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He was the most eligible bachelor in the world, the future King of England. She was, quite literally, the girl next door, a 20-year-old who had grown up on an estate in the shadow of the royal family's Sandringham retreat. When Prince Charles and Lady Diana Frances Spencer married on July 29, 1981, three quarters of a billion people in 74 countries tuned in to a brilliantly choreographed spectacle, the Wedding of the Century.

It was the opening scene of a grand, 16-year soap opera that had Diana playing a dizzying array of roles, from innocent bride to loving young mother to glamorous style setter. The gap between her public and private lives was vast. She was the most celebrated woman in the world and yet achingly lonely. Movie stars and factory workers lined up to meet her, but she felt so unloved that she repeatedly tried to harm herself. The higher her rating in the popularity polls, the more her husband seemed to keep his distance. She suffered from bulimia and depression, but she found the strength to comfort people whom she said were "rejected by society'': AIDS patients, battered women, drug addicts. After her divorce, she seemed determined to bridge her very different worlds. So in the last few weeks before her death, she campaigned against land mines in Bosnia and vacationed in the Mediterranean aboard the luxurious yacht of her lover, Dodi Fayed. She appeared relaxed, even happy, a woman finally in control.

In all those years and throughout all her transformations, there was one constant in Diana's life: she was rarely out of camera range. Her fame was her most valuable possession; it enabled her to draw attention to causes she cared about. But it was also her curse. "The higher the media put you,'' she said, "the bigger the drop.'' She alternately railed against the press and then cultivated certain reporters with whom she shared "confidences'' when she wanted to present her side of the story. The consummate celebrity of the 1980s and '90s, she knew how to play the game. Americans loved her and her fascination with pop culture; it seemed only appropriate that she once danced with John Travolta in the Reagan White House.

She also understood what was expected of her at the palace. "The things I do for England!'' she once complained to a friend after a particularly grueling round of public appearances. Her ambition when she married Charles was to be a good wife and mother and to serve her country as the future queen. But although she quickly became the most admired member of the royal family, the ultimate downfall of her marriage could not help but weaken the monarchy. The number of Britons who believed Charles would be a good king has plummeted to just 41 percent last year, according to polls.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The consort to the heir to the throne was to be an asset, not a liability. When Diana married Charles, the expectation was that she would be molded into a useful force for what Prince Philip called "the family firm.'' But the authorities at Buckingham Palace did not quite realize that the young princess was already a pro at dealing with the press—and that this skill would one day be used against them. Her media education had begun in the fall of 1980, when Fleet Street became aware that she had assumed a special place in Charles's love life. At the time, she shared a London flat with three roommates and worked as a kindergarten teacher's aide. The courtship was stressful. Charles's invitations were sometimes spur of the moment, forcing Diana—the future fashion icon—to rummage through closets for something suitable to wear.

The greatest pressure came from the growing hordes of paparazzi. Most of the time, Diana kept her cool, but one day she burst into tears when photographers snapped her getting into her car on the way to work. The photographers later apologized, and she tried to accommodate them by posing with two of her young charges in a famous photo in which the outline of her legs, lit from behind, showed clearly through her skirt.

Before long, Diana cultivated a camera-ready smile that earned her the nickname Shy Di. And despite the relentless attention, there were, amazingly, no pictures of Charles and Diana together until the official engagement announcement in February 1981. On that day, Diana appeared radiant as she stood next to Charles and showed off her sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring (within days, copies showed up in stores all over Britain). "I desperately loved my husband, and I wanted to share everything together,'' she said later. "I thought we were a very good team.'' Her future husband appeared to be somewhat more ambivalent. When an interviewer asked if they were in love, Diana replied, "Of course,'' but Charles added: "Whatever love is.''

As a child of divorce, she was determined to make her marriage work. Diana was just 6 in 1967, when her mother, Frances, left her father, the 8th Earl Spencer, for Peter Shand Kydd, a wealthy businessman. Her two older sisters, Sarah and Jane, were in boarding school, but Diana and her younger brother, Charles, spent much of the next few years shuttling unhappily between their parents' homes.

When she was 12, Diana attended the exclusive West Heath School in Kent, where she hung a picture of Charles above her bed and reportedly told a classmate: "I would love to be a dancer—or Princess of Wales.'' She dropped out at 16 and spent a few months at a Swiss finishing school, which was the end of her formal education.

AT THE TIME OF THEIR engagement, Diana was deemed a perfect choice for Charles. Her ancestry was impeccable; the Spencers are among the most aristocratic families in Britain. Her father had been an equerry to both George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Her maternal grandmother, Lady Fermoy, was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother. Just as important, Diana was a virgin; no old lovers would show up to sell their stories to the tabloids. Her husband's past was not so pure—and even before the wedding, Charles and Diana fought about his relationship with his longtime friend Camilla Parker Bowles. Diana was furious when she discovered that Charles had given Camilla an engraved gold bracelet just before the ceremony. He reportedly downplayed the importance of the gift but kept in touch with Camilla even as he and Diana honeymooned aboard the royal yacht Britannia.

