Or how Princess Di helped me become a storyteller

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photo by Ellen Shapiro

Although I associated it with writers, once among the world’s most brilliant, who drank themselves into self-parody and premature death, Via Margutta was my favorite street in Rome. Not that I’d been there more than twice before. But both times I made a point of walking down that beautiful ancient street and looking very carefully at Number 30, the balcony where — if what Truman Capote wrote is true — his pet raven, Lola, perched on the edge of the stone balustrade and took her daily bath in a silver soup dish.

After a moment of sprightly immersion in the shallow water she would spring up and out and, as though casting off a crystal cloak, shake herself, swell her feathers; later, for long, bliss-saturated hours, she drowsed in the sun, her head tilted back, her beak ajar, her eyes shut. To watch her was a soothing experience.

I’ve read the Lola story half a dozen times. The words “casting off a crystal cloak” always cast a soothing spell on me. I love reading about how Truman got Lola as a present from the maid Gabriella, who’d cruelly clipped her wings, how ugly and hateful he’d found the bird at first, how he fell in love with her and spoiled her, and finally how she jumped off that balcony, unable to fly, and fell into the back of a moving truck, never to be seen, at least by him, again.

I told the Lola story to my husband Paul on August 30, 1997, the last night of our vacation, while we were walking, arms around each other’s waist, along Via Margutta on our way to dinner. Or, more precisely, on our way to find a restaurant for dinner. I was sure that somewhere in the narrow streets surrounding the Piazza della Popolo there would be tables set up on the sidewalk and very good food. Even on a Sunday evening, with almost everything shut tight, there were lovely things to see: stonework and doorways in shadow and lit shop windows filled with books and antiques, maps and prints, leather bags and silk ties.

I remember the date exactly because it was the day Princess Diana died, one of those days you remember for your whole life, like the day Kennedy was shot (I was in Mrs. Decker’s third-period gym class and lots of girls started to cry). Not that I cared about Princess Diana nearly as much as I’d cared about President Kennedy. But I couldn’t help getting sucked into the drama of the day, and spent a lot of it in our hotel room watching the coverage on BBC.

So walking down that leafy, darkening cobblestone street with Paul, death was on my mind. The deaths of Lola and Diana and several Kennedys. The decline and death and of writers who’d lived and loved on that block and then got too old and much too drunk to write well anymore. I like following in the footsteps of writers — the footsteps they took when they were young and vigorous and wrote fresh words about their adventures. The summer before, in fact, I’d walked to the end of the jetty in San Sebastían, Spain, and dived into the cold deep water, just the way Hemingway did in The Sun Also Rises. But I hope never to do any of the abusive, vindictive things he described in A Moveable Feast. And Christopher Isherwood. Look what age and alcohol did to him. As Truman wrote: “Honey, don’t let me commence!”

Anyway, Paul and I had been staying at the Hotel Eden, one of “our” hotels. Like many people who like to write, I write for a living, but not about subjects I’d choose on my own. I’m the assistant director of communications for The Luxury Group, Inc., a consortium of small independent hotels that joined together to promote their deluxe accommodations and amenities to well-heeled travelers. Writing about hotels is not as glamorous as it sounds. I spend most of my time on the twenty-third floor of an office building on La Salle Street, but every now and then I get to travel and check out the service of one or two of our properties — to make sure the guests are getting the benefits and services to which they’re entitled. Then I write the press releases and brochures in the hope that more accurate and evocative descriptions will boost occupancy rates.

Thus, Paul and I were sharing, on that hot last day of August, a pretty, canopied bed in a room at the Hotel Eden with a balcony overlooking the Borgese Gardens.

Ironically, I wouldn’t have found out about Princess Di until at least a day later if my brother Jay hadn’t called.

“Pick you up at Gate D-32 on Monday.” It was about seven in the morning. In Chicago, it was the night before, and naturally he hadn’t gone to bed yet.

“Right, our flight gets in at four PM.”

“By the way, did you hear the news?”

“What news?”

“Princess Di died.”

“What?”

“Di died. Get it?” Jay, who is in real estate, had not given up on becoming a comedian.

“Is this one of your jokes?”

“It’s real.”

“What happened?” I started to imagine a bulimic suicide, a fall down the stairs, palace intrigue.

