A woman who deserved to be admired

September 07, 1997|By Elise Armacost

I CRIED OVER Princess Diana, which for a while caused me some little embarrassment.

''She's your Elvis, isn't she?'' my husband asked, watching me blink and sniffle over the sad headlines the day she was killed.

This wasn't easy to admit, because I had always been baffled by and a bit contemptuous of tears shed on behalf of famous strangers. At 16, I thought it silly when a friend of my mother's fell apart over Elvis' death. At 19, I watched, incredulously, footage of the heartbroken banging their heads against walls after John Lennon's murder.

I didn't bang my head, light a candle or travel to the British embassy to sign a book of condolence last week. But I understand now that it's possible to feel genuinely grieved at the loss of someone you never knew, if that someone dominated your life and times to the point where you felt that you did know her, especially if she were someone you rather liked.

I was 19 when Diana was 19, the year she entered the spotlight. I always liked her. I liked her pretty dresses and pearl chokers. I tried her hairstyle once and found it suited me. She looked like a nice girl, the kind of girl whom, had fate placed her in my English class instead of the royal circle, I might have sought out as a friend.

Now that she is dead, the most frequently broadcast images of her are recent ones -- Diana the apex of glamour, not Shy Di. The fashion mavens praised the transformation, denouncing the tastes of the early Diana as girlish and faintly ridiculous.

But she was a girl then. There is a famous photo of her taken in 1981 in which she is sitting in a huge red velvet chair at a session of Parliament. Her hands are neatly folded, and she is sound asleep and wearing a frothy, beribboned pale blue gown, a far cry from the elegant sheaths of late. Then, however, the dress suited her. She looked pure, still like a child, even though she was pregnant.

We who grew up with her were glad to watch her grow into more sophisticated, confident skin as the years passed and our own tastes changed. But I suspect she never would have captured the public's heart had she started out that way. And she never would have kept it had she not preserved that aura of vulnerability and niceness even after she became a tanned, toned, jet-setting divorcee.

This is an era when innocence, particularly female innocence, presumably does not hold much attraction. It's almost a pejorative among those who aspire to hipness. Our culture celebrates the overtly sensual, the worldly wise, even the decadent. Young stars -- Drew Barrymore is a particularly grotesque example -- seem to be trying to look as though they've lived 50 years by the time they're 20.

The tendency filters down to ordinary people. High school girls want to look older and sexy at their proms. Young adults with a pristine past sometimes feel ashamed to own up to it. Cleverness and edginess are vogue; sweetness and naivete are embarrassing.

What does it say about us, then, that the only celebrity who managed consistently to hold our attention and affection these past 16 years -- who outshone more sultry and outrageous stars -- was a virginal, golden, unjaded teen-ager who apparently really believed she was being married for love?

Yes, she changed. But to the end she was more innocent than worldly. Even her extramarital liaison, confessed in a BBC interview, sounded somewhat juvenile. She appeared near tears when, on a recent visit to Angola to inspect land mines, she learned that a British politician had called her a ''loose cannon'' on this issue. Even in her relationship with Dodi al Fayed, widely seen as a sign of womanly maturation, there was no sign of recognition that here again was a man who may have had something other than love in mind. And she was truly deluded if she thought it possible to live a normal life, having made herself the icon of a generation.

I will not hold her up as some kind of feminine goddess when, 10 years from now on the anniversary of her death, my daughter sees her picture and asks what I thought of her. I would wish her to be a better judge of men than Diana was, to dwell more in the realm of the mind, to be more stable and secure.

But I will tell her that this was a woman who deserved to be admired. A person who became more than anyone thought she was capable of becoming; who used her celebrity well; who showed how lovely innocence and a kind expression can be.

I will say I cried a little the night she died, and there was no shame in it.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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