Inside the Surreal Final Months of Princess Diana's Life

As Princess Diana's final days unfold on the new season of The Crown, a look at her romance with Dodi Fayed and how she ended up in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.

By Natalie Finn Nov 18, 2023 8:00 AMTags
Watch: Kate Middleton Reveals Surprise About Princess Diana's Ring

The Crown didn't play coy about where it was headed in season six.

The breakdown of Princess Diana and then-Prince Charles' marriage unfolded in season five, including the divorce neither initially wanted but which Queen Elizabeth II quietly insisted they get.

In real life, despite her persistent feeling that her in-laws had thrown her out with yesterday's tabloids, the world looked to be Diana's oyster. She still had a residence at Kensington Palace, the title Princess of Wales, a $21 million settlement (by today's exchange) and, more important than anything, sons Prince William and Prince Harry.

"I have learned much over the last years," Diana said, per biographer Andrew Morton, after a Christie's auction of her iconic gowns in June 1997 raised $5 million for charity. "From now on I am going to own myself and be true to myself. I no longer want to live someone else's idea of what and who I should be. I am going to be me."

The Crown Season 6 Official Photos
Antony Jones/UK Press via Getty Images

As the sixth and final season of The Crown gets underway, however, it's known all too well that Diana's story is coming to an end. When it does in the final seconds of episode three, a violent car wreck is heard but not seen.

Diana was only 36 when she died on Aug. 31, 1997, and it's been impossible to view the last months of her life through any other prism. Everything seems tragic, no matter how happy she may have been in the moment.

And there was joy and romance in her final days, as she pondered her future and the world speculated about what she'd do next—and with whom.

What was Princess Diana planning to do after her divorce from Prince Charles?

"I've been in a privileged position for 15 years," Diana said on the BBC's Panorama in November 1995. "I've got tremendous knowledge about people and how to communicate and I want to use it." 

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Her divorce from Charles—hastened in no small part by that explosive BBC interview—was finalized Aug. 28, 1996.

That December, the charity United Cerebral Palsy honored Diana as Humanitarian of the Year at a ceremony in New York. The following month, she took her famous walk through a minefield in Angola on behalf of the Halo Trust to draw attention to the devastation caused by landmines in war-torn regions.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and wife Cherie Blair hosted her at the P.M.'s official country estate, Chequers, in May 1997, to discuss possible outreach collaborations. 

Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images

Diana hoped to parlay her already sizable platform into an ambassadorship, even if an unofficial one. At the end of May, she went to Pakistan to fundraise for a hospital built by cricket star (and future Pakistani prime minister) Imran Khan. In June, her engagements included meeting the dancers after a performance of Swan Lake at Royal Albert Hall and a meeting with then-first lady Hillary Clinton at the White House, a few days before she bid her glittering designer ensembles farewell at the Christie's auction in New York.

"Diana Reborn" was the title of the July 1997 Vanity Fair cover story that was meant to serve as a symbolic fresh start.  

"There is a kind of serenity," designer Gianni Versace told the publication. "I had a fitting with her last week for new suits and clothing for spring, and she is so serene. It is a moment in her life, I think, when she's found herself—the way she wants to live."

A Look Back at Princess Diana's Style

How did Princess Diana's romance with Dodi Fayed begin?

Dodi Fayed was Diana's romantic companion of less than two months when they died.

Diana was originally friendly with Dodi's father, Egyptian business magnate and Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, who'd arrange for the princess to be able to shop in private after the famed London department store had closed for the evening. 

After attending a 36th birthday soiree in her honor at London's Tate's Gallery on July 1, Diana wanted to put some distance between herself and the 50th birthday party the future King Charles III was throwing for his longtime girlfriend Camilla Parker-Bowles (now Queen Camilla) at his Highgrove estate.

The princess was also said to still be nursing a broken heart following her split from cardiothoracic surgeon Hasnat Khan, who was willing to hide in the boot of Diana's butler's car to discreetly visit her at Kensington Palace but ultimately wasn't willing to make it a lifestyle.

Michel Dufour/WireImage

So, Diana took Mohamed up on his longstanding invitation to host her, William and Harry at his vacation home in Saint-Tropez.

Dodi, Mohamed's eldest son, showed up on July 14, a few days into the princess' stay, docking his boat near his father's yacht, the Jonikal. The 42-year-old movie producer was accompanied by his model fiancée Kelly Fisher, though Dodi would later deny that they were engaged.

Kelly left for work on July 18 and Dodi started spending more time with Diana and her sons, renting out a nightclub so they could dance in peace and taking the trio to an amusement park. 

Diana called it the "best holiday of my life," per Andrew Morton. After dropping the boys back home, she jetted to Milan to attend the July 22 funeral for Gianni Versace, who was murdered July 15 on the front steps of his Miami Beach mansion. 

