The author of the bestselling book "The Plantagenets" picks up the story of the English crown where his last book left off. It describes how the longest-reigning British royal family tore itself apart and was replaced by the Tudors.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth will observe her diamond jubilee next month. It’s been sixty years since her father, George the Sixth, died. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary became head of the Commonwealth at age twenty five. During her reign – the longest since Queen Victoria’s – she’s ushered the British monarchy into the modern age. The young princess who never expected to become queen has evolved from working mother to wise grandmother during her reign. Despite heading a sometimes flawed family, Elizabeth’s popularity has survived — even thrived — in recent years. Diane and her guest discuss the life of Britain’s Elizabeth II and the modern monarchy.
- Sally Bedell Smith author
Queen Elizabeth will celebrate 60 years on the throne next month. Only one other British ruler, Queen Victoria, has observed a diamond jubilee. Sally Bedell Smith’s latest biography chronicles the life of Elizabeth II, her legacy and what the future holds for the British monarchy.
Why Do Americans Care About The Monarchy?
“I think that people really have so much respect for her, for the way she has conducted herself now, marking 60 years on the throne, which is quite remarkable and only the second time in 1,000 years,” Bedell Smith said. Bedell Smith also pointed out that Queen Elizabeth II has lived an extraordinary life of service. “She’s extremely hard-working and she has rarely put a foot wrong,” Bedell Smith said.
A Sense Of Duty
Elizabeth became queen at age 25, but even before then, she exhibited a strong sense of duty. Bedell Smith cites one speech she made at age 21 that reportedly caused tears around the country: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it,” Elizabeth said.
The Match: Prince Philip
Bedell Smith said that Elizabeth fell in love with Philip on the first day they spent together at the Dartmouth Naval College, when she was 13 and he was 18. Even at 18, Philip was a “man of the world,” according to Bedell Smith, and very attractive. He was penniless. “But it was a real love match and it turned out they were very well-suited to each other,” Bedell Smith said.
The week of Diana’s death was probably the worst of the queen’s life, Bedell Smith said. She was in Balmoral trying to take care of her grandsons, and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was trying to guide her into being more responsive to the British people, which helped her a great deal and changed the relationship between the two. She eventually came around to the idea of flying the Union Jack at half-mast at Buckingham Palace, which was previously unheard of, but was a significant symbol once she agreed to it. And she did instinctively show a softer side of herself to the public, as when she and Prince Philip unexpectedly got out of their car at the gates of Buckingham Palace to speak to people gathered there who were mourning Diana.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Queen Elizabeth will celebrate 60 years on the throne next month. Only one other British ruler, Queen Victoria, has observed a diamond jubilee. Sally Bedell Smith's latest biography chronicles the life of Elizabeth II, her legacy and what the future holds for the British monarchy.
MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled "Elizabeth the Queen." Sally Bedell Smith joins me in the studio. Good morning to you, Sally. It's good to see you.
MS. SALLY BEDELL SMITHGood morning Diane, it's great to be here.
REHMThank you, Sally. Why do you think it is, or do you think it is that Americans care deeply about the monarchy?
SMITHWell, there's probably something vestigial since long ago we were a colony and I think that we love the tradition and the pomp and the ritual. All you have to do is stand in front of Buckingham Palace at 11 o'clock in the morning and see the people lined up, not only from all over the United States, but from all over the world. But more than that, I think that people really have so much respect for her, for the way she has conducted herself now, marking 60 years on the throne, which is quite remarkable and only the second time in 1,000 years.
SMITHAnd she has been more than a figurehead, but she has been a symbol of the values, I suppose, that we all wish we could live and she has conducted herself admirably through her influence, which is often unseen in dealing with her prime ministers and other high officials in British government.
SMITHShe has also lived an extraordinary life of service so she's set an example and she has rewarded service. She has, over the 60 years, she's given over 400,000 honors to people for exemplary service, civilians and military and she's done that more than 600 times. She's exceedingly hard-working and she has rarely put a foot wrong.
