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Princess Diana, with Henry Bienen on the right, drew a crowd in Chicago./Northwestern University file photo 1

Remembering Princess Diana’s visit to Chicago

August 31st, 2017

On the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, Chicagoans remember the whirlwind trip the vivacious princess made to the Windy City.

Diana’s June 4-6, 1996, visit would become the society event of the decade–and one that prompts discussions to this day by Chicagoans on the civic scene.

That summer weekend revolved around the Corporate Vision Awards gala to benefit Gilda’s Club, a support group for cancer patients and their families.

But the princess made time for numerous other Chicago engagements. She sat in on a seminar at Northwestern University, toured a sculpture garden at Northwestern University, visited patients at Cook County Hospital and Northwestern Medical Center and headlined a benefit luncheon at the Drake Hotel. Then-Northwestern President Henry Bienen even held a reception for her at his home.

“I was surprised by what a huge impact she had in Chicago. When we toured the sculpture garden there were people three and four deep behind the ropes. It was like that wherever she went,” said Bienen, now president of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and emeritus-president of Northwestern.

The cocktail party at his home included then-Gov. Jim Edgar and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and their wives.

The banter was light and the princess was engaged. “She was very easy to talk to. She didn’t stand on ceremony and was not formal,” Bienen recalls today. “One take-away I had from that trip is how outgoing and warm she was to people in distress (in the hospitals she visited). She worked hard to make every event a success.”

Princess Diana also was able to find some quiet time on her trip.

Running into Diana at the pool!

Chicago businessman Dan Santefort remembers running in to her by chance at the pool in the Olympia Centre building on Chicago Avenue, where the British consul has a residence.

He describes her today as “very cute, sort of shy and beautiful. She had nice eyes. And she wasn’t a snob at all. She was royal with a common touch about her–and I told her so.”

The climax of Diana’s trip was the grand dinner gala at the Field Museum that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research in the United States and abroad.

Bienen escorted the Princess of Wales into the Field Museum and down the grand stair case in Stanley Field Hall, which was decked out in grand fashion for the dinner gala.

by Diane Alexander White

She wore a now-famous purple gown–maybe not so coincidentally the colors of Northwestern. She was all smiles.

The well-choreographed event included tightly timed speeches and a not-too-decadent menu: rack of lamb, a salad of greens, grilled apples and Wisconsin cheese and a dessert of lemon mouse with blackberries and raspberries. Anthony Terlato donated the wines that night.

There were speeches, too. Arthur Martinez, the former chairman and CEO of Sears (he now lives in New York), was an honoree.

Tickets ranged form $500 to $50,000 depending on the access you could afford. Deloris Jordan, the mom of then Bulls star Michael Jordan, was among attendees. According to the late society columnist Ann Gerber, Jordan presented the princess with a bag of Bulls gear for the princess.

Celebrities included singer Tony Bennett, who performed, and then talk-show host Phil Donahue and his wife, actress Marlo Thomas.

Donahue got the first dance with the princess and Bienen danced with her, too.

“I’m not a great dancer. I remember her towering above me because she was tall and wore very high heels,” the 5-foot-10 Bienen recalled. There was buzz in the room that night, too, when Chicago businessman Michael Wilkie, described then as a Chicago playboy, cut  in to dance with the princess.

Her visit helped elevate the attention to the work of Gilda’s Club, which was co-founded by Gene Wilder, the husband of the late comedian Gilda Radner. Wilder, who died last year, also attended the party. Monies raised from the events also benefited Chicago’s Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern University and the Royal Marsden Hospital in England.

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One Response to Remembering Princess Diana’s visit to Chicago

  1. Linda Shafran says:

    I totally remember those few days. She looked beautiful

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