According to my mother, the moment before she found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, she was watching “As the World Turns,” a long-running CBS soap opera. She recalls that Walter Cronkite appeared on the air in a white button-down shirt with no tie, very emotional, she says, and visibly choked up.
The night Princess Diana was killed in an auto accident I was staying with my friends Steve and Susan. When the news broke, my girlfriend-at-the-time and I were curled up on a couch watching “Saturday Night Live” with our friend Zach.
My first thought was, I wonder if Grandma knows?
The thing is: my grandmother had been dead for nearly a year in August of 1997.
But she, like I, had been an Anglophile. We’d spent many Sunday nights watching “Masterpiece Theatre” together, as well as killing time when neither of us could sleep by talking about my British great-grandparents, as well as Princess Diana and Prince Charles and Queen Mum.
I was totally in love with Lady Di and during summer vacation before I entered sixth grade I rose at five a.m. to watch the royal wedding. I collected photos and articles about Diana for many years, much in the same way nerdy teenage boys in the 70s collected Star Wars action figures: with a mixture of secret pride and debilitating shame. Honestly, I probably would have given up the last month of my summer vacation for the thrill of hearing Diana Spencer speak for the first time.
Then I discovered the Sex Pistols and the Smiths, but that’s another story for another time.
Watching Princess Diana’s funeral at three or four o’clock in the morning a few days after she died, I cried my eyes out, especially every time I saw the two princes walking with their father.
Those boys, I kept thinking, those poor boys have lost their mother, momentarily forgetting that one boy was the future king of England and that the other was third in line to the same throne—and that their mother was the most famous, recognizable person who had ever lived.
Maybe my mother had some thought like this cross her mind when John-John Kennedy stood by his mother’s knee, saluting his father’s flag-draped casket.
During this time I was working at a chain bookstore as an assistant manager. I’d always had trouble reconciling my deep love for books and bookworms with the sterile, corporate packaging of “product” I had to carry out while employed with Books-A-Million. It may be different, now, but when I was working there, most of the people who ran that company knew about as much about books and the book business as I know about athletes and sports, which is to say: nothing.
About three minutes after Princess Diana died, we received from corporate headquarters a directive to build a huge display of Diana-themed titles. In their infinite wisdom about popular culture and the titles we stocked, Home Office bigwigs even wanted us to include Kitty Kelley’s book-of-the-moment, which, while marginally more kind to Diana, was not an especially fawning glimpse of any past or present members of the Royal Family. What struck me as extra-macabre, considering its arrival less than thirty-six hours after Princess Diana had drawn her last breath, was the special “signage” they’d shipped to us to suspend over this display.
I don’t know what else I expected. After all, following the success of James Cameron’s epic film Titanic we began selling something called the Titanic Game. It came complete with an inflatable RMS Titanic and a faux iceberg to be played with by small children in the bathtub.
I shit you not.
After each morbid placard was hung and the displays were built someone got the bright idea that we should place a couple of oversized, blank-paged journals from the stationery department on a table. We would then tell customers that, after each book was filled with “condolence messages,” the books would be sent to the Royal Family in their time of mourning.
I’m not making this up. But it worked, I’ve always been ashamed to realize. People lined up six or seven at a time for their chances to write a “special message” to the Royal Family in those journals.
Naturally, it was my habit, and the habit of other employees, to follow along behind customers every once in a while to see what they had written. Many of the messages were written as if Princess Diana herself were going to read them, most along the lines of, “We love you and will miss you, Good-bye Lady Di!” and “Your a special person and it was sad when you die.”
One afternoon I watched a thoughtful-looking twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy who sat at the table for nearly twenty minutes. Clutching a hank of hair in one hand, he used the other to scribble frantically. Then he would gaze into space for a few moments before scribbling frantically again. When I went to the book to read what he had written, I saw that he had poured out his sympathy to the two princes, telling them that he, too, had lost someone close to him, and it was awful, he knew, but he implored William and Harry to be strong.
I see this scene in my mind even now, many years later, and it still turns on my faucets to think about.
As the week dragged on, I got more and more frustrated with the feeding frenzy Books-a-Million was conducting in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. I felt like a fool, and would sigh with envy whenever I walked into Barnes and Noble during this time, as there was nothing on display in that store to draw undue attention and customers to the tragedy.
At our store, the blank books remained on their table to be filled with misdirected sympathy, but fewer and fewer people stopped to write in them. I was encouraged by this.
The last time I glanced through the “condolence messages” I decided it should be my last, because I had found my favorite. It was, I had to assume, one of those messages written to Princess Diana herself, rather than to the family.
Scrawled, quite simply, with a blue ballpoint pen: “You da, BOM!”