Her Majesty was a pretty nice girl
This probably won’t come as a shocker. But I never met Queen Elizabeth. I came pretty close, though.
She occupied a place of high esteem in our family. That was mostly due to my mother who lived as much in her fantasies as in real life. The Queen, who was less than two years younger than her, helped fuel my mother’s imagination. It started when George VI, the monarch’s father, died unexpectedly in 1952, and Elizabeth’s reign began.
If you’ll allow me to quote from my mother’s diary from February 6th of that year: “King George VI died this morning and now Princess Elizabeth becomes Queen of England. She is twenty-five years old.
“I really feel sorry about his death,” my mother goes on, “he seemed like such a nice person. All the papers are full of this and everyone is talking about it. I am certainly glad that I am not in Elizabeth’s place. You are not free if you are a public figure, you have to be so careful as to what you do and say. Nonetheless, it is quite a thing to be Queen of England.”
Her diary also mentions the Queen’s crowning on June 2nd, 1953. “Today was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and all the newspapers, magazines, radio and television didn’t talk about anything else. Everyone was very interested in it. It was on television but I didn’t even watch it.”
It’s not that she wasn’t interested. She wrote: “I didn’t feel well again all day and last night.” I might have had something to do with it. I was born two weeks later.
When the Queen visited New York in July, 2010, her last visit to the United States, I applied for press credentials. Why? This may sound shallow but I thought it would be cool to see the Queen in person. In a sense, though I don’t think I ever articulated it that way to myself or my mother and frankly never considered it until now, it would have been the fulfillment of her dreams. I’m sure she would have loved to meet the Queen, though she’d have been late because she always was.
The Queen was in town to address the U.N. General Assembly, visit the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and to officially open a memorial garden in Hanover Square in the Financial District to the British victims of the attacks. As a journalist whose beat was New York City it wasn’t unusual for me to request a press credential.
However, it did come as something of a surprise when whoever it was that was organizing the memorial garden visit asked me if I’d be the pool reporter. For those who are unfamiliar with the practice, though I doubt anybody is in our media-saturated age; in an effort to limit press a small number of reporters – in this case only one – is assigned to report on behalf of the entire press corps and share his or her reconnaissance.
If I consider myself a reporter at all, I’m not a very good one. I’m bad with facts and even worse with the spelling of names. But I wasn’t about to suggest they offer the opportunity to anybody else. Adding to the challenge, on the day of the Queen’s visit the temperature soared past one hundred degrees.
But based on personal experience nothing compares to being in somebody’s presence to take their measure, to get a sense of who they are. The non-verbal cues are almost more important than the verbal ones. That’s true even if you’re approximately fifty feet away, the distance of the platform where I was standing when the Queen and Prince Philip arrived in a motorcade of black Suburbans – I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t a Rolls Royce – and she emerged in a turquoise floral print dress with matching hat. She was greeted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and either the British Ambassador to the United States or the British Counsel in New York? Who could I ask?
But the event turned out to be a success from my point of view – not just because nobody in the press corps reported me for malpractice – but because I thought I gained some insight into the Queen. Despite the sweltering heat the then eighty-four year old monarch dutifully greeted approximately one hundred people, some of whom had lost family members on 9/11, never seeming in a hurry, never breaking a sweat, with Prince Philip two steps behind.
Mayor Bloomberg made a brief speech – the Queen offered no remarks – and then she cut a ribbon officially opening the garden, before departing for the airport. The insight I had was that, for all her jewels and castles, being Queen of England is a full-time job. And the monarch did it very well.
I also learned something about Prince Philip from several guests who’d encountered him. He was sometimes criticized for his off-color remarks but those who met him described him as disarming and funny, even randy. Perhaps that helped explain the longevity of their marriage. For all its ups and downs maybe he provided some of the fresh air that was probably in rare supply at Buckingham Palace.
“By the sudden death of my dear father,” the Queen said in a proclamation declaring her reign the day after his death, “I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty.” She went on, “My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all over the world.”
Those weren’t empty words. She meant what she said and lived by them until her final days.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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