those who knew the ‘People’s Princess’ best, including her brother charles spencer, reflect on her short life and enduring legacy

As a young girl Diana Spencer was many things: a ham, a rascal, an aspiring dancer, a struggling student, a loyal sister and a child of divorce. But she was never, ever a pushover. Rather, “Diana was incredibly brave,” says her brother Charles, 9th Earl Spencer.

“When we stayed up with my mother in Scotland, we used to go lobster-potting. Once we pulled up a pot, and there was a massive eel. It had teeth, and it was flapping around the boat. Diana got a penknife out and just dealt with it. That was a strong girl.”

She would come to rely on that strength—and a remarkable well of compassion—throughout her journey from vivacious young woman to the most loved royal in the world. Whether bending down on eye level to greet her youngest fans or smashing stigmas by holding the hands of AIDS patients, she “had a genius for people,” says Spencer, 53. “She could make any person, whether they were the grandest or the most humble, totally at ease. It’s an incredible gift.”

It is a gift that continues to resonate around the globe, from her admiring fans to her sons Prince William, 35, and Prince Harry, 32, who are carrying on much of her public work. Now, 20 years after her death in a Paris car crash on Aug. 31, 1997, many of those closest to her are sharing their memories in a two-part television event from People and ABC, The Story of Diana, airing Aug. 9 and 10 at 9 /8c. “She was a spectacular rocket that flew up and illuminated us all,” says her charity partner Vivienne Parry. And yet for a woman who lived her life under a brighter spotlight than anyone before or since, “we didn’t truly know her,” says Parry. Here, friends and family remember the complex, captivating Diana they loved and lost.

BY SIMON PERRY and MICHELLE TAUBER

The third daughter of English aristocrat John, 8th Earl Spencer, and his wife, Frances, Diana was born on July 1, 1961, at Park House, a property on Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham estate.

Charles Spencer, brother: [Our parents’ divorce in 1969] was tough on Diana. She used to sit on the doorstep at Park House and wait for her to come back. I used to cry a lot at night because I was missing my mother. And Diana, being terrified of the dark, was in agony hearing me. But she couldn’t come to me because she was too scared of the dark between our bedrooms.

She found the schoolwork tricky. It was quite noticeable that there was this girl who had received school reports that were totally wrong. They just didn’t identify the fact, in my view, that she had dyslexia or something that was undiagnosed.

At a party [there] was a brutal riddle game—everyone who didn’t get it was sort of scorned and mocked. I remember Diana trying to get back to me the message of what the riddle was and how to crack it. She had spared me the embarrassment by tipping me off to the answer.

After school she moved to London, where she lived with a group of girlfriends and took a job as a kindergarten teaching assistant.

Dr. James Colthurst, friend: It was a lively apartment. She was the boss. That was clear—she ran the show. She was destined for big things. She was never getting involved in relationships. There was always a sense that she was saving herself for something special.

Diana first met Prince Charles in 1977, when he was dating her older sister Lady Sarah. Diana and Charles had 12 dates before announcing their engagement on Feb. 24, 1981. Diana was 19 years old; Charles was 32.

Colthurst: One night [outside her apartment], we heard this engine pull up, an Aston Martin, and then Diana came in. She said, “Oh they’re working him far too hard.” And there were a few nods going on from her friends. Then it became clear that she was talking about Prince Charles.

The pair wed five months later on July 29, 1981, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Charles’s ex-girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles was among those to attend the wedding.

Spencer: The most memorable part was Diana getting Prince Charles’s names wrong. [She said “Philip Charles” instead of “Charles Philip.”] I thought, “That is so funny.” It brought it home that this was a real person getting married.


"

She was turning
into a beautiful princess, emerging into a new world, a new life's adventure
-elizabeth emanuel


A Royal Romance Begins
“She was so excited, and, it was very sweet and real and lovely, Spencer recalls of his sister’s engagement to Charles. “I was thrilled for her. Her roommates were so happy too.” When they met the press in 1981 after their engagement (top), Charles was asked if he was in love and famously replied, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” Bottom: in Scotland a few months after the engagement announcement.

