Long shot of the Concorde landing at Kennedy International Airport. Princess Diana gets out of the plane to cheering throngs and heads to a glittering black-tie reception.
Theather Huggins remembers what she was doing that same winter night in 1989. Working at a homeless shelter and just a few months out of homelessness herself, she came back to her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and picked through her meager closet in search of something to wear.
“I told my kids, ‘I’m going to meet a princess tomorrow,’ and my 9-year-old said, ‘A real live princess, Mommy?’” Ms. Huggins recalled earlier this month. “‘A real live princess,’ I said. ‘I don’t know if I’m supposed to curtsy or bow.’” She chose a royal blue dress, put her hair in curls and practiced drawing the dress out to the side and dipping her knee.
Season 4 of “The Crown,” the British royal-family historical drama on Netflix that has viewers glued to their couches, features a three-minute cameo from New York City, which is cast as a crumbling capital ravaged by crack, AIDS and homelessness. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
In the season finale, Diana’s February 1989 visit to New York functions mostly as a backdrop for her psychodrama and her unraveling marriage. The princess, played by Emma Corrin, views the solo trip as a test of independence. Her increasingly estranged husband, Prince Charles, portrayed by Josh O’Connor, calls it “an ugly, avaricious piece of self-advancement.”
The official occasion of Diana’s trip was a benefit gala at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Welsh National Opera, which was performing there. But the princess, who had worked back home to raise awareness of AIDS and domestic violence, also wanted to see firsthand how social problems were being addressed here.
Her visits to a shelter and the city’s first neonatal AIDS ward could have come off as tone-deaf — the cloistered royal crossing the pond to gaze down upon the poor.
But for the New Yorkers into whose lives the princess landed, fairy-tale-like, the visit remains an indelible memory, real yet unreal, of a moment of connection.
The princess’s limo cruises down gritty streets and lets her out at a shelter where she meets a young mother, Linda Correa.
The shelter, the Urban Family Center on the Lower East Side, run by the Henry Street Settlement, was believed to be the first in New York to offer homeless families furnished apartments rather than rooms in squalid “welfare hotels” overseen by the city.
Linda Correa died in 1993, but her daughter, Lameca, and son Raamel remembered bomb-sniffing dogs and bodyguards casing their apartment before the princess’s visit.
“My mother was in a competition — cleanest house in the shelter,” recalled Lameca Correa, who was 9 then and now works at a group home in Brooklyn. “She won, and that’s how we were chosen.”
“I had on a blue suit,” said Raamel Correa, who was 7 at the time and now lives in Newark and works at a car dealership. “And a tie if I’m not mistaken.”
His sister said she recognized the princess from TV. “I told her how much I loved her, and she told me she loved me, too.”
At the shelter, Diana met with survivors of domestic violence and with workers who helped residents transition to permanent housing, then toured a day-care center. Verona Middleton-Jeter, who ran the shelter, was struck by how many questions she asked and how focused she was on the answers.
Meeting the princess was “the most exciting thing I think I have ever encountered,” said Ms. Huggins, who is 65 and still works at the Urban Family Center.
“When she reached her hand out for us to shake her hand and I shook her hand, my legs just got weak,” she said.
The limo whisks the princess off to Harlem Hospital, where the director of the pediatric AIDS unit, Margaret Heagarty, tells her the children there cannot find placements in foster homes because of the stigma around the disease.
Diana approaches a young boy in a bed, bends and embraces him.
“She did it spontaneously,” Dr. Heagarty, now retired, recalled recently. “But she also did the human thing. He was 5 or 6 years old, and she just picked him up and hugged him.”
Gwen Elliot-McIntosh was the administrator of the pediatric unit at the hospital. “She was trying to put a human face on this horrible condition we were in,” she said. A photo from that day shows Ms. Elliot-McIntosh presenting the princess with a poster made by her daughter’s third-grade class. “Welcome Princess Diana,” it says next to a butterfly that Ms. Elliot-McIntosh’s daughter had drawn.
The princess returns home to find nothing changed. She hopes the prince will congratulate her for a successful trip. “You think we couldn’t do that too?” he sneers. “Theatrically hug the wretched and the dispossessed and cover ourselves in glory all over the front pages?”
But in New York, the visit resonated.
“From a policy level it was spectacularly good,” said Nancy Wackstein, who worked at the time for Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins as a policy adviser on homelessness and who helped set up the trip to the Urban Family Center. “Many of us were pushing for development of more residences like this to address the homelessness problem,” and the princess’s visit drew positive attention to the effort, she said.
Ms. Elliot-McIntosh’s daughter, the third-grader who drew the butterfly on the poster, grew up to be Eboné M. Carrington, Harlem Hospital’s C.E.O. Ms. Carrington recalled that she found the princess’s simple gesture toward the boy in the AIDS ward inspiring, especially when ignorance about the disease was so widespread among people of all races and ethnicities and people with it were treated so badly.
“Just to be frank,” she said, “this white woman wanted to hold these Black babies that certain Black people wouldn’t hold — it was something that taught me about being a human, and being kind and caring about other people.”
Some of the people who met the princess have seen the show. Ms. Middleton-Jeter of Henry Street Settlement was surprised by how little it matched her memory of the day.
“It didn’t even look like New York,” she said. “When they showed the people on the street, I thought, ‘Ooh, where are these people from?’ I didn’t get a real Lower East Side feel for it.”
There’s a reason for that. The scenes were filmed in Manchester in the north of England. The cast and crew of “The Crown” never set foot in New York.