REHMYou know, just by coincidence, over the weekend I watched "The King's Speech"...
REHM...for the third time.
SMITHI'm not surprised.
REHMOf course, these darling young girls, Margaret and her older sister, Elizabeth are portrayed as just absolutely angelic, but young Elizabeth never thought she was going to be Queen. How come?
SMITHWell, I think it was a possibility. It was a remote possibility for a while. There was her grandfather, King George V, died and was succeeded by the Queen's uncle who became King Edward VIII. He was unmarried at the time, had no children, so by definition, she was next in line to the throne because she was the daughter of his younger brother.
SMITHBut it wasn't until he abdicated to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, the twice-divorced American, that her father became king and at age ten, she became heiress presumptive. They always called her heiress presumptive because she wasn't the heir apparent because there was always the possibility that her parents could have a son. In fact, they couldn't because her mother had had two cesarean sections and it was unwise at that time to have a third so she was the one.
SMITHAnd the news was brought by a footman and her younger sister Margaret Rose said, does that mean you're going to be Queen some day? And little princess Lillibet said, yes, it does. And Margaret Rose said, poor you.
REHMPoor you. And of course, George VI died at 56.
SMITHYes, he did. And she did not expect to become Queen at age 25, but that being said, she was very well prepared in a way he had not been. When he became King, he cried to his mother and said, you know, I haven't been prepared for this. I've only been trained to be a naval officer.
REHMAnd as you said, she took the throne at 25. Here is a speech she made at age 21.
QUEEN ELIZABETH III declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.
REHMShe really sounds extraordinary at 21.
SMITHShe was. That was a speech that, like many other speeches, was written for her. But when she read it for the first time, she cried and when people around the world heard her say those words, there were a lot of tears that flowed. Even her quite redoubtable and austere and stoic grandmother, Queen Mary, cried when she heard that. It just gave me goose bumps, to tell you the truth, when I heard it and it was so sincere. I mean, one of the things about her is she never says anything she doesn't mean and she meant every single word of that and it holds up, obviously, with the exception of the imperial part.
SMITHBut she has reiterated that this is a job for life. She's said that over and over again. She took a vow when she went through her coronation on June 2, 1953. She was anointed with holy oil. She became really chosen by God to represent her people and it's something that is deeply embedded in her. She takes it extremely seriously. And her Archbishop, one of her Archbishops of Canterbury, George Carey, came to her in 2003 and said he was about to retire and she said, you know, I can't ever do that. I'm going to carry on to the end.
REHMQuite a statement. Sally Bedell Smith is with me. We're talking about her brand new biography titled "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. You and I both had the honor, you of meeting her, I of having her walk three inches away from me at the British Embassy...
SMITHRight. I remember it well.
REHM...several years ago.
SMITHI remember seeing you in a big hat and with a cast on one of your ankles that you had broken.
REHMExactly, exactly. But you and your husband actually had a conversation with her.
SMITHWe did and it was an eye-opener for me, I have to say. My husband, who agreed to allow me to tell this story because he's somewhat of a comic foil here, but one is not supposed to ask the Queen a question, much less ask her whether she bets at the race track.
SMITHAnd he committed two protocol infractions simultaneously when he said, your Majesty, did you put a wager on "Street Sense" at the Kentucky Derby? That had been the winner and she had just been there last weekend and she absolutely, you know...
REHMShe ignored him.
SMITHWell she just -- well, she ignored the question, but what was interesting there was something about the way he asked the question. And he, in fact, knows a lot about horse racing. He can read a race. When we're watching it on television, I can't figure out what's going on and he said, well, you see that one and that one and that one and she does that. And she sort of twigged on to that. It was a very fast reaction on her part and the two of them replayed the entire race, which was incredibly dramatic. "Street Sense" went from 19th to first.