In public, however, they remained a perfect couple, efficiently producing the requisite "heir and a spare''—William in 1982 and Harry in 1984. They smiled gracefully and posed for photographers on the steps of the hospital after each was born. Diana morphed from a somewhat pudgy girl dressed in frilly blouses to a sleek fashion plate decked out in designer gowns (the transformation was helped by advice from the editors of British Vogue). Women around the world emulated her style. But despite their efforts to present a happy-royal-family picture, the tension between Charles and Diana grew steadily. Their true feelings couldn't stay hidden forever.

In the first seven years of their marriage, the couple made official state visits to 19 countries. At almost every stop, Diana was the star, the one the crowds waited hours to see. Charles was clearly an also-ran, and his resentment was intense. "With the media attention came a lot of jealousy,'' Diana told an interviewer in 1995, "a great deal of complicated situations arose because of that.''

Charles could not seem to compete with Diana's glamour or her almost instinctive ability to connect with ordinary people. She shook hands with AIDS patients when many people were still afraid to touch them. She took her sons to homeless shelters so that they could understand the real world. She hugged the dying in hospices and exchanged "war stories'' with other women who suffered from eating disorders. Charles's causes were far more esoteric: the state of modern architecture or organic gardening.

Indeed, the couple had few common leisure-time interests. Charles loved horses and New Age philosophy. Diana's tastes veered toward pop music, romance novels and spending time with her children. He liked hunting; she abhorred it. He had long ago adjusted to the strictures of royal life. She kept trying to break free and maintain some semblance of normalcy. The gap between them grew much larger than their 12-year age difference.

Reports of trouble in the marriage began surfacing in the mid-1980s. By that time, Charles had returned to Camilla Parker Bowles; Diana then began an affair with a cavalry officer, James Hewitt, who later cooperated in a book chronicling their romance. It was getting more and more difficult to keep up the front. At a polo match in 1986, Charles tried to kiss his wife after he lost a match. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand.

As their marriage broke down, Charles spent more and more time at his country house, painting and gardening. Diana stayed in town. They were together only at ceremonial occasions and even then seemed to go out of their way to avoid physical contact. Their body language was chilling. It was almost as if they inhabited two separate emotional universes. But no matter what went on behind palace doors, in the War of the Waleses Diana remained the public favorite. Charles was seen as remote, a cold fish. She won sympathy not only for her charity work but also for the loving attention she gave her sons.

Diana went out of her way to give William and Harry the maternal love and support she felt her husband never had. She breast-fed them and insisted on taking William, then just an infant, with her when the couple toured Australia in 1983, a dramatic change in royal-family behavior. She openly hugged them, took them to amusement parks and hamburger joints—just like other kids. When she was with them, her face took on a special glow. No matter what else was wrong with her life, her time with them was serene.

The contrast between Charles and Diana's parenting emerged most dramatically in 1991, when William's skull was fractured after he was accidentally hit by a golf club at school. For two nights, Diana stayed with her son in the hospital; Charles reportedly stopped by once and then took off for a night at the opera. Raised from birth to hold his emotions in check, Charles was reported to be genuinely perplexed by the criticism his behavior inspired.

THE PUBLICATION THE following year of Andrew Morton's biography "Diana, Her True Story'' eliminated any remaining doubts that the marriage was doomed. Diana later admitted that she had encouraged her friends to cooperate with Morton because, she said, "I was at the end of my tether. I was desperate.'' Her father even contributed touching photos he had taken of Diana as a child and teenager.

But the price for the release Diana sought was increasingly frenzied press coverage. Both Charles and Diana were embarrassed by the disclosure of taped telephone conversations. In one, Charles discussed his sex life with Camilla. Diana was recorded exchanging confidences with her close friend James Gilbey, who nicknamed her "Squidgy.'' In a November 1992 tour of South Korea, the estrangement between Charles and Diana was so apparent that reporters referred to them as "the Glums.'' A month later the separation was official.

The scandalous revelations and the public-relations war continued on both sides. In a June 1994 television interview Charles admitted he had been unfaithful. Four months later, in his authorized biography, he said that he had never loved Diana and had married her because of pressure from his father. Charles's friends portrayed Diana as mentally unstable, given to wild claims. Diana fought back—most notably during her own television interview in November 1995, during which she questioned Charles's fitness to reign and suggested that William would be a more suitable king. Despite gossip that she was headed for a nervous collapse, she appeared composed and in control. Her personal goal, she said, was to be a "queen of people's hearts.''

