- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2014



By Peter Conradi

Alma Books/Trafalgar Square, $16.95, 280 pages, illustrated

If it is not quite commonplace for British monarchs to visit the United States these days, it is hard for anyone who hasn’t been collecting Social Security for some time to grasp just how big a deal it was when King George VI and his Queen Consort visited the United States in 1939. Their daughter, Elizabeth II, has made no fewer than four full state visits to this country as queen — not to mention a couple of less-formal forays — but that 1939 trip was the first time a reigning British monarch had set foot on U.S. soil. Add to this that it took place on the eve of World War II, with President Roosevelt and the king (if not his prime minister, Neville Chamberlain) anxious to cement ties between their two nations. Indeed, it was an invitation from FDR that prompted the addition of a U.S. leg to the planned royal coast-to-coast tour of Canada.

British author Peter Conradi wrote “The King’s Speech,” which was made into a movie, about George VI learning to deal with his stammer. So it is not surprising that his intimate knowledge of the king shines through. But he is no slouch when it comes to the queen or to the Roosevelts, so they are by no means eclipsed in the narrative. Indeed, he is sophisticated and sensible in deconstructing the rather complicated extended first family and presenting an accurate yet unsensational picture of the set of menages under the Roosevelt roofs.

What might be termed the stately part of the state visit took place, of course, in Washington, with a garden party at the British Embassy and a formal dinner at the White House, followed by a visit to Congress, where, after shaking 431 hands, “the king was seen walking arm-in-arm with Senator Sol Bloom and exchanging jokes with Vice President [John Nance] Garner.” The arrival ceremony took place on one of those familiar summer Washington days, when formal attire must have been akin to torture, especially in the ornate cocked hat and uniform of an admiral of the fleet: “The sun was shining, and the heat, way above ninety degrees stifling. ‘Wearing Windsor uniform, gold braid with sun on it, in an open car, was almost like the top of a stove,’ noted [Canadian Prime Minister] Mackenzie King. The king turned pale and was later to confide to Roosevelt that he had been worried several times during the journey that he might pass out.”

The royals’ ability to keep their cool impressed all, although the queen struck Eleanor as “a little self-consciously regal” without “a hair out of place or a single crease in her dress.” When you read that strict instructions had been given for hot-water bottles to be placed in the royal White House beds, it seems doubtful that the visitors knew what they were in for.

Despite the historic nature of the Washington state visit and a side trip to the New York World’s Fair, the event that really captured the attention of press and public was the less formal visit to Hyde Park, the Roosevelt family home on the banks of the Hudson in New York’s Dutchess County, that followed. After another day of broiling heat, it is no wonder that the royals opted for FDR’s iced cocktails rather than his mother’s hot tea on arriving at eight o’clock on a still warm evening. This may have proved an icebreaker, since King George and the president stayed up talking until 1:30 a.m. “Why don’t my ministers talk to me as the president did tonight I felt exactly as though a father were giving me his most careful and wise advice.”

Perhaps it was gratitude for this private statecraft that led the king and queen to be such good sports when actually confronted by the hot dogs that the first lady, to the consternation of the more stuffy, had served as typical American picnic fare:

“All eyes were on the royal couple when brought the hot dogs round on a silver tray.

“‘How do I take it?’ asked the King.

“‘Spear it.’

“The King did as he was told and then placed the hot dog in his left hand, covered it liberally with French mustard and placed it in his mouth. The Queen followed suit and then, to the delight of the other diners, both asked for seconds.”

“Hot Dogs and Cocktails” is an enjoyable read and should appeal equally to those well-versed in matters royal and this particular trip and to those finding out about it for the first time. It is particularly recommended for those whose knowledge of the subject comes from that rather unfortunate film, “Hyde Park on the Hudson.” Peter Conradi’s authoritative text will set them straight about just what did happen — and what did not — on those summer days when British royalty came to the Hudson River Valley.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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