ONCE upon a time, way back in 1961, a little girl was born in England. Her father was a baron and her mother a baron’s daughter.
The Earl had two daughters, and he desperately wanted a son who could continue the family name.
But he was disappointed to find the third child was also a girl. Then he saw her, and the delicate baby with the golden hair and the blue eyes stole his heart.
The golden-haired girl grew up in a 10-bedroom house on a beautiful estate that belonged to the Queen of England.
She was happy, sunny child. But when she was six her mom ran away with another man. Her parents fought over who she’d stay with and eventually her dad won.
The divorce really upset the little girl, and she began slouching and biting her nails.
She wasn’t one of the brightest kids at school, but she was good at sport, especially swimming. She also loved ballet. And like many young ladies in the kingdom, she sometimes dreamed of marrying a prince.
The little girl even stuck a photo of him on the wall above her bed.
“One day when I grow up I want to be a ballerina – or the Princess of Wales,” she told a classmate.
But the Prince, who was 13 years older than her, already had a girlfriend -- and she just happened to be the young girl's big sister.
One day, when the young woman was 16, the Prince was visiting when he saw her alone in a field. He thought she was very beautiful, but soon forgot about her.
Three years passed. The golden-haired girl grew more and more beautiful. Then, one day, the Queen invited her to visit the palace. There she ran into the Prince again. This time he was so taken by her he invited her to parties. But she was much too young to be his wife, he thought.
Then his girlfriend dumped him, and his mother began asking him when he was going to get married. After all, he was over 30.
The Prince went to his wise grandmother. The Queen Mother knew the Earl’s daughter was crazy about him, so she asked: “Why don’t you marry her?”
So the Prince popped the question next to a cabbage patch at his best friend’s home.
And the shy young woman accepted.
IT was a wonderful wedding. Kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers came from all over the world to attend. When the young woman walked down the aisle of the cathedral on her father’s arm, her long trail sliding gracefully behind her, she had the crowds in raptures.
A golden coach took the Prince and his bride – the Princess – from the cathedral to Buckingham Palace, down streets lined with millions of cheering people. A billion others all over the world watched the wedding on TV.
Then, on the palace’s balcony, the heir to the British throne gently kissed the woman who would one day be queen.
The honeymoon – a cruise on the queen’s yacht –was just as romantic.
But one night on the yacht the Princess saw the Prince wearing a pair of gold cufflinks, with the inscription C&C.
The Princess immediately knew what those letters stood for -- they were the initials of his best friend's wife. But when she got angry the Prince told her not to be silly. He and the woman were just friends.
Soon the Princess was expecting a baby, and 11 months after the wedding her first child, a little prince, was born. Two years later her second son made his appearance.
The Princess was a wonderful mother who was never too busy for her little boys. She dropped them at school and fetched them again, kissed and cuddled them in public, played with them at the funfair and happily ran races with the other moms on school sports days.
When another child accidentally hit one of the little princes on the head with a gold club, the Princess spent the night next to her son’s hospital bed.
The Prince, however, did his royal duty and went to the ballet the night.
The public thought the Prince and Princess were blissfully happy – after all they even kissed each other in public, something royals almost never did.
In the beginning, the Prince was pleased with his beautiful wife. She was a breath of fresh air among the stiff royals, and all their royal subjects seemed to adore her. Everywhere she went she was greeted by huge crowds bearing gifts and flowers.
But after a while, it seemed that the Princess was the only royal the kingdom cared about. And suddenly, the Princess was left at home while the Prince went out and about.
But the Princess didn’t spend much time sitting at home at the palace. She visited sick children, and showed them kindness and love where others had not. She worked her magic not for the press and the public, but for the little ones desperately in need of it – but as a result, the press and the public loved her even more.
Yet it became harder for the Princess to move among the people. Everywhere she went, photographers followed her, their telephoto lenses trained on her like gun barrels on a wide-eyed doe.
Worst of all, she and the prince no longer loved each other. Some said it was because they were too different. Maybe the Prince was too old for her. Or maybe his parents hadn’t showed him enough love.
But the truth was that the Prince’s heart had, and always would, belong to another. And she was married to one of his friends.
The Princess’ heart was broken. She stopped eating and got thinner and thinner. There were whispers around the palace that their lovely Princess had even thought of taking her own life.
Eventually, 11 years after their jubilant wedding, the Prime Minister told the kingdom that the Prince and Princess’ marriage was over.
FOUR years passed. The Prince and Princess were finally divorced. And, much to the kingdom’s dismay, their Princess would never be their queen.
The Prince’s best friend's marriage had also ended, and now the kingdom was left wondering if this woman would one day ascend to the throne next the prince in their beloved Princess’ place.
The Princess was somehow more beautiful than ever – but she was deeply unhappy. Many loved her – but she had yet to meet a man who loved her for who she truly was.
Then an old friend invited the Princess and her sons to join him and his family for a seaside holiday.
He was not a prince, but he was one of the richest men on Earth – and he had a handsome and charming son.
The Princess and the charming young man had already met, but that magical holiday, they started to fall in love.
The weeks that followed were blissful for the Princess. The handsome young man took her to the most fascinating, exotic places in his private jet. He may not have had a royal title, but his father did have a palace of sorts – the Ritz hotel in the city of love, Paris.
Hopelessly in love, the young man invited the Princess for another cruise on his father’s yacht. It was a fairytale of a different kind for the Princess. The sun shone, the sea sparkled a beautiful sapphire blue and the star-crossed pair swam in the water like dolphins.
The young man kissed her and held her close as they reveled in their joy.
Soon after, they wanted the world to know they were in love – they didn’t even care about the photographers that followed their every move.
But as speculation grew that the beloved Princess had found her happily ever after, the people wanted more pictures – and the scrutiny reached a fever pitch.
The Princess flew to Paris for a romantic rendezvous with her love. Late that night, they drove off in their luxury car, trying to escape the relentless flashbulbs that chased after them like villains in their fairytale.
It happened exactly 19 years ago today -- and it was to be the Princess of Hearts’ last ride.
The car crashed. The young man was killed instantly. The Princess was rushed to hospital where the finest doctors in the land fought to save her life – in vain.
That Sunday, the kingdom was shocked to hear their beloved Princess was no longer.
People travelled from far and wide to deliver flowers, cards and show their devastation at her death.
With broken hearts, the world searched for someone to blame. Was it the fault of the photographers who hounded their Princess endlessly? The driver of her luxury car? Even worse, was there some sort of hidden villain who had orchestrated the whole thing?
Or was it simply a horrible, horrible, accident?
But there was one thing the billions of mourners who paid homage around the world agreed on – they would never see another princess like her again.
By ANDREW BURKE
Illustration by IZAAK VOLLGRAAFF
This story originally appeared in YOU on 11 September 1997.