Coronation Special

THE GIRL BEHIND THE MASK

The acres of newsprint devoted to making Elizabeth II the most publicized woman of modern times have only covered deeper the real personality of our Queen

PIERRE BERTON June 1 1953
Coronation Special

THE GIRL BEHIND THE MASK

The acres of newsprint devoted to making Elizabeth II the most publicized woman of modern times have only covered deeper the real personality of our Queen

PIERRE BERTON June 1 1953

In 1953, a year after Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, Maclean's ran a series—marking her official coronation—by acclaimed author and historian Pierre Berton, entitled The family in the palace. It’s an intimate portrait of the private and public princess turned Queen. You can read more of the series here.

ELIZABETH II, as all the world knows, is a petite serious-faced girl with a twenty-five-inch waist and golden eyebrows, who can’t stand oysters but likes champagne, doesn’t smoke in public but keeps cigarettes on her desk, prefers canasta to bridge and horse racing to boxing, likes her drapery cherry-red and her note paper bottle-green, enjoys Jane Austen but thinks Dickens rather a bore, is madly in love with her husband and knows how to shake hands at the rate of twelve a minute.

She is also, as these crumbs of personal trivia indicate, the most widely publicized young woman of modern times. Her orbit is as carefully charted as that of the planet Jupiter, and she lives so much within a goldfish bowl that it is difficult to disassociate her private life from her public existence. Yet the two are, in many ways, quite dissimilar.

So much is known about her that is superficial: that she enjoys Li’l Abner, keeps a faithful daily diary, likes to suck on barley sugar, doesn’t like the sea. So much less is known about her that strikes deeper. Long after the ink has dried on the acres of newsprint devoted to her person, the question still remains: what is the girl in the palace really like?

What would she be like if she were subject instead of sovereign? A man who has observed her since childhood recently indulged in this game of makebelieve. She would, he said, have been a country girl, the kind usually described as “horsy.” She would have ridden a lot, always astride, and most of the time she would wear tweedy things. She wouldn’t come into the city a great deal and when she did it would be to see a musical comedy or a vaudeville show or a movie. She would be a lively girl, laughing a good deal, not too interested in style or the arts, surrounded by her own kind of unsophisticated unintellectual upper-middle-class country folk. She would have a large family and be great fun at a party where she would dance all the lively dances with bounce and enthusiasm. She would be matronly and she would be wholesome.

This is not the picture of Elizabeth Windsor that the public sees. The serious, almost prim figure in the modish suits and frocks reading her careful speeches, the austere military form in the sidesaddle at the Trooping ceremony, the dazzling fairy queen at the ballet do not seem to bear much relation to a bouncy country matron in tweeds. It is hard to remember sometimes that this is the same girl who likes to lead a conga line through the palace, dance eightsome reels all night and hum Cole Porter’s Night and Day in her husband’s ear; who loves to stalk deer through Scottish forests, angle for trout in mountain streams, or put five pounds on a horse’s nose at Goodwood; who has learned how to tap dance well, enjoys cowboy movies, especially those starring Gary Cooper, and likes to lean over a piano of a winter evening singing Greensleeves with the gang.

It is almost as if there were two Elizabeths, one public and one private, and this curious double existence was quite apparent to those who traveled with her on the royal train across Canada in 1951. In the privacy of her quarters she was a lively animated girl who rocked with laughter at small talk and cradled a cocktail glass between her hands. But the train would stop and the laughter would die; the talk would cease, the cocktail would vanish, the smile would fade, the shoulders would stiffen and Elizabeth would move resolutely toward the rear platform, exactly, in one observer’s words,''like a soldier coming to attention." Then, the anthem sung, the greeting accepted, the cheers acknowledged and the speech delivered, she would return again to her private world, sink into a couch and double up with mirth at a remark or an incident or a scene that had tickled her.

“I have been trained since childhood never to show emotion in public,” Elizabeth once remarked to a dinner companion, and this is one key to her outward reserve. Infused in the hard metal of her character are those qualities of stoicism and constraint which the British prize so highly. They have always been with her. As a child she was particularly enchanted one day by the quick action of a group of marching sailors, one of whose members fainted. The others simply closed in on either side of him and, without missing a beat, marched the insensible man along with them. At the age of ten she added to her reputation for being able to maintain a poker face when, during a church sermon, a bee settled on the minister’s nose. Those around her stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter. But Elizabeth’s face retained its composure and only the flowers jiggling on her hat revealed her inner mirth. Years later she was inspecting an honor guard of servicewomen when one girl collapsed, almost at her feet. Elizabeth walked on without changing expression.