The Wedding of the Century

“That was the first time it was as if it was an informal occasion,” wedding dress designer Elizabeth Emanuel says. Bridesmaid India Hicks adds, “It was fun. But she was a princess—there was an aura around her.”

Breaking Barriers

“Diana wasn't a glove person," Spencer says
of Diana (above, visiting an AIDS patient in 1991). "She was about human contact."In Angola in 1997 she was called an angel by one amputee, recalls war reporter Christina Lamb. "I saw her fix on this girl and sit with her. She instinctively knew the
perfect shot."


Sir Richard Branson, friend and Virgin Group founder: She was on a flight going to New York, and she went into the cockpit with William on her lap. She got onto the loudspeaker and said, “If you look out the right window as we pass over Windsor Castle, you’ll see Granny’s house”—to much laughter throughout the plane. There was definitely a cheeky side to her.

Her playfulness was often on display.

Sir Richard Branson, friend and Virgin Group founder: She was on a flight going to New York, and she went into the cockpit with William on her lap. She got onto the loudspeaker and said, “If you look out the right window as we pass over Windsor Castle, you’ll see Granny’s house”—to much laughter throughout the plane. There was definitely a cheeky side to her.

But behind closed doors Diana was unraveling amid her husband’s affair with Camilla and her own struggles with bulimia and depression. She secretly spoke to author Andrew Morton for a bombshell 1992 tell-all, and in 1995 she gave her infamous interview to BBC’s Panorama, noting, “There were three of us” in her marriage to Charles.

Colthurst: She wanted to tell the world how ghastly things had been and how appalling. She was worried she would be blamed and then sidelined. And then would lose her position as mum.

After her divorce from Charles in 1996, she was determined to blaze a new path.

Spencer: Diana had a lovely dream that she could live a normal life afterward. But the one house that she set her heart on in the park [at the family home of Althorp] was three bedrooms and 100 yards from the road. And it was just not possible. The police knew it wouldn’t work. I offered every other property that was suitable on the estate. I really felt it was the right decision for her. But she probably couldn’t see it.

Meredith Etherington-Smith, curator of Diana’s dress sale at Christie’s in June 1997: She arrived [at the catalogue shoot] carrying all her own clothes. [Photographer] Mario Testino did a very good imitation of Naomi Campbell, and the princess jumped up and said, “I’m going to do one!” I think she did Kate Moss as well. I got a lovely letter from her saying it was “one of the happiest days” of her life. The sale was extraordinary: It raised $3.2 million for charity.


"

She wanted her boys to always have fun. It was a magical relationship.
-FRIEND lana marks


A Natural Mom
“She was so thrilled," her brother says of Diana welcoming William in 1982 (leaving the hospital with Charles) "Diana always wanted to have a family."


The Most
Hunted Person
of the Modern Age

It fell to Charles Spencer to be “the representative of
a family in grief, in a country in mourning, before a world in shock,” as he put it from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey at her funeral on Sept. 6, 1997. He used the occasion to both pay tribute to his sister as the “very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty”—and to rage at the treatment she’d faced from the tabloid media. Noting the irony of his sister’s namesake as the goddess of hunting “summed up so much of the anger I felt toward those who had done that to her,” he says. He also turned protector of her sons: “She’d left me as guardian.” During his eulogy, “I was looking directly at William and Harry across her coffin. In the final paragraph I had run out of energy, almost out of oxygen. I had to punch each syllable out of the base of my stomach.”

The funeral was also the setting for one of the most popular
songs of all time—a reworking of “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John. Diana’s friend Sir Richard Branson set the ball rolling. “Prime Minister Tony Blair actually managed in the end to persuade [the Palace] it was a good idea,” says Branson.

Today Spencer is releasing 100 leather-bound editions of the eulogy featuring a previously unseen childhood photo (below). All proceeds from the book will go to various charities, including Whole Child International (WCI), the nonprofit founded and run by Spencer’s wife, Karen, to support improving the quality of care in orphanages and child-care centers in developing countries. No. 1
of the limited-edition, numbered series will be auctioned off at
the WCI Gala on Oct. 26 in
L.A. (For more information,
visit wholechild.org/gala.)