SMITHAnd what I saw was this animation in her, you know, the sparkling eyes, the gestures, the big smile and she said, I was so surprised there was mud all over the winner. And of course, in the U.K., all their races are run on grass so she's never seen that before and so they had this incredibly, you know, probably only lasted about 30 seconds, but it was the liveliest conversation. And I was -- it sort of assaulted all my preconceptions about this austere, regal, slow-walking woman with her handbag on her arm. And I thought, wow, there's something much more lively at work there.
REHMAnd didn't a conversation turn to something else again?
SMITHWell, that was the essence of that conversation. I had a subsequent conversation with her, which was after I had been working on my biography of her for about a year and I was invited to a reception at St. James Palace in London for the Pilgrims, which is an Anglo-American Fellowship Society. And I was among a group of people who were chosen to be introduced to her and we shook hands and I said it was good to see her again in a sort of Anglo-American setting as I had before at the embassy.
SMITHAnd she said, oh, is that what brought you to London? And I said, well, actually not. My daughter is getting married here in London in a few weeks and she said, oh, when's the wedding? And I said the 4th of July...
REHMWould you like to come?
SMITH...and she -- no, not so presumptuous. I said, oh, it's the 4th of July and she looked at me and she got that little twinkle again. She said, that's a bit dangerous, but that, you know, again, was a little sparkle of liveliness...
SMITH...and wit, you know. She has a very dry wit.
REHMBut here's the question, did you decide to write this biography on the basis of that first meeting?
SMITHI didn't. I was involved in doing some other work at the time and it wasn't until nine months later that the president of Random House invited me to breakfast and we were talking about possible ideas. And she said, what about the Queen? And it took me about a second to say, why wasn't I smart enough to think about that?
REHMSally Bedell Smith and she did think long and hard on her new book "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch." Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMOne of the issues we've already talked about and which Elizabeth herself, at one point, refers to is how little training she really had for the monarchy, Sally.
SMITHWell, she was trained certainly in a far better way than her father had been. Once she became heiress presumptive at age ten, she'd been tutored by various governesses who taught her, you know, English and French and other -- music and things like that. But once she actually was next in line, she went through a pretty rigorous six years of tutoring with Sir Henry Martin who was at Eaton College right down the road from Windsor Castle. And he took her through quite a rigorous curriculum of learning about history and the British Constitution, which is a quite complicated thing to understand.
SMITHAnd there are volumes of these textbooks that she was given. And you can see all of her notes in the margins and things that she underlined that she felt would be important in becoming a Constitutional monarch, the whole notion that her role is to be consulted and to encourage and to warn. And that's a -- you know, she has stuck pretty strictly to that directive in dealing with all of her government ministers.
REHMAnd here is what she had to say about it herself at age 25.
IIIn a way, I didn't have an apprenticeship. My father died much too young and so it was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can. It's a question of maturing and entering something that one's got used to doing and accepting the fact that here you are and it's your fate. 'Cause I think continuity's very important. It is a job for life.
REHMHow old was she (unintelligible) ?
SMITHThat was in 1992 when she was celebrating her 40th year on the throne. And what is also reflected in that is her -- it's not really fatalism, but a couple of people talked to me about her ability to deal with anything that comes her way, anything that's thrown her way. She has an incredible serenity about her and it's rooted partly in experience and partly in her religious faith. And I think she understood this was her destiny and she was going to carry out her duties as best she could and work as hard as she could and she has.
REHMShe also had a strong will, as far as Philip was concerned.
SMITHWell, yes. She fell in love with him when she was 13 years old and he was 18 and on the first day they spent together at the Dartmouth Naval College.
REHMWas this planned?
SMITHWell, it was a little bit engineered by his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten who was very keen to get them together, but it was not planned on her part. She -- he was dashing. I mean, he was an -- if you look at photographs of him, he was like a Nordic god. He was really -- at age 18, he was very much a man of the world. He was a naval cadet at that time. He'd led a very kind of rootless life in Europe because the Greek royal family that he came from had been kicked out and he had lived in Paris and gone to school.
REHMHe didn't have any money.
