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Prior to Charles and Diana visiting the Reagan White House in November 1985, the last British royals to dine at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were the prince’s parents, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. In 1976, they were guests of President Gerald Ford, who had Captain & Tennille serenade them with “Muskrat Love.” The Reagans topped that: They had John Travolta, then 31, ask the princess, 24, to dance.
The black-tie dinner was Washington’s Woodstock in terms of political glitter. The 80 guests included Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck, who both danced with Diana. Neil Diamond sang “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and also waltzed with the princess. Opera star Leontyne Price sang “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Peter Ustinov, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mikhail Baryshnikov and Betsy Bloomingdale were there. (Diana had asked that Diana Ross be invited, but the diva had a prior commitment; the princess also requested Robert Redford, but he wasn’t Republican enough for the Reagan White House.)
But it was the Travolta dance that made the night memorable.
In 1997, he told Good Morning America that Nancy Reagan said it was Diana’s “wish” and that at midnight he should tap her on the shoulder and say, “Would you care to dance?” However, in his book The Way We Were, Diana’s butler Paul Burrell writes that it was Baryshnikov whom the princess really wanted to dance with; it’s unclear why that didn’t happen. (Burrell’s publicist says “a fee and terms” must be agreed upon before the butler will talk. THR declined.)
In any case, the Travolta dance became the stuff of legend and even Diana’s midnight blue velvet Victor Edelstein gown became famous. It was auctioned for charity in June 1997 for $165,000 and sold again in 2013 for $362,424. Diana died in an automobile accident in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. ABC’s 20th anniversary special on her life, The Story of Diana, airs Aug. 9 and 10.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Taraji P. Henson