(This article was originally posted in my column in a Cherry Grove newspaper on September 1st, 2016)
Well, Grovites….this may seem like an …um…odd article for me to post when you’re so used to funny question and answer items, advice on mold and mosquitoes, harangues on litter, cigarette butts, and dogs off leashes, or even the perky little recipe and the amusing anecdote that goes with it…. But today, this particular morning, the day, and the week ahead is an anniversary that, although we’re Americans (and not British!), still resonates with so many people in a profound way…. Resonates perhaps even more because of how politics and public figures have evolved and morphed since that Summer evening exactly 20 years ago when Fire Island was full of vacationers and the news stunned and shocked the entire world that Diana Spencer, icon, heroine, and the focus of so much glamor and scandal had been killed in a car accident during the night.
It is one of those momentous events that people of all ages “remember exactly where they were when they heard the news”, and, depending on your age (and awareness!) you have a few of them…or many. It is a sign that you’re getting older when you have a list of “moments in history”, each one particular and fraught, full of sights and sounds, specific “cast members”, even tastes and smells, everything around you at the moment you heard that John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, or Martin Luther King had been assassinated, that Grace Kelly, Michael Jackson, or Prince had died, that the Challenger or the Columbia or John Kennedy, Jr. had crashed. Each of us has these moments and they weigh on each us differently depending on our backgrounds and personal histories. Some seem to be more universal than others. I’m not talking about 9/11 here for the obvious reason that so many of us in the New York City area observed directly the events of that day, and the days that followed, many of us literally right before our very eyes and touched perhaps through having neighbors, friends or family involved, surviving …or not. Diana’s death like the other losses and catastrophes I’ve suggested was a distant event for most of us. But even not knowing her personally, how many of us were touched by her surprising beauty and ready smile in the evening news, at Met balls with megastars, and at hospital appearances with AIDS patients and injured children. That funny phrase “unforgivably beautiful” was so apt for her, wasn’t it, because non-entertainment celebrities like politicians, scientists, philosophers, writers, and yes, even royals are rarely ever more than moderately attractive, but here was Diana Spencer, connected through her ancestry to Winston Churchill, Anne Boleyn, and Stuarts, Bourbons, Medicis, Hapsburgs, and Hanovers, and finally in line to be the Queen of England looking like a movie star!...actually lovelier than many movie stars, and touching, actually touching people with serious illnesses, giving hugs to people of all races and circumstances…and looking like that! Isn’t that what we all said when we’d see the evening news? In one shot she’d be in a glorious evening gown cut daringly off the shoulder and in jewels that dazzled, and in the next clip, she’d be walking through a minefield in shorts and a white cotton blouse conferring with United Nations experts and activists about humanitarian emergencies! Long before George Clooney became the handsome face of activist Hollywood, it was Diana who embodied the beautiful celebrity-as-warrior.
Everything about her life became news….Tears, tiaras, tirades about Charles, foreign and exotic liaisons with billionaire boyfriends, frisking with socialites, dancing with Travolta, camping about with Elton John, it all was front page news!... and the resistance and resentment by the Windsors only fanned the flames. Queen Elizabeth, who had prided herself on her understated self-sacrifice and stoicism in the face of World War and terrible national deprivation, was suddenly being seen as a cross between Queen Victoria’s sourness and the out-of-touch exclusivity of Marie Antoinette. And never more so than when Diana died in a car accident and the nation and the world were plunged into a very public and convulsive grief. It seemed to take forever for the Queen and her husband to realize that the British expected and finally demanded that they act accordingly. It may have seemed like it took forever, but in fact the cascade of events over a few short days and the Queen’s capitulation were almost like an avalanche with the streets covered and clogged with flowers, the flying of the palace flag at half-mast, the royal family forced to return to Buckingham and walking, yes, walking up to the crowds, and the final televised address on the world’s television sets…. The Queen of England …Live.
I suppose many of you are wondering what this has to do with a lovely Summer wrapping up here on Fire Island…each of the seventeen towns on our strip of sand grabbing a last few weeks of sun and surf before the school year and the Fall closes in. Many of the folks reading this are too young to remember or care about Diana or the metaphors that surround the sudden end of a youth filled with excitement, dreams, and drama. She was miserable about so much and yet she also adored her children, she was fun and funny, witty and clever, and perhaps even manipulative too once she began “to learn how to play the game” of her fame. She lobbed her celebrity status back at her in-laws, at Charles and his Camilla, like a master on the tennis court of life, and then rushed the net for the “grand slam”…. And certainly in death, her ghost annihilated the competition for the final victory. Even today, 20 years later, whatever newly released gossip or criticism of her seems to rinse away, while her status as iconic beauty, loving mother, bon vivant, and humanitarian remains and even grows. How much more will she become in the next 20 years? Will Diana finally and ironically be responsible for Charles relinquishing his rights to the throne in favor of his infinitely more popular and Diana-like son William. Will we skip a Charles III and go directly from Elizabeth II to William V…? Who knows…. But inevitably, we’ll find out. Twenty years ago, Diana dashed into an idling car, hunted as always but dealing with the usual petty annoyances of celebrity, perhaps even chuckling as she outran the paparazzi on their Vespas, faster and faster that night, in the most beautiful city on Earth…and then…
To get back to why I wrote this article on the anniversary of Diana’s death, we see what the world of celebrity and politics, and celebrities IN politics has become. We see how reality television has evolved with candy-bar tasks for third-rate has-been tv stars morphing into Washington policy-making. The catch-all phrase “You’re Fired” has taken on a whole new meaning. There’s still resistance and resentment, tears, and tirades, though maybe not as many tiaras. But with all the national and international drama and dramatics, we still have our own precious moments out here on the Island; moments of peace, of the sound of the waves rolling on the sand at sunset, and the very sight of those sunsets over the bay. Each one different and perfect…(all sunsets are perfect, even the cloudier ones, and don’t let anyone tell you differently). Here, we have all the beauty and loveliness that the eye and the heart can hold. Making dinner tonight with the breeze on the back deck or coming through an open kitchen window, friends and family gathering nearby, the end of another unmemorable day here at the ocean. Maybe we should make every day memorable…as memorable as possible. To stay present to each moment, to be grateful for the good and the wonderful things in life, to say “thank you” silently and sincerely, and to remember that all of this that we see, and feel, and think will always be is borrowed…. really, only borrowed.
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