This article originally appeared in the September 5, 1997 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Somewhere between the mistakes of a drunk driver and a rabid brigade of paparazzi, Princess Diana met a cruel and untimely end early Sunday morning. Her death in a Paris car crash, and its grisly circumstances, stunned the world. But it also hit me personally. Three years ago, I, too, had shamelessly stalked the Princess of Wales.
The occasion was Princess Di's August 1994 vacation on Martha's Vineyard. I was working as a reporter at the Vineyard Gazette, the local weekly newspaper, when word leaked that Diana was visiting the island as the guest of the Brazilian ambassador to the United States.
Almost immediately, the island was awash in paparazzi. The notoriously mercenary freelance photographers buzzed into the Vineyard, thirsty for the first shot of Diana's holiday in America. They seemed like Hollywood clichés: aggressive, cocky men with cannon-length camera lenses, thick British and Australian accents, and an insatiable appetite for the Next Big Shot.
The lure of big money fueled this relentless chase. The best photographers, with contacts at the richest Fleet Street publications and photo agencies, could afford to pay sources in order to locate their target. They had no qualms about hitting up caretakers, chambermaids, taxi drivers, and waiters for information, sometimes bribing them with thousands of dollars. That was a pittance compared to their payment if they got the perfect shot.
Unlike rock and film stars, who may be trailed by different snappers on separate occasions, the princess had her own personal paparazzi, men whose entire lives were consumed by chasing her. The great ones were tan and rich and lived like stars themselves. They commandeered cars, motorboats, and planes and tossed cash around like drunken sailors in an endless chase around the world — a chase that didn't end until Sunday morning in Paris.
The Gazette also decided to chase Diana, and here, we had an obvious advantage. The island was our home court; we knew it far better than did the paparazzi, who were stymied by the Vineyard's confusing network of dirt roads and the pride locals took in shielding celebrity guests from the press.
My companion for this story was Mark Lovewell, a veteran island reporter/photographer and an accomplished journalist but, like me, a neophyte paparazzo. We didn't know which trees to climb, which roads to search, which bushes to hide in to find the princess.
But neither did anyone else. For three days after she arrived on the island, Diana eluded the media, even the über-determined photogs. No one knew where she was; no one could be sure whether she was there at all.
The photo hounds were collectively freaking out, waving money at anyone with a potential Diana tip and, when no one bit, condemning the close-lipped Vineyard. No one could remember a Diana drought like this one. Wallets were full, film unused; overseas editors were angry.
"Nobody talks here," Mark Saunders, one of the most (in)famous Diana snappers, told me. "This place is like Salem's Lot."
But then, the home team caught a break. We were hanging out at Lovewell's house — bummed-out, Dianaless, and facing a pressing deadline — when the phone rang. "Get down to Edgartown harbor," a voice said.
We raced out the door, hopped into Lovewell's pickup truck, and sped downtown. Within 30 seconds, we had hired a motorboat, sworn the captain to secrecy, lugged Lovewell's bucketloads of photographic equipment (and my rinky-dink 35mm) aboard, and pushed out to sea.
Diana was a guest on a classic wooden yacht owned by a local businessman. Lying in wait — literally, on our stomachs, cameras pressed against the railing — we watched the princess climb into the yacht's wheel house, decked in a navy baseball cap and an American-flag sweater. Even from a distance, there was no mistaking it was Diana. Her eyes and smile gave her away.
The yacht began to leave the harbor, and we motored cautiously alongside, separated by about 200 yards. It was thrilling, but we needed to get closer. We instructed the captain to pull tighter to Diana's yacht, which he did with great gusto, swinging the wheel and cackling like an Ahab envisioning a guest spot on Hard Copy.
But our Ahab was a little too excited, and he swung a little too close. The crew aboard Diana's yacht spotted us snapping away and started to hightail it out of the harbor. Diana, annoyed, scurried below deck. A smaller motorboat was dispatched to cut us off and prevent any more photographs. The whole thing got ugly fast, and Lovewell and I, feeling a bit guilty by now, bailed out and headed back to port — much to Ahab's dismay.