Right up there with James Dean and Evita

September 03, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It couldn't have been scripted more horribly: A Mercedes racing a princess and her lover through the darkened streets of Paris. A gaggle of photographers on motorcycles pursuing their prey like international hounds after the last British fox. A thunderous crash against a tunnel wall. And finally, the unforgivable flash of a camera as the 36-year-old woman lay dying.

Diana Spencer, so shy that she would take only nonspeaking parts in school plays, came into the public eye at 19. What a public eye it was! Insatiable. International. Adoring. Critical. Longing for fantasy. Devouring celebrity.

A billion people attended her wedding to Charles in St. Paul's Cathedral, watching her walk down the aisle from their television perches across the world, smiling as she garbled Prince Charles' name. Now a billion will surely witness her funeral in Westminster Abbey Saturday.

In between these events, the most-photographed woman in the world starred in fairy tale and soap opera, married or divorced, in pain or in love. The ''people's princess'' became public property, a multimillion-dollar industry. Her every gown and every cause were turned, in the way we do things now, into another commodity for the curiosity shop.

Now in the aftermath of this tragic ending, Diana's death has become an anti-media media event. ''Happy now?'' a truck driver yells at reporters in London. ''I always believed that the press would kill her in the end,'' says her brother. Not even news that the driver was drinking turned the finger of blame.

The word ''paparazzi'' has become an epithet for a parasitic species of photographer and a synonym for assassin. On television, reporters and anchors carefully distance themselves from the aggressive camera-wielding free agents who sell telephoto-lens invasions of privacy. They divide ''our'' mainstream publications from ''those'' tabloid papers.

But of course it isn't as clear a line as that. In the week before her death, People magazine's 43rd cover photo of Diana in 17 years had blared ''A Guy For Di.'' The current issue of The New Yorker boasts a piece on ''Why Prince Charles loves Camilla.''

In the day after her death, it seemed that the celebrity life had morphed into the celebrity death. ''60 Minutes'' turned over its hour to coverage as weighty as dead air. As anchors flew to London, and tabloids rushed to new editions, the line between mourning and exploiting was crossed more often than the Atlantic.

Cult of celebrity

The sorry truth is that the cult of celebrity is not the fringe but the staple of media life, the main course for viewers and readers. Movie stars, sports figures, royalty, even murderers are all collapsed into that amorphous category of the famous. They all become merchandise for the consumer mall.

As a British historian, David Starkey, said without a trace of irony, ''She's up there in the heavens somewhere with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Grace and Jack Kennedy. She's all those rolled into one. She's the biggest thing since Evita.''

We know about Diana's ''love-hate relationship'' with the press. The princess who put her hand over the lens at times also used the media to sell her side of the story. She also tried and often succeeded in using her name brand to sell good works. She wrestled for control of her life, her image, her privacy. But her life was the paparazzi paycheck and our gossip.

It was the world, not just the tabloids, that stalked her every move. It was not just the ''ferocious'' British press, as Diana fairly described it, but our voracious appetite. How many forgot that Diana was real until she bled?

In the end the saddest picture of all this week was of two motherless sons, William and Harry, sitting on either side of their somber father, no one touching the other, heading for the church service. This picture of Diana's sons was shot, of course, through the window of a moving car.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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