Rear door was not obscure enough Escape: Princess Diana and her party slipped out the back of the Ritz, but that didn't stop the pursuit.

September 04, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS -- The Ritz may be the only hotel in the world where the back door is as important as the front.

By day, it's a service entrance for chefs, plumbers and painters. By night, it's an escape hatch for celebrities.

Princess Diana began her final journey from there Sunday

morning, pursued by press photographers on a route through a neighborhood where luxury and history collide.

Now, along this same path, Parisians still pause to consider Diana's life -- and her death after a car accident in a tunnel by the Seine river.

"People here are very sorry," said Sirpa Salonen, who runs the elegant Celine boutique, a few doors from the Ritz back entry on Rue Cambon.

"I'm sure the French government would have preferred that this accident happened somewhere else. It is bad publicity."

Diana's final, frantic journey with her companion Dodi Al Fayed encompassed the very heart of Paris, from the swanky shops on the Rue Cambon, where Coco Chanel directed a fashion empire, to the Place de la Concorde, the sprawling cobblestone square where Marie-Antoinette was beheaded.

On a normal day, in a normal journey, a passenger could have glimpsed the Louvre, a house of kings turned into the world's largest art museum, and the Tuileries, lavish gardens of trees and sandy paths, filled with sculptures and anchored by an octagonal fountain.

The Seine also beckoned, a river for lovers, where slow boats and twinkling lights cast a bewitching spell.

And looming over it all, the Eiffel Tower.

This is a place where Diana and Fayed could conceivably blend in, two of many stars in the firmament above the Right Bank of Paris.

The Ritz suited them well as a spot to dine and relax, gilded right down to the faucets and owned by Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed.

Cold drinks and harp music

Celebrities love the Ritz because it is an oasis, where drinks are sipped in a courtyard while a harpist plays a sweet melody.

But outside, the paparazzi lurk.

From behind a plate-glass window tastefully decorated with leather handbags and silk scarves, Salonen has seen the celebrities try to outfox the photographers.

"It's OK to take pictures, but there must be a limit," Salonen said.

"If they had been able to, these paparazzi would have gone to the john with these celebrities. All for a picture."

Salonen has seen it all, Tom Cruise ducking into a waiting limousine and Madonna jogging, trailed by huffing and puffing photographers.

"These photographers will go to any length," she said. "You should see them operate.

"Princess Caroline of Monaco lived quite close to where I did. She couldn't even walk her dog. The paparazzi would hang in trees and bushes."

Salonen herself declines to be photographed.

If the Ritz is the most famous hotel in Paris, then the Hotel Crillon is a worthy runner-up, with a commanding view of the Place de la Concorde and its ancient pink granite Obelisk.

There always seems to be a gleaming Rolls-Royce parked in front of the Hotel Crillon, and the man who usually has the keys is Jean-Pierre Bouteiller, the chief attendant.

Remind him of the crash, and he shakes his head in disgust.

'A stone in our stomachs'

"Everybody is totally aghast," he said. "We're all feeling like we've got a stone in our stomachs.

"This accident is very bad for the French image and everyone working in the hotel business," he added.

The paparazzi on motorcycles might have been swarming the Mercedes that Diana was in, but Henri Paul, the driver, was legally drunk, according to French authorities.

"I can't understand how anyone who is drinking is allowed to bring such a big personality in the car," Bouteiller said.

"Normally, it would never be like that.

"I know this route very well," he said. "The maximum you could drive is 70 miles an hour.

"Over that, even if you are not drunk well, you cannot drive faster than that."

As the Mercedes entered the four-lane expressway by the Seine, it might have been traveling faster than 100 mph.

The car reached the underpass at the Place de l'Alma, plowing into a concrete pillar and smashing into a tunnel wall.

Fayed and the driver were dead. Diana was dying. Their bodyguard was gravely injured.

The photographers snapped their pictures.

The twisted Mercedes was removed, but black scorch marks remain on the concrete in the tunnel.

The accident site is now a makeshift memorial, a ghastly new tourist site.

A Union Jack hangs from a blanket of ivy that clings to the Pont de l'Alma. In one corner of a garden lies a small bed of bouquets.

An open bottle of wine is propped next to a plate of food. No one dares touch the plate, even though ants feast on the meal.

A group of tourists poses for photos at the site.

"She was so young and the accident was so brutal," said Anthony Rinjonneau, a student who lives on the Left Bank.

"You come here, you think about her. A great, great person. People must have a thought for her."

There are more tourists at the western edge of the underpass. Some giggle and smile as they take pictures. Most take note of the scrawled "Stop The Press."

"I regret this happened in France," Brigitte Decevkeleire said. "The fact this happened to Lady Di is unbelievable."

"Like English people, we are saddened," she said. "We are stunned."

Eve Massin, a student, has made the trip to the site, bearing a rose, to pay her respects to a princess.

"This event is in the spirit of each French person," she said. "It's in the mind of everyone.

"But, of course, we have a different feeling than the English. For them, the tragedy continues. For us, life goes on."

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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