AS DID SO MANY women raised on a Disney diet, I rose before dawn 16 years ago to watch a Cinderella of my generation marry a prince.
Sitting cross-legged in my pajamas too close to the television screen, I did not want to miss a single one of the ancient, royal traditions that were being heaped upon that shy, pretty kindergarten teacher like the folds and poofs of her gown. Diana's wedding was the secret fantasy of all of us young career girls and she did not disappoint that morning.
She looked like a Madame Alexander doll fresh out of the blue box, and I waited for Charles to stare at her in stunned adoration, smitten and dumbfounded as any man should be at the sight of so lovely a bride on her wedding day.
He did not, and words he spoke during their engagement returned and set off a small alarm.
"Was it all going to be too awful?" Charles had asked by way of proposing. And when he was asked during a joint television interview if he was in love with her, he had responded, "Probably. Whatever that is."
It was awful, and he was not in love with her, and the world saw what happens after Cinderella and her Prince dance into the clouds while the Disney credits roll: the bitter unraveling of marriage based on a fairy tale.
But Diana had consolation in her little boys and those of us who have children now, too, took our consolation in that. She more than loved her sons, she was in love with them. The video of her very unroyal, undignified rush toward Wills and Harry at the airport gate, the way she flung out her arms and caught them up in a whirling, squealing hug is excruciating to watch now.
As her marriage to her faithless husband ended and she emerged from her crippled emotional shell, leaving the depression and the bulimia and the suicide attempts behind, we watched her construct a new life of good works and glamorous good times and applauded the survival skills we would want for ourselves if our own fairy tales ended.
And today we, those same women who baffled the men around us with our fascination with her wedding, who had kids when she did, who rooted for her to triumph over her unhappiness, mourn Diana in a way we can not, again, fully explain to ourselves or others.
What was it about her that has caused us to read every word and examine every picture of her for all these years? Why do we feel such loss at her death?
It is because she was so beautiful.
We were fascinated with Diana because she was a living, changing thing of beauty that was as much a fixture in our lives as the grocery store check-out line. The sight of her lifted our spirits if only for the few minutes it took to flip through a People magazine.
The vulnerability that showed itself each time she looked up from under her black eyelashes and her blond bangs only compounded her beauty. The shyness in her smiles, the way her hand went to cover her face when laughter overtook her unbidden -- this made her beauty mysterious. She captivated us.
We have heard all week about Diana's legacy: the work she did for AIDS patients, the victims of land mines and breast cancer, the way she touched the poor. But Mother Teresa is saintly, too, and she has not made the cover of People magazine 43 times. Princess Anne is a tireless worker for the royals, too, and few of us could pick her out of a lineup.
We loved Diana not only because she triumphed after a bad marriage, not only because she was a good mother, not only because she gave so selflessly to good causes.
We loved her because she was beautiful in a way that went beyond fashion, beyond the muscled back, the sculpted legs, the perfect arms that she showed off with such self-confidence.
Her beauty was a searing mix: chaste but sensual, graceful but athletic, shy but statuesque. It had a complexity that held our attention without stirring our envy. She was impossibly beautiful. Preserved in death, she will always be so.
Certainly, tragically, her sons have lost more than a fashion icon or an object of unearthly loveliness. It is the thought of those children that troubles us most now, just as it comforted us as we watched her endure the cruelty of the monarchy.
That they would trot those boys out to church and test their instruction in stoicism in front of photographers just hours after telling them of their mother's death is chilling evidence that Diana was right all along about the bloodless public-image factory she had escaped. She would be furious at Charles for that, and we are helplessly furious on her behalf.
And we are helplessly sad. Diana was so easily, effortlessly beautiful. In jeans and an oxford-cloth shirt in Angola. In a backless, black sheath with a choker of precious gems around her elegant neck. Laughing through a water slide with her boys. Cradling a dying child. The camera seduced us to her no matter the scene.
Again, we wake before dawn to watch on television a ceremony in Diana's life. This time it is not the wedding of a Cinderella, but the funeral of a Sleeping Beauty that unfolds -- fantastic in its pageantry, unreal in its sadness.
Pub Date: 9/07/97