He was 57 years-old, but the grin on his face and the boyish excitement in his heart matched that of a 7 year-old. So impatient was he to get to the train station that he might have asked “Are we there yet?” But, after all, he was the President of the United States and he was about to greet the King and Queen of England.
Never in the history of the Americas had the reigning English sovereigns paid a visit. The initial idea for a royal visit took shape in the summer of 1937, at the coronation of King George VI. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King proposed a Canadian visit, and President Roosevelt sent word that he would be delighted if King George and Queen Elizabeth would add the United States to their itinerary.
Over the next two years war clouds darkened over Europe. When the trip finally came to pass, it had evolved from an international social call into a means of cementing the ties between Britain and America. As Eleanor Roosevelt latter wrote, “My husband invited them to Washington largely because, believing that we all might soon be engaged in a life an death struggle, in which Great Britain would be our first line of defense. He hoped that the visit would creat a bond of friendship between the people of the two countries.”
Arriving in Quebec on May 17, 1939, the King and Queen took Canada by storm; cheering crowds accompanied every appearance. On the evening of June 7, 1939, at 10:37 P.M.,the royal couples blue and silver train crossed to the American side of Niagara Falls. The first British sovereigns to enter the United States were met by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who boarded the train to accompany them to Washington.
The following morning, President Roosevelt wearing a top hat, morning clothes, and a huge smile, waited at Union Station. A little after 11 0’clock the train hissed to a stop, and the King descended the stairs wearing the full-dress uniform of a British admiral. Four 3-inch field guns fired a 21-gun salute, but it was the Queen who captivated the crowd. Time magazine reported, “Elizabeth was the perfect Queen: eyes a snapping blue, chin tilted confidently, two fingers raised in a greeting as girlish as it was regal. Her long-handled parasol seemed out of a story book.”
Secretary Hull stepped up and said “Mr. President, I have the honor to present Their Britannic Majesties.” The President smiled warmly and said, “Well, at last I greet you.” To which the King replied, “Mr. President, it is indeed a pleasure for her Majesty and myself to be here.” The official party boarded the open presidential car and drove slowly through the crowded streets toward the White House.
In her newspaper column, “My Day,” Eleanor Roosevelt reconted the beginning of the evenings festivities. “At 7:45 little Diana Hopkins (presidential advisor Harry Hopkins’ daughter) and I were waiting in the hall for their Majesties to come out of their rooms on their way to the British Embassy for dinner. Diana is a solemn little girl and she was speechless when the King and Queen came down the hall. She made her little curtsey to each one and when they asked her questions she managed to answer, but her eyes never left the Queen. After it was over I said: ‘Diana, did she look as much like the fairy queen as you expected?’ With a little gasp, she said, ‘oh, yes.’ And she did, for the Queen’s spangled tulle dress with her lovely jewels and her tiara in her hair made her seem like some one out of a story book.”
If little Diana was awestruck some others were less taken. Vice-President “Texas Jack” Garner, one of American history’s rawest characters, slapped the King on the back when they met. Later while seated next to the Queen at the State Dinner, Garner exercised, according to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, “No more self-restraint than he would have shown at a church supper at Uvalde, Texas.”
The next day the Royal couple went to New York City, where Mayor La Guardia took them to the World’s Fair. The King and Queen then made a seventy-eight mile drive to the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park, New York. John W. Wheeler-Bennett,author of King George VI, wrote that when they arrived the President had a tray of cocktails waiting. “My mother” the President said, “thinks you should have a cup of tea; she doesn’t approve of cocktails.” “Neither does mine,” replied the King, as he reached for one.
President and King stayed up until well past midnight discussing their plans in the event of war. FDR promised to do what he could, but worried about the strong isolationist feelings of America’s Middle West. According to the King’s notes, written from the conversations, FDR said he would order the U.S. Navy to sink any U-boats encountered in the Western Hemisphere and wait for the consequences.
At 1:30 A.M. the President placed his hand on the young King’s knee and said, “Young man, it’s time for you to go to bed.” The next day they were to enjoy what the New York Times called a “quiet ‘English Sunday’ with the Roosevelts.
The afternoon of that “English Sunday” turned decidedly American with a picnic at which the King ate hot dogs, washed them down with Ruppert’s beer, and went swimming with the President in his pool, both men splashing each other like schoolboys.
After the picnic FDR drove the royal couple back to the house in his specially equipped Ford. (The car had hand operated brakes and accelerator because of the President’s paralysis.) Life magazine reported that someone told Elliot Roosevelt that he thought the King looked “scared of your father’s driving. “Well,” said Elliot, “so am I.”
At 11:10 P.M, the King and Queen ascended the rear platform of their train waving and smiling. The crowd spontaneously broke into “Auld Lang Syne.” FDR waved. Then everyone heard the President’s unmistakeable rich baritone voice shout: “Good luck to you. All the luck in the world.” They would need more than luck. And they would get it from the man who waved them off: The destroyer-bases deal, Lend-Lease, all aid short of war, and finally total war against the common enemy. All of this was in the near future of the 1940s.
In the far distant future of the year 2000, all the major players involved in that happy little summer vacation just before all hell broke loose on the world are dead — save one. The fairy book queen with the snapping blue eyes, born in the final year of Queen Victoria’s reign, would see her oldest daughter ascend to the throne after George VI’s death in 1952, and she would live to celebrate her 100th birthday on August 4, 2000. She is revered and loved by all in Britain and the world as the Queen Mum. Happy Centennial, Queen Mum.