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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Noble but Human, Her Compassion Ruled Hearts

LONDON -- "A perfect woman, nobly planned, to warn, to comfort and command, and yet a spirit still, and bright, with something of an angelic light. Rest in peace, dear lady." So read the handwritten note -- quoting a William Wordsworth poem -- tacked to the gate of Kensington Palace, home of Diana, the princess of Wales.

The fairy-tale princess is dead, and her realm -- from the docks of East London to the dhows of East Africa -- is ripped by a grief only the world's most ordinary of extraordinary people could evoke.

For all her glamor, good looks and royal credentials, it was the aura of Diana the Ordinary -- vulnerable, demure and exceptionally unassuming amid the pomp and circumstance -- that separated her from the family Windsor and so endeared her around the globe.

"She was a wonderful and warm human being," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "She was the people's princess."

From working-class Britons to Americans who watched the passing royal show with hungry interest, Diana's death seems to have touched some chord.

"Everyone I've spoken to today has been up all night," said Lynda Resnick, the co-owner of the Franklin Mint, which spent $150,000 to buy one of Diana's evening dresses at the highly publicized charity auction of her clothing at Christie's in New York two months ago. "I didn't sleep at all. I was so tormented by the senselessness of this."

Certainly the violence and untimeliness of her death have something to do with the depth of worldwide reaction, but the extent of the sadness only confirms the appeal Diana commanded during her roughly 17 years on the public stage.

In an era of cynicism, Diana seemed to cast a spell on all: the flower-wielding well-wishers who waited behind barricades, the ill and infirm she visited in hospitals, the high and mighty who supped with her. Museum directors and fashion editors went giddy in her presence. Phil Donahue turned pink with pride when he danced with her at a Chicago event last year.

Outside the gilded gates to her palace Sunday, as thousands of mourners from Britain and abroad laid flowers 4 feet deep, the softly spoken and often teary tributes were directed at Diana the loving mother, Diana the "queen of hearts," Diana the goodwill ambassador and Diana the forsaken wife.

No one spoke of Diana the almost-queen.

"She was just a normal person, unlike anyone else in the royal family," said Mary Poleon, 60, a retired railroad worker from East London. "No matter who you were, she shook your hand without a glove."

Possessing an unremarkable education, wealthy by birth, Diana would probably have lead a comfortably anonymous life had she not married Charles, the Prince of Wales. But Diana turned out to be everything the fusty British royal family was not -- warm, genial, engaging, unpretentious and beautifully dressed.

The public had seen her in the last few years as a humanitarian, traveling the world, making passionate and pointed speeches -- too pointed, some British politicians had recently said. They may have forgotten that during the first years of her marriage, she barely uttered a public word, too shy and nervous to make public speeches.

It didn't matter.

David Cannadine, a professor of history at Columbia University who has written about 19th- and 20th-century Britain, speculates that it was Diana's embodiment of several images at once that made her so appealing.

"She was the postmodern multiple-identities icon," Cannadine said. "Ingenue, devoted wife, thwarted wife, international sex symbol, international charity worker. And not just one to another in a single progression. One day, she's romping on a yacht, the next day she's doing work on land mines in Bosnia. Whether these images were really her or our imagination, I don't know. She was Mother Teresa one day and Marilyn Monroe the next. And it was irresistible to some."

Diana did come in for some harsh criticism toward the end of her marriage. At one point, she was described as a "loose cannon" by British authorities.

At a particularly low moment, her husband's friends indicated she was mentally disturbed and should be institutionalized. And since her 1992 separation from her husband, she had sometimes seemed more a neurotic young woman with poor taste in men than a gleaming icon.

Despite ups and downs in her public ratings, however, on balance, her vulnerability only won her greater admiration.

In a frank television interview in 1995, when she acknowledged for the first time many of her own failings, Diana said: "The British people need someone in public life to give affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels ... Yes, I have had difficulties, as everybody has witnessed over the years, but let's now use the knowledge that I have gathered to help other people in distress."