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Actually, for several weeks, Britain's first family had been maintaining a studied silence on the topic of Diana. Almost a year to the day after a final divorce decree ended her arid marriage to Prince Charles, the princess had exploded back onto the pages of the tabloids, on the arm--and in the arms--of the wealthy Al Fayed. The photographs were the purest paparazzi stuff--grainy images furtively snapped through telephoto lenses the size of bazookas. The story they told, however, was unmistakable. After years of smiling bravely and brittlely by the side of a man she was no longer in love with, the princess just may have found one she did love.
Diana Spencer and Dodi al Fayed had been indirectly linked even before they were romantically linked, mostly as a result of a long-standing friendship between their fathers, the late Lord Spencer and Mohamed al Fayed. The children of these men met 10 years ago, when the younger Al Fayed and Prince Charles played on opposing polo teams. It would not be until this summer, however--after a brief, bad marriage for Al Fayed and a long, bad one for Diana--that the two would be free to see each other socially.
The courtship began correctly enough in mid-July, when the senior Al Fayed invited the princess and her two sons to vacation with his family at his villa in St.-Tropez. It may or may not have been mentioned that the younger Al Fayed would be there as well, but it was clearly understood. Tabloid reporters began scenting a story when they learned that Diana and her children would be spending a holiday at the home of the elder Al Fayed, a man sniffed at by the British elite. They descended, pursuing the two families wherever they went. Diana, no longer smothered by palace protocol, at last was able to give as good as she got. Racing up to reporters in a speedboat, she reportedly declared, "You are going to get a big surprise with the next thing I do."
Diana later denied making the statement, but she did not disappoint. Rumors flew of an engagement to be announced this month. The following week she joined Al Fayed at Paris' Hotel Ritz--one of the many properties owned by his father--then left with the son for a five-day vacation aboard his family yacht in the Mediterranean. Photographers tagged along for that vacation as well, hurrying home eagerly with fuzzy photos of the princess and her maybe beau rather unremarkably kissing. One tabloid boasted that it had paid $200,000 for those pictures--a bounty that may have driven the celebrity hunters wild. Several days later, back in London, Diana was once again seen with Al Fayed, lingering with him for several hours over a late dinner at one of his apartments.
For most royal watchers on both sides of the Atlantic, such a public and unapologetic courtship was sign enough that Diana was finally putting her palace past behind her. But it was only last week, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, that she made clear how completely she was cutting her emotional ties both to the life she had led and the press that had made it the trial it was. "Any sane person," she said forthrightly, "would have left [Britain] long ago."