Princess Diana captivates the world 20 years after death

Salisbury couple has special memories of Diana

FILE PHOTO: Princess Diana relaxes on the sand during a visit to the beach on the Caribbean Island of Nevis January 4, 1993. REUTERS/Mark Cardwell/File Photo

KINSTON — A seemingly quiet and shy Diana, with eye-catching fashion and a strong devotion to her children and charity work, is long-remembered 20 years after her death.

In the time since her passing, millions still remember the “People’s Princess.” Her sons, princes William and Harry, have shared memories of their mother with the public, Kensington Palace is preparing to erect a stature in her honor, recent television documentaries talk of her life and legacy, and comparisons between Diana and Kate Middleton are constant.

“There’ll never be anyone else like Diana,” said Ingrid Seward, editor in chief of Majesty magazine and author of “Diana: The Last Word.”

Since her wedding and subsequent dissolution of her marriage to Prince Charles, heir-to-the-throne, Diana had become the most photographed woman in the world. On Aug. 31, 1997, Diana was killed at age 36 along with her companion Dodi al-Fayed when a limousine carrying them crashed in a Paris tunnel as it sped away from paparazzi.

Her death spawned worldwide mourning with an estimated 33 million Americans tuning in to watch her funeral in September 1997.

Diana was well-known for her crusades to bring light to those suffering with AIDS, victims of landmines and the homeless.

Shari and Bill Graham of Salisbury admired her work with landmine victims since their son was born without his lower left arm.

“My parents are Canadian and my grandfather was British. When I was very young it was important that we knew and understood British history,” said Shari. “It spurred my interest in British history. I was particularly drawn to Princess Diana because of our son. I became interested in what she was doing with landmine victims, prosthetics and helping those people and charities.”

Supporting charities Diana did, indeed. A young Prince William encouraged his mother to support landmine and AIDS charities by selling several of her dresses at auction in the summer of 1997. Christie’s held the famous auction a month before Diana’s death and it would be the Grahams who would purchase two of her dresses.

“The news was covering the fact Diana was auctioning the dresses with the proceeds going to charity,” said Shari. “I said to Bill, ‘Wouldn’t it be great just to go. I don’t need to have a dress, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to support this cause and go see them?’”

“I tried to get us to the auction, but I couldn’t,” said Bill. “Instead, I gave my wife two catalogs of the dresses in auction and secretly bid over the telephone for the dresses.”

“Bless my husband, he took my request to heart,” said Shari. “He brought home bid books (catalogs) and asked me which dresses I would have bid on. I picked one dress that I loved and he picked one dress.”

Shari watched the auction on television while, unbeknownst to her, Bill was bidding on the dresses in the other room.

“He came in and said, ‘Congratulations, you have your dress.’ I about fell on the floor,” said Shari.

Bill purchased two dresses by British fashion designer Catherine Walker, Diana’s personal couturier and close friend for 16 years.

A dress once owned by Princess Diana is now owned by Bill and Shari Graham of Salisbury

The first, a long dinner dress of cream and pink silk, which was worn by Diana to the opening night of “Swan Lake” at the London Coliseum in 1989. The second dress, a dinner dress of eau-de-nil green and cream silk crepe, was worn at the film premiere of “Accidental Hero” in 1993 and to official dinners.

Diana sent a handwritten note to the Grahams following the purchase of the dresses acknowledging her son William as the inspiration for the sale. Since the purchasing of the dresses 20 years ago, the Grahams have lent them for fundraising and educational purposes from breast cancer charities to middle school projects. The dresses are currently on the Queen Mary ship as part of the “Diana: Legacy of a Princess” exhibition alongside other dresses purchased during the Christie’s auction.

“We love to share the dresses with other people and in using those to help fund-raise for charities,” said Shari.

A handwritten note from Princess Diana to the Grahams

The Grahams have declined offers to sell the dresses over the years, and no, Shari has never worn them (her most commonly asked question).

For 20 years, those dresses have carried on Diana’s work in assisting charities in need. Her passing prompted the biggest public outpouring of grief seen in Britain in recent times, and few since have captivated the world like she did.

As the princes have grown older, they have also been increasingly willing to speak about the trauma of her death and its lasting emotional impact.

William, 35, said the shock of losing his mother still lingered, while Harry, 32, revealed he sought counseling in his late 20s to help deal with the grief.

“She still is our mum,” Harry said in an intimate TV documentary entitled “Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy.” “Of course, as a son I would say this, she was the best mum in the world. She smothered us with love, that’s for sure.”

The days after her death were some of the darkest in Queen Elizabeth’s 65-year reign. Many Britons were angered at how Diana was ostracized by the royal family after her 1996 divorce from Charles, with Camilla Parker Bowles, Charles’ lover who later became his wife, a particular focus of enmity.

With renewed focus on the popular Diana, an ICM poll for Britain’s The Sun newspaper this month found that just 22 percent of respondents wanted Charles, 68, to be the next king while more than half wanted the next monarch to be his son William.

It also showed that 36 percent of the 2,000 people questioned felt Camilla, 70, should be Princess Consort and not queen. Only 27 percent backed her having the regal title.