“Car crash in Paris. Turn on the TV.”

One of the selling points of the Hotel Eden is satellite TV in every guest room, with CNN, BBC, Sky Channel, all of them, a rarity in Rome, then a rarity in fact in all but the toniest five-star hotels in Europe. Jay was not kidding. There they were: English talking heads, all sorts of protocol experts and royalty experts. Already a logo, “Death of a Princess,” was splashed across the screen. I stayed under the Frette coverlet and ate room-service croissants while Di’s priggy brother, Lord Althorp, made his soon-to-be-famous “they killed her” speech from the lawn of his South African estate. And all those photographs! Diana as a schoolgirl, Diana as a bride. Diana riding ski lifts with her sons. Visiting children in hospitals. Sitting on the ground in North Africa, wearing pedal pushers and little white sneakers, talking about land mines. Mostly Diana glittering in long gowns at balls and charity events, jewels flashing, strobe lights catching her glossy blonde hair, her hands hidden behind her back. I’d always noticed that in the magazines, no matter the gown and the jewels, if her hands showed, her nails were bitten to the quick.

Finally Paul said, lovingly: “Susan, we’ve got 24 hours left in Rome. Do you want to stay here watching TV or do you want to go out and do something?”

That day, Rome was a hive of guidebooks attached to people. Just by walking around you could have learned how to say ROMA in German, in Japanese, in Hebrew, in you name it. Sweaty people in shorts and backpacks swarmed in circles with one eye on the guidebook, one eye on the Pantheon. Obviously, the news hadn’t hit yet. After all, the average hotel property in Italy had one TV set, and it stayed in the lobby, perpetually tuned to Italian sitcoms and game shows.

“I’m tired,” I said after a not-very-good lunch in a noisy tourist trap. “It’s too hot. I want a nap.” I really wanted the TV. I wanted my BBC!

That afternoon, I watched the footage of the tunnel, the crushed Mercedes, diagrams of the positions of the photographers on their motorcycles. Dodi on his yacht with Diana, and with his former, or other, girlfriends. More Althorp. Tony Blair. It was the crowds gathering at Kensington Palace that really got to me. The commentators kept talking about “how American” the “naturally reserved” Brits were acting, breaking down and crying and all. But when they showed the close-ups of the flowers and the notes and the candles, I lost it, too. I just lay there, foolishly clutching the sheets, tears running down my face. And that wasn’t the worst of it. Because the next thing that happened was that grim Prince Charles and the even grimmer sisters landed in Paris to claim the body. I don’t know whether it was the image of those homely, distraught-looking sisters getting off the plane or the tourist-trap lunch, but I got myself into the Eden’s white marble bathroom just in time.

“You okay?” Paul called from the balcony, where he sat patiently smoking a cigar and reading.

“No!”

“Need any help?”

“No! Please go for a walk and come back later.”

Between bouts of nausea and trips to the bathroom, I stayed in bed and watched and watched.

Just before seven, Paul came back with bottles of mineral water and The International Herald Tribune, which had a headline about Bosnia. Didn’t they know? “Are you up for a walk, and dinner?”

I was.

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Via Margutta. Photo by Ellen Shapiro

“So,” I concluded, retelling Capote’s Lola-bird story to Paul just as the Via Margutta began to curve and open up and reveal the great Piazza della Popolo, looking like a magical Oz with its massive obelisk all lit up and twin churches and tangle of cars and motor scooters and chic-looking people. “So, one day, Lola was stalked by a large ginger cat with glittering green eyes. She jumped off the balcony, and even though Truman yelled, ‘Fly! Lola, fly,’ Lola couldn’t fly and fell down five flights and landed on the back of a pickup truck that was being driven down the street. This very street.”

“That’s a nice story.” Paul squeezed my hand.

“I like it,” I said.

Maybe someday we could live on a street like this, I could not help thinking. Our place would overlook gardens and rooftops, and under a window there’d be a little desk where I’d write my own nice stories. But I did not say that. I did not say that I wished more than anything that I did not have to write press releases about expanded fitness centers and new chefs and three direct-dial phones with voicemail in every room. I wished I could write fiction, short stories — stories that would be published in magazines and journals. That I had the luxury of time and space for that. Stories that would touch and move people. I was a writer, right? But my wings were as clipped as Lola’s.