The couple then embarked on their honeymoon. Diana would later reveal that her fears about Charles’s ongoing feelings for Camilla continued to mount during this time.

Sally Bedell Smith, royal biographer: Charles thought it was possible, even though he still loved Camilla, that he could learn to love Diana. It was a hasty decision that led to an incredibly difficult 15 years, because in the end they were a mismatch.

Wayne Sleep, Royal Ballet dancer and friend: She fit the bill [as a royal wife] right to the last dot. Later on we realized that she wasn’t Charles’s No. 1.

Colthurst: I’m not sure how happy she was on the honeymoon. I think she had the expectation that [her royal] role would then be made clear. But [the Palace] didn’t expect her to have any sort of a role beyond producing children. There wasn’t much guidance or support.

Charles and Diana welcomed their first son, Prince William, on June 21, 1982.

Mervyn Wycherley, head chef: William’s first pureed food was scampi and Jersey royal potatoes—in a blender. I thought, “My boy, you’re going to have nothing but the best through your life.” Normally [royals] don’t cross the green-baize door [into the kitchen]. But the princess was a rebel in that sort of a way. She had a totally different approach.

As she embraced her role as a mother—younger son Prince Harry was born on Sept. 15, 1984—Diana also began to find her voice as an activist.

Sharon Smith, manager at London’s Mildmay Hospital: She let people know that you’re not going to catch HIV or AIDS by shaking hands. She’d ring up and say, “I’ll be along this evening, no cameras, it’s a private visit.” She’d just come in jeans, jacket, baseball cap and have a cup of tea to see the patients.

Dr. Margaret Heagarty, Children’s Pediatrician, Harlem Hospital, which Diana visited in 1988: When she picked this little boy up, she said, “Oh you’re as heavy as Harry.” Here she was, this impeccably dressed woman who was beautiful beyond belief, holding an infant with AIDS.

Inside the
"Tunnel of Grief"

“The hardest part was walking
behind my sister's coffin with her sons," Spencer recalls of Diana's funeral (above), "Harry was this tiny little thing, and I was just so worried-what a trauma for a little chap. I tried to stop that happening, but it wasn't going to happen."


Diana had kicked off a fledgling romance with Egyptian businessman Dodi Fayed at the start of the summer in 1997, and the pair made a last-minute stop in Paris while William and Harry were with Charles. On Aug. 31, 1997, the first news reports started trickling in that the two were involved in a serious car crash.

Spencer: I was on a call to my sister Jane, and her husband worked for the Queen and heard various telephone lines on the go. And then I heard him in the background say, “Oh, no.”

Colin Tebbutt, Diana’s driver: I was in the hospital room [with her body] in Paris. I plugged the fans in to get some air circulating. I look round, and the eyelids and the front of the hair of the princess were moving. I thought, “God, she’s alive.” It just hit me. That was the one bit when I felt I lost myself.

Diana’s body was returned to her family’s ancestral home of Althorp for burial.

Tebbutt: I drove [from the local train station] to Althorp in the car with Prince William. There was sadness in the car. At the gates of Althorp, they changed from the royal flag to the Spencer flag. [On the island where Diana is buried], the correct area had been dug and a service was read. Very quickly we lowered the coffin. I know where it is. There’s only a few of us who know.

Diana’s final resting place on the island remains an oasis for her sons and close family.

Spencer: I never go to Diana with [William and Harry]. It’s very much their time there. But I think I think it’s very important for them to be there with her. It is very tranquil, and they can come and go as they wish.

When it’s Mother’s Day or Diana’s birthday, my little daughter Charlotte takes flowers down to her grave.

When something really silly or funny happens, I still think, “Oh, I must just call Diana.” And of course you can’t. But it still happens 20 years on.

Today William and his wife, Kate, are raising their 4-year-old son Prince George and 2-year- old daughter Princess
Charlotte to remember “Granny Diana.”.

Spencer: I think one of the great
tragedies is that Diana would’ve been
the best grandmother ever.

Lana Marks, friend: She would’ve loved dressing them, bringing them beautiful presents. I see her holding hands with them and running in the English rain.

Copyright © 2016 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.