ATLANTA - Prince Charming steps out with another man's wife. The beautiful princess is killed in a car crash along with the heir to a department store. Fairy tales aren't supposed to end so badly.
But the tragedy of Diana Spencer-Windsor, Princess of Wales, is only one aspect of why she still intrigues the world. She was larger than life before her death in 1997 - larger still after.
The highlights of "Diana: A Celebration," on display through June 13 at the Atlanta Civic Center, focus on the public princess: About 750 million people around the world saw her wedding on TV; 2.5 billion tuned in to her funeral. Those events, and her sense of style, get the royal treatment at this exposition approved by her family. It is literally the road-show version of what you'd see at Althorp, the Spencer family estate in rural England where she is buried.
From chamber to chamber, "Diana" is fully geared to women and girls. This is, after all a woman's story - though one with designer dresses, gems and celebrities.
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It's a sanitized history of the princess that is sure to satisfy many. But her fans, and they are legion, will note what's been left out and what goes unsaid.
Put tissues in your purse.
FROM A WEDDING TO A FUNERAL
The wedding is center stage here because her dress is on full view - a cream-hued silk taffeta, lace and tulle gown, plus her veil and train. It is parked in the middle of the show's Royal Wedding room in a glass case. The train alone is 25 feet long. Because of limited display space at Althorp, where the train is always rolled up, the world tour show is the only opportunity to view it as the princess wore it July 29, 1981.
You can walk fully around it, lean down close, and note the craftsmanship that went into a dress literally fit for a princess.
Displayed with it are the Spencer family tiara, the elaborately decorated shoes she wore, a silk and lace parasol - unused, as the weather was nice for her wedding - and a bridesmaid's dress. On the walls around the case are photos, plus a portion of the video of her big day.
The funeral is addressed a few rooms down. A video that includes shots of the procession and of public grief is front-and-center and tellingly staged.
Minutes before, you view the train that flows out behind the wedding dress. Now, a long white canopy stretches along the ceiling, then arches down to where the video is screened at eye level. Clever lighting gives the hard, smooth canopy the appearance of rippled cloth - the wedding dress figuratively transformed to a shroud.
The "ground" in front of the screen is filled with dried rose blooms and petals. Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" - the 1997 Diana version that begins, "Goodbye England's rose" - plays in the background. Wall cases in the darkened room include a Elton John-Bernie Taupin working lyric sheet and Sir George Martin's score. Also here: the longhand draft of the funeral speech given by her brother, the Earl Spencer.
The last of "Diana's" three major rooms follows, and rather awkwardly. It is a style gallery where 28 of Diana's outfits and a pair of coats are encased in individual tubes that hint of sci-fi suspended animation. Whether an off-white safari suit worn to Brazil or ensembles donned for state occasions, these are the creations of Gianni Versace, Jacques Azagury, Valentino and other icons of high fashion. Many of the items are from her two post-divorce years, when she stepped out with more glamour.
Many of the displays are photos showing Diana wearing the very same goods to galas, events or even (the Lauren/Armani work shirt and denim slacks) a minefield in Angola.
EARLY YEARS, BUT LITTLE CHARLES
The rest of "Diana" wraps around the three main draws: the years prior to the wedding; her role as a royal icon; and her time as a high-profile philanthropist.
The back story is covered first. There are portraits from Althorp and a selection of jewels from a trio of notable female ancestors.
One area is set up like a playroom to display an assortment of favorite childhood toys. She apparently began collecting ceramic and glass figures of animals at an early age; among those here is a Peter Rabbit missing one ear. There's a letter in a 5-year-old's scrawl to Mummy and Daddy.
Diana's early years are conveyed through a video of home movies taken by her father. You see her grow from toddler to teen, quite often displaying her love of dancing. The footage ends with her leaving for boarding school with a trunk marked "D. Spencer."
Nearby text placards fill in some blanks (her parents divorced when she was in 8) but not all (the divorce was nasty and followed by a lengthy custody battle). Similarly, the family-approved text doesn't delve into her post-separation relationships. Prince Charles' mistress/second wife Camilla Parker Bowles is mentioned only as having entertained Charles and Diana during their courtship.
Charles may hold a large role in the real story, but not in this exhibit. He remains a question mark, as does the flow and ebb of the chemistry between him and his princess. But small hints in "Diana" are intriguing.
The 1980 Christmas card he sent her is inscribed "From your tap-dancing partner, Charles."
A bit of wall text says Charles formally yet unexpectedly asked for her hand several months later, in the Buckingham Palace nursery, and her actual answer was simply, "Yes, please."
"Diana: A Celebration," through June 13.
Where: Atlanta Civic Center, 395 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta
Admission: $18.50; $15.50 for 65 and older and students 18 and older; $12 for ages 6-17; 5 and younger, free. Advance tickets - strongly recommended, especially for weekends - are for a specific date. Advance tickets: (800) 745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
For more information: Atlanta Civic Center, (404) 523-6275; http://www.atlantaciviccenter.com.
ATLANTA VS. ALTHORP
Diana Frances Spencer-Windsor is buried on an island on the grounds of Althorp, the Spencer family estate 90 minutes northwest of London. Go there in summer and you can tour parts of the manor house, where artifacts and videos comprise an exhibition.
Fall through spring, the Althorp collection tours North America, Europe or Australia. It opened last month at the Atlanta Civic Center, the same mega-venue that held last year's "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" - and "Diana" is staged by the same company that produces various Tut and Titanic road shows.
- You can visit Althorp between July 1 and Aug. 31 and see the same items - plus her burial site - for roughly $24 in U.S. funds. Plus international airfare. Plus the cost of ground transportation to rural Northamptonshire.
In Atlanta, $18.50 gets an adult into "Diana: A Celebration." Atlanta is the final and only stop in the Southeast for the 2009-10 tour.
- Diana herself was quite a traveler, the "People's Princess" who used her royal status to focus attention on the poor and sick around the world. The woman who visited Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta would probably not object to roughly 150 personal objects being displayed at Piedmont Street and Ralph McGill Boulevard.
- The royal wedding gown and 28 designer dresses, photos, home movies and all other items were selected by the Spencer family, which owns them.
Neither the royal family nor the less ham-handed British government has much to do with "Diana." What the Spencer family clears financially goes to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.
- The Atlanta viewing also offers something the English simply can't: elbow room.
- John Bordsen