Never before have so many people read so much about so little activity by so few people as we all read now about Britain's royal family. Where does it all come from?

BARBARA MOON January 26 1963


Never before have so many people read so much about so little activity by so few people as we all read now about Britain's royal family. Where does it all come from?

BARBARA MOON January 26 1963

THE QUEEN SPENT THIS CHRISTMAS, as usual, at Sandringham.

The Queen's custom is to invite no guests other than her immediate kinsfolk, and to have the estate guarded by private detectives: the habit of her family is to issue forth only to visit the kennels, the stables and nearby St. Mary Magdalene church. The butlers, footmen, valets and housemaids are always bound by ironclad contract, with a loss-of-pension penalty clause, to keep their mouths shut about the household. And, it goes without saying, the royalties present do not give interviews about what they do.

Nevertheless this year—as last—an English writing team, Graham and Heather Fisher, wrote and sold for magazine publication a detailed, circumstantial account of Christmas with the royal family that included such convincing titbits as the fact that Elizabeth II makes Christmas stockings for her children out of her own discarded nylons and that in 1961 she watched the prerecorded telecast of her Christmas message wearing tennis shoes.

The Fishers have never been inside the front door of Sandringham, let alone in the "high-ceilinged main room" and the "long green and red ballroom" they describe. They have never talked to any member of the royal family. They are not even among the tens of thousands of her subjects who have at least been presented to the Queen.

Yet they have been peddling intimate monarchic lore to journals in fourteen countries tor ten years now—to such good effect, as it happens, that in the character of two limited companies they have a corporate annual income recently estimated at a quarter of a million dollars. Which is certainly enough to keep them in newspaper cuttings, tile cabinets, cross-index systems, salaried legmen, inside tips and other aids to the required omniscience.

It is also enough to qualify them as pretty shrewd toilers in one of the most specialized fields of twentieth-century communications: the British Royalty Beat.

It is a catch-as-catch-can field and, like everyone else in it, the Fishers are at the same time typical and unique. They are typical in that they are ingenious, intrepid, patient, thorough, thrifty, secretive, single-minded and unflagging. (The field splits about fifty-fifty on reverence and irreverence. On the whole the Fishers are reverent.) They are unique in their system, which is an improbably total version of what might he called the rainy-day approach.

WHETHER THEY HAVE AN ASSIGNMENT in hand or not they pick the brains of anyone they can think of who has crossed paths with royalty. (In the case of most Fisher informants, any crossing has been at an extremely respectful distance.) Heather, a brazen-haired ex-aircraft worker, ex-entertainer and nonwriter, is, Fisher recently indicated, simpatico. Heather, thus, quizzes the bloke who cleans the royal jewels: the BBC engineer who once helped set up cameras for the Queen’s annual telecast; old Lalla Bill, who nursed George VI as a baby; the retired chef from the royal train and the forestry workers who hang the annual Christmas holly at Sandringham. All the crumbs of information, in memo form, go into the files that now strain four cabinets. On the other hand Graham—a jaunty little man with a jaunty little mustache and a bustling, important manner that he documents with a genuine wristwatch alarm—says people don't open up to him. He therefore docs the more impersonal research and all the writing. The Fishers do things like hanging about at Ascot every year to make notes on what the Queen wears, or spending Christmas morning in Sandringham park to see what time the royal family goes to church. The Fisher staff includes full and part-time scouts charged with doing likewise at other royal seats. The Fisher desk calendar has reminders Iike: Nov. 22. Flat racing ends. Check on Queen’s wins and winnings. The Fisher phone has a tape-recorder attachment, "it's surprising what you can get if you use your loaf," says Fisher briskly. He also hints at "contacts,” but we will come back to that.

The Fishers operate by using files programmed like an IBM machine to yield up royalty units (I Cooked for the Queen: Queen Elizabeth's Floating Palace: When the Queen Entertains for the Fun of It) almost at the touch of a finger.

But other toilers, equally ingenious, intrepid, patient, etc., work the racket other ways. For example, Patrick Montague-Smith, now editor of the Debrett peerage catalogue, closeted himself with genealogical charts immediately upon the announcement of Princess Margaret's engagement and, working some nights till 4 a.m., emerged flushed and triumphant sixteen days later with a scoop: Tony and Margaret were twelfth cousins twice removed. "This is a thrilling discovery,” he said. (A noted anthropologist has said that no two Aryans can be less akin than fourteenth cousins).

