She was born when William McKinley was President of the United States and Victoria still ruled the greatest empire in the history of the world. Hitler was 11, Eisenhower 10, Winston Churchill had just been voted into Parliament as a 25-year-old hero of the Boer War. Tony Blair was not even a twinkle in anyone's eye; his father Leo would not show up for another 23 years. Electrons had just been discovered. There were no airplanes or tanks or radio broadcasts, no antibiotics, fewer than 20,000 cars in the whole country. The average British baby born the same day could expect to die before 50.
It has been the bloodiest, most tumultuous of centuries. But the woman born Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as she has been known since the year after her husband King George VI died in 1952, has accomplished the remarkable feat of traversing these turbulent times with a fame and popularity that have not flagged her entire adult life. Her famous wave and upturned hat brims, that tilt of the head and benign smile, her sharp common sense and enthusiasm for people and for life, have turned out to be a crucial bulwark for the House of Windsor and earned her a durable place in modern British history.
That title, Queen Mother, captures some of the opposing forces pulling at royalty in a democratic age: venerated, but domesticated enough to appeal to middle-class virtues; a status that is exalted, but also dependent upon the accident of becoming a king's wife and being able to produce another generation of royal stock. The Queen Mum managed to straddle a 20th-century contradiction that Queen Victoria could not have imagined: how to stay on a pedestal while simultaneously looking like one of us. It is a contortionist's feat, even more remarkable for her skill in making it look inevitable. Her grandson's wife Diana used her own great gifts to similar effect, but could not sustain it; the Queen Mum seemed instinctively to know how to bask in the spotlight - of a gentler media - without burning.
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the first woman not a princess to marry the son of an English king in more than 200 years, but in every way that counted she was no more a commoner than Henry VIII was uxorious. Her family had owned their Scottish estate, Glamis, since 1372; by legend it was the place where Macbeth killed King Duncan. She was the ninth child of the Earl of Strathmore and his engaging, vigorous wife. "Life is for living and working at," read one of the needlework samplers her mother made; and Elizabeth's early years, spent mostly on the family estate in Hertfordshire, combined steady doses of duty with the expansive enjoyment of country pursuits that was the Edwardian ideal. There was a pony called Bobs, pigs, cats, chickens, a garden with weeds to pull, a tennis court and a piano. She would raid the kitchen with her brother to snitch cakes and buns, retreating to the attic of an outbuilding to consume them. In summer she went haymaking and was outside by 6 a.m. When she was 10, a palm-reader reported she would one day be a queen. She was affectionately teased with the nickname "Princess Elizabeth" - and liked it.
Certainly she displayed the aplomb of a monarch. At age three, she reportedly told a workman on the estate: "How do you do, Mr. Ralton. I haven't seen you look so well, not for years and years, but I am sure you will be sorry to know that Lord Strathmore has got the toothache." A classmate from the two years she spent at a fashionable London school - otherwise she was educated at home - wrote how the headmistress came for tea and found that Lady Strathmore was not yet back from an appointment. The nine-year-old Elizabeth stood in for her mom, "rang for tea, poured it out, and made conversation until her mother arrived." She was sharp, too: that same year, already fluent in French, she started an essay on "The Sea" with a Greek quotation. She was told she was showing off.
August 4, 1914, the day the lights went out in Europe as Britain declared war on Germany, was coincidentally Elizabeth's 14th birthday and marked the end of her sunny youth. Her family turned Glamis into a hospital for convalescing soldiers. Too young to join the nursing staff, Elizabeth helped with tending the patients. She would walk a mile into the village to make sure they had candy and cigarettes, write letters for them, serve meals to the bedridden, organize songfests. Thrown in with men of different classes having a tough time, she turned out to be a natural. One Scottish sergeant wrote: "My three weeks at Glamis have been the happiest I ever struck. As for Lady Elizabeth, why, she and my fianšay are as alike as two peas."
When the war ended, she slipped easily into the life of a London debutante. Always a favorite with men, lively and engagingly flirty, she danced with many but caught the eye of a shy naval veteran, Prince Albert, the Duke of York. His father King George V was a martinet who scared his children. His mother Queen Mary was cold and remote, and his older brother David, the future Edward VIII, had charm and movie-star looks that made Bertie feel even worse about his terrible stammer and ponderousness. Elizabeth's easy grace and warmth, and the cheerful conviviality of her family - so unlike his own - were an immediate magnet and he proposed in 1921. "You'll be a lucky fellow if she accepts you," the King told his son.
She refused. Life in the public eye, in the frosty bosom of the Windsors and with a husband who could be maladroit and had fits of rage and agonized depression, did not appeal. But he persisted. Over time his warmth and decency became clearer, and in January 1923 Elizabeth accepted. Their wedding captured worldwide interest as editors began to grasp how to package royalty for a mass market. The fledgling bbc wanted to broadcast the glittering ceremony, but officials of Westminster Abbey refused. "Disrespectful people might hear the service," one said, "perhaps even some of them sitting in public houses with their hats on."
Bertie was handsome and a fine athlete but needed encouragement and confidence. There is no doubt the new Duchess of York strengthened and steadied him. A member of her household later said that Elizabeth "not only had all the courage in the world, she had the power to transmit it to you." She eased Bertie's way with his father, who melted in her presence. She helped her husband with the anti-stuttering breathing exercises that allowed him for the first time to make speeches without embarrassment. Their tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1927, in which her own people skills warmed many surprised republican hearts, was a triumph and a turning point in his career. The country also delighted in their two children, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, whose upbringing was more influenced by the warmth of the Strathmores than the rigidity of the Windsors - though the eight-month-old Elizabeth was left back in London for six months during the Australia tour.