When she was alive, Diana, Princess of Wales, never held much interest for me. I didn’t watch her wedding or pay attention to what she wore to parties and ribbon-cutting ceremonies or care that she was unhappy in her marriage to Prince Charles.
When I worked at The Times in the early 1990s, we wrote about the scandals swirling around her gingerly, almost with distaste. Forced to pay attention to what seemed little more than celebrity gossip, we dressed up our accounts of what the British tabloids were reporting by expounding on the questions they raised about the role of the news media or the future of the monarchy. When I moved to Paris to work at The International Herald Tribune (now the international version of The Times), I edited much the same sort of articles.
Then Diana died — and it became a whole different story. At least for me.
On Aug. 31, 1997, the maternity ward at Pitie-Salpêtrière Hospital in the industrial 13th Arrondissement was filled with the sounds of new life. Just after midnight, the midwife overseeing the birth of my first child looked at her watch and nodded to the medical student getting his training on me. The French apparently didn’t think much of the pushing part of childbirth, so the student attached a ventouse, a sort of suction cup, to the top of my baby’s skull and pulled him out. My son Clement greeted the world with a pointy head and a loud cry.
What I didn’t know until later was that Diana had arrived at the same hospital not long afterward. La Salpêtrière was the designated trauma center that night, and the princess was taken there when her car smashed into a pillar along the Seine.
My husband, Eric, heading home at 3 a.m., was stopped by two security officers as he walked across the sizable hospital campus. They searched his knapsack and viewed the camera inside with suspicion. “What are you doing with this?” one asked him.
”My wife just had a baby,” he answered.
“At this time of night?” the officer said disbelievingly before he told my husband to get in a patrol car and drove him off the hospital grounds.
In the case of my husband, the officers’ fear that he was a paparazzo hoping for pictures of the princess on a gurney wasn’t that far-fetched: He was a journalist, too, and when he got to our apartment, he discovered that a newspaper back home left a phone message asking him to go to La Salpêtrière to do a story.
I got the news through another avenue.
“Lady Di est morte,” a nurse announced when she woke me with breakfast in the morning, my son having been whisked off to the nursery, over my American objections, so I could rest.
“Are you joking?” I asked, still hazy from sleep. I had known Diana was in the city — it had been in every newspaper — but the idea that she was dead at 36 was shocking.
“I would never joke about something like that, madame,” she told me, offended.
She hadn’t been joking, of course. And courtesy of the French health care system (whose diligent pre- and postnatal care is worthy of its own article) I spent five very pleasant days at La Salpêtrière, and had the odd experience of being in the eye of a media storm. As nurses showed me how to bathe my son, crowds of mourners wept outside on Boulevard de l’Hôpital.
And while reporters were barred from the hospital grounds, my husband was not. The day after the crash he was able to walk down the stairs from the maternity ward and watch as Prince Charles and President Jacques Chirac escorted Diana’s body from a building on the middle of the campus to a hearse for the journey back to Britain.
Days later, when the nurses allowed me to venture out, I went to La Salpêtrière’s lovely 17th-century chapel and made a detour to look at the hospital entrance. Its steps were piled high with bouquets left in honor of Diana. My husband and I took pictures so that we could show our son later how the French “welcomed his birth.”
Not that he cared. As it turns out, like so many of his generation, Clement doesn’t seem to have much interest in the princess or the events that transfixed the world 20 years ago. And in any case, I think he gets embarrassed when his parents talk about the circumstances of his birth.
As for me, I think about Diana every Aug. 31, and count the years since her death in the number of my son’s birthdays.
Carmel McCoubrey is a staff editor in the Op-Ed section.