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Remembering Diana, the princess and the person

History will decide how the princess is remembered. An exhibit in St. Petersburg presents some basics that may help shape that legacy.

Published February 13, 2005

She was young and beautiful, of noble lineage, when she married into a royal family dominated by a strong mother-in-law and a restrictive court. She became unhappy in her marriage, ultimately separating herself from the husband and life that had elevated her to star status. When she died tragically, she was mourned throughout the world.

Sound familiar?

You might be thinking that this brief biography is about Diana, the late Princess of Wales, the subject of a blockbuster traveling exhibit opening Saturday at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg.

But it applies as accurately to Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Unless you are a student of 19th century European history, you have probably never heard of her. But her fame then was so great that even the aging, imperious Queen Victoria of Great Britain, the most powerful monarch of the era, paid her special homage.

The beautiful Marquise de Montespan could also tell a tale about history's capriciousness.

Never heard of her, either?

Athenais, as she wished to be called, was the mistress of Louis XIV of France in the 17th century. She wielded more power than Louis' wife and was referred to as "the real Queen of France."

Examples throughout time remind us that those who are wildly famous today can be forgotten after several hundred tomorrows.

"Women like Diana become this model for something we think at the time should be remembered," says Nancy Hewitt, professor of history and women's gender studies at Rutgers University. "It just isn't clear what that model is."

But today, never mind tomorrow, still belongs to Diana.

The deluge of sensational books and magazine articles has slowed to a trickle, probably because those who would exploit her have run out of new material.

"The cult is shrinking, but it's still palpable," says Barnet Hartston, a professor of European history at Eckerd College.

Crowds - an estimated 150,000 - flocked to "Diana: A Celebration" at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, where it closed recently; museum officials here hope to replicate the exhibit's success. The exhibition documents not only her life but the history of her ancestors, the Spencer family.

She was born Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of an earl, and she married Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, in a 1981 event described repeatedly as "a fairy-tale wedding." From that moment, she led one of the most scrutinized lives in modern history. Even after a painful divorce, she was endlessly followed and photographed, the subject of stories from highbrow to lurid. She died in a car crash in Paris in 1997, age 36, along with her boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed. An estimated 2.5-billion people worldwide tuned in to her televised funeral. She left behind two young sons, Prince William, heir to the British throne after his father Charles, and Prince Harry.

"Diana: A Celebration" is in part a refutation of the relentless effort to sensationalize her life, said her brother Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, in a September telephone interview.

"So much has been written about her," he said, "people have a lot of information of the more fantastic kind and distortions of various things. I wanted to refocus people on her humanitarian side."

The exhibition is a poignant memento mori crammed with reminders that Diana, indeed, wanted to be more than a designer clothes hanger. Blownup photographs show her work with children, AIDS patients and victims of land mines.

The hope of the Spencers is that the superficial accoutrements of her fame will be glittering accessories used to prop up what they see as her real legacy, her philanthropic work. Her brother has worked especially hard to promote the Princess Fund, which benefits from private contributions and profits from the exhibition to support causes she cared for.

Yet the long galleries devoted to her clothes, including her wedding gown, make the unintentional point that while you can court fame - and Diana undoubtedly did with this glamorous arsenal - you can't control the form it will take.

"Diana: A Celebration" tries to, though. It begins with references to the proud, grand lineage of her family. The wedding may have had a fairy-tale quality to it, but Diana was no serf plucked from the fields. Her childhood is documented with artifacts, mementos and home movies taken by her father.

Included, too, is memorabilia dealing discreetly with the romance between Charles and Diana that led to their engagement in 1981. A sumptuous gallery is devoted to the royal wedding; another showcases some of her beautiful clothes, along with videotapes of Diana with her two sons. We see examples of her charity work, letters she received and sent validating her interest in being a "working" princess, cases of the condolence books people signed at the time of her death and the tributes, including the score and lyrics for Candle in the Wind.

The song originally began with "Goodbye, Norma Jean" and was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. Elton John performed it at the funeral with revised lyrics that substituted "Goodbye, English Rose" to refer to Diana. It probably has contributed to the link now made between the troubled actor and princess by some of Diana's admirers.

"In some ways, it's more likely that she'll be remembered as Marilyn Monroe is," says Hewitt. "She may become an example of that sort of celebrity that is linked to a sense of tragedy, that they were only considered beautiful."

"It's a manipulation of the myth," Hartston says. "I'm guessing that the exhibition doesn't deal with the idea that at the end of her life, she may have found true love and the idea that the tragedy was not in her death as a princess but that this possibility for a happy life was cut short."

Hewitt's right. If you knew nothing about Diana, you would think after seeing "Diana: A Celebration" that she married, had children, led a fabulous life and then died too young. Ironically, it binds her closely to the royal family from which she was trying to detach herself.

"It's a manipulation of the myth," Hartston says. "As time passes, historians will be interested in exposing the myths."

Coincidentally, Mother Teresa, whom she had met and admired, died six days after Diana. The news became secondary to the frenzied coverage of the princess' funeral.

Some commentators made much of this imbalance.

"I don't know how the social historians of the next century will interpret last week's news, but they are certain to be intrigued by its implications for the value system of our time," wrote the Washington Post's David Broder in September 1997.

In the short run, those critics have a valid argument. No touring tribute has been organized in Mother Teresa's honor, and the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian has hardly been a face seen on magazine covers.

"Mother Teresa wasn't glamorous," Hewitt says.

But glamor is intangible and, as time passes and the immediacy of her personality fades, and as those who knew her die, too, Diana's staying power will become more tenuous. History disagrees with Broder's inference that this fascination with charisma over accomplishment is necessarily a new thing. Remember Empress Elizabeth and Athenais?

Hewitt thinks public expectations are lower for women than men, and they can become famous more easily through their looks or style, without great accomplishment.

"I don't know if Diana will be remembered as an important 20th century figure," Hewitt says. "I think, even though she didn't get as much attention as Diana at the time of her death, Mother Teresa will be remembered. Her celebrity was built on incredible courage in a thousand acts of charity."

Both Hewitt and Hartston compare Diana to the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who endured public scrutiny similar to what the princess experienced, though in a time when the press was more discreet. Twice widowed - first when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and again when her second husband, billionaire Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis died - the former first lady, who died in 1994, was revered for her taste and elegance. She, too, was cast as a tragic hero by an adoring public and, though she did not court the press, she was well aware of its power to mythicize her.

"Jackie is the perfect counterpart to Diana," Hewitt says. "She lived a longer life and had direct access to power, more so than Diana. But it's hard to imagine in 50 years that people will remember her as anything but the wife of JFK. You don't last for very long as the wife of someone."

Maybe, as a mother, Diana will have better luck.

"Diana is not someone on her own who changed the world," Hartston says. "I think it will depend on what happens with the monarchy. Her legacy may depend on her sons."

"If Diana has any staying power," Hewitt says, "it will be because of changes she tried to make. If experts in land mines, for example, come to believe that her participation changed the course of land mines, or if her presence was a turning point in the way people felt about the monarchy, then historians will record that. But chances are, the changes that seem so important now will have only a marginal effect over the course of time, and there won't be any reason to remember her."

"It's too soon to tell," says Hartston. "History evolves and changes over time."

"I hope," her brother Charles said in September, "whatever her place in history, she will be remembered for the good she did."

Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Diana: A Celebration" opens at the Florida International Museum, 100 Second St. N, St. Petersburg, on Saturday and continues through May 15. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $19.50 adults, $15.50 seniors, $9.50 museum members, $9 for children 7-12. For information, call 727 822-3693 or go to

[Last modified February 10, 2005, 12:27:03]

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