SMITHHe was penniless, basically. But she fell in love with him and they kind of got to know each other over the years. But it was a real love match and it turns out they were very well suited to each other. They were both committed to service and, you know, he has said, I think on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary -- they've now been married 64 years -- he said that supporting her has been the most important thing he's done in his life.
REHMInteresting that her parents were against the match.
SMITHWell, they were. Her mother wanted her to marry one of the queen -- than princess to marry kind of an English Scottish aristocrat sort of like the queen mother's own family, the Strathmores. The Queen and Prince Philip were actually -- are third cousins. They share the same great-great grandparents...
SMITH...Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. So he was, in a sense, more royal in many ways than she was. But I -- they felt -- there were a lot of people around the then king and queen who were suspicious of him. He was cut from a different cloth. He had independent ideas. The courtiers in Buckingham Palace thought that he might be too much of a force for changing things, which it turned out he was...
SMITH...in a good way. Well, just seeing things -- he was very keen on getting the Queen to adapt to television, for example. When she came to Canada and the United States for the first time in -- what was it? It was her second time in the United States, but it was her first big state visit here. She did a television broadcast in Canada, a live television broadcast of the Canadian people. Then she broadcast her opening of the Canadian Parliament. And Prince Philip was very much an advocate of that.
SMITHAnd the following December she did her first Christmas broadcast on television, which is another one of those moments that you go back and look at again and it's very moving. And he...
SMITH...he taught her how to use a teleprompter, you know, so he was an early adapter in a lot of ways. He was an early adapter to emails and computers. He was big on science and technology. He once said he was the first person to put a microchip on the head.
REHMTwo things, though. He did give up smoking for her.
REHMAnd she refused to take the name of Mountbatten.
SMITHShe did. And that was a source of contention. Right after she became Queen, Churchill was very much for keeping the name Windsor. He was somewhat -- more than somewhat. He was even antagonistic toward Mountbatten who presided over the, you know, the transition of India from a colony to a republic. And even Mountbatten's daughter told me that they all suspected Mountbatten of being slightly pink so, you know, meaning too liberal.
SMITHAnd the queen, out of loyalty to her father and her grandfather who used the name Windsor, wanted to keep it, but Philip was very upset. Even though Mountbatten ironically enough was his mother's name, he didn't really have a surname as Prince Philip of Greece, but he said he felt like an amoeba. He was the only man who could not give his name to his children.
SMITHThat took, you know, ten years later before the birth of their third child, Prince Andrew, she did get her prime minister Harold McMillan and other government ministers to work out a compromise so that the House of Windsor would be still the family name. But all subsequent -- you know, everybody who was not a member of the royal family, subsequent children and grandchildren would be called Mountbatten-Windsor so that mollified in the end.
REHMInteresting. I was fascinated with Paul McCartney's comment...
SMITHI had a brief interview with him. He was very -- he told me some very funny stories. But he said, you know, we were talking about her as a young woman. He said, you know, I grew up thinking she was an absolute babe.
REHMWell, she was beautiful.
SMITHAnd he said, she was beautiful and she was gorgeous. He told me about the first time that the Beatles met the Queen and Prince Philip. It was after some royal variety performance and they were in a receiving line and they were talking. And the Queen said, well, where are you having your next concert? And he said Salou, ma'am. And she said, oh, that's near us. And of course, Salou is this little community right near Windsor Castle. But he said she said it in such an unassuming way, it was like, well, you're just right down the road from Windsor.
REHMYeah, exactly. She has beautiful legs.
SMITHShe does. She -- well, when she was a young woman, Time Magazine called her a pinup beauty. I mean, she wasn't a classic beauty, but she had beautiful skin and beautiful blue eyes. She had a gorgeous figure. Once, the Queen's cousin Patricia Brabourne told me that they were -- the Queen and Prince Philip were spending a weekend with them and John Brabourne said, gosh, Lillibet has the most beautiful skin. And Philip said, yes, she's like that all over, which was a very sort of sexy thing to say, I thought.
REHMAnd this photograph that you have right at the front of it...
REHM...shows a very sexy woman.
