British mourn death of a princess For 'Queen of Hearts,' tears of commoners, condolences of kings

September 01, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Dawn had not yet broken yesterday when Ian Leckie showed up at the gates of Kensington Palace, bearing a solitary bunch of lilies and a nation's grief at the death of Britain's Princess Diana.

"I think she will be turned into a saint," Leckie said. "She deserves nothing less."

By twilight, there were thousands of flowers, strung like pearls at the gates of the palace where Diana, Princess of Wales, once lived.

Leaders from around the world joined in the sadness, sending messages of condolence and of praise for her.

The British, renowned for keeping a stiff upper lip in times of tragedy, broke down as they awoke to the news of Diana's death after a car crash in Paris. Royal landmarks across London became gathering places as ordinary Britons and tourists grieved for a woman who once vowed to become the "Queen of People's Hearts."

British flags flew at half-staff, the Union Jacks fluttering in a late-summer breeze.

The nation's top soccer teams called off their games.

The British Broadcasting Corp. began its newscasts with a rendition of "God Save the Queen."

At Buckingham Palace, home to Queen Elizabeth II, thousands watched in silence as the changing of the guard went on as scheduled. Thousands streamed by the wrought-iron gates, leaving flowers, cards and teddy bears.

But it was Diana's former home at Kensington Gardens that proved a magnet for those who arrived by bus, by car, by bicycle and by rollerblade.

Some mourners were too stunned to talk.

Others wept on the lush lawns of Kensington Gardens, the sweeping park outside the palace that was once a preserve for royals but is now a playground for commoners.

And there was also fury, as people railed against the role that press photographers might have played in the auto accident in Paris that killed Diana, her companion Dodi Al Fayed, and the driver of their Mercedes-Benz.

Serena Newbury, 25, a law student, looked at the media horde around the palace and said: "I think it's quite hypocritical, the media saying it's so terrible. But only 10 days ago they were trying to follow her everywhere. A lot of people think the gossip had caused her death. A lot of people tried to cash in on her story. That's why she died. Today, everyone was buying the tabloids -- the same papers that killed her."

Most, though, concentrated on celebrating the life and times of a princess who died young.

Ruth Heath, a retired London nurse who worked at a rehabilitation center, said she once met Diana as she made the rounds with patients.

"She was marvelous and hugged them and kissed them, showing genuine warmth," she said. "She is totally irreplaceable."

Stuart Chapman of Bournemouth met Diana at an AIDS hospice where his partner was dying.

"Her presence alone was comforting," he said.

Osei Assibey of Nigeria looked at the crowds and said: "It's a very sad day for all of us. She did a lot for the whole world. It's not just the British who care. It's Africans who care."

"This is a momentous occasion," added Sheri Ruch, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "It affects everyone. She was so popular."

Diana's popularity was played out yesterday in ways great and small.

Young people made their way to Kensington Palace after all-night dance parties. Elegantly dressed couples arrived after church.

Flowers, cards and trinkets were left at palace gates.

One person left a teddy bear with arms outstretched and a sign that said: "Diana, We Love You This Much."

Another left a card that read: "Diana, Now You're With the Immortals."

One letter in Arabic said: "To the Queen of Hearts: In memory of an English rose whose star will shine forever."

"Out of the royal family, she was the only one who cared about young people," said Tracy Taylor of London. "And young people have respect for her. She was someone who really cared."

As they waited to place a bouquet of carnations outside Kensington Palace, Michelle Matthews and her mother, Antoinette, 72, talked about the day, the princess and the country.

"I think many people now realize how much they loved her," Tracy Taylor said. "People will start to take stock of her life and what happened to her. Car accidents, of course, will happen. We all have to make the most of what is but a short, sweet life."

"My heart goes out to her children, William and Harry," said Antoinette Taylor. "Perhaps they'll have anger in their hearts. Now the elder, William, will have so much placed on him. He is so much like her. If he becomes king, he'll have the mother's influence, and the father's. I wouldn't write off the monarchy just yet."

Around the world, others joined in mourning.

David Harvey, executive director of the Washington-based national AIDS Policy Center for Children, Youth and Families spoke of the effect of the princess' attention to AIDS: "With one royal handshake given to a young man with AIDS in the late 1980s, Diana forever changed the face of AIDS for the world.

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