I grew up in the 1970s, the daughter of a dedicated feminist mother who taught me girls could be, and do, anything we wanted.
I also grew up on fairy tales. Despite my mother’s best intentions, Disney and the Brothers Grimm made their way into our ranch house. Which meant that, in addition to the messages of “Free to Be…You and Me,” I was also being absorbing the lessons of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White—that someday, my prince would come; that he would see that I was special, even dressed in rags and covered in soot, or felled by a spell, a pricked finger, or poisoned apple. He would claim me with a kiss and whisk me away to a castle, for a life of wealth and ease, where we would live happily ever after.
Not only did I have movies and illustrated stories to drive home that point, I had the British monarchy. I was eleven when Diana Spencer married Prince Charles. I remember waking up at five in the morning, one of the 750 million people around the world to marvel at the romance: the beautiful bride, the adorable flower girls, and the wedding dress, with its endless train and hot-air-balloon-sized skirt.
She’s so pretty, I thought. She’s so lucky. To my eyes, it looked like the happiest of happy endings; a fairy tale come true.
When Princess Diana died, I was a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. I mostly wrote features, but that night, I was covering a shift in the newsroom. It was a holiday weekend—a traditionally slow news time— and my best friend had promised to prank me by calling in breathless reports of plane crashes and other natural disasters. When the city desk phone rang and I heard my friend saying, her voice low and tense, “Turn on the TV,” I said, “Ha ha ha.”
“No,” she said. “I’m not kidding. Turn it on.”
I turned it on and stared in disbelief, watching footage of a terrible car crash in a tunnel in Paris. Dodi al Fayed, who’d been dating Diana, was declared dead at the scene. Diana herself had been rushed to the hospital in critical condition. I told the city editor the news, and, for the only time in my career as a journalist, I heard someone say the words, “Stop the press!”
By then, we’d all learned how much of an illusion Diana’s fairy tale turned out to be. We knew that the princess, at just 19 years of age, had been plucked from a part-time job teaching preschool, chosen less for her beauty or wit or kind heart or gentle nature and more because she had the right lineage and an intact hymen. We knew that her husband, 13 years her senior, had been, for the entirety of the marriage, inconveniently in love with someone else. It was gowns and jewels and smiles in public, bulimia and loneliness and suicidal despair in private. When Diana finally broke free, she was one of the most famous women in the world, less person than prey to the media that covered her relentlessly, eventually causing the high-speed chase that led to her death. Her sons were just 15 and twelve when she died. I still get teary when I picture them at Diana’s funeral, walking behind the horse-drawn carriage that carried her coffin; the envelope on its lid that read MUMMY.
You’d think we—the monarchy, the media, all of us around the world—would have learned. Diana would be the last sacrificial lamb. But when Diana and Charles’ older son Prince William married Kate Middleton, the breathless, occasionally cruel coverage of the bride and the nuptials felt like déjà vu. Kate—a college classmate of Prince William’s—was older than Diana had been as a bride. In the lead-up to their wedding, Kate endured her own time in the tabloid crucible, where she was dubbed “Wait-y Katie” and portrayed as a schemer from a social-climbing family desperate to get her hooks into a prince.