SMITHYes. There's an even sexier one which shows her when she and Philip had become engaged, but nobody knew it. And they were keeping it a secret for a while. And she was at the wedding of her cousin Patricia Mountbatten to John Brabourne. And Philip was an usher and she had just arrived and they're standing at the door of the church and she's taking off her fur wrap. And he's looking at her and I just -- you have to look at the picture because it's the most electric glance between the two of them and she's sort of thrusting out her chest and looking at him. And you think, wow, they're really in love with each other.
REHMBut, you know, even at that event at the British Embassy when she passed so close to me, her skin is still gorgeous.
SMITHIt is still gorgeous and I saw it as recently as last spring. And it just...
REHMAnd she's had no work...
SMITHShe's had no work done. One of her early biographers, Elizabeth Longford, made a wonderful observation, which still holds true, that she'd never really -- she's never really done anything to her eyebrows. She has untamed eyebrows. And it's a kind of statement of her commitment to -- obviously, she has to look beautiful, her hair has to look beautiful. She has -- she does her own makeup, by the way, or so she told Annie Leibovitz that as recently as a few years ago when Annie did some photographs of her. So she is, you know, she's very sort of down to earth in that way.
REHMHow many people did you interview for this book? And we should say that the Queen herself was not among them.
SMITHNo. She has this -- she's had a policy for 60 years that's probably been wise, which is not to give interviews. What you played before was a voiceover that she did on her own at the very end of recording that 1992 documentary. But I interviewed over 200 people. I did get the cooperation of Buckingham Palace. And...
SMITHWell, I had some advocates who went -- who knew me and knew my work and said that it would be a fair book. And so by doing that, you know, they were able to tell people who called the palace and say, go ahead, you know, it's all right to talk to her. And they also enabled me to see her in a lot of different settings. I traveled overseas with her to Bermuda and Trinidad. I traveled in the UK. I watched her do an investiture where she gives out these honors that I mentioned earlier. I saw her in the Garter Parade and the Westminster Abby Maundy Service, which was very moving.
SMITHAnd a state visit. I saw her, you know, going through all her paces with the president of Mexico. So there were a lot of things that I saw. And many people close to her, who I interviewed, close friends, close family, people who'd worked with her very closely.
REHMSally Bedell Smith. Her new biography "Elizabeth the Queen." Sally, let me remind folks that they're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about Ireland? Did you travel with her to Ireland?
SMITHI didn't make that trip. She only -- there were only a few British reporters who went along with her, but I followed it very closely. And as David Cameron said the other day, it was a game changer. She was always interested in the problems of Ireland. And she had a personal interest in it, a tragic personal interest, which was because in 1979, the IRA detonated a bomb that killed Louis Mountbatten and several other members of his family. And, you know, an occasion that you might think would've caused bitterness.
SMITHOne really touching thing that I learned was that after that she took one of her grand -- one of Mountbatten's grandsons, who was 14 years old, had been severely injured, his twin had been killed, he had been severely injured. He came out of the hospital. She asked him to come to her Highland Estate in Scotland, Balmoral. He arrived at night and she was there to greet him. She gave him soup and sandwiches and took him to his room and started to unpack his bags and he said it was, you know, the most intense mothering.
SMITHAnd she was, you know, she was able to draw out of him that traumatic experience he hadn't been able to speak of. And I said to him, I said, wasn't she bitter after that? And he said, you know, she experienced all the hurt and shock that you would expect and that she also probably experienced anger and (word?), but that she maintained a very dignified stance. And she recognized that the people of the United Kingdom and Ireland both had wounds. And not only did she say that, but she acted over the years -- if you listen to some of her Christmas broadcasts, which are fascinating because they're personal, she spoke often about reconciliation.
SMITHAnd behind the scenes, I talked to some of the people who were Tony Blair's advisors who were very involved in the, you know, in the Good Friday Accords in 1998. And she took a very keen interest in talking to her prime ministers about the progress of peace and so it was only fitting that she would make what was a historic visit. She was the first British monarch in 100 years to go to Ireland. And she did everything pitch perfect. She wore the right clothes. She, you know, she really -- she honored the Irish who had been killed in all the decades of troubles with Britain.