Her Smile Can Flash Around the World

The cast of her face is of that mold which always appears serious and even a little sullen in repose. It is very like the cast of her late grandmother’s granite features. The brows are heavy and the lips full, and they impart to Elizabeth an especially sombre look. When she smiles she seems to be a different person, but she has not yet got that facility for smiling before crowds which distinguished her mother as Queen. On her Canadian tour Elizabeth phoned her mother from Vancouver. “Are you smiling enough, dear?” the elder Elizabeth asked. “Oh, mother!” came the reply, “I seem to be smiling all the time.” But it is not in her nature to smile all the time in public. When she does the photograph flashes around the world.

Indeed, she sometimes seems to be wearing a mask, and so of necessity she is. It is the iron mask of royalty which those who came before her have worn on public occasions: the peculiarly blank expressionless stare that can be seen in the official portraits, effigies, bas-reliefs, stamps of the nation and coins of the realm. All the members of this emotional Windsor dynasty have worn this emotionless mask. Only occasionally has the frozen guise slipped momentarily to reveal a swift fascinating glimpse of the face behind it.

There is a glimpse of Queen Mary, as a princess, hiding behind pillars at a grand ball and sticking out her foot to trip up passing guests, and there is a later glimpse of her as Queen whistling rowdy music-hall numbers in the corridors of the palace;

There is a glimpse of the newly married Victoria, giggling in delight as she watches her husband shave, and there is a later glimpse of her husband, the decorous and proper Albert, dashing up a hillside at Balmoral to dance a wild witch’s dance around the fires that celebrated victory at Balaclava;

There is a glimpse of Bertie, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, at the age of fifty hiding behind a pillar, the sweat glistening on his terrified brow because he had committed the unpardonable blunder of being late for one of his mother’s affairs;

And there is a glimpse of a later Prince of Wales, dressing up as a waiter, bribing the butler and turning up as a servant at the table of a lady of his acquaintance.

But in public Elizabeth’s forebears have always worn their masks. Victoria hardly changed expression on any of the seven occasions on which her life was threatened by assassination. A Belgian youth once fired a bullet which passed between Edward VII and his Queen during a train journey on the continent, but the King merely glanced up from his newspaper and remarked “Poor fool” in French. When fire broke out at the Indian Durbar of 1911 threatening the lives of hundreds, George V a few yards away did not even turn his head but continued to pin on medals and decorations.

So with her ancestors, so with the new Queen. She wears the family face. It is not that she lacks a woman’s emotions. But her whole background has made her chary of revealing them. “I am not a Hollywood movie star," she told her staff at the outset of her Canadian tour, “and I do not propose to act like one.” Nor did she.

Photo Gallery: Queen Elizabeth II: 23 visits to Canada in 23 photos

To some Canadians this was a puzzling side to Elizabeth’s personality. There was an incident in Calgary when the Dosiettes, a group of little orphanage children skilled in square dancing, put on an exhibition that delighted the royal couple. The plan was that toward the end of the dance two of the smallest children would lead the visitors onto the floor and dance with them. But Elizabeth, when approached about the idea in advance, flatly refused to dance before a crowd. It was reminiscent of an earlier incident in her life when she had been an enthusiastic Girl Guide. She had loved the Guide camp in the daytime, but as night drew on she always had some excuse for returning to the sheltering stone of Windsor Castle. She did not want to undress before the other little girls. Dancing in public to her was rather like undressing; it belonged to the secret world behind the mask.

There was the time in Toronto in the Sick Children’s Hospital when she was to walk past a row of tiny patients laid out for her to see. The photographers reached this vantage point well in advance for here, surely, was an opportunity for a great photograph. The Princess was the mother of two and it was in the cards that she would pick up one of the tiny bodies and cuddle it. The cameras were trained and the crowd waited, but Elizabeth walked down the line as if she were inspecting a rank of guardsmen. For sentiment too is a luxury which must only be indulged in private.

Beyond the gaze of the public eye her grave look melts away. She laughs and cries easily. She rocks when she laughs, throwing her head back and swinging her clasped hands high above her head and down between her knees. She literally dances when she is excited or interested, balancing on her heels and executing two little steps to the left then two to the right. If things don’t go well she can look daggers and tap her foot in fury. Like her forebears she has two swear words which she isn’t afraid to use, “damn” and “bloody.”

In public she sometimes gives the impression of a woman who knows her emotions lie dangerously close to the surface and is therefore all the more determined to keep them in check. In Calgary and Toronto where she was greeted by large numbers of children, those standing close to her noticed her throat muscles tighten, her fingers twist tightly in the straps of her handbag and her eyes cloud up.

