Sentiment: TRISTE TRISTESSE
(Translation: Feeling Sadly Sorrowful).
Righto, in complete polarisation (no, we aren’t back in Krakow – we are in French country my friends) to my long winded novels of posts of late, here is a laconic little number one extremely tragic event to take place in the city of Paris – the death of Paris Diana.
The evening begins at the Hotel Ritz.
Located in the 1st arrondissement (remember way back to my explanation of the Parisian 20 snail suburbs?) Hotel Ritz is right in the heart of the city, founded back in 1898. Ranked among the most prestigious and luxurious in the world, it has served as a staying place to celebrities such as Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemmingway, as well as the Nazi Luftwaffe headquarters during WWII.
On August 31 1997, Princess Diana of Wales dined in the Imperial Suite of the hotel with the owner’s son, one Dodi Al-Fayed. The pair – whom the media had been hounding for months to get the nectar on their “secret” (some say sordid) romance – were joined by Al-Fayed’s personal chauffeur and deputy head of security at the hotel Henri Paul, and body guard Trevor Rees-Jones.
Dodi and Princess Di had been pestered, pursued and persisted by paparazzi all day, with a horde of them swarming outside the hotel awaiting their departure. It was decided the vehicle at the front of the hotel would be used as a decoy, with Paul to instead take the wheel of a 1994 Mercedes-Benz to drive them away (both the paparazzi in a figurative sense, Di and Dodi in a literal one).
The quad took off, with the pap realising soon after and getting their tail on. Paul was said to have been driving erratically in a bid to outfox the pursuing gaggle of paparazzi. When entering the Pont de l’Alma underpass tunnel at 12.23am, he lost control of the wheel and smashed into a pillar at 105km/h, spinning out to hit a stone wall and coming to a stop. None of those inside the vehicle had been wearing seatbelts.
Now, it is alleged that the paparazzi thronged the car to take photos, where Diana murmured, “Oh my God, leave me alone”. Whether or not this actually happened is open up for contemplation. Dodi and Paul were both pronounced dead at the scene, with Diana passing on at 4am at the Piti-Salpetriere Hospital of cardiac arrest. Rees-Jones was the only survivor.
Seemingly straight-forward to a point, non? Well. The events that led up to and played out upon that fateful night have been met with orchestrated criminal conspiracy theories, wildfire rumours and finger point accusing of a number of prominent people. I shall lay down but a modicum few.
Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed (owner of the hotel where they had been dining as well as the infamous English Harrods store) to this day claims the crash was a result of a conspiracy on part of the Royal Family and the M16,with 175 different claims made, no less. A Special Metropolitan Police inquiry team was established in 2004 called Operation Paget; headed by Comissioner John Stevens, they looked into each and every of Fayed’s assertions and accusations – including murder.
Some of the reasons for the prerogatives and allegations of “murder”? Well, the driver Henry was found to have a blood alcohol level three times that of the legal French limit. Even though it has been said he was not seen to have been drinking at all during the course (well, three in entrees, mains and desserts) of the evening. Whispers of drugging disseminated, with some saying spiking was the cause of his so-called inebriation.
Others avow that the “murderers” were none other than the Royal Family themselves. Diana was a thorn in their sides, people say; she was “skimpily educated”, media spotlighted (in a way that she came across as the good with them the bad) and was at the centre of an embarrassing divorce with Price Charles after 15 years of marriage (phone convos between old Charlie and his gf, Camilla Parker Bowles, had been leaked to the press in which he told her he wanted to be her “tampon”).
Diana was the Queen of People’s Hearts. She was forefront in the media, humanitarian in her bids for world peace and what not. And she was now a divorcee and single mother. And speculation proliferated that she was pregnant with Dodi’s baby. It is said that the birth of an Egyptian Muslim offspring (as was Dodi’s ethnicity) would “make the Royal Family crumble like a simple teacake”. Diana was a threat to the sanctity of Windsor, was she not? Staining the fabric of the Royal tapestry? So disposing of her was the only way to go.
The main theory follows the line that aside from the factor of the intoxicated Henry and thrum of unruly pap, there were a number of other mystery cars causing havoc in the tunnel which were never found afterwards. Apparently these vehicles were the true undoing and cause of the crash; a white Fiat Uno is alleged to have struck the Mercedes to cause the spin out. (Apparently in 1998 French police honed in on the driver of the white car, with him committing suicide two years later).
And against all French laws, a team of immediately embalmed Diana’s body while it was still warm, making any post-mortem examination highly difficult to perform. Some saw this further points to a pregnancy, others declare it to cover up tampering with her body during the ambulance journey to the hospital.
However official investigations found that the three that deceased in the car died in a manner consistent with the straight forward media reports, that being an accident. At a British inquest in 2008, a jury were unanimous in favour of Paul being responsible of unlawful killing whilst under the influence, with the secondary factor being the paparazzi pursuing the car. An 18-month judicial investigation, evidence was taken in the form of security footage of Princess Di and Dodi in the Ritz hallways and elevators.
Whatever you believe, be it bowing into conspiracy theories such as the ones I have pieced together here or going with the authentic accident side of things, the response to Di’s death was mind boggling. More than 3 million mourners and onlookers congregated outside Westminster Abbey at her funeral in London, with worldwide TV coverage aired to 200 countries in 44 languages and watched by 2.5billion people. Media described the response to her death as “irrational” and “hysterical” which I guess in a way it was – people loved the Princess and were devastated at her passing on.
That week of 1997 is etched in my memory on account of Deb being quite the fan of Princess Di. With her passing (Di, not Deb) on the brother James’ birthday as well as her funeral taking place on mine (September 6), every year without fail Deb says, “It’s [insert number her] since Princess Diana died” (though all the newspapers and magazines are also full of anecdotes and updates of the event at this time too). It was global heartbreak when Di went, and a current of sorrow still surfaces each and every year on the anniversary.
And the Hotel Ritz where Diana spent her last few hours? It still stands today, its 159 rooms having the most lavish as the Imperial Suite at 13,900 euros a night. (It is actual listed as a National Monument of France in its own right). Still under the ownership of now 86-year-old Mohammed Al-Fayed, it has been closed for the past two years in a USD$200million refurbishment – a price that was majorly escalated on January 19 this year, when a fire engulfed the lower few floors. It took 15 fire engines and 60 firefighters to put out the inferno, extending the length of the hotel’s closure indefinitely.
I was gutted that during either of my Parisian perusals I did not manage to go and walk around the Hotel Ritz itself. I love being in exact spots where the renowned and the eminent have stood themselves (though I just could not bring myself to stand on the balcony which Hitler did in his infamous photo of him taking Paris, Fifi in the background). I would’ve really valued to have been at the place where Princess Di was before she died (though obviously outside; my meagre funds could never extend to the pricey sum to take out the Imperial if the hotel was in fact back open for business). But no doubt when Deb and I come here together, it’ll be top of her list of Parisian to-do’s (her love of Di has now passed onto Will and Kate; I cannot tell you how many times she watched that Royal Wedding and I’m pretty sure the Special Edition Woman’s Weekly’s are still stashed in her wardrobe).
It’s just another part of Paris that people often forget in the face of long-standing monuments and spellbinding souvenir stalls. It certainly evaded my own mind as I dallied around the city.
I don’t know what I believe when it comes down to Di’s death. I always thought it was a straight-forward calamity, nothing sinister or baleful about it. I guess what with anything stories can be said and claims can be made to render you a bit dubious. But whatever the circumstances, it was a tragedy and a real adversity – but Diana still lives on with the love and legacy she left behind.