There’s no doubt that Washington is experiencing a rush of sentimentality as the news spreads of the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. At times in the 1980s it seemed she was as much a part of this side of the pond as the other, since she visited so often and intersected with so many Washingtonians. One of them was Gahl Burt, who met her first when she was deputy chief of protocol and then again as White House social secretary for President and Mrs. Reagan, a period of time that spanned most of the ’80s. Burt’s memories are interesting and often amusing, and while they largely have to do with important matters of state they also include hairdressers, towels, and whiskey.
On Monday, when news broke that Thatcher had died in London at the age of 87, we reached out to Burt, who was on a trip to New York and called us back between appointments. “What I remember best about her,” Burt says of Thatcher, “was she was incredibly tough but at the same time incredibly feminine.” She was the first head of state to pay an official visit to Reagan, making the trip soon after his inauguration. “One of the first things she asked for was a hairdresser.” Burt can’t remember the hairdresser’s name at this point, because he’s long gone, but whoever it was had a salon near the Madison Hotel.
During the visit, as on other visits, Thatcher resided at Blair House with her husband and daughter. “She was very concerned about her husband, making sure Dennis had a good time. He was a groundbreaker in that he was the spouse and a man. We organized golf for him.”
On the other hand, Thatcher had a project for her daughter, Carol. “She instructed her to go out and buy towels for number 10 [Downing Street]. She thought the quality of the towels at number 10 were not very good.” So off Burt went with Carol Thatcher to buy towels for the British prime minister’s official residence.
Burt says the Reagans and the Thatchers were good friends as a foursome, but the President and the Prime Minister had a particular affection for each other. “It was a very warm, almost jokingly friendly, kind of relationship. They connected through limericks. Ronald Reagan was very well read, and because he was Irish he had all these great limericks he would throw out. She howled with laughter. They became ‘Ronnie’ and ‘Maggie’ very quickly.”
Later, after both Reagan and Thatcher had left their jobs as head of state, Burt would see Thatcher at the Palm Springs home of Walter Annenberg, a close friend of Reagan’s. “She loved her whiskey neat, and she could stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning talking about the global economy, talking about Europe.”
While Burt considers the biographical movie The Iron Lady “unfortunate” because she felt it focused “too much on her dementia rather than her life,” she did have praise for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher. “Streep knew Thatcher had gotten elocution lessons so she could finish an entire thought in one breath” so the men could not jump in and interrupt her in political debate. “She captured her tone of voice. She even captured her cadence.”
Later Monday, Nancy Reagan issued a statement from her office: “It is well known that my husband and Lady Thatcher enjoyed a very special relationship as leaders of their respective countries during one of the most difficult and pivotal periods in modern history. Ronnie and Margaret were political soul mates, committed to freedom and resolved to end Communism. Ronnie and I knew her as a dear and trusted friend, and I will miss her. The United States knew Margaret as a spirited and courageous ally, and the world owes her a debt of gratitude.”