Katie Couric Recalls Covering Princess Diana’s Death
“Although I was reporting on what was going on, I too was mourning Princess Diana. It seemed everyone came together that day, united in grief."
I’ll never forget where I was when I heard that Princess Diana was critically injured in a car accident in Paris. It was the end of August 1997, and I was at our home in Millbrook, New York. My husband, Jay, was in the middle of his battle with colon cancer, and it was an incredibly stressful time. When the news broke, I spent hours glued to the TV in our family room, waiting for any bit of information. I was so upset and holding my breath like the rest of the world. But eventually, Brian Williams announced she had died. I was devastated.
I covered the royals pretty extensively at the TODAY show, but I didn’t actually get to meet Diana until I was invited to attend a luncheon honoring her in Chicago in June of 1996. She was on a whirlwind trip to the U.S. I was asked to give some remarks, along with the journalist Anna Quindlen and Marlo Thomas. I was nervous to meet Princess Diana and was seated two seats away from her at lunch. We chatted and she told me she liked my pink lipstick. Funny. Then I said something like, “You must be exhausted traveling and meeting so many people and having to shake hands with all these strangers. Are you excited to go home?” I will never forget her response: “I would be, but I’m going home to an empty house.” This was as she was finalizing her divorce from Prince Charles, and she seemed a bit melancholy and lonely. My heart broke a little for her. “Why don’t you invite some friends over and have a slumber party?” I playfully suggested. She just tilted her head and looked at me quizzically.
Perhaps that’s why the world fell in love with Diana — she let people see her insecurity and vulnerability. She seemed to wear both on her sleeve. Yes, she was a princess, but somehow, she was like all of us. My friend Tina Brown knew the princess quite well, having first met her at the American Embassy in London when Diana was newly married to Prince Charles. We recently emailed about our memories of Diana, and Tina told me of their first meeting: “Her star quality was emerging, but she was still like a schoolgirl in her shyness and uncertainty.”
Tina was awakened at 5 a.m. the day Princess Diana died — by a reporter who showed up at her beach house to get information. “I was devastated and incredulous,” Tina told me. “Much more stunning in the flesh and so vibrant, I couldn't believe she could be snuffed out in such a senseless accident.”
It was a difficult loss for everyone, including Tina. “All I could think about when she died was how tragic it was that the bashful child-woman I had first met 15 years ago could wind up dead in a tunnel in Paris at 36, as her two beloved boys slept in their rooms in Balmoral, unaware how the world was about to change when they opened their eyes,” she remarked.
But Tina didn’t have time to grieve; she was the editor of The New Yorker, and she needed to put out a special issue. So she got on the phone to commision pieces by Salman Rushdie, Anthony Lane, and historian Simon Schama, and wrote a piece herself, in just 24 hours. “So strong was the emotion, every writer on our roster wanted to write,” she recalled. “The agony was: what could be the right, appropriate image for The New Yorker cover? We decided not to run an image of the princess, but instead a crayon illustration of a London guard officer standing to attention outside Buckingham Palace with a single tear coursing down his poker face.”
As soon as she closed that issue of the magazine, Tina hopped on a plane to London cover the funeral — as did I.
The whole city was in mourning. There were mounds of flowers everywhere, and a long line of people waiting to sign a condolence book outside of Kensington Palace. The lines seemed endless and the crowds were huge. The whole scene seemed so surreal. Later, her casket was pulled by horses down the streets of London to Westminster Abbey. I’ll never forget the sight of Prince Harry and Prince William walking behind it, two young boys — Harry was only 12, William was 15 — with their heads bowed, looking both sad and brave.
Although I was reporting on what was going on, I too was mourning Princess Diana. And at the same time, I kept imagining what would happen if my husband died from the cancer that had taken over our lives. The young princes made me think of our own young daughters and what losing a parent might mean for them. At one point, the producers had to take the cameras off me, because I was so choked up and tears started to stream down my face. One of the most moving moments of the service was when Diana’s good friend Elton John sang “Candle In The Wind,” which seemed so fitting. The lyrics of the song had been changed from “Goodbye Norma Jean” to “Goodbye England’s Rose.” It seemed everyone came together that day, united in grief.
But it wasn’t just the loss of Princess Diana that we were grieving that day; we were grieving a woman who tried to do good and be good, despite the fact that her very existence seemed to bring out the worst in the curious, prurient, and envious. Some suspect she loved the attention. I imagine she was enormously conflicted. This duality seemed to characterize her entire life. She was beautiful and glamorous, of course; a style maven and trendsetter. But we had all watched her evolution from shy Di to elegant princess to an almost modern day martyr, hugging AIDS patients and walking in war-torn nations to urge the removal of devastating land-mines.
Cathy Horyn, who wrote the last profile of Princess Diana for Vanity Fair just one month before she died, explained to me that getting to witness her growth made the public feel even closer to Diana. “We saw her become somebody who matured into this really incredible empathetic figure,” Cathy, now the fashion critic-at-large at The Cut, told me. “And after the divorce, we saw a much stronger person.”
I still find myself wondering what Diana’s life would have been had she survived that terrible accident. I asked Cathy, and she responded, “I think she would have continued to be an amazing role model to a lot of people. Some cynics believe she’d be just another royal traveling through Europe. But I don’t think so. She was smarter than that.” And I agree. Diana was keenly aware of her place on the world’s stage and seemed to want to make the most of it. I see this legacy living on through her sons — not only in the relentless media scrutiny they endure, but also in how they use this attention to advance causes that are important to them.
I also often think back to when I sat down with both princes for an ABC News special back in 2012. At that point, my husband had been gone for 14 years. I always wondered about the void he left in our girls’ lives, especially when it came to big occasions. So I asked Prince William as gingerly as possible about not having his mom at his wedding to Kate Middleton. He told me with great honesty: “It was very difficult. I sort of prepared myself beforehand... I didn't want any wobbling lips or anything going on.” I felt really sad for him and sad about how much Diana had missed. But I also felt proud as a mother that he understood how painful it was not having her there, yet knew he had to soldier on.
Now, 22 years after that tragic car accident, Diana is preserved in our memories: young, vibrant, and still figuring out who she was as she entered a new, exciting and probably nerve-racking period in her life. So much lost potential, but so many indelible images of a woman — loving her boys and finding her purpose, as well as herself. And in death, as in life, inspiring all of us to do the same.
Katie Couric is the founder of the daily Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.