There was one moving moment at Government House in Ottawa at the end of the private square-dance party that Lord Alexander held for his royal guests. Elizabeth had been dancing gaily all evening when suddenly, at 11.30, she prepared to go and the band struck up God Save The King. The chatter and the laughter ceased and, in the words of one observer, “a sort of emotional wave swept over the guests.” One man began to sing the words of the anthem and the others took it up. Somebody stole a look at Elizabeth. The mask had slipped and she was starting to cry.

"You Look After Your Empire”

The serious mien which Elizabeth presents to the world is a direct reflection of her attitude to her job. Not long ago she commented tartly on the fact that, after she succeeded to the throne, everybody went around saying that she looked twenty years older. But in her moments of seriousness she has always looked older than her years. She is still, in every sense, the good little girl who used to jump out of bed every night to get her shoes exactly straight and her clothes arranged just so, who insisted on wearing her gas mask for the prescribed period every day during the war as the regulations required and cleaning the eyepiece methodically every evening, and who warned her sister that it wasn’t polite to rush for the tea table at a royal garden party. Responsibility, the heritage of the Coburgs, has always rested with its full weight upon her shoulders.

On the battleship that took them to Africa she and Margaret entertained a group of sailors. A few days later they had occasion to pass the same group again. Elizabeth looked straight ahead of her but Margaret could not resist a smile. “Behave yourself,” Elizabeth whispered sternly. Whereupon Margaret made her famous retort: “You look after your Empire and I’ll look after my life.”

The contrast between the two sisters is not quite as great as it appears to be. Both are fun-loving young women who like jokes and parties and dances and weddings. But the gap widens in public. One has her Empire; the other her own life.

In a sense Elizabeth has from her childhood days played the role of the little mother, alternately leading or pushing her younger sister down a self-prescribed pathway; speaking up for her entry into the Girl Guides at. an earlier age than normal (“She’s very strong, you know. And she loves getting dirty don’t you, Margaret?”), worrying about, her at official ceremonies (“I do hope Margaret won’t disgrace us by falling asleep.”), reproving her with a stern headshake when she started to smile at Zulus dancing their war dance in South Africa. Before her reign is ended she will undoubtedly be thought of as the mother of her country, a stern straight figure rather like Queen Mary, speaking up for her people, reproving them when necessary, and always setting her own example.

Photo Gallery: The many times the Queen graced the cover of Maclean’s

All of her days her temperament has been leavened by a stubborn resolve to do what is right. Is it right to play, Crawfie, with grandfather lying dead? Is it right to be too happy with the terrible war raging across the Channel? Surely it is not right for Margaret to dangle her legs at the solemn moment of Mummy and Daddy’s coronation ! And is it really right to play practical jokes on the gardener? It is fun, of course, but is it right? The round and solemn young face gets quite pink at the thought.

There is more than a trace of Albert of Saxe-Coburg in all this. The serious prince with his methodical ways and his high resolve seems to be standing, ghostlike, over the little girl’s shoulder as she carefully sorts out her pieces of barley sugar into neat piles, each arranged according to size. (Margaret is stuffing hers into her mouth in great sticky handfuls.) The little girl becomes a big girl and, to her first military inspection, she brings the same method that she did to the arrangement of the barley sugar. Here is a Grenadier Guardsman with his belt buckle unpolished! She points it out quite seriously and there is a great flurry and the guardsman goes red and, when it is all over, somebody has to tell her, tactfully, that she doesn’t need to be quite so meticulous on these occasions.

Sidesaddle Was the Right Thing

But Albert’s shade pursues her. She is standing on the bridge of HMCS Crusader on the way from Vancouver to Victoria, talking to the commander. The talk gets around to British Columbia’s national flower, the dogwood. How far do the roots go down? To everybody’s astonishment Elizabeth has the answer. She has looked it up.

For she is a woman who leaves little to chance. In Winnipeg, Canada’s windiest city, a Toronto Star photographer was assigned to get a photograph of her with her hat blowing off. He tried in vain. She had taken the precaution of securing it firmly with a pin. Her handbag, which she carries into banquets, is fitted with a special clip so it can be secured to the table within easy reach and never drop onto the floor. Her lady in waiting is equipped with extra shoes and stockings in case of a run or a loose heel. Elizabeth is a woman who keeps a firm eye on the clock, a royal trait that goes back to the days of Edward VII. In Calgary she suddenly stopped short in the midst of a reception and said firmly: “Now! . . . we must go back to the carriage.” She set off immediately, leaving her husband chatting with the crowd. “Good heavens!” he cried, “where’s my wife got to?” and off he ran to catch her.

