it was an image that could break a heart of stone, or Windsor: Prince William, 15, and Prince Harry, 12, walking slowly with heads bowed behind their mother's horse-drawn casket in a somber display of filial love and duty. As if that were not enough to make you weep, the TV cameras kept zooming in on the wreath of miniature white roses that rested atop the foot end of Princess Diana's flag-draped coffin. Propped up in the center of the bouquet was a white card with one word printed on it in Harry's schoolboy hand: "Mummy."
It has long been key in Diana lore that she communicated best without words, that she got her message across and asserted her will through the sly, sidelong glance, the up-yours dress, photo ops with the sick, the maimed, the forgotten. And it was impossible to watch this funeral tableau of two downy-cheeked boys escorting the body of their young, vibrant, cuddling mother to her funeral and not see it as Diana's final, mute triumph. These boys adored their mummy. And while the adults around them fumbled all week with centuries of irrelevant protocol, William and Harry were not afraid to show their love, respect and sadness in public (though, as a mother, I couldn't stop thinking that surely Diana would not have wanted her children to put themselves through this).
Years from now, when William becomes king (if the House of Windsor lasts that long), this character-defining footage will be shown on all the coronation TV specials, a parallel to the morale-boosting radio speeches given by young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret during World War II. And in a way, Diana's death was the catastrophic event of Britain's postwar generation. The titanic public grieving the princess' death set off, the anger by Britons over the royals' aloofness, the vast seas of bouquets and handwritten tributes that piled up at the gates of palaces (New Yorker editor Tina Brown, commenting on the funeral for NBC, called it "the flower revolution") -- these may have been the pivotal battles in the war between an out-of-touch monarchy and the modern, accessible, emotionally open, New Age-y sort of leadership Diana represented.
At the end of last week, when the queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles finally did come out of seclusion to do their damage-control walkabouts and humble themselves to the will of the masses, it was all eerily reminiscent of Sue Townsend's satirical novel "The Queen and I." In Townsend's story, the Windsors are put out of business by an anti-monarchy government and sent to live in a council flat among the regular folk. Diana adapts easily; so does hearty Princess Anne and the Queen Mum. (Prince Philip, alas, goes nuts.) But it takes the queen a bit longer to get used to living on a budget, riding public transit and washing her own undergarments.
Watching the queen's tradition-breaking live television address last Friday, in which she attempted to assuage a bereaved public's demand for a show of royal grief, was like watching "The Queen and I" come true -- emotionally, if not literally. You had to feel sorry for her, and admire her, too. She is of another time and another world, yet she gamely gave the Diana-style televised confessional a go. Her dry-eyed, poker-faced, two-and-a-half-minute address seemed to be enough to instantly soothe the Britons mourning Diana in the streets (at least those who had microphones shoved in their faces for reaction by pushy American TV correspondents).
Unbelievably, though, for the monarchy, the worst was still to come. Despite the royals' and palace bureaucrats' best efforts to deny Diana a state funeral, the People's Princess won out again. This wasn't merely a state funeral -- it was a global funeral, vast in scope yet intimate in the grieving it engendered, both from the millions of onlookers lining the funeral route and the more touchy-feely of Diana's admirers inside Westminster Abbey. Chief among them was Prime Minister Tony Blair (one CBS commentator called him the "political voice of the new Britain" to Diana's "emotional voice"), who delivered a charismatic reading from 1 Corinthians 13, his feel-your-pain empathy a stark contrast to the queen's starchy demeanor in her televised speech the day before.
But even Blair seemed reserved compared to Diana's brother, Earl Charles Spencer, whose stunningly angry and heartfelt eulogy served notice that the Spencer-Windsor family feud is far from over. Without euphemism, Spencer reminded us of Diana's unhappy years as a royal; he actually uttered the phrases "eating disorders," "paparazzi" and "private life," and spoke of Diana's "deep feelings of unworthiness." He praised her as "someone with a natural nobility" who intuitively knew what really mattered in life. And in an outright slap at the queen for stripping Diana of the title of "Her Royal Highness" after the divorce, he declared that Diana "proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to generate her particular brand of magic."
Spencer's eulogy was jaw-dropping in its bluntness, exposing Diana's ex-husband and in-laws as outsiders at this funeral, stuck in an awkward position of their own making. At the climax of his speech, Spencer pledged to his sister's memory that "we, your blood family, will continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two remarkable young men." Hundreds of years ago, Spencer's speech would probably have gotten him instantly beheaded; it was a measure of anti-Windsor sentiment that his words were met with applause not only from the crowds outside the Abbey but from the invited mourners inside as well.
Spencer's was a very public, very American, very Marc Klaas/Fred Goldman sort of bereavement, a raw, candid cry of pain and assignment of blame. Not surprisingly, the American networks went crazy over it -- NBC replayed it three times in 30 minutes following the service.
But for all of Spencer's white-hot rage, it was Elton John, one of those pop stars whom Diana loved and Prince Charles found so silly, who provided the funeral's most tender and romantic -- its most Diana-like -- moments.
When John sat at a piano and sang a rewritten version of "Candle in the Wind," NBC ran tear-jerky, slow-mo video footage of Diana at her most radiant, creating its own sort of MTV video. Other networks switched back and forth from John inside the Abbey to the throngs watching on giant TV screens outside, capturing people weeping and singing along and holding lighted candles. It could have been mistaken for a scene from Live Aid, the 1985 benefit concerts held in London (over which Diana and Prince Charles presided) and Philadelphia to fund Ethiopian famine relief. And this was a Live Aid sort of funeral, at once star-studded (Sting, George Michael, Diana Ross, Pavarotti, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks) and imbued with the common touch (a heart-tugging contingent representing Diana's signature causes was part of the funeral cortege): Most who mourned the princess earnestly strove to wrench meaning from tragedy, find solace in symbolism and cleanse guilt through charity.
And it was in keeping with the long British tradition of rushing sentimental pop songs onto the airwaves in tribute to victims of glaring tragedy -- not just the British Ethiopian famine relief record, "Do They Know It's Christmas?," but ferry disasters, fatal football stadium stampedes and mass murders -- that John offered "Candle in the Wind." John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, completely reworked the pair's bittersweet tribute to Marilyn Monroe, removing all Marilyn specifics -- "Good-bye Norma Jean" became "Good-bye England's rose." The new "Candle in the Wind" was a wholesome and wistful expression of adoration and loss; replete with patriotic imagery ("And your footsteps will always fall here, along England's greenest hills"), it was a modern hymn that cast Diana as nothing less than the soul of Britain. (John's poignant performance reportedly moved her children and, remarkably, the queen, to tears.)
And really, what could be a more fitting tribute to a woman of Diana's age (old enough to have swooned over Elton in his heyday) and unabashedly populist and romantic cultural tastes, than to be immortalized in a sad song? John announced on "20/20" last week that he plans to record the new "Candle in the Wind" and release it as a benefit for the charities Princess Diana favored. Like the woman it honors, "Candle in the Wind" will probably remain at the Top of the Pops for eternity.
Sept. 8, 1997