No pix, no Di
By MAX FRANKEL, c.1997 The New York Times Magazine

At her death, the English-speaking media and much of the English reading public obviously went berserk. We pretended that a sad accident was a universal catastrophe, that the deportment of Britain's monarchy bears on the fate of humanity and that civilization's great challenge now is to rewrite the laws of privacy, to make the world safe for celebrity.

Mercifully, there is a God. At the perfect moment, God summoned Mother Teresa, trapping our anchorless anchors on the wrong continent and, ever so briefly, interrupting our worship of beauty with a rude reminder of beatitude.

As our royal fever fades, let us at least get the memory and lessons of it right.

Without Barbara Walters and Christie's, John Tesh and Elton John, without People, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Star, The Globe and all their snoops and paparazzi, Diana would have been merely a royal highness. It was our relentless exploitation of her image and invasions of her privacy that made her the Idol of the People.

In photos posed on palace porticos, she was just the princess of Wales, almost a Windsor. Not until she was caught dancing at the White House and flirting on the Cote d'Azur did she become the glamorous, naughty Diana.

No pix, no Di. Of course in any genuine people's democracy, pix favor the beautiful. And pix that also show the warts of the beautiful arouse mass worship. Being male, old and comfortable, I came to know Di only posthumously. Not until I witnessed the excessive coverage of her stupid death and the immoderate grieving of her fans did I learn how directly she spoke to the young and the vulnerable, especially vulnerable young women.

Far from being just a pretty face, Di told them tales of betrayal by an unfeeling husband and disdain from an unsympathetic mother-in-law -- to whom she was nonetheless bound by her own ambition for her beloved children. Far from just a sexy mannequin, she was a foxy fighter, an avenging angel, who repaid an adulterous husband in his coin and schemed to drag him with her out of the royal line of succession.

When dumped on by the House of Windsor, she dumped right back, matching phone tap with phone tap, interview with interview and Charles' flaunting of an old love this summer with a new love of her own.

Scandal was her message, the media her weapon:

"There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

"Maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had depression or was ever openly tearful."

"Any sane person would have left a long time ago. But I cannot. I have my sons."

"They think because you're in the media all the time, you've got enough attention. But I was actually crying out because I wanted to get better."

These shrewdly timed declarations evoked a discernible reaction, best interpreted for me by Sheryl Connelly in The Daily News:

"And that, actually, is when more women took to her. Women who weren't all that interested in a voguish princess, women who possibly had never trucked in fairy tales, women who recognized a fighter when they saw one. Diana, whose armament was bare save for one weapon -- the adoration of the masses -- bested the monarchy.

"Then she floundered. Her spiritual quest had the shadings of New Age and seemed silly. The charges that she made obsessive phone calls to a married friend suggested she was disturbed" -- until, again, "she pulled it out" with work for meaningful causes and the prospect of joining her great celebrity with Dodi al-Fayed's great wealth to establish "a rival court in London."

How did the mourning millions know all this? From Diana's own soapy revelations, leaked to the "royal watchers" and to the author of "Her True Story" and finally confirmed by herself on Oprah-esque television. Her incendiary performances enriched mainstream magazines, set tabloids ablaze and beckoned paparazzi to the bikini beaches at St. Tropez.

She found her felicity by surrendering her privacy. That may not excuse the final pursuit of her to and from the Ritz, but it sure explains the relentless chase and the media frenzy with which she was laid to rest.

Now the crowd clamors to protect her boys. But for all their good looks and proud heritage, they will be loved by the masses only to the extent that they are revealed to the media to be, like Mummy, flawed and mortal.

That added lesson was taught me two days after Di's death, by the obituaries for Dr. Viktor E. Frankl. The famous Viennese psychiatrist died at 92 after writing dozens of self-help works on "Man's Search for Meaning," which was the title of his masterpiece, one of the most influential books of the century. Frankl found his meaning of life by surviving the Nazis' death camps, in what he called every individual's lonely responsibility to face fate without flinching. And this was his unflinching verdict on all of us in the media and the masses:

"The dullard newspaper reader sitting at his breakfast table is avid for stories of misfortune and death. ... His pattern is like that of every addict: his hunger for sensation requires a nervous jolt to satisfy it; the jolt to the nerves engenders a more intense hunger, and so the dose must be constantly stepped up. What such a person really gets out of these vicarious deaths is the contrast effect: it seems as though other people are always the ones who must die. For this type of person is fleeing what most horrifies him: the certainty of his own death -- which his existential emptiness makes unbearable to him. ... "To escape into the mass is to disburden oneself of individual responsibility. ... This tendency to flee from responsibility is the motif of all collectivism. True community is in essence the community of responsible persons; mere mass is the sum of depersonalized entities."

Diana in life outgrew our fairy tales. But in the end she left the media and the masses suffering from an even worse addiction.

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