SMITHAnd in talking to people afterwards and seeing what was read -- what was written at the time, they all said, you know, she made us all feel better about ourselves. It was a remarkable trip.
REHMInteresting, interesting. She had her doubts about Tony Blair.
SMITHWell, she did. She been very scrupulous over the years, I have to say, in keeping her political opinions to herself and particularly not to say anything in public. Although a good friend of hers who visited her often in Scotland said that once he looked -- right after Tony Blair had taken office and she said, you know, I think he might be in the wrong party, which was a little bit cheeky of her.
SMITHBut they had a somewhat fraught beginning because he became prime minister in May of 1997. And two years -- I mean, two months later, Diana died. And that was probably that week after Diana's death that was probably the worst week of the Queen's life. She was up in Balmoral trying to take care of those grandsons. She was doing that mothering and putting it before duty. And Tony Blair was trying to guide her into being more responsive to the British people and helped her a great deal and I think that changed their relationship.
REHMSally Bedell Smith. Her new biography is titled "Elizabeth the Queen." When we come back, your calls, comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Sally Bedell Smith has written many biographies. Her latest is "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch." She's here in the studio with me. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's open the phones and go to Chiefland, Fla. Good morning, Fred.
FREDHi. How are you Diane?
SMITHSame here. I just wanted to put a comment forward. It's like I don't understand the fascination with the monarch anymore. To me, it seems like if they are pompous and it's time for it to go away. And I just was curious. I know they've done a lot of good in the past, don't get me wrong. But I wonder what percentage of the population in England would rather see the money that's spent towards the monarchy to be better used for the public use, would like to see it also go away.
REHMGood question, Fred. What do you think, Sally?
SMITHWell, I'm afraid if you lived in Britain you'd be in a pretty small minority. Since they started taking a poll, sort of measuring approval of the monarchy and the queen in particular, she's had a pretty consistent 80 percent approval rating, which is something that an American president would die for. And I think what is -- you talk about the money. I think you have to put it in the context of what it would cost to elect a president, which would be, you know, a substantial sum.
SMITHBut also, I think there's more recognition than ever of the value of having a non-political head of state who exists to unify the country. I think this is more important than ever. And people recognize that the queen does devote herself to illuminating other people who are serving to serve herself. And believe me, the people who have audiences with her every week recognize the value of being able to talk to somebody who has 60 years worth of insights and information, who has known every world leader, who has traveled every inch of the United Kingdom and probably knows more about the human condition based on her conversations with all the people that she's had over the years. And so people recognize what she can contribute.
REHMTo Phoenix, Ariz. Good morning, Diane.
DIANEGood morning, ladies. I just wanted to say it's a remarkable book, which I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of, about a remarkable woman. I couldn't put it down. I raced through it. Not only...
DIANEWell, not only about the queen, who is a wonderful person, but also about the peripheral members of the royal family. And I wondered out of curiosity -- it was nice to see that you wrote about Princess Diana truthfully, warts and all, which is often glossed over. And I wondered if you encountered much opposition about that.
SMITHWell, I had written a book about her that was published back in 1999. And I have to say, yes, I did, at that time, because I did write honestly about her. And I tried to write fairly about her. So when it came time to write about the queen I think there was, you know, there was a recognition that I had been fair to the royal family and that I had been fair to Charles. And although nobody said anything explicitly to me about that, I think that was probably a plus in my favor.
REHMOf course the movie, "The Queen" portrays the queen as somewhat cold, distant, removed, almost annoyed by Diana's death.
SMITHWell, I think that was dramatic license. And I actually had the great fortune to spend some time with Helen Mirren and talk to her about what she did with the role and also with the screenwriter, Peter Morgan. If you do read the screenplay, you know, everybody who worked on that was a Republican or they didn't have much use for the monarchy, but by the end Helen Mirren said, I've become a queen-ist. And they all had, in a sense, because they developed so much respect for her.