One of the most famous pictures of Elizabeth shows her riding erect in the sidesaddle on the occasion of Trooping the Color. This was as studied as her knowledge of the dogwood roots. She practiced for a month in order to do it properly, riding each morning in the Royal Mews and on week ends at Windsor to build up the muscles in the right thigh which are needed to hold the Cameras have followed Elizabeth all her life, hoping for glimpses behind the mask horse. For though it would have been easier, and certainly more pleasant to ride astride, it would not have been the right thing to do.

It would have been pleasant, too, to stay at the radio on the night of the Randy Turpin-Sugar Ray Robinson fight. But again she must do what was right: leave the radio in an early round and welcome dinner guests on her sick father’s behalf and sit pleasantly smiling at the head of the table and wait anxiously until a footman passed her a surreptitious note from her father: “You may relax now. Turpin has won!”

Elizabeth is not a brilliant woman, nor is she required to be, but she can be stubborn and this quality, which is also an ancient family trait, will stand her in better stead as Queen. Sir Henry Marten, the bald savant from Eton who taught her constitutional history, once told her that some of the bright boys over at the school could rattle off the names of all the kings of England together with the dates in so many seconds. Elizabeth determined to better this record, and she did. In her early days as Queen she brought the same stubborn concentration to the state papers set before her. She insisted on reading all of them and asking questions about most of them. The questions were often more searching than her late father’s and there were some ministers of the crown who felt she was taking the whole thing just a little too seriously. But it is not in her nature to treat such matters sloppily or lightly.

In this context it is intriguing to examine her relations with her husband. In private the strong-willed Philip is master. It is he who decides, on vacations at Sandringham or Balmoral, what the family will do. It is he who gives the orders to the servants and looks after domestic details. But on all public matters Elizabeth takes charge and sometimes, when occasion demands it, she overrules him. During the royal tour she was told in Victoria that an Indian princess had come several hundred miles to see her but couldn’t be fitted into the ceremonies. “The Indian princess stuff is out!” snapped Philip. But Elizabeth told him quite firmly that she intended to see her. Later, in Montreal, the mayor approached the couple to explain that a lot of people wanted to shake hands. Philip said there wasn’t any time. Elizabeth turned to him and said, “Philip, I want to shake hands.” And she did. In Greece, in December, 1950, she asked a photographer to come along and record her visit to the Acropolis. Philip, who is not fond of photographers, tried to wave him away, but again Elizabeth intervened. Later she could be heard saying to her husband, a little heatedly, “That may be so, Philip, but it is not my way.” When the couple’s marriage portrait was being painted the artist had trouble getting Philip to pose. He simply didn’t see why he should. Finally Elizabeth put her foot down and told him the portrait had to be done. “You just stand there!” she said to Philip. And he did.

She is just as stubbornly determined never to be a party to any diminution of the ancient dignity of the monarchy. “How is your father, ma’am?” someone in Canada asked her. Elizabeth replied with an icy look. “Are you referring to His Majesty the King?” she asked, and turned away. There is an even more telling story recounted of her first weeks as Queen. During this period a veteran courtier, leaning casually against a mantelpiece, had engaged the new sovereign in conversation. Suddenly the Queen interrupted him. “Are you tired?” she asked. The courtier, puzzled, said he wasn’t. “Are you perhaps ill then?” No, ma’am, certainly not ill. “Then,” said the Queen in a goodhumored voice which showed only a suggestion of mettle, “don’t you think you should stand erect when talking to the sovereign?”

Video: From Canada, with love

Last summer Elizabeth grew furious at press reports that hinted she was pregnant. Several members of the cabinet, including Churchill, were meeting at the palace one day and the Queen in a blazing voice discussed the matter and ended with the command: “I expect these rumors to stop!” It was after this incident that the Prime Minister was credited with the much quoted remark: “She may not be pregnant but she is certainly regnant.” She was equally unmovable a few months ago when she discovered to her annoyance that a silver trophy she was to present in Edinburgh had been inscribed simply “Queen Elizabeth”—a reminder that the Scots do not recognize her earlier namesake. Elizabeth had the trophy shipped back and ordered that the numeral “II” be appended.

And yet she is in no sense an arrogant or a domineering woman. When waiting at the airport to leave for Malta she was quite capable of purchasing a pack of cards and dealing out hands to her staff in a Canasta game. And the personality behind the mask is still that of the shy nervous little girl who had to suck barley sugar to keep her spirits up on her first official inspection. One man, who knows her well, remembers seeing her and Philip driving by carriage to some of their first functions together and, as the carriage drew closer, holding on to one another’s hands so tightly that the knuckles went white. “Elizabeth is not only shy,” says an acquaintance, “but she’s also shy of making other people shy.”

