If you had asked someone on August 30th, 1997, to name a famous person who had "gone too soon", you might have received several different answers. President Kennedy. Marilyn Monroe. John Lennon. James Dean.
The next day, all that had changed. The most famous and photographed woman in the world became another "gone too soon". When Princess Diana died in a car-crash beneath the streets of Paris on August 31st, 1997, she was only thirty-six, still glamorous and beautiful, still searching for the love and stability that had eluded her since early childhood. Born in 1961, she was the fourth child of Lord and Lady Althorp, whose troubled marriage ended in divorce when she was only eight. Her sorrow at the separation of her parents was still raw many years later when she spoke to the Australian journalist Andrew Morton for his best-selling book Diana: Her True Story, which was first published in 1992.
She was a shy child, loving ballet, music and swimming, but her dream of becoming a ballerina ended when she grew too tall. Academic work did not interest her and she did not shine at school, which she left in her late teens after completing her education at a finishing school in Switzerland. She moved to London in 1978 and found work as a nanny and playgroup assistant, expressing a love of children that would later inspire much of her charity work. In 1980 she was courted by Prince Charles, whom she had first met when he was dating her older sister Sarah. The Prince proposed to her in February 1981 and they were married in July at St Paul's Cathedral before a world-wide audience of many millions.
Diana's unhappy early life seemed to have ended in fairytale happiness. She gave birth to two healthy sons, William and Harry, and travelled the world with Charles, charming huge crowds of well-wishers and providing the media with countless stories and photographs. But beneath the glamorous public facade her relationship with Charles was slowly falling apart. He had never ceased to love a previous mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Diana slowly realized that she could never be more than second-best in his life. She began to suffer from depression and developed eating disorders.
As her marriage deteriorated, Diana looked elsewhere for love and affection, having affairs with several men. In the 1990s the difficulties of the royal marriage became international news, worsening pressure on the couple and pushing them further apart. They separated and then divorced, but media interest in Diana remained as strong as ever. She was constantly followed and photographed, and became mistrustful of some of her friends and acquaintances, believing that they were supplying stories to the press. In 1997, she began an affair with Dodi al-Fayed, son of Mohamed al-Fayed, the millionaire owner of Harrods and of the Ritz hotel in Paris. In August she holidayed with him in the south of France, then travelled to Paris to stay with him at the Ritz.
On the final day of the month, she left the hotel with Dodi and a bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, travelling in a high-powered Mercedes driven by a Ritz employee called Henri Paul. The party was followed by press photographers on motorbikes and Paul drove at high speed in an attempt to shake them off. Diana had been in this situation many times before and had always escaped unscathed. This occasion was tragically different. After entering the Pont de l'Alma road tunnel, Paul lost control of the car and it smashed into a pillar, fatally injuring Diana, Dodi and Paul himself. The bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones was the only survivor of the crash.
Diana's death prompted an international outpouring of grief and disbelief. Huge crowds of mourners laid flowers, cards and symbols of respect outside Kensington Palace, which had been her official residence in London. Her funeral took place on the 6th September in Westminster Abbey. Like her wedding to Charles in 1981, it was broadcast live and watched by a huge audience around the world. Her brother, Charles Spencer, paid tribute to her in a memorable funeral speech and her friend Elton John sang an adapted version of "Candle in the Wind", a song he had originally written in honour of Marilyn Monroe. Diana was laid to rest on the private estate of her family and although her grave is not open to the public, there are public memorials in many places, including Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London.
Since her death, Diana's story has continued to fascinate the media and the millions of people around the world who still mourn her passing. There have been many books, films and television programmes, some exploring conspiracy theories that allege her death was not a real accident, some asking the inevitable questions about what might have happened to her had she lived. Would she have found happiness in the end? Would she have welcomed Charles' second marriage to Camilla and been reconciled to the royal family? Perhaps. All that is certain is that she would have continued to be a loving mother to her two sons and to work tirelessly on behalf of the charities that were dear to her heart.
Diana went too soon. She never saw her sons fully grown, never attended William's marriage with Kate Middleton, never celebrated the births of her grandchildren. But William has paid graceful and moving tribute to her by naming his first daughter Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Perhaps she will one day be as beautiful and beloved as her grandmother, the unforgettable and unforgotten People's Princess.