Diana’s 1989 Trip To New York Was Met with Protests—But She Charmed the Whole City

Emma Dibdin
·4 min read
Diana’s 1989 Trip To New York Was Met with Protests—But She Charmed the Whole City
Diana’s 1989 Trip To New York Was Met with Protests—But She Charmed the Whole City

From ELLE

The season 4 finale of The Crown dramatizes the final collapse of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’s marriage, against the backdrop of a political crisis as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is ousted by her own party. The cracks in the Wales's marriage start to become public when Diana takes a solo trip across the pond to New York and is greeted with adulation from the press and public alike—emphasizing just how much her star is eclipsing her husband's.

As ever, the show sticks close to the truth in some respects, while taking dramatic license with others, including the timeline of Diana's famous encounter with an AIDS patient. Here's your guide to Diana's real 1989 trip to NYC.

The trip fueled rumors about Charles and Diana's marital trouble.

Diana arrived in New York on February 1, 1989, touching down at John F. Kennedy airport via the now-discontinued Concorde jet. It wasn't her first solo royal engagement overseas—that was way back in 1982, when she represented the queen at Grace of Monaco's funeral. But this was Diana's first official visit to New York, and the fact that Charles did not accompany her raised eyebrows. Per ABC, the Prince's absence fueled rumors about the state of the couple's marriage. Nonetheless, Diana's "dazzling smile and personality…won over New Yorkers."

Her three-day trip involved a visit to the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, where The New York Times reported she was greeted by hundreds of people lining the sidewalk. "The Princess smiled, shook a few outstretched hands and accepted a bouquet of flowers from a young boy," the paper wrote.

Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images

Diana also visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music as the special guest for its 1989 Royal Gala, which featured a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff by the Welsh National Opera. Diana was patron of the WNO at the time.

Karen Brooks Hopkins, President Emerita of BAM, recounted her experience with Diana in an essay for People: "I can tell you that the rollout of a royal visit is meticulous," Hopkins wrote. "She is not just a person but an industry, and every moment is designed to maximize the fantasy, beauty and mystery of royalty—and our Diana was the quintessential princess. She was tall, young, graceful, beautiful and a real professional."

The audience was packed with "everyone in New York," Hopkins recalled (the subtext being: everyone who's anyone.) That included celebrities, politicians, and, uh... Donald Trump and his then-wife, Ivana. "The security team was massive—NYPD, Scotland Yard, Her Majesty’s own private force and the FBI. These guys don't fool around."

Photo credit: Getty / Netflix
Photo credit: Getty / Netflix

The reactions to Diana in New York weren't entirely positive.

Throughout the performance at BAM, The New York Times reported, "several hundred protesters opposed to British rule in Northern Ireland demonstrated across the street…many of the demonstrators played bagpipes while others chanted 'Princess Di go home.'"

Diana's trip was “under immense scrutiny from the American press,” according to journalist Anita Rani, who speaks about Diana’s trip to New York for a Netflix behind-the-scenes video. The New York Post had dubbed Diana “the most famous welfare mother in the world,” prior to her arrival, and other publications criticized her high-fashion shopping habits. In fact, her small entourage on this trip didn't even include a hairdresser, so Diana did all of her own styling during the trip using heated rollers.

Diana's groundbreaking visit to AIDS patients in Harlem really happened.

Just as the show depicts, Diana visited the pediatric AIDS unit at Harlem Hospital during her time in New York. HIV and AIDS had been an important cause for her for many years; two years earlier, she opened the U.K.'s first HIV/Aids unit at London's Middlesex Hospital. At the time, she made headlines by shaking hands with a man who had AIDS, at a time when stigma and ignorance still led many to fear physical contact with patients.

Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Princess Diana Archive - Getty Images

During her visit to Harlem hospital, The New York Times reported, Diana "paused to stroke five babies...[then] the Princess noticed a 7-year-old boy in blue pajamas. ''Are you heavy?'' she asked, scooping him up and cuddling him." A very similar moment is depicted in the show, where Diana hugs and comforts a young boy on the ward. Both onscreen and in real life, this was a significant moment for the HIV/AIDS movement. As Dr. Margaret Heagarty, pediatric director at Harlem Hospital, told Diana at the time: "Your presence here and in Great Britain has shown that folks with this disease can be hugged, can be cared for."

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