With the arrival of TIFF, Lady Gaga and Jessica Chastain, Andre Leon Talley in the city, I think about some of “the stars” , one in particular whose memory was conjured by her passing twenty years ago last week. Pictures and media reminders of Princess Diana sparked a memory of my own, one that along with a dinner sitting practically adjacent Bill Clinton in Martha’s Vineyard Black Dog, reminded me of chance encounters in our lives.
Back when Bob Rae was premier, we were invited to the yacht Britannia with the Royals for a supper on board. When an invitation arrived, we believed it a hoax perpetrated by someone with a deliciously wicked sense of humour. But when it was followed up a day or so later by a thickly- accented attaché on the the telephone, we knew we would be in for an adventure.Instructions followed on proper protocol as we were instructed on bows and curtsies , dress lengths and no touching of the bodies of the Prince or the Princess, should I decide to greet them both in great bear hug. As the day approached, I fretted over velvet or taffeta and hair- dos, curly or straight, manners and behaviours that were deemed appropriate and proper for the event.
The night was rainy and dark. We stopped our car in line, told to wait until a uniformed person with a huge umbrella escorted us towards the boat and our car disappeared. The captain formally met us at the door, smoothly welcoming us on board as if we had known him for ages. I marvelled at his ease of making tinkling conversation, relaxing and settling us into light and charming conversation. I glimpsed Norman Jewison, Cito Gaston, John Tory,Lincoln Alexander, a few others of the chosen gathered for the opportunity to gawk at the monarchy at close range.
We heard all food and drink had been brought from England, thus dispelling the worry of anyone attempting to poison his and her highnesses. Years ahead of Games of Thrones, the attendants on the royal yacht were not taking any chances that the wines, each perfectly aligned to food courses, might be laced with more than vintage wine.
We searched with our eyes to find some prized trinket, engraved soap, list of seating arrangements for visitors to take home, discreetly removed while we supped, but sadly nothing lay about to testify to our presence there that night in 1991 : only our memories would survive the few scheduled hours.
Greeted by Prince Charles, I was surprised by his warmth, his knowledge of architecture pertaining to Ontario and especially Osgoode Hall, his learned ability to chat, converse, even raise knowledgeable insights. He had memorized our bios well, poised and attentive, providing us with several pleasant minutes. All stylized and customized, but mesmerizing. I even found him attractive unlike his newspaper pictures.
But interrupting this choreographed reception entered Diana- regally tall, exuding a presence of aloneness and no desire at all to be present. I noted her stunning black dress and her huge pearl earrings , the like I have never seen before or since. Enclosed in her self- contained circle momentarily, she seemed to rebuff any interaction with the invited on board.But suddenly the spell was broken as her boys, William and Harry, appeared. She ran towards them. She swooped towards them , gathering them into her outspread arms, and pulled them close. No longer, the unapproachable distant icon, she was transformed into the adoring mother, a person who was smitten by her children, instructing them to shake hands and nod to the visitors. In that instant, she became human, the ice melting around her. The Currier and Ives photos, the slightly frayed rug, the others in attendance all vanished. The emotion of love eclipsing all else, dispelling the Cinderella myth for the reality of pure parental adoration. Not the pretence of royalty, but the simple pleasure of a mother with her children.
She never spoke to us, inclined her head, or even managed a smile during dinner- once her boys had been taken back to their suites. No doubt where she longed to tuck them into bed and read them a story. Without even a passing look between Charles and Diana, they were obviously two very distant constellations.
So many years later and especially last weekend when she was chased to her death by the paparazzi, I think of that evening, but especially of Diana. And as it has been reported and retold, she was so much more than her position, the people’s princess.