Q&A with former NU president

When Henry Bienen was selected as Northwestern University’s 15th president in June 1994, the Tribune called him “an outstanding scholar and administrator who also is adequate at fundraising.” Earning master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Chicago, Bienen was also admired for his foreign relations expertise.

The paper, however, left out another key detail — Bienen’s good friend and former Princeton University colleague Landon “Lanny” Jones was head editor at People magazine.

It was this combination of academics, philanthropy and friendship that paved the way for Princess Diana’s first and only visit to Chicago on June 4-6, 1996 — one month before she and Prince Charles agreed on terms for a divorce, and just 15 months before her death.

“(Jones) got in touch and said to me that People magazine is very close to Princess Diana, ‘Would you like her to visit Northwestern? She really would like to make her next visit to the US not New York or the East Coast’” Bienen said. “And, of course, I said yes. I had no idea it would be such a big deal.”

During a phone interview Monday, Bienen shared his reflections on the princess’s 46-hour visit, the one part of Diana’s trip his wife will never let him forget, and why he just might be the right person to convince Northwestern grad Meghan Markle — Diana’s daughter -in-law and Duchess of Sussex — to visit campus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Did you have any idea how big it would be, how widely broadcast her visit would be when you agreed to it?

A: No, not really. I hadn’t really paid, frankly, that much attention to her. Of course I knew who she was. I knew she was a worldwide celebrity. The first inkling I got was she came from the plane and she came to meet me on campus. We were walking around and the lines behind the rope lines were literally five and six (people) deep and I was floored.

That was the beginning of the visit. And then I really understood how huge the media attention would be and that this was a very bid deal. But no, initially, I was very surprised.

Q: It was pre-9/11. What kind of protocols and security measures did you have to follow? What was it like when she came to visit?

A: We met with her protocol people in advance and she came with her own security who sort of trailed behind her. … She was very good at putting people at ease. She would shake hands. She was just a very charming, convivial person. And the other thing I would say about her was that she worked really hard.

She wanted to see children who were ill. Part of the visit was to raise money for a big cancer hospital that she was patroness of back in London. Some of the money that was raised by donors and subscriptions was going to go to that hospital. But she visited hospitals here and was just indefatigable. She didn’t fake it. She really went to the bedside, talked to kids, patients. In those ways, she was just an extremely impressive person.

We actually, over a three-day period, struck up a really good friendship and she communicated afterward — lamentably, it wasn’t that many months before the tragedy struck. Once she mailed me to say, ‘Hey, I’m wearing out my Northwestern sweatshirt.’ So we sent her another one. She sent me pictures which, of course, I still have with her children and signed by her. I thought she was a really sincere, fine person from the little bit of contact that I had during those days.

Coming back to your initial question — we had our security, she had her security — but there were no incidents. She met with students and student leaders and she walked around campus.

Q: When Princess Diana came to Northwestern’s campus, why did you decide to show her around a sculpture garden and include her in a breast cancer conference?

A: The weather was good, so the garden seemed like a good way for her to view the campus. Also, so a lot of people could see her — that was the main point — by walking around the sculpture garden, which covered a good bit of territory on campus. It meant that she was exposed, at least visually, to hundreds and hundreds of people who could see her, cheer and stick out their hands to greet her. So, that was a sort of no-brainer.

The cancer symposium — she was very interested, as I’ve said — in cancer research and treatment. So to spend time at the hospital and this symposium was something she really wanted to do.

Q: Her trip sounds like it was a whirlwind 46 hours. As soon as she got off the British Airways plane at O’Hare International Airport, she hit the ground running. How hard was it for you to keep up with her?

A: Oh, it was not so tough. I still am a squash and tennis player so I can’t say that I found any of it exhausting.

It was Princess Diana. It was great fun! And it was great for the university. In fact, I think it was the Trib that had the headline: ‘NU’s year to Di for.’ We went to the Rose Bowl. I mean, it was a smashing year. I got asked if I wanted to run for governor — I forget by whom — something I had no interest in doing, needless to say, and I doubt whoever asked was interested either. The whole visit was a triumph. (Editor’s note: To add even more star power to Northwestern’s year, Robert Redford was the school’s commencement speaker.)

She, by the way, was planning to come back. We were talking about her coming back in a couple of years. Of course, that never happened.

Q: Did you accompany Princess Diana to every event during her visit here?

A: I accompanied her to events that Northwestern was involved in. She had a couple of hospital events that I did not go to.

I was sort of the official host for the ball (a black-tie gala at the Field Museum). That was great because she came up on the south end of the Field Museum and she started walking up the stairs. I was walking down to greet her and she was wearing this just smashing purple dress. (Editor’s note: The dress was by Versace.)

I asked her, ‘Is this royal purple or is it Northwestern purple?’ She never quite answered. She just laughed.

Q: Did you dance with her at the ball?

A: Yes, I did. She sort of asked me if I’d like to dance.

She was wearing very high heels. She was a good 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 and one of my old Princeton friends — after seeing the video of it — asked if I had shrunk 3 inches because she sort of towered over me. And then this character cut in, which was very inappropriate on the dance floor. I forget who he was.

Still, she was easygoing and just endlessly charming and hardworking.

Q: Your wife (Leigh Bienen) is a brilliant professor in her own right. How did she take all of this and the attention you received from it?

A: That’s a funny question. She was fine with almost all of it and happy to meet Diana, but at the big table where we sat (during the Field Museum gala) there were a limited number of seats. My wife took the short straw and sat under the elephant’s butt in the middle of the Field Museum, of which I never heard the end of. That was not great. But, aside from letting me hear about that, she was — as she almost always is — extremely good-natured.

(Editor’s note: Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music was renamed in honor of the couple in 2008. Henry Bienen served as president of the university until 2009.)

Q: After looking through the newspaper from that time I saw that the Bulls were in the NBA Finals and there was a game at the United Center the same night as the ball at the Field Museum. Can you describe what it was like in the city at that time? It seems like that really put Chicago on the map that year.

A: I think it did. I didn’t remember, until you said so, that the Bulls were playing at the same time.

We gave her a huge amount of Northwestern swag — stuff for the kids, a sweatshirt because she liked to work out. And there were pictures of her over the next year going into her gym and wearing a Northwestern sweatshirt.

I even emailed her to ask if she needed another and she said, ‘For sure.’

Q: Were you ever able to visit Princess Diana in England?

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A: No. I’m sure she had plenty of other things to do. And I did not go to the UK for quite some time after her visit. So, no, I never did see her again. As I say, we exchanged emails, photographs and stuff like that. It was really a kind of exchange from afar.

Q: Meghan Markle, a future daughter-in-law that Princess Diana would never have the opportunity to meet, attended Northwestern just three years later. Are you tempted at all to reach out to her or Diana’s sons to see if they would be interested in visiting campus?

A: Well, actually, one of my nieces was in the same sorority with Meghan Markle. They knew each other, I think, pretty well.

But, it’s not my job anymore so I’ve not been involved and I don’t know if anybody ever reached out to her.

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