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 fiançay 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.MORE>>
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Their great crisis, and greater opportunity, came when Bertie's brother David, then King Edward VIII, fulfilled his father's prophecy: "That boy will ruin himself in 12 months after I'm gone." Increasingly self-centered and erratic, David became besotted by the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson and seemed almost eager to shed the burdens of the throne, which he abdicated after only 11 months in December 1936. Elizabeth disdained Simpson as predatory; Simpson knew Elizabeth had steel as well as charm just from looking at her eyes: "Why, they went right through you." Shortly after the abdication, though it made her Queen Consort, Elizabeth described Simpson as "the lowest of the low" and is thought to have been influential in denying the new Duchess of Windsor the right to be called Her Royal Highness. By 1987, she was more forgiving. "I didn't hate [Simpson]," she said. "I just felt sorry for her by the end."
Bertie never wanted the crown and was even more distressed because he felt the abdication had imperiled it. His early days as King George VI were miserable. But his stolid sense of duty, coupled with Elizabeth's warmth and shrewd sense of the public mood, turned out to be a potent formula, quickly put to the ultimate test of a world war. As Britain stood alone against the Nazis, the King and Queen played a unifying and morale-building role that more than repaired whatever dent Edward VIII had put in the monarchy. Pressed to evacuate the princesses to Canada during the blitz, Elizabeth refused. "The children could not go without me, I could not possibly leave the King, and the King would never go." She practiced shooting with a rifle and revolver in case the Germans tried to seize the royal family. Six bombs hit Buckingham Palace in September 1940, aimed deliberately by a German plane that roared down the Mall. The King saw it coming and pushed his wife to the floor, after which debris started falling around them. She turned the close call into a source of enduring public affection. "I am glad we have been bombed," she said. "It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."
While the palace mostly abided by food rationing, serving Spam and sugarless cakes on silver plate, the Queen eschewed rationed clothing as she energetically toured factories, slums and blitzed cities. Instead she chose to look like a decorous movie star. She said later: "People stand for hours waiting to see me, even in the rain. They do not want me to look like the mothers in Windsor High Street that would be unfair." She plunged into the crowds too, the first royal to do the "walkabouts" now commonplace. Harold Nicolson, a former diplomat and famous diarist, recorded her wartime visit to Sheffield. "When the car stops, the Queen nips out into the snow and goes straight into the middle of the crowd and starts talking to them. For a moment or two they just gaze and gape in astonishment. But then they all start talking at once. 'Hi! Your Majesty! Look here!' She has that quality of making everybody feel that they and they alone are being spoken to." It was her finest hour, "the hopeless, wonderfully impractical clothes in pastels and in high heels stepping through the debris, but being very practical," says her biographer Ann Morrow. "People of a certain generation will never forget that."
She would never again have the same kind of central public importance. The country reverted to a less demanding peace, and more importantly, her husband's death from lung cancer in 1952 meant the powers of state and the public's attention swung inevitably to another Queen Elizabeth. The Queen Mother searched for a role. She consulted mediums to reach her dead husband. There was a suggestion she go to Canada or Australia for a few years as Governor General. "Oh no," said the young Queen Elizabeth II. "We could not possibly do without Mummy."
So Mummy moved into Clarence House and began a splendid, energetic, half-century "retirement" as a kind of ambassador and national grandmother rolled into one. A tour of the United States to say thank you for wartime help "was a tremendous success," says royal biographer Hugo Vickers. "Manhattan ground to a happy standstill, people came flocking out to see her." For 25 years she was Chancellor of the University of London, delighting in meeting students, going to their dances, drinking rough red wine with them until the small hours. She is patron of some 350 organizations and in her 90th year still managed 118 official engagements. After watching her tour Morley College in 1958, Harold Nicolson observed: "Really, the woodwork, the pottery, and the drawings with which these Morley students occupy themselves in the evening are horrible objects .... [But] she has the astonishing gift of being sincerely interested in dull people and dull occasions." And in sparkling ones: the late poet laureate Ted Hughes read his work at Clarence House, and distinguished lunch partners still get penetrating questions. Recently she took the arm of an old friend and said: "I want to know everything."
She lives in the highest possible style, with 50 servants from footmen to gardeners, ladies' maids to chauffeurs. She is still acquiring horses, her stable having won 440 races as she pursued a passion that has taken her all over the country and led her to install at home the closed-circuit announcing system used by bookmakers to follow results. She spends every penny of the $970,000 the British government provides annually, and many millions of her own or her daughter's besides, on artwork, flowers, her trademark couture and one of the finest tables in London that never skimps on the Hollandaise or the Jersey cream on fresh strawberries. She loves a stiff gin and Dubonnet too or several. "Gin likes her too," says Morrow. "It hasn't the slightest effect on her." The reigning Queen is more abstemious, which has merited some gentle teasing from her mother. Once the Queen asked for a glass of wine at a Clarence House lunch. "Is that wise?" her mother asked. "You know you have to reign all afternoon!"
Or, in the Queen Mum's case, most of a long lifetime. She likes to remain almost "completely oyster" with the press, understanding, like Garbo, that a certain distance can magnify. She permits us to see her sense of fun and style and kindness, so that is what we see. But it's also, in her case, true: you can't get through a century faking it. She is widely loved because she has always been her true self. And that includes, underneath the flouncy hats, a shrewdness and determination that helped deliver the British monarchy into its next century.
With reporting by Helen Gibson/London