For the first fifteen years of her life she led a confined existence. She was not known to the public and she did not get to know them. As a result until she married she had only a hazy idea of the world beyond the palace and she still has not got the happy facility for official small talk that her husband has. Philip can walk into a room without introduction (as he did in Toronto) and breezily say “Hi!”, then walk up to the nearest girl and remark (as he also did): “Golly—this is a much more attractive audience than the one I’ve just left.” Elizabeth cannot project her personality in this way. In the receiving line she often seems to be trying to think of something to say next and she has a habit of looking away after a gap in the conversation and then turning back and starting in again when a new thought has occurred to her. Once, in Malta, during one of these interludes she said naively: “Well ... I can’t think of anything more to say about that,” and drifted off.

“She’s Anything But Stuffy”

As the years go by these shortcomings will vanish. It was noted that on her Kenya tour she was much more self-possessed than she had been six months previously in Canada. She was more relaxed and she smiled more easily. And in her year on the throne she has already acquired a sureness of manner that is a surprise to some of her ministers. “We thought she’d be pretty stuffy,” one of them remarked not long ago. “She’s anything but.” For she is quick to pick up the gambits of her trade, as her equally shy father was before her. In Winnipeg she arrived at the airport and made an opening remark that had a familiar ring to the RCAF commandant who greeted her. “Everytime I come to an airport there seems to be a terrible wind,” Elizabeth said. It was exactly the same phrase that George VI had used on two similar occasions in the RCAF man’s presence.

Elizabeth cannot yet make extemporaneous speeches and this was again particularly evident during the royal tour of Canada. In the Sunnybrook Hospital for war veterans in Toronto she suddenly realized that she was expected to speak. She did not know what to say until her private secretary, Lieut.Col. Martin Charteris, scribbled a few notes on the back of a cigarette package and handed it to her. In Calgary a microphone was set up for her and the citizens had the impression she would say a few words. But there had been a mix-up and no prepared address was ready. Elizabeth declined to say as much as “hello.” Similarly in Montreal she was supposed to make a few remarks to a group of children announcing a half holiday. Somehow the speech was missing from her purse. Somebody suggested she just tell the children anyway, in French. But Elizabeth found she simply could not do it. On the other hand she reads a prepared speech clearly, if in a rather stilted fashion. She braces herself, looks at her husband, swallows, moistens her lips and plunges ahead. Again one is reminded of the good little girl chosen to read the valedictory speech at the high-school graduation.

The New Fashions Were Frightening

Her speeches are written for her and she does not make many changes in them for she is not a woman who initiates ideas. Once she and Philip visited the London Palladium to watch Danny Kaye, then the idol of England. After the show Philip suggested they go backstage and congratulate Kaye. Elizabeth was quite startled at the suggestion, which she was happy to comply with. It simply had not occurred to her. In her personal tastes she has shown a similar passivity. As a princess she had no strong ideas about furnishing or decorating her room as her sister had. She was quite happy to settle down in surroundings arranged by someone else. Nor, until her marriage, was she in any sense clothes conscious. She has never had any desire to be a fashion leader and although her general attire has become much smarter than it used to be some stylists still shudder at her accessories. Recently Elizabeth attended a fashion show at Claridge’s, looked at the new dresses and commented that “They frighten me!”

Video: What is The Crown?

For she is not a woman whose nature is marked by the extremes of taste and inclination, nor is it proper that she should be. She does not pluck her eyebrows or wear bright varnish on her nails. She would rather foxtrot than rhumba. She knows her Kipling but has no affinity for Gertrude Stein. She can understand horses but she does not pretend to understand Picasso. Exotic foods leave her unmoved: she would rather have roast lamb and green peas. Her disposition is generally pliable and undogmatic. She has few fanaticisms, always excepting the crowning fanaticism with which she approaches her job. In this she is resolute and unswerving. She might prefer the infinitely simpler role of a horsy young woman in country tweeds, but she knows that this is not to be. She knows that in the political climate of her times monarchs who take their duties lightly have been notably unsuccessful. The fat Farouk lost his throne through philandering. The solemn Baudouin weakened his by lying on the beach when the floods wracked his country. Even her own father was criticized when, by an unfortunate coincidence, he chose the bitterly cold winter of 1947 to visit sunny Africa.

Elizabeth has no intention of falling into such pitfalls. The road she must take runs straight as a red carpet without curves or forks. Before its end is reached Elizabeth II may occupy the last throne in the world. But if her will prevails she will not be the last Queen of England.