Daniel Escale/Netflix

How much time did Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana actually spend together?

After that sad sojourn, Dodi picked Diana up in London and they helicoptered to Paris, where they spent the weekend at the Ritz Hotel, another property owned by Dodi's father.

That managed to be quite private, with Ritz security enlisted to keep photographers off the scent, but on July 31 the pair embarked on a six-day Mediterranean cruise aboard Mohamed's yacht, where the long-lens shots of the pair canoodling on deck went 1997-era viral.

Dodi's scorned ex Kelly held a press conference in Beverly Hills on Aug. 13 to announce that she was suing him for breach of contract, alleging he'd offered her a six-figure sum to put her modeling career aside so she could focus on being with him full-time.

Meanwhile, British tabloids were ablaze with reports that Dodi—whom The Diana Chronicles author Tina Brown called a "haphazard playboy"—was quite serious about Diana and she, in turn, was in love.

Kent Gavin/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

What Diana was actually doing was taking the Harrods jet to Bosnia, where she spent Aug. 9 and 10 meeting with landmine victims (the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, which she had championed, was signed in December 1997).

On Aug. 15, with paparazzi in hot pursuit, she headed to the Greek isles with Tiffany & Co. president Rosa Monckton for a long-scheduled holiday, while Dodi went back to Los Angeles to try to smooth things over with Kelly. (She dropped her lawsuit after his death.)

Reflecting on her last vacation with Diana, Rosa wrote in the Daily Telegraph, "She had talked often to me about the intrusion of the press, about what it is like to be hounded by the paparazzi and to have to fight for every second of her privacy."

After briefly reuniting in London, Dodi and Diana took off again for the South of France on Aug. 21.

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Were Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed really engaged when they died?

According to myriad reports and books chronicling that time—and as seen on The Crown—Diana was enjoying Dodi's company but was anxious to see William and Harry, who were spending their annual August fortnight with the queen at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

Diana and Dodi spent a week aboard the Jonikal, passing through Portofino and Sardinia. He presented her with a small silver-framed plaque inscribed with a poem he wrote. She gifted him with an engraved cigar cutter—"With love from Diana"—and a pair of gold cufflinks that had belonged to her late father, Earl John Spencer.

A Fayed family spokesman later said the princess had known it would have given her dad, who died in 1992, "joy to know they were in such safe hands."

During a stop in Monte Carlo, Dodi secretly purchased a $200,000 Alberto Repossi diamond ring from the "Dis-Moi Oui!" (translation: "Tell me yes," and the heartbreaking title of that episode of The Crown) collection.

The Crown Cast Vs. the Royals They Play

He arranged to have the bauble delivered to him in Paris on Aug. 30—a fateful side trip that Diana only reluctantly agreed to (as seen on The Crown, at least) because she really just wanted to go home to see her boys. She planned to fly back to London the next day, as she told William and Harry hours before she died.

"I was running around with Willy and my cousins and didn't want to stop playing," Harry wrote in his memoir Spare of the last conversation he had with his mother. "So I'd been short with her. Impatient to get back to my games, I'd rushed Mummy off the phone. I wished I'd apologized for it. I wished I'd searched for the words to describe how much I loved her. I didn't know that search would take decades."

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Though Mohamed put the Repossi ring on display at Harrods, part of a shrine to Dodi and Diana that stayed up for years as a testament to the great love he insisted they shared, even he didn't know for sure if his son had actually popped the question.

Or, more poignantly, whether Diana had said yes. The Crown leans into the ambiguity of it all, imagining that Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) started to propose in a suite at the Ritz but Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) quickly cut him off, and in the end she had tenderly convinced him to finally level with his overbearing father.

Which Dodi planned to do...after he'd seen Diana off the next morning.

Ken Goff/Getty Images

Instead, shortly after midnight on Aug. 31, they headed downstairs and lingered for about seven minutes near the rear entrance of the Ritz while staffers created a diversion out front to throw the horde of paparazzi off the scent.

The couple climbed into the back of a Mercedes being driven by (as subsequent investigations and inquests concluded) the intoxicated head of security at the Ritz, Henri Paul, who was unexpectedly tasked with taking them back to Dodi's apartment. Dodi's bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones got into the front passenger seat.

Photographers who weren't fooled by the ruse took off after the Mercedes by car and on motorbikes. Henri sped into the Pont de l'Alma tunnel and, seconds later, the Mercedes smashed into a pillar. The driver and Dodi died at the scene, while Diana was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. After life-saving efforts failed, doctors pronounced her dead at 3 a.m. The world found out three hours later.

When the queen and Charles got the call at Balmoral in the middle of the night, he decided to let William and Harry sleep. He'd tell the boys in the morning.

Part 1 of the sixth season of The Crown is streaming on Netflix. Part 2 premieres Dec. 14.

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