Princess Diana’s Final Weeks, 1997

In the days following her death, Princess Diana’s romantic involvement with Dodi Al-Fayed would be told and retold as her greatest love. In fact, two of them had started seeing each other only a month prior, in July 1997, and both had a series of romantic partners and affairs leading up to that.

But for the press, the story about a possible marriage (or even a child) between an English princess and a Muslim playboy entrepreneur was too tough to resist. The newspaper headlines were unequivocal: “Diana — it’s a real romance,” “Diana: I’m so in love,” and “Romantic meal in new love’s London flat — then farewell kiss before Bosnia,” on the morning of her departure to the Balkans to visit the trioops.

That summer, Diana was in the South of France, holidaying with Al-Fayed on his family’s yacht, the Jonikal. Christophe Lafaille, then Deputy Editor of Paris-Match recalled how paparazzi circuit there worked:

The ‘season’ is something that journalists and photographers do every year, staying in the same hotels and renting out bikes (scooters/motorcycles) on which to get around St. Tropez. They spend all summer in the South of France following the numerous famous people who holiday there. The pictures taken are distributed on a daily basis to various magazines or newspapers. During “the season” the photographers go down to the South of France at their own expense, though the agencies they work for would usually pay fifty percent. The photographers are mainly French and work for French agencies but you do also get some German, Spanish and English photographers.

One photographer would get lucky.

Mario Brenna, a 40-year-old Italian who lived in Monaco, spotted the yacht as he was on the way for another assignment. Brenna was not a paparazzo, but a fashion and society photographer (and worked as an official photographer to fashion houses including Versace). He however also augmented his living by celebrity photos.

That August he managed to take photos of Dodi and Diana kissing — which were ultimately sold to various papers for a sum totalling £1million. The Sunday Mirror alone paid £250,000 for its exclusive rights and other tabloids around the world paid around £100,000 each. (The Mail on Sunday later offered an even bigger bid, but the photographer refused to renege on the Mirror deal.)

Some deals were brokered by London paparazzo Jason Fraser, who was friendly to Diana and was one of the first people to photograph Diana and Dodi together. For his involvement, Fraser would later be sued by Dodi’s grieving father, Mohammed Al-Fayed. Fraser recalled:

Mario wouldn’t tell me what he had over the phone. He flew to London, came to my house and simply said: “You’re not going to believe this. You might want to sit down.” When he showed me the prints, we spread them out over the kitchen floor and we sat in silence. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that Diana had wanted them to be taken. But I knew nothing would ever the same again. I didn’t want to change people’s image of her.

In France, the rights to Brenna’s pictures were handled by Daniel Angeli, who took the notorious Duchess of York toe-sucking pictures.

The photo at the top of Diana alone on the yacht taken by Stéphane Cardinale exactly a week before her death. Many compared the image to the iconic shot at the Taj Mahal where Diana was also pictured looking contemplative and alone. It appeared on the cover of Paris Match Issue No. 2522, on 25 September 1997 after her death.

Stéphane Cardinale in his white Citroen AX was at the Place Vendôme (front entrance to Ritz Hotel) on the night Diana died — one of among no fewer than seventeen paparazzi present at the hotel that night. Cardinale tried to explain the frenzy in his statement to the inquest on 18 September 1997: “I should tell you that there were rumours of marriage between Lady Di and Al Fayed and we legitimately thought that the couple might pose [for pictures] on leaving the hotel.”

Cardinale did not chase after the princess, but remained at the front of the hotel. He arrived late to the tunnel where the accident happened, but unlike the earlier group of photographers who swarmed the couple’s chauffeured car, he was not arrested.

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7 thoughts on “Princess Diana’s Final Weeks, 1997

  1. I’ve been following for three years! I’ve much enjoyed your posts, and I look forward to your stories!

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