It was a masterful media performance, far more effective than her husband's, but it also hastened the end of the marriage. Soon afterward, Queen Elizabeth wrote to both Charles and Diana urging them to divorce as soon as possible. Negotiations over a settlement continued over the next few months until February 1996, when Diana met alone with her husband in his apartment at St. James's Palace and then announced that she had agreed to a divorce.

The terms were made public when the divorce decree was officially granted a year ago. Diana gave up the honorific "Her Royal Highness,'' which marked her as a member of the royal circle, but was permitted to retain her title as Princess of Wales. She also received a lump-sum payment of $26.5 million, $600,000 a year to maintain her office staff, and her five-bedroom apartment in Kensington Palace. Technically, she was still a part of the royal family. She and Charles shared custody of their sons, although her time with them grew increasingly limited. Both were away at school much of the year and spent half their vacations with their father.

In the last year of her life, Diana appeared to be making a concerted effort to create a life on her own terms. She changed her personal style, favoring sleek clothes that showed off her well-toned figure. In many ways, her days were not that different from other wealthy divorcEes'. She worked out regularly at the gym, lunched with friends, enjoyed her time with her sons. She talked about her desire to have more children, but she seemed in no hurry to remarry. She concentrated on the causes she cared about most, particularly the campaign against land mines. In a highly symbolic move, she even sold dozens of her most famous gowns to raise more than $3.25 million for AIDS and cancer charities.

But even as she moved toward more independence, she was frustrated. In an interview this summer, she told the French newspaper Le Monde that the press had made her life so miserable that she would move to another country if she could. Only her sons kept her in Britain. The British press particularly aroused her ire. "There is an obsessive interest in me and the children,'' she told a reporter earlier this year.

Despite her desire for some privacy, she was seated front and center at one of the most celebrity-studded events of the summer, the funeral of Italian designer Gianni Versace. When Versace's close friend Elton John began crying, Diana, who was seated next to him, reached out and patted him gently on the arm.

Meanwhile, her charitable efforts continued to make news. In June she visited Washington as part of her campaign against land mines. Last month she was in Sarajevo, mourning the victims of war in a visit to a cemetery and in private talks with families of people maimed or killed by exploding mines.

But it was her romance with Dodi Fayed that drew the most publicity. Last month pictures of the couple embracing on his yacht were splashed across the front pages of tabloids in Britain and the United States. Though she had been rumored to have been involved with a number of eligible men since her divorce, her relationship with Fayed was considered to be her first serious romance. "The caresses, the tender touches, the sheer warmth of the body language can leave no doubt about the intimacy of the relationship,'' said the Daily Mail. Some reporters said that Diana did not seem to be all that concerned about the platoons of paparazzi in speedboats and helicopters that trailed the lovers. "She was quite happy to be watched,'' one was quoted as saying. Diana did seem remarkably relaxed in her time with Fayed. She was photographed laughing and lounging on the deck of his yacht. Earlier in the summer, Fayed's father, Mohamed, invited Diana and her sons to his villa in St-Tropez. She told reporters he was just an old friend of the family.

It's impossible to say how the romance would have ended. While many Britons objected to Fayed, seeing him as a dilettante playboy unworthy of Diana, others believed she was entitled to any happiness she could grab. And unlike many of the other men Diana had been linked with over the years, he was at least single. It wasn't clear what would have happened to Diana's status if she did remarry, but some observers thought she would have had to relinquish many of the perks she kept in the divorce, including her Kensington Palace apartment, the financing for her office staff and perhaps even her title as Princess of Wales. On Sunday morning, as Londoners awoke to the shocking news of her death, there was little doubt that whatever her title, she would now always be remembered with deep affection. Her former husband and son will probably reign over the realm one day, but in death Diana may well loom as large—if not larger—than she did in life.

The Beginning of the Journey: Diana Spencer grew up in a broken home, but her family maintained strong ties to the House of Windsor. In 1980 Charles needed a bride, and Lady Diana seemed perfect. They married in splendor the next year; the new princess became a superstar.

A Caring Mother: Diana quickly became a mother twice over, producing Prince William and Harry. She was devoted to them, and made sure they mixed their royal training with outings to hamburger joints and serious visits to homeless shelters.

The End of the Affair: By the mid-1980s the Waleses had no real common interests, and their marriage, never particularly placid, was in pieces. On official trips their body language around one another was chilling. In the ensuing public-relations war, both gave rare television interviews in which they each confessed to having been unfaithful—and Diana discussed her eating disorders. Divorce was soon to follow.

The Princess's New Life: After her separation and eventual divorce, Diana said that though she would never be queen of England, she wanted to be 'queen of people's hearts.' She embarked on serious charitable works, most notably a campaign against land mines. This summer she went on holiday with Dodi Fayed, a new love interest.

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