Liz Smith: Diana — Remembering the "Queen of Hearts" 15 Years Later

“I’D LIKE to see myself as a queen of people’s hearts, but I don’t see myself as being queen of this country.” So said Diana, Princess of Wales in 1995, during her infamous BBC interview withMartin Bashir. This was a brilliantly choreographed PR stunt, which effectively ended any chance Diana might have had to become the Queen of England.

She was dead two years later, victim of a horrific car crash in a Paris tunnel. One month from today, August 31st, is the 15th anniversary of her passing. (Talking to MSNBC’s Martin Bashir is tricky business. Michael Jackson’s final descent began after Bashir’s interview with the pop star.)

It seems like only yesterday we were stunned, sitting mouths agape as news of Diana’s death dominated every hour, every second of the news. Cable outlets were still fairly new, and it was wall-to-wall. But even the three primetime networks abandoned all other programming.

I was away for the weekend the night Diana died. Reporters could not reach me at my office. But somebody tracked down my assistant, Denis Ferrara at home, in New Jersey. “Princess Diana has been injured in a terrible crash in Paris. Dodi Fayed is dead! Does Liz have any comment?” Denis, who thought he knew “crackpot” when he heard one, said: “Please. I’m reading. Stop this silliness.” Click!

But after a couple of minutes, Denis thought he’d check the TV just in case. And there it was. All over. The Princess was reported only “slightly injured” at that point, though Dodi was most assuredly dead. He put in a call to me instantly. But, as luck would have it, I was out for dinner. He called every 15 minutes.

I was shocked of course, but as there was still no notice of her death, I wasn’t going to get panicky. Denis said, “Oh, she can’t die. She’s injured. This will just become a part of her legend. She cannot die!” He seemed very sure.

After midnight word came. The Princess had died. What to do? My column for Monday was already written and filed — this happened on a Friday. “Look, I said “could you ….” But Denis was on the same page. “I’ve left messages with the syndicate and all the papers. I told them to junk Monday’s column, I’ll go into the office early tomorrow. We’ll do Diana.”

And so we did. Writing her story somewhat muted the shock. It still seemed impossible. She had never looked better, seemed stronger. Was genuinely committed to good works. And she was more of an international celebrity than ever (Her affair with Dodi had dominated front pages and gossip columns for several weeks.)

ASIDE FROM any personal feelings — I’d met Diana only once, but she was charming and far more attractive in person — I had to selfishly admit I was mourning the loss of decades of news stories. Diana’s next husband … Diana at 40 … Diana’s next divorce … wasn’t Diana looking awfully fresh these days? Who was her surgeon? … Diana’s trouble bringing up William and Harry … Diana’s possible reconciliation with the Royal Family. Or, an escalation in hostilities, which of course would be much more fun.

All gone in an instant because of a reckless drunken driver, rapacious paparazzi, and the sub-standard protection of Dodi’s father Mohammed Al-Fayed. (It never crossed my mind then, nor have I ever been convinced of the ever-bubbling conspiracy theories.) I went to London a few days after the funeral. There were yards of decaying flowers still on display and people still mourning.

The TV coverage went on for days, but it didn’t seem excessive, in fact, it seemed quite fitting. The battle in Britain as to how and how much Diana would be honored added yet another layer of the surreal. In the end, Diana won, as she mostly had during her not-so-fairytale life. The Queen had to lower the flag, endure Diana’s brother castigating the royal family at her funeral, and bow slightly as the car carrying Diana’s body passed.

Her legacy? Well, she wasn’t a movie actor or a singer, so her “image” has faded a bit. She lives on through her two boys, who have turned out very well, and by the fact that the monarchy was forced to face modern times. Diana was mildly crazy, but all rebels are. She brought many of her problems on herself, but all historical figures do that, too. Her story will be told for many years, in many ways.

And yes, I miss the fact that she would have totally upstaged the wedding of William and Kate. She was that kind of star.

THE SINGING STAR who was just about the oldest person ever still working in show business, has left the building. I’m speaking of the urbane debonairTony Martin dead at age 98 on the West Coast.

In 2008, the New York Timesdescribed Tony as “his generation’s Last Man Standing.” At the time, Tony was singing at Feinstein’s at the Regency, namedropping during his act about his compatriots — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Ray Noble, Russ Columbo.