SMITHThe movie itself is a snapshot of one of the worst weeks of the queen's life. I mean, what I've been fortunate to do is write a panorama of her life and it showed her -- I mean, Helen Mirren brilliantly captured some aspects of her character and personality. And even little touches like how she put on her glasses and that sturdy walk that she has. But paradoxically, the way she was in that movie is much more the way she is in public. It didn't show her sort of jolly, lively, private self because she was in the middle of a terribly tragic situation.
SMITHAnd although there was a lot of research that went into that movie, the scenes and much of the dialog were the product of Peter Morgan's imagination and talent. And that...
REHMThe prince doesn’t come off very well.
SMITHThe prince does not come off very well.
SMITHAnd I think it's a little unfair to him and also Robin Janvrin, who was the deputy private secretary who was with her up in Balmoral, was sort of portrayed as a bit of a toady. He, in fact, was one of the most astute advisors around her. And I talked to one of her advisors who was working in London. And of course the critical point came in the middle of the week when the tabloids in particular, and the people were getting very, very angry about the fact that she was still up in Balmoral.
SMITHWell, she was up in Balmoral because she wanted to take care of those grandsons. But she began to see that her behavior was damaging the monarchy and he was the one who was in charge of trying to persuade her to come down early, to make a speech, to make some gestures of compassion that would show that she cared. And Malcolm Ross, who was working at Buckingham Palace to help organize everything, said that the way Janvrin described it to him was that she was sort of metaphorically scratching his face. And that metaphorically, blood was pouring down his face 'cause she was so resistant.
SMITHShe had a tradition. The tradition went back centuries, which is there's a flagpole on top of Buckingham Palace that always flies the royal standard. It never flies at half mast. When the king or the queen dies it comes down and the new royal standard comes up. So there's no such thing as half mast. So she had to come around to the whole notion of flying the Union Jack at half mast for Diana, which she did. And that satisfied, it was a big symbol.
SMITHBut she also did some, you know, some terrific instinctive things, by the way, when she and Phillip arrived at the gates of Buckingham Palace they unexpectedly got out of the car, their staff didn't know -- at least the ones in Buckingham Palace didn't know they were gonna do that. And she walked down and she talked to a line of mourners, a line of women. And there was a little girl who handed her a bouquet. And she said should I put this over here? And she said, no, ma'am, that's for you.
REHMThat's for you.
SMITHAnd then the speech that she gave was very compassionate. It was also -- if you read it and listen to it, it's totally authentic. She does not say anything she doesn't mean. And she gave Diana credit for doing a lot of good things, said there were lessons to be learned both from the way she lived her life and her death. And it was a very effective speech. And of course the next thing that she did was on the morning of Diana's funeral, instead of standing on the balcony at Buckingham Palace that she might have done in previous times, she took her family, went down to the gates and stood there.
SMITHAnd as the coffin went by, pulled by the horses, she bowed. And that was a very significant gesture of respect and honor.
REHMTo Hyattsville, Md. Good morning, Carol.
CAROLWell, good morning. My fondest memory of the queen is from World War II 'cause I'm that old. And I remember the photographs of her working on a truck.
CAROLAnd how impressed I was that the princess was actually working on a truck. Would you please talk a bit about her service during the war?
SMITHWell, she was in Windsor Castle most of the time, but she had -- what fascinated me, she had these experiences where she was put in contact with ordinary people. There was that she had a month-long training with the ATS where she did learn how to drive a two-ton truck, to strip down an engine, to replace a tire, to, you know, change spark plugs, all sorts of things, very practical things. She's a practical-minded person so she enjoyed it.
SMITHBut also, even before that, before she moved to Windsor Castle there were a lot of children and mothers who were sent to houses at Balmoral in anticipation of the bombing of the port. So they were sent from Glasgow. And so she was called upon by her governess to entertain all these people who were very, you know, sort of working-class people, to serve them tea, to talk to them, to comfort them. And then when she moved to Windsor Castle she was in a little Girl Guides group, which was like a Girl Scout group.
