Rarely has an individual captured our imagination and held our gaze as singularly as Princess Diana. We were introduced to her in 1980 when the shy kindergarten teacher linked to Prince Charles stepped gingerly into the spotlight in a diaphanous skirt. Since we began tracking her unique style and popularity in an April 20, 1981 cover story, TIME has put Diana on its cover eight times, more than any other royal--including Queen Elizabeth, who was Woman of the Year in 1953.
In that first cover, we recognized that the glow about Lady Diana Spencer was not a trick of the light but a hint of the sensation she would become: "Center stage right now in history's longest running show is Lady Diana, who entered as an ingenue and was already a star before she got to the footlights." Shortly thereafter, on July 29, 1981, Diana stole one of the grandest shows of the century in a wedding that marked her as both impossibly glamorous and a kind of universal Every Woman. TIME wrote in its walkup to the nuptials: "This wedding on the cusp of high noon, in front of a world short on ritual and parched for romance, is in fact one grand pass of the royal wand [in which] the future is assured and everyone can be queen for a day."
That moment of innocent optimism and, yes, magic quickly faded. In a 1983 cover about royalty and the press that now seems sadly prescient, TIME raised alarms about the relationship between Diana and the paparazzi. Of the royal watchers who pursue their prey in high-speed chases, TIME noted: "There has been so much of this mad motoring that the wonder is that no member of the royal family or the public has been killed."
Her life still appeared sunny when TIME chronicled her whirlwind tour of America with Charles in 1985. But shadows had fallen by 1992, when we reported on troubles in the royal family and the royal marriage. Four years later we wrote about her final rupture with Charles and her emergence as a very modern mother and an international figure of mercy.
When the news of Diana's death after a high-speed car accident was confirmed in the early hours of Aug. 31 (Paris time), our Saturday staff of 23 reporters, writers and artists--apprised of the latest developments by TIME's London and Paris bureaus--rushed to put her legacy into words and images in a 20-page special report created in 16 hours. This week we pause to commemorate her final journey and contemplate the Windsors--and the world--without her.