The Way She Was

updated 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Once upon a time, when Diana Spencer had just graduated from being Miss Diana the kindergarten teacher to Shy Di the princess bride, we used to refer to her around PEOPLE as "our gift from heaven." After what has happened, I wish I could say we meant that in the theological sense, but in fact it just meant that putting her picture on the cover made the magazine seem to fly off newsstands. We had no idea back then how very many times she would be on the magazine's cover, but we knew she was a great story, even without being able to say quite why.

As the editor of PEOPLE during some of the Diana frenzy, I must confess that the why of it didn't really matter much to me. Who could wonder why readers were transfixed by the story of a high-born young aristocrat who was putting together a meager living scrubbing floors, ironing shirts, teaching children to dance. This Cinderella's skirts were tartan plaid, her hair chopped short. She had a nervous giggle and was just the tiniest bit plump. Maybe her most singular characteristic was that she had no "past," as Palace sources delicately put it. ("I knew I had to keep myself tidy for what lay ahead," she later explained.) For her first trip with Prince Charles to Balmoral, she took along her needlepoint and a couple of the cheesy romance novels she loved so much at the time.

Their courtship was right out of one of those novels, and Charles, lest we forget, made a dashing hero: pilot of helicopters and jets, trained commando and frogman, champion shot, fly fisherman, horseman, not to mention prince. Small wonder her answer to the Big Question, after a candlelit dinner at The House (Buckingham Palace to you), was the lovely, demure "Yes, please."

At the official announcement, stock prices rose on the London exchanges, loud, beefy cheers rang out in Parliament, and Charles's old minesweeper, the HMS Bronington, fired off a 21-gun salute. Outside the palace gates that day was one Sonia Lorrimer, who said, "It's the kind of news that makes you happy to be British again."

The other news of the day was grim. Set against some fairly vivid harbingers of doom—the escalating arms race, the oil crisis, a ravaged economy, John Lennon's murder—it is easy to understand why Diana's emergence was a balm. Three months after PEOPLE named her one of the Most Intriguing People of 1981, almost half our readers said in a poll that they believed they would live to see a nuclear war. Despite the divorce statistics we all knew even then, 72 percent said Charles and Diana would live happily ever after.

We at PEOPLE certainly hoped so, and for reasons not entirely commercial. She was just so wonderful to look at that every layout session was a treat. Normally these meetings were rowdy affairs with clusters of people working on several stories at once. But when the Diana story came to the table, everything stopped, and there seemed nothing better to do in all the world than take in her upturned eyes and radiant smile.

Little did we know that, out of our view, our princess was falling apart. For the price of a donation from the magazine, I got to be her "escort" to a charity function in 1989, by which time she had been married eight years and had two beautiful sons. She was 27 and dazzling, and everything seemed swell. She told someone at dinner, "I want to have three more babies, but I haven't told my husband yet." Her appetite, we noticed, was voracious; she hunched over her dinner and wolfed it down. Despite the urging of her lady-in-waiting, she refused to leave before dessert. Looking back, it seems to me I should have known she had a problem, but I could not see her as anything less (or more) than delightful.

By that time, as we now know, she had been bulimic for years, she had tried to kill herself, and she and Charles were living separate lives. In her telling, the marriage broke up because she'd had the impudence to demand a real relationship, but who knows. In fairness to Charles, he must have felt the fairy tale got all mixed up: He kissed the princess and became a frog. In any case the fairy tale was over long before we knew it, and in time Diana, alone and in private, went about the mundane and necessary work of healing.

So, in a nice irony, it turns out that Diana, who was both coquettish and bitter toward the press, beat us on the best story of all: how the fairy tale heroine managed to rescue herself from the tower and transform herself into a real human being who shouted and cried and needed help and then got it. In the meantime, she did a lot of good—for charities, for her sons, for the monarchy and for England, whose famous stiff upper lip curled and twisted in cries of anguish at her passing, which was itself a kind of healing.

I think I know the why of this Diana story. It was a fairy tale that became a life that rose to the level of myth: The young innocent triumphs over all the trials of Hell and is granted wisdom and strength as her reward. And in the end, of course, the real Diana—the one who had fallen and risen again—was more beautiful by far than the fairest young princess could ever have been.

James R. Gaines is a former managing editor of PEOPLE

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