As with any major event, especially tragedies, many people remember exactly where they were when they heard the news of Princess Diana’s death on August 31, 1997. In my case, I was 16 years old, we had just moved across the country to a small town in Pennsylvania, and we were at a birthday party for one of my dad’s new colleagues. The radio was on, and the music was interrupted for a breaking news alert announcing her death. Everyone was shocked and saddened, but the party went on.
I tried to behave like a civilized adult and continue socializing with people, but I kept staring out the window while trying to comprehend what had happened. Diana was indeed the queen of people’s hearts, and many were stunned and bereft in the wake of her death. While many things about Diana are widely known — such as her altogether miserable marriage to Charles, her determination to raise princes William and Harry as normally as possible, the tragic circumstances that led to her death — many details of her life aren’t commonly discussed.
Her family was very close with the Winsdors
Even as a child, Diana was no stranger to the House of Windsor royal family. Diana, born on July 1, 1961, was “the youngest daughter of the then Viscount and Viscountess Althorp, now the late Earl Spencer and the Hon Mrs Shand-Kydd,” notes the BBC. She was born at Sandringham, which is one of the Queen’s private estates, and spent much of her early childhood there as well. She also counted young princes Edward and Andrew among her childhood playmates, and even knew Queen Elizabeth as “Aunt Lilibet,” according to a 1981 Daily Times article about her marriage to Prince Charles.
The same Daily Times article notes that her father had served as a royal equerry in the palace, first for King George and later for a young Queen Elizabeth, and her mother had been a lady-in-waiting for the Queen Mother. In fact, according to the BBC, when her parents married in 1954, the Queen was “the chief guest” — and the ceremony, which was held in Westminster Abbey, was considered to be “the social event of the year.”
School wasn’t her strong suit
The fact that Diana didn’t excel in academic settings — she reportedly failed the first stage of her General Certificate of Education exams, known as the O Levels, twice — greatly affected her self-esteem, according to biographer Tina Brown in The Diana Chronicles. “She thought she knew nothing and was very stupid,” historian Paul Johnson told Brown. “She’d say things like ‘I am very thick and uneducated.'”
Diana was, however, gifted in other areas, most notably when it came to her emotional intelligence. “Diana made her warmth available to anyone regardless of race, creed, or nationality,” wrote Brown. “An invisible thread of kindliness drew her to people who expected the least and needed the most.”
Johnson told Brown, “She had something that very few people possess. She had extraordinary intuition and could see people who were nice and [be] warm to them and sympathize with them…Very few people compare to what she had.'”
She loved to dance
In addition to her off-the-charts emotional intelligence and empathy, Diana was also a talented diver and dancer. Her diving skills when she was growing up made her notorious for the “Spencer Special” — in which she’d “dive into the pool leaving barely a ripple,” according to biographer Andrew Morton in Diana: Her True Story. While her swimming and diving skills were impressive, dance was where she truly found her passion.
“She loved her ballet and tap-dancing sessions and longed to be a ballet dancer,” wrote Morton, but at five feet 10 ½ inches, was considered too tall for such a role. Nonetheless, she loved dancing. “As she danced she could lose herself in the movement. Often she crept out of her bed in the dead of night and sneaked into the new school hall to practice,” Morton wrote, adding that Diana told him, “It always released tremendous tension in my head.”
Her passion for dance continued after she became a royal. In 1985, she and Wayne Sleep, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, orchestrated a duet that they rehearsed in secret and then performed together in a private show for friends of the Royal Ballet. According to Sleep in an interview with The Guardian, the surprise worked out perfectly. “The audience gasped when Diana appeared, as if they’d all taken one huge breath,” he said. “The routine had a bit of everything: jazz, ballet, even a kickline… She loved the freedom dancing gave her.”
She first met Charles because he was dating her older sister
While the world saw Charles and Diana’s marriage as a fairy tale, their entire courtship, engagement, and run-up to the wedding was fraught with mixed signals, archaic traditions, and red flags that the union wouldn’t turn out well.
First and foremost were the circumstances of their initial meeting: with a 12-year age difference between them, Diana first encountered Charles when she was 16, he was 28. He had come over to the Spencer estate for a pheasant shoot — and he was also dating Diana’s older sister, Sarah. He and Sarah soon ended their romance, and he began to pursue Diana, according to a 1981 The Daily Times article.
She had only met with Charles 13 times before their wedding, and his efforts to woo Diana were rife with mixed signals. “He would ring me up every day and then not contact me for weeks; he wasn’t very consistent in his courtship,” she said in interviews, circa 1992-1993, that were aired as part of a documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of her death (via the Independent). Adding to which, there’s the heebie-jeebie-inducing fact that “in order to satisfy the requirements of royalty, she was subjected to a discreet gynecological examination to ensure she could bear the heirs of the future King Charles III. It was felt necessary to make a public declaration of her untainted past, to announce in effect that she was a virgin,” according to The Daily Times.