A Q&A With Sally Bedell Smith, Author Of “Elizabeth the Queen”

The Washington-based biographer talks royal yachts, Princess Diana, and why the Queen loves Kentucky.
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Sally Bedell Smith at a party for her new book, Elizabeth the Queen. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

Washington-based biographer Sally Bedell Smith has written books about William S. Paley, Pamela HarrimanPrincess Diana, and the Clinton and Kennedy White House years. With her new book, she circles back to the royal family and goes right to the top. Elizabeth the Queen is being published now, timed to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year. The official Jubilee weekend is in June, and it’s already possible to buy every kind of commemorative knickknack, but this book may be all any Anglophile needs to discover—or rediscover—the woman the American press once called “the little monarch.” It is not an authorized biography, because there will be no authorized biography until after the Queen’s death. But at 663 pages, it covers the landscape of the world’s best-known royal. We caught up with Smith in the midst of a big book launch week to ask about the book, the Queen’s relationship with Washington, and what surprised her during her research.

Plenty has already been published about the royal family and the Queen. So why should people buy your book?

It’s a great historic moment in the Queen’s life. It’s marking her 60th year on the throne, and she’s only the second monarch in a thousand years to hit that milestone. The last one was Queen Victoria. Also, the last biography of her was written about ten years ago. This is an opportunity to step back . . . to part the curtain and show what she’s like as a human being.

How close did you get to her?

Buckingham Palace cooperated with me. That enabled me to see her and Prince Philip up close. I traveled with them to Bermuda and Trinidad, and then I went up to Yorkshire with her on one of her so-called “away” days. I was lucky enough to meet her three times in social settings, once here in Washington and twice in London. The last one, just before the royal wedding, was at a cousin’s and was a relaxed situation. She was just walking around; no one had to introduce her. It was great to see her that way. I saw the sparkle and vivacity that is not so evident in her official role.

Is there a vast difference between the official and the private woman?

She has to be a certain way in her public roles. She has to be dignified, dutiful. She walks slowly, concentrates, and interacts with people in completely professional and appropriate ways. She carries that out extremely well. Behind the scenes she’s very expressive, funny, earthy. She lives her life as a country woman—for example, crawling on her stomach to stalk stags in the highlands.

Did you learn anything that surprised you?

She’s very humble. That was one of the most surprising things about her: a natural modesty that seems almost paradoxical to someone who seems so regal.

The Queen has a long and good relationship with the United States. How many times has she visited the country and, in particular, Washington?

She has been to the US eleven times; five were private holidays. Not every one of those trips included Washington, but several did. Her first time here was 1951, which was her first trip to the US, period. She did a whirlwind of Washington.

It was her second trip that was more memorable?

Yes. The first big state visit was 1957, during the Eisenhower administration. She had a very affectionate relationship with him. He was a friend of her parents. She knew him as the Supreme Allied Commander. What stood out about the trip was that she was so informal in Washington. The people in Britain were reading about the trip and asking, “Why did she have to travel across the ocean to become so real?” It speaks to the degree to which she’s comfortable in this country.

According to your book, she actually got very local and went to a football game and a supermarket. How did that happen?

She wanted to see an American football “match.” It was arranged for her to go to a University of Maryland vs. University of North Carolina game. On the way there, they passed a Giant supermarket, and she said she wanted to see how American women shop. While the Queen and Prince Philip were at the football game, arrangements were made for them to visit the supermarket. She was befuddled by the game, but at the supermarket she walked around, wearing her mink coat, peering in shopping carts, looking at the little seats for children. She loved the frozen pot pies. She’d never seen a supermarket before. They didn’t have them in England yet.

The Giant she visited was in Queenstown, Maryland. Was that just a clever coincidence?

Yes.

On that trip, didn’t she also get out to the Virginia hunt country?

She went to the Mellons’. Paul Mellon was a friend of hers, a fellow breeder, and he had a big racing stable. She had lunch at Paul and Bunny Mellon’s house [in Upperville]. Bunny was so concerned about making sure the flowers would look perfect that she covered them with cheesecloth before the Queen arrived so they wouldn’t fade. She lined up Foxcroft girls along the driveway to wave as she came in. The Queen also inspected a bunch of horses at the Middleburg race track.

Is Kentucky her favorite part of America?

Well, yes. She’s had five private holidays there, working holidays for her because they all revolved around her interest in breeding. She sent a bunch of her mares there starting in the 1970s and increased the number in 1984. People who were with her on those trips said she was very informal in that setting, very relaxed, and didn’t stand on ceremony. People didn’t always have to call her “ma’am.”

Does she still have horses in Kentucky?

She might have a few left, but one thing that happened with the Good Friday Accords in 1998 is that it became possible for her to send horses to Ireland, where they have enormous stud farms now that are producing a number of winners. It’s much more practical for her.

You write about her sadness over the loss of the Royal Yacht Britannia , but now there’s fresh talk of possibly building a new royal yacht.

Losing the royal yacht was very sad for her. It was their floating home, and it was a place where she could really relax. It did serve an important function for the government. They sent the yacht out on all kinds of trade missions. It was decommissioned because they didn’t want to refurbish it. It became politically sensitive. But in the past year there have been people under the radar, trying to put together a nonprofit to build a new one. It would be a “green” royal yacht, a sailing yacht, first of all, and it would be used by the royal family but also the government. [Prime Minister David] Cameron said it’s a wonderful idea if it’s private funding.

Amazingly, we’ve talked all this time and the name Diana has not come up. She doesn’t play a huge role in your book, does she?

It’s about the Queen from the Queen’s perspective. Diana appears. I try to shed some light on the Queen’s view of her and how she felt about her when she first came into the royal family. She was quite open in her acceptance of Diana, but Diana was intimidated by her. One of the most interesting things anybody said to me about the Queen and Diana is that the Queen is the least self-absorbed person and Diana was so self-focused. The Queen couldn’t relate to that.

Does she go into her Diamond Jubilee in a better place than she’s ever been?

Oh, I think so. The people have always admired and respected the Queen. Now she is really beloved. After all these years she has exercised her influence wisely and been a real unifying force above politics. People value that role more than ever.

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