SMITHAnd the same kind of thing happened. When the east end of London was bombed a whole bunch of young Cockney girls were sent to live in various houses on the Windsor Castle estate. And they joined her Girl Guides group. And they were very cheeky. Nobody was allowed to call her Lillibet, except her family. Not even her close friends. And they all called her Lillibet. They made her wash dishes in soapy water. They made her, you know, clean up after fires, you know, after their campfires.
SMITHSo, you know, she had these experiences. She had so many experiences in World War II that were atypical. You know everybody thinks that she was kind of living in Windsor Castle and she was separate from everybody else, but she became a commander in the Grenadier Guards and she got to know a lot of servicemen, by the way, who came through. And they would come to dinner, Americans and obviously British, and from other countries. And some of them died. And she wrote very poignant condolence notes to their mothers after she had gotten to know them.
REHMAnd we should say that her parents stayed in London …
SMITHHer parents …
REHM… during the bombing.
SMITHYes. And I think that was a really significant time for her because obviously she loved and admired her parents, but she saw their selfless service in a very dramatic way. They all, for the most part, slept in Windsor Castle, which was very well fortified, but everyday her parents went into London and worked out of Buckingham Palace or they would take the train around the country and buck people up. They went to the East End after it had been bombed. Buckingham Palace was bombed nine times. And there was one moment when they could well have been killed. A bomb came that close. So they were very brave.
REHMSally Bedell Smith. Her new book, "Elizabeth the Queen." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Sarah in Utah writes, "I've read that Queen Elizabeth keeps a journal. I would love to read it," she says. "Imagine the history she's witnessed."
SMITHShe has kept a journal since she was a very little girl. Her mother encouraged her to do so. It is obviously very tightly held.
REHMYeah. I can imagine.
SMITHQueen Victoria of course kept quite a copious journal. The queen was asked about it once and she said, well, you know, it's something I do every night. It's like brushing my teeth. And I talked to many people. I said what do you think is in it, you know. And they said well, because she does have strong opinions and she's a very astute observer so the best guess is that those kinds of observations -- she loves to kind of talk to her prime ministers about the foibles and the habits of other leaders around the world.
SMITHAnd she, you know, I've seen a couple of things she's written, very perceptive things, in one case assessing Kenneth Kaunda, an African leader. And so I would fully expect the journals to have those kinds of perceptive assessments without violating confidentiality. She's very, very vigilant about that. Those audiences that she has with her prime ministers and with judges and with members of the clergy and military, you know, officers, generals are -- nobody else is in the room. And she thinks that the confidentiality in those meetings is very important for her to get information, unvarnished information. And for them to talk openly to somebody. It's almost like a confessional.
REHMThough, she has maintained this dignity, this absolutely praiseworthy stance. Her children haven't fared as well.
SMITHThey haven't. And I suppose the one failing you could say is that she has been a somewhat detached mother. It's partly a result of her reserved nature. She doesn't like to get into confrontations. But I also think that she came to the throne when she was 25 years old. She had a three year old and an 18 month old. And she needed to prove her worthiness as sovereign. And she's a very hard worker. And as a consequence, you know, she was working a lot when she might well have been spending time with her children.
REHMAnd here's a final email, "There's always been talk Elizabeth would eventually abdicate the throne to Charles or William. How likely do you think that is?"
SMITHHighly unlikely. As you heard in the clips earlier, she vowed that her life, whether it be long or short would be dedicated to the service of her people. She said it's a job for life. She said, you know, I can't do that. I'm gonna carry onto the end. And it is because she really genuinely believes that. And there is a line of succession set up. Charles is next in line. William is following him. David Cameron called William and Kate the team of the future. And she has taken a very strong hand.
SMITHI mean, she may have been a little distant from her children, but she's really been involved in William's upbringing.
REHMSally Bedell Smith, her new biography titled, "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch." Congratulations.
SMITHThank you, Diane. It was a pleasure.
REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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