By publicly grieving for Princess Diana, this eternal showman showed us his sensitive side

It can safely be said that no human being has ever turned 50 quite like Elton John.

He arrived at his birthday bash last April in London done up as an Uber-Louis in a white wig topped with a dainty silver ship. The $80,000 outfit included a 15-foot ostrich-feather train toted by two hunks wearing next to nothing. As a mainstay in the quicksilver world of pop, John indeed had a lot to celebrate — and there would be more to come. He would soon embark on a world tour and release a new album, The Big Picture. Total proceeds raised by the five-year-old Elton John AIDS Foundation would hit $13 million. And director Julie Taymor’s stage version of The Lion King, for which John and Tim Rice added four songs to their original movie score, would open to gushing reviews and record-breaking ticket sales. In short, Elton John was not only still standing in 1997 but walking mighty tall.

Yet merely listing John’s accomplishments over the last 12 months is an exercise in irony. For it’s not triumph that we associate with him, but tragedy. He ultimately defined himself not by grandiosity, but by extraordinary grace.

One image remains indelible: Elton John in a sensible black suit, sitting alone at a piano in Westminster Abbey, singing goodbye to England’s Rose. The occasion, of course, was the Sept. 6 funeral of his friend Princess Diana — the same woman who, a month earlier, had comforted him at another funeral for another friend, Gianni Versace. Yet John remained stone-faced, impassively uniting us in grief as his performance of ”Candle in the Wind” (with new, hastily written lyrics by Bernie Taupin) became a key moment of catharsis for much of the world. And while other celebrities capitalized on the Princess’ death to settle their own scores with paparazzi and the tabloids, John set a selfless example. As his recording of ”Candle in the Wind 1997” became the fastest-selling single in history (34 million copies so far), he earmarked all his profits for the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund and vowed never to sing or record it again, out of respect for her children.

Admittedly, such good behavior coming from Elton John is a bit surprising — particularly to the viewers of Tantrums and Tiaras, a candid Cinemax bio-documentary shot by his lover of four years, David Furnish, 35. When it aired on Sept. 3, John was shown to be a man short of temper, enamored of the spoils of his success (the floral arrangements in his homes inspired a coffee- table book this year, Elton John’s Flower Fantasies), and prone to wild mood swings despite declarations of gratitude for his seven years of sobriety. Yet such are the complicated rhythms of his life and persona, which account, at least in part, for his enduring appeal. ”I’m always going to do what I want to do,” he said in Tantrums. By doing what he wanted in 1997, by staying true to his keen instincts as a performer and as a man, Elton John made us appreciate him more than ever.