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Fractured fairy tale

The poignant "Diana: A Celebration" is a tasteful tribute which the tragic end to her life is not allowed to spoil.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published February 17, 2005


photo
[Images courtesy of the Florida International Museum]
The wedding dress, veil and 25-foot-long train designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel for Diana’s wedding in 1981 are made of silk taffeta, ivory tulle and lace.

  photo
A photograph of Princess Diana hangs behind a display of her diamond tiara.
photo   Chanel blue and white flecked suit, wool and cotton mixed tweed, 1997, by Karl Lagerfeld.

photoRiviere necklace, 46 diamonds set in silver and gold with three pearls in diamond mounts.

photo   Pakistani kameez and shalwar trousers, pearl embroidered silk, 1996, by Rizwan Beys.

Purple evening dress, silk crepe, 1996, by Gianni Versace.   photo

ST. PETERSBURG - "Diana: A Celebration," which opens Saturday at the Florida International Museum, would probably have pleased the woman whom it honors, the late Princess of Wales. Elegant, dignified and tastefully poignant, it keeps a stiff upper lip while inviting you to have a discreet little weep.

I confess I teared up a couple of times, seeing displays of the great promise of her youth and remembering the violent circumstances of her death.

And you will have to rely on your memory for that last part of her life because, while the promise is here, the denouement is all but ignored.

Diana, for those who are new to the planet, was the beautiful, spirited daughter of an English earl when she was wooed and wed by Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, in 1981. Her story was the stuff of happily-ever-after stories, especially with the birth of her first son, William, who was in line after her husband to wear the crown. Another son, Harry, followed, and she was the radiant, devoted mother of uncounted magazine covers.

As we learned by the time of her divorce 15 years later, the marriage had begun unraveling from the first, doomed perhaps before vows were even exchanged, by Charles' devotion to another woman who was married and unavailable as a future queen. (That would be Camilla Parker Bowles whom, Charles announced last week, he'll finally wed in April.) Diana, too, was reported to have had dalliances during the final, difficult years of her marriage.

She had about a year of single life before she died. She filled it with a whirlwind of public appearances in support of good causes, adding her considerable glamor to any event. She continued, by all accounts, to be a great mother. She obviously tried to put the past behind her and spoke little in public, except for one televised interview, of the bitter betrayal she felt.

Less than a month before she died, speculation was intense (as was all coverage of every move Diana made) that she and Dodi Al Fayed, her new beau and son of a wealthy Arab businessman, were in love and discussing marriage. She and Fayed were killed on Aug. 31, 1997, in a high-speed car crash in Paris that was said to be prompted by paparazzi chasing their car.

The world mourned her passing, but the depth of grief surprised media watchers, who estimated that 2.5-billion people tuned into her televised funeral. The ceremony had the grandeur usually afforded heads of state, though Diana no longer had any official affiliation with the royal family. She was buried on the grounds of Althorp, her ancestral home.

But Diana was not allowed to rest in peace. She was still an industry fueling unauthorized books, media stories, trinkets and bibelots.

The Spencers decided to take control of as much of the Diana cult as they could. They opened a memorial on the grounds of Althorp, filling it with her personal effects for tourists visiting during the summer season, its profits funneled back into the Princess Fund that supports causes special to Diana. In recent years, the exhibition has been packed up and sent on limited tours. It comes to St. Petersburg after a successful run at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

The exhibit greets visitors with a magnificent diamond tiara in a case backed by an equally magnificent photographic portrait of Diana wearing it.

It sets up a tension that continues through the rest of the show that tries to resolve the problem of so many exhibitions celebrating an individual: how to animate a life once the life-spark is gone?

The Spencers' lineage is documented and they are, indeed, a noble family, one of coronets and old palaces that doesn't need to be oversold. We don't get any of the great paintings in the Spencers' collection but there are intimate, charming pastels of Spencer women that were probably intended to hang in a boudoir rather than a drawing room.

The most moving portion is devoted to Diana's childhood, helped by an evocative soundtrack. We know that her father pretty much raised her and her three siblings after her mother ran off with another man when Diana was about 8. The rift between mother and daughter apparently was never fully healed, so the home movies taken by her father have an elegiac quality. Everyone seems so happy in the movies, smiling and laughing. But that, Diana learned early on, is the face one presents to the camera. She's with her mother, brother and two sisters, celebrating birthdays, gamboling in a bathing suit in one sequence, still a child but already possessed of a photogenic charisma and long, gamine legs.

A 1969 report card gives her good marks in most subjects but only a "fairly good" in history. Perhaps, it subtly suggests, she might have avoided future heartache if she had attended better the lessons taught by the behavior of many previous monarchs.

We're tempted to find such coded messages in these random items that probably bear no deeper meaning. No code is needed to interpret the import of a menu card for a dinner hosted by Charles' aunt, Princess Margaret in 1980. In her loopy hand, Diana writes on it, "sat next to Prince Charles and wore new dress and diamond and ruby earrings."

Diana's wedding dress with its precedent-setting 25-foot train is resplendently displayed. The Spencer tiara that she wore with a billowing tuille veil is there along with her beaded satin shoes. To those of us who watched the royal wedding in 1981 on TV, the dress seemed like a luscious puff of creamy silk, fluffy and feminine, as unsophisticated as the young woman herself. It was so different from the austere elegance of her last years when she sheathed herself in the silk and beaded columns of Gianni Versace and Jacques Azagury.

Without Diana, the wedding dress, voluminous as it is, seems somehow plain.

The exhibit's display of beautifully fashioned suits, dresses and evening clothes by the world's top designers are perhaps the hardest to reconcile with the accompanying photographs in which they adorn the vibrant woman for whom they were made. Draped on stiff, faceless mannequins, they are no less lovely but somehow diminished. Switch on the right side of your brain and you can get a real kick out of how much she evolved as a discerning dresser.

Some of the early stuff is a mistake and I admire her family's decision to include it, to let us see the developing arc of that part of her life, at least. The 1987 blue silk taffeta by Bruce Oldfield with red polka dots, shirred like a garish parachute, is flatout dreadful. On another early occasion, she wore a diamond and emerald necklace as a headband, considered a bold fashion move at the time that didn't quite work. Years later, that same necklace reappears around her neck to accent a fabulous slinky black number. The "uniform" she wore for land mine inspections is included: a Ralph Lauren denim shirt with Giorgio Armani stretch khaki jeans. The dress gallery ends with a stack of Louis Vuitton suitcases, well-worn and tagged with pink Princess of Wales labels.

The remainder of the exhibition is really a coda. There is no reference to the way she died or with whom. Walls of glass cases hold hundreds of condolence books people have signed. Her brother's speech, both the handwritten draft and the final typed version, with more handwritten annotations, recall the withering dressing-down he gave to the royal family at Diana's funeral, causing even the queen to flinch.

What this exhibition shows is that Diana was, to borrow Henry James' description for one of his female heroes, "magnificent." That quality is apparent even more in her absence here among her things.

The revised lyrics of Candle in the Wind, performed at her funeral by Elton John, pay tribute to their friendship. Like this show, like her, it's beautiful and sad and seems slightly airbrushed.

Naturally, he sings it for us as in a continuous recorded loop as we leave.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

REVIEW

"Diana: A Celebration" opens Saturday at the Florida International Museum, 100 Second St. N, St. Petersburg, 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 www.ticketmaster.com

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 11:33:02]


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