And always referring to his 60 years of happy wedlock to one of the great movie and dancing beauties of the era, Cyd Charisse. 

When Tony was 84 years old, Mr. Holden of the Times described him as having “a voice with virile overtones…(it) seemed to have grown richer over the years.”

I loved the Times obit, as when they mention Tony’s biggest moment in movie history, back in 1941. Tony sang to MGM’s beauties Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr as they descended glamourous stairs in the fabled black and white “Ziegfeld Girl.”

This number, staged by Busby Berkeley, is described, but the Times neglects to mention the name of the delightful song. It was the Gus Kahn lyrics to “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” music by Nacio Herb Brown. 

It is one of my favorite movie memories of all time, followed a few frames later by Lana Turner as a girl from Brooklyn, a little the worse for drink, saying to herself at the top of the stairs, as she sways: “Head up, you glorified girl!”

This column originally appeared on on 8/1/12

9 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Diana. To the manor born. But not necessarily to the manor bred. A rebel indeed but that just simply wasn’t allowed. Allowed a little bit today. But not much.  Every little girl dreams of being the princess. For some the dream turns into a nightmare. Diana wasn’t the first. And won’t be the last.  She was the queen of hearts for the common people because she had left the manor and become one of them. Something those who “arranged” the fairy tale didn’t think about. 

    On the subject of hearts, our king of hearts is missing, Liz, so if you talk to Mr. Wow tell him he needs to “check in” with us! 

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Baby: Mr. Wow has his own blog, far from here. I think he had more than a sufficiency of cause to leave. Look him up. He’s delightful as ever.

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        He’s “MIA” from the blog. So of course we’re all worried about him. I’m ready to go roam the streets of Hoboken calling out “Mr. Wow, Mr. Wow where are you?”

  2. avatar TimIn808 says:

    I am so sick of the canonization of Diana. She was an absolute loon, stalker and gold-digger. Look up the facts. The’re all there in the record. Ugh. Royalty.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      Um, really? She wasn’t “royalty”, her marriage was arranged, and who did she “stalk”, precisely? Not that I think she was a saint by any means. As for her being a “loon”, I would suggest that her instability might have had its foundations in her complete unpreparedness to deal with her role as Princess, and and Charles flagrant infidelity and base disregard for her as even a human being. To him, she was a uterus and a decorative accessory…nothing more. She was not only unable to adapt, but unwilling to accept her lot, and she was particularly ungraceful (mostly privately) in her attempts to defy and cope with her husband. I have to say, I personally would have taken one look at Charles, and run screaming for the hills. The man looks like a gibbering chimpanzee, but far lower on the evolutionary scale. I don’t think the foolish woman ever had a chance.

      No saint, and no one should die the way she did. Still, Diane’s legacy is that she made the Royals reconsider their traditional “ways” of conducting affairs when it comes to marriage of heirs apparent. William and Kate “knew” each other (in the Biblical sense, if we’re going to be all proper and too-too) for a number of years, she knows what she’s about, and they selected each other.

      What is sad and demented are the constant dire predictions based on the ludicrous (he gave her his mother’s engagement ring. OMG, their marriage will fail, what an ominous omen! Never mind that he LOVED his mother, and that he probably asked his beloved if this was acceptable before he made the presentation. They seem like a modern couple) notion that the spectre of Diane will haunt them. Enough, already. Kate is an entirely different person…and William is an actual human being, and much higher on the evolutionary, humanity, socialization, accomplishment and decency scale than his idiot, bobble-head father.

  3. avatar JCF4612 says:

    Frankly, I’m surprised Diana’s presence, as it were, has faded to the degree it has, utilizing the word Liz used. Ironically, her boys and Kate have filled in the glamour gap. Even the hostility toward Camilla the rottweiler seems to be dissipating. Times move fast, faster than at Ridgemont High …

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      I took one look at Camilla, and automatically assumed that Charles had a fetish for bestiality of the equine variety.

  4. avatar Rho says:

    I miss Mr. Wow too.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      He has returned.  Sheepishly as he put it. I suspect Miz Liz called him.  If so, thank you Miz Liz.