As the news spread yesterday, people were making comparisons with the shock of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, which sent shockwaves round the world.
To invade the public consciousness in such a way, an icon must have been a dazzling and controversial character, who was thought to enhance others' lives in some way and then had their life cut short. Then the myths grow up, surrounding both their life and their death.
In her hold on public consciousness perhaps the figures that the Princess most closely resembles are two women: Marilyn Monroe and Princess Grace of Monaco. Like the Princess of Wales, Marilyn Monroe was just 36 when she died in 1962. She, too, was beautiful, much-photographed, controversial and, at times, intensely unhappy. She had a difficult childhood resented publicity and yet often craved it. Her life, too, was a constant search for love, and she made several marriages. Both women stirred up deep emotions. No one remained neutral about Monroe. She was both much-loved and much-loathed.
Princess Grace was another "fairytale" princess who died in a car crash 15 years ago. As Grace Kelly, she was a world-famous beauty before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. But again, the marriage between royalty and commoner was not a happy one. While the Princess of Wales fought depression and bulimia, Princess Grace was portrayed as a heavy drinker who in her final years sought comfort in the arms of younger men.
On 13 September 1982 Princess Grace and her daughter Stephanie were three miles from the Monaco border when their car plunged off the mountainside at a bend. The car, driven by Princess Grace, shot over the low barrier at the side of the road, turning over and over before coming to rest 120ft below. Princess Stephanie had slight bruising but her mother later died of her injuries in hospital.
Many icons have been seen as outsiders. When the Fifties film star James Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24 he had captured the imagination of a host of young people with films such as Rebel Without a Cause. Fifteen years later another generation was shocked by the death of rock star Jimi Hendrix from a drugs overdose. He was just 27.Reuse content