A Princess at Play [Princess Diana Spencer]

One imagines Princess Diana Spencer once checked all the right boxes on Britain’s A Princess Must-Have List. Proper manners? Check. Nobility? Check. High-society connections? Check. Elegance on the dance floor? Beauty in a ball gown? Check and check. The ability to ski? Let’s see… yes. Check.

During her startling, too-short 36 years, during which she became one of history’s most famous women, the shy girl who morphed into dazzling Diana, Princess of Wales, was photographed hundreds, perhaps thousands of times on skis in the world’s most luxurious resorts. Klosters. Lech. Vail. St. Christoph. There she stood by the side of a run, sometimes joyous, sometimes harassed, tabloid photographers from Britain and beyond snapping furiously all around. She was not on a tennis court. Not in a horse arena. Not on a cricket pitch. She was slopeside at a ski resort. In Diana’s day, the snowy Alps ranked high among proper playgrounds in which princesses could play. The photos that remain are tableaux through which we can view her astonishing life.

Our first glimpse of Diana’s dalliance with skiing came in 1978 with her enrollment, brief as it was, at Switzerland’s Institut Alpin Videmanette. Situated in Rougement, Switzerland, and ranked then among the world’s most prestigious all-girl finishing schools, the Institut’s you-go-girl syllabus included lessons in cooking, dressmaking, typing, skiing, and French. While she left the school only 12 weeks after arrival, photos of the future Princess on the piste, at a ski lodge, and smiling at the start of a slalom course endure on Pinterest, revealing a ruddy-cheeked girl on the brink of both womanhood and an extraordinary life experience. Even in those pre-Charles, pre-Instagram pix, Di was stylish — insouciantly so. Looking shy, gazing downward, clad fashionably in a woolly sweater in classic ski-school red against a backdrop of snow.

Zoom forward a few years to January 1983, and much had changed. Diana’s first ski trip of note following her fairy-tale wedding wasn’t a fairy tale at all. Only 18 months into her marriage to Prince Charles, the adventure proved to be one for the history books. Dropped down in a mountainside castle in the teeny Principality of Liechtenstein — a pile owned by Charles’ pal, Prince Franz Joseph II — the whole trip was summed up on a People magazine cover that shouted, “DIANA’S ORDEAL” and continued: “The pressures of being a princess build to an Alpine holiday face-off.” The cover photo depicted the Prince and Princess staring stonily at one another, their feet dangling from a double chairlift.

The honeymoon effectively over, Di — whose seven-month-old, William, had been left behind in England in the nanny’s care — was only just leaning in to the idea that her privacy had been traded for her fairy-tale romance. Moreover, it was a case, as the magazine reported, of the 21 year old and her 34-year-old husband being “tailed by an aggressive press that was unshackled by palace conventions.” (At one point a chopper full of paparazzi chased Diana down a glacier slope.) During this post-Christmas “holiday” the world’s most recognizable couple emerged, hid, then re-emerged on the slopes of Lech and Laax in what People called a “Keystone Kops version of cat-and-mouse.” (A harbinger, notably, of the fate that would later end Diana’s life, in Paris in 1997.)

The mania of the press in this pre-TMZ age extended to the Daily Mail sending its 70-year-old ski correspondent, Maurice Willoughby, to evaluate Diana’s slopeside savoir faire. Willoughby’s assignment proved challenging. He complained that Diana’s bodyguard knocked him off his feet (twice!) for skiing too close to the Princess. With practice, he brightly concluded, “she could easily reach silver and possibly gold medal standard by her mid-20s.”

Next we saw Her Royal Highness in Klosters, Switzerland, her husband’s favorite resort. It was a sunny February day in 1987 and the well-tracked princess was again on the side of a slope, this time having a lot more fun with the paparazzi. Putting what we now know as #SquadGoals into play, the Prince and Princess of Wales took some time to pose on-piste with the Duke and Duchess of York, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. In those zany photos, the Princesses — each sporting broad-shouldered ‘80s-style onesies  — attempted to knock one another down while joking with their husbands and the press. Today, indeed, those images make for some toasty nostalgia: that brief, shining moment of Di-and-Charles-and-Andrew-and-Fergie, before both royal marriages blew up in gorgeous smithereens. It was a time when Diana — who never felt all too comfortable within the clannish House of Windsor — had both an ally and a tonic in the form of the fun-lovin’ Fergie (who was, by the way, the more skillful, aggressive skier).

However boisterous and brave, Fergie, in the end, proved no match for Diana’s star power, which rose — no, soared — to unprecedented heights even as Charles and the House of Windsor began to pull away. Case in point: December 1994, when the Diana-on-snow action veered to North America. Estranged by that point from her husband and in a Cold War of sorts with the larger Royal Family — indeed, both her sons were a continent away on a ski vacay with Charles — Diana appeared in Vail, Colorado for a maiden visit. Was she skiing with John F. Kennedy Jr.? Rendezvous-ing with billionaire Teddy Forstmann? The rumors, predictably, reached a fever pitch and the papz’s on-piste hunt continued. “It’s easier looking for Elvis,” quipped one freelance photographer then, with another newspaper report adding that the mission to track down Diana, skiing somewhere in Vail’s high alpine, was akin to trying to find “a princess in a pile of 12,000 similar bundled and colorfully dressed peas.”

And so it goes. Like many a star who died too young and whose brilliance only brightens with time, Diana’s days spent skiing the world’s most sought-after slopes still merit a bottomless nostalgia.

For one, her presence continues to be felt in the geography itself. In Lech, for instance — tucked away in a handsome valley in Austria — pictures of the beloved Princess are hung in the lobby of the Hotel Arlberg. They were put there after her passing, as it was the resort where Diana came for several mother-son trips.

Likewise, Klosters retains Switzerland’s wistful connection to Britain’s skiing royalty — an old-money cluster still popular with the Prince of Wales (whose title, by the way, was painted on not one but two of the resort’s flaming red cable cars). Moreover, Klosters’ gentle, cloistered ski runs provided the stage for Diana’s elder, Prince William, to debut Kate Middleton in 2004 — a significant event for the future Queen of England.

More recently, Courchevel and Verbier, too, have been placed on the royal trail map. Prince Harry was spotted recently with his cousin, Princess Eugenie, in the lift lines of Switzerland’s “Verbs”. William and Kate took their children to France’s lustrous Les Trois Vallées last season for a family ski vacation, followed, naturally, by the papz. As a pastime, skiing is one that has only grown in royal enjoyment.

Back to Diana, it’s true she was a princess who was photographed many times in impressive, worldly destinations, among them Majorca, St. Tropez, India, and St. Kitts. Yet few images are as unforgettable as those of Her Royal Highness looking graceful on winter slopes. Once called “the last of the silent movie stars,” she showed a repose that, no doubt, came naturally to a woman who once checked all the boxes on Britain’s A Princess Must-Have List — including poise, proper manners, and ski lessons from a finishing school in the Alps.