparazzi are
hung. I was very cheered to hear that one of them was beaten by passers-by
and I hope that they are brought up not just on manslaughter charges but on
murder charges. But I feel that there is blood on the hands of the House of
Windsor. The real people who are responsible ultimately for this accident
are everyone in the House of Windsor from top to bottom, the royal family
to the bureaucrats, who did not realize they had on their hands this
Crown jewel, who brought the monarchy up to the present. Everyone commented
at the time of the wedding, with thousands of young people crowding the
Mall (by Buckingham Palace), that this was the future of the monarchy, that
with its acquisition of Diana, the monarchy had restored its modernity.
Instead, its treatment -- its mistreatment -- of her, and all of the
sordidness that has happened afterwards may mean the end of the monarchy.
It's extremely pivotal. The enormous loss of prestige and loss of
confidence that people have in the monarchy comes directly from the way the
royals treated her. They were ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous about it.
In what way?
She showed all the good will in the world to be part of that institution,
the House of Windsor, but they never offered her the kind of help that she
needed. She was a person who needed a tremendous amount of emotional
support. Instead there were all these petty jealousies that ultimately
destablized her -- she was already frail psychologically -- and they were
just profligate about it. They destroyed her, and it all led to this.
But did she not sow some of the seeds herself -- especially by this
constant kind of shadow-boxing with (Charles' consort) Camilla Parker-Bowles? It seemed that
so much of what Diana did -- including being photographed in an amorous
embrace with Dodi Fayed -- was aimed at upstaging Parker-Bowles.
Your theory is very interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if there was some
competitive theater going on there; it makes a lot of psychological sense.
You also have this theme of betrayal, a fairy tale heroine, Snow White, who
became a victim of conspiracy by the evil queen. Or you've got the
"Portrait of a Lady" story -- innocent young girl as victim of a shadowy
older woman in league with a male and so on. So our hearts went out to her
because we felt she was utterly out of her depth in trying to maneuver
against these two old-guard constellation of enemies -- the House of
Windsor and this malign woman from Charles' past.
A Grimm fairy tale.
I think it unsettles people that Camilla Parker-Bowles seems so
unbeautiful. There's something kind of witchy and harridan-like about her.
If she had been a very alluring model or someone of conventional female
attractiveness, I think people might have felt, well, now Diana is a mother,
it often happens that the husband begins to stray. But to see Charles fall under the sway of this woman
without any conventionally appealing female attributes implied to us that there
was some strange psychodrama going on in Prince Charles' unconscious. That
in some way, what was she -- a shadowy image of his own mother? It felt
like this unsavory, decadent stuff was going on in the House of Windsor.
and there was this fresh-faced English rose who was being polluted and
contaminated and trapped. And one wanted to help her, to go to war for her
in some way against those who insulted her.
And along came her knight in shining armor, Dodi Fayed.
Look, everyone wanted her to be happy but it was clear that she never did
find the inner resources to survive on her own. I do feel that this final
relationship was infra dig. Diana's involvement with this rather soiled
Dodi Fayed reminded one of Hollywood analogies -- Lana Turner's
daughter stabbing the mafioso. In the end, Diana's life seemed to veer
towards the squalid and the sleazy. And you cannot blame the tabloids for
Once we get over the immediate shock, maybe there will seem to be a
certain inevitability about the manner of her death -- like those of Marilyn
Monroe and James Dean. We'll look back on it and say, "Yes, this made
I'm also reminded of Aly Khan, the famous playboy who another innocent,
Rita Hayworth, married and was betrayed by. I think if Diana had married
this guy (Dodi Fayed), I think she would have ended up with the kind of
disappointment that Rita Hayworth suffered. Aly Khan was killed in a car
crash as well. But this is also quite different. This isn't on a country
road, where, for example, James Dean and Grace Kelly were killed. This is
coming from the Ritz, at midnight, being driven by a man from the Ritz who
was not only clearly incompetent but also, as it now turns out, was massively
drunk, careening through Parisian streets at a rate of speed that could
have killed others, not just those in the car. And what was the point of
it? Just give them some photographs. We're not talking about a private
vacation. She's in Paris; she had dinner at a public place. Yet there was
this kind of S&M game played with pursuing paparazzi, which put everyone
in danger. We're just very lucky that other innocent people weren't killed
and maimed by this madness.
Perhaps Diana did us all a favor by dying when she did, at 36, with her
beautiful image frozen in our minds, before she got older and went even
That's very persuasive. We look back at James Dean and he's crystallized as
how he looked at that moment. "Giant" had just premiered a day or so earlier,
and it was one of his greatest performances. On the other hand, Bob Dylan,
if he had died in that motorcyle accident in the mid-'60s, we would remember him then at his artistic height,
rather than now, dragging himself around the world, abusing his own songs
What would have been the next thing for Diana? We do know that her death is primarily a loss for her sons, aged 12 and 15. Her loss comes at
such a critical point in their lives and is just a horrendous blow for them.