Thirty-five years ago this week, the people of the United Kingdom rejoiced at the news that its bachelor Prince of Wales had finally found a bride. Charles was 32, and Lady Diana Spencer was 19 but, as he noted, "she'll be 20 soon and I was about that age" when he undertook his royal obligations.
The world swooned hard for this pairing; words like "fairytale" and "refreshing" got tossed around a lot. There was just the tiniest hint of a raised eyebrow in the Washington Post story of their engagement, written by London bureau chief Leonard Downie Jr., who a decade later would become The Post's executive editor.
"Lady Diana is a strikingly attractive young woman with large blue-grey eyes and short blond hair. She wears little makeup or jewellery and has usually been seen in public wearing simple skirts, sweaters and low-heeled shoes. He cuts a dashing figure, providing vicarious thrills for the average British bloke. He can fly a jet, repair a helicopter and jump from a plane with paratroopers. He has tried dangerous deep-sea diving and wind-surfing."
Downie noted that she had met the prince ("a 16th cousin once removed") on a pheasant shoot a couple years earlier when she was 16 and he was dating her older sister. "A lack of a romantic past is believed to be desirable by the royal family for a future queen," he wrote.
It took another whole day for a Washington Post writer to say what he really thought.
That writer was Richard Cohen. Now a political columnist for The Post's op-ed page, he was then writing a column for the Metro section. And he had some thoughts about this matrimonial pairing. Oh yes, he did. We have republished it below.
Lady Diana, Beware: A Palace May Be a Jail
One of the wonderful things about writing a newspaper column is that you get to say what you think about matters that are sometimes none of your business. It is in that vein that I bring up the impending marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne and all of that. I'm against it.
I should point out right away that I know neither Charles nor his intended and my only familiarity with the royal family is limited to a few moments spent peering through the gates of Buckingham Palace. But a few moments is all it takes to realize that what may look like a palace on the outside, can amount to a jail on the inside. Where Lady Diana is about to go, there is no exit.
I suppose I have the standard American ambivalence toward royalty. I sort of like it - over there. I like all royal families - English, Saudi Arabian, Jordanian (although not very much) and even those in exile. I find them essentially very amusing, diverting and silly, like a good operetta. but there is nothing amusing or silly when the conventions or royalty conspire to have a 32-year-old man marry a 19-year-old girl. If Charles were not a prince, he would be a dirty old man.
Okay, Charles is a bit young to be called that, but the fact remains that Lady Diana is nothing more than a kid. Take away the title of Lady and what you have is a teenager who is about to marry a man 13 years her senior. She knows little of the world. She has been boarded and tutored. She teaches kindergarten. She lives with three other women. She drives a little red car and is about to marry a man who can, as someone once wrote, "command a ship, pilot a helicopter, drive a tank, pilot a jet, parachute out of one and is fully trained as a frogman and commando." But for all of that, he will be a failure as both man and monarch if he can not coax an heir from his bride. They are both trapped in their roles.
Hers, though, is the real trap. She is about to enter a life of cutting ribbons, sitting with legs crossed at the ankles and, God and passion willing, producing heirs to the throne. You could train a horse to do much of this, but a horse, it goes without saying, would not have to suffer the glare of endless publicity. It is Lady Diana's fate to live in a nation that has the most rapacious and boorish press imaginable - a columnist in every car, a photographer behind every potty and the man from the Daily Mail crashing through the skylight.
It is this press, in fact, that has all but insisted that the new queen be what only one previous queen remained, and then only in legend - a virgin. There is no room for scandal here. This is no place for women who have pasts - who are, in a true sense, women.
Those who have been linked to Charles (UPI says there have been 40) have been chased and investigated and photographed. Their lovers have been induced to come clean, the gossips to gossip. In one case, a woman confessed that her husband left her for a woman who was even then, in fact or fancy, linked with the Bonnie Prince. With a press like that, it is a wonder he stayed bonnie.
So what we had was a nation embarked on some sort of search for a child bride - for a virgin. It is almost medieval, a true return to the old days. But the upholder of conventional morality is no longer the Church, it is the press and the Bulls are not papal, they are journalistic. The only woman to qualify, the only woman who could marry the future king, is a woman virtually without a past. No mature woman, no woman of experience who had lived out in the world alone, who had had a career, could possibly be considered. She might have ... God forbid.
But a woman so young, so inexperienced, so unworldly is not prepared to decide if she should be, for now and evermore, the queen of England. There are no trial separations and there most emphatically are no flings. For royalty, marriage is forever, irrevocable - a sentence rather than a continuing option. There is, after all, no divorce for a king and queen. What Lady Diana Spencer needs is not a summer wedding but a few more years. After all, she's no lady. She's just a kid.
- Richard Cohen, February 26, 1981
You know the rest. Charles and Diana married at St. Paul's Cathedral in London on July 29, 1981, in a ceremony billed as the "wedding of the century," televised globally and cause for a national holiday in the U.K.
They did produce an heir and a spare - Princes William and Harry. And she did become an object of obsessive scrutiny for the nation's tabloid reporters. And they did grapple with their age difference and basic incompatibilities. But there were flings for both of them, and ultimately, a separation in 1992.
Their divorce became final in August 1996, and almost exactly a year later she died in a car accident. Her driver lost control as they were being chased by paparazzi.