“How about over there?” Behind one of the churches, strings of lights illuminated a dozen or so tables set up in the street. Couples were drinking and eating, talking quietly. There were Romans in town after all. Up close, simple white platters displayed luscious arrangements of roasted beets and thin green beans and grilled mushrooms, glistening in their thin cloaks of that deep green olive oil that tastes like the earth itself. Best of all, an empty table.

“Perfect.”

A waiter led us to the table, handed us menus, bowed. “Signor e signora?”

Paul ordered a bottle of Barolo. “Do you still love me?” he teased, swirling the wine in his glass. “It’s hard to compete with Princess Di.”

“I think you know the answer by now”

“I always like to hear it.” Hmm, he’d already started thinking about what would come later, on the last night of our vacation.

And then, from the next table: “It’s right near the Heath. Hampstead Heath.” English. The people were speaking English-English. British English.

“Eight hundred quid a fortnight.”

“My flatmates at University…” They giggled at something about queuing up at the Vatican museums.

“On holiday.” Right. On holiday. Two yuppie couples from the UK.

Paul glared at me. He knew exactly what I was thinking. “Don’t you dare!” he said. “Don’t even think about it.”

“It’s my civic duty. I must.” Alas, they were having such a jolly time.

“Wait until right before they leave, then. Don’t ruin their dinner.”

So I ate my misto di pasta — and Paul his porcini mushroom ravioli — everything was delicious — in a struggle of silence, listening to them laugh and joke around. They were talking about Sydney Harbour when one of the guys asked for “Il conto, per favore” the one Italian phrase everybody knows: The check, please.

That was my cue. I turned around and said, “Have you heard the news?”

“What news?”

“Princess Diana.”

Four sets of eyes looked at me blankly. “What about her?”

“She’s dead.”

“Is this some kind of joke?” one of the women asked.

“No. It’s no joke. A car crash in Paris.”

More blank stares.

“Rubbish.”

“You’re lying.”

“Prince Charles left Paris with the body a few hours ago. I watched it on TV all day. Tony Blair made a speech.”

“She isn’t kidding. Oh my God. Oh my God!”

They left a pile of Euros on the table and fled. Off, I presumed, to find a telly. I’d spoiled their dinner, after all. Maybe even their whole vacation. Didn’t mean to do that. Paul rolled his eyes at me as if to say, I told you so. Embarrassed, I turned my attention to the dessert menu.

“When did it happen?” This, from another table.

Of course. The Romans had been listening all along, and they understood English well enough.

“Today. This morning.”

Dov’é?” Where?

“In Paris.”

“Ah, Paris.”

Then someone asked, in French, “Etait-elle seulle?” Was she alone?

“Non, elle etait avec Dodi. Il est mort aussi.” My best high-school French.

“Une tragedie.”

“Oui, quelle domage.”

“The two young princes?”

“William and Harry are coming down from Balmoral Castle.” It was amazing how much I’d actually learned that day.

“What happened?”

“They’d been staying at the Ritz Paris — God, one of our hotels, what was going to happen to the public relations campaign now? — and were chased by paparazzi.”

“Paparazzi!” That started a buzz.

“Tell us more.”

So I told the story. I stood up and looked into their eyes — about 20 people — and told them all about the tunnel and the crash and the motorcycles, about Prince Charles and the sisters. Somehow all the right words came out. People looked at me and nodded. Some of them started to cry. It was amazing. I was a storyteller! Like in medieval days before written books, when griots roamed from village to village, telling tales. Me! Susan the griot!

At the end of the story — “The funeral will be in Westminster Abbey” — everyone was quiet. “I have to go,” I said finally. “My husband is waiting.”

Paul had paid the check and was standing in the street. In the darkness I detected a Cheshire-cat smile on his face.

We took a taxi back to the hotel.

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photo by Ellen Shapiro

On Tuesday morning, back at my office, I booted up the computer and wrote. It was for our upcoming “Experience Europe This Winter” brochure:

Ideally situated in a quietly refined residential neighborhood at the top of the Spanish Steps, the gracious Hotel Eden offers spacious rooms with beds with luxury linens, marble baths, fine dining, expansive views of red-tiled rooftops and historic gardens, and easy access to everything The Eternal City has to offer.

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