Then there are the editors of Life, who posted two lip readers with binoculars across a Maryland football field from the Queen, in 1957, in order to run a full page of authentic, spontaneous conversation in the magazine. There are the photographers with infinite gall, infinite guile—and telephoto lenses. There are the tiny tabulators of the incidence of royal Christian names since Victoria: Albert, 15; Frederick. 6: Dagmar, Sigismund and Joachim, 1 apiece. There are the hard-news reporters on assignment; the title-struck gossip columnists: the purveyors of nonfactual schwärmerei: “That luscious variable mouth on which she plasters glittering lipstick. Those splendid eyes which she will suddenly start to use as deliberately as a motorist leaving on his full headlights. What do all these things add up to?" (Answer: Princess Margaret is a Personality.)

The mind boggles.

THE FACT IS THAT EVERYONE in the world above marginal literacy seems to want inside dope on the British royal family—and the rest want to see new photographs of them. A picturebook of the royal visit did a brisk trade in Tonga a couple of years back. Books on royalty go into seven editions and then into paperback. A hot royalty story like the Princess Margaret-Peter Townsend affair can boost a newspaper's newsstand sale anywhere in the commonwealth or the U. S. by as much as fifty percent. It can do almost as well tor an Italian, German or French paper.

In England, the royalty-writing headquarters, a Dickensian little publishing house called Pitkin Pictorials sold so many in its innocuous series of royalty albums (Princess Margaret’s Wedding Day Keepsake Picture Book, etc.) that it now boasts an incredible distinction: it recently bought itself back from Roy Thomson.

As for the U. S., when two itinerant American writers, Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, glommed on to an expatriate Greek royalist, Madame Anna Foufounis, in Bayswater, and ghostwrote her recollections of Prince Philip as a boy, Look magazine paid so much for the single article plus the Foufounis collection of Brownie snapshots that Madame was able to buy apartment houses in Brighton with her share of the lolly. The friend who'd touted the Plimmers on to her in the first place got enough to make a down payment on a London house and the Plimmers got a comfortable grubstake for the brand-new freelance career they suddenly saw stretching before them. They rented a swank London flat equidistant from Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace and have never looked back. In a single three-month period, for example, they once marketed Philip: Man About the House: Prince Philip: The World's Most Unusual Husband: Prince Philip: The Man Who Married His Boss (two parts), and Philip: Progressive Farmer.

The Plimmers, like the Fishers, have never met the Queen—or Prince Philip either, for that matter.

But that's the fun thing about the Royalty Beat: the principals make themselves about as inaccessible to personal research as the Lady of Shalott.

Princess Margaret did indeed grant what startlingly amounted to a press interview once: at seventeen on her own hook, she invited to tea one Godfrey Winn, a marvelous fluting London scribbler of essays about his mother, other mothers, pets and the monarchy. Winn actually got very little material—though the confrontation alone has apparently qualified him as resident Princess Margaret expert for the past fifteen years. Princess Margaret got a wigging. But no royal personage before or since has permitted himself a similar lapse and so almost the only officially sanctioned information to issue from Buckingham Palace, ever, is the deadpan Court Circular, a formula listing of the royal family’s public activities which is picked up at the palace daily by two gentlemen, one from each of the two British news agencies, and put on the wire to a waiting world.

Still, in spite of protocol, money, loyal friends, sworn servants, private bodyguards, royal reticence and the appointment as palace press secretary of Commander Richard Colville, a man who spent years in the silent service, news and anecdotes keep getting out. Peter Townsend returns privately from Brussels after twenty months and the press already awaits him when he arrives on Princess Margaret's doorstep at Clarence House. The Queen is on a royal tour in Canada and a Paris paper hits the streets with the private news that she is pregnant. Princess Anne dances the twist at a private teenage ball and the London press has it the next day. Princess Margaret, week-ending privately on a country estate, rides pillion on a motorcycle in the grounds and a picture of it is flashed all around the world.

How does it happen?

In all sorts of ways.

TAKE THE CASES CITED. Townsend himself had begun giving interviews to the press—in Brussels—presumably on advice from London to test public reaction. Half the press, therefore, was right on the spot when he left, quietly but not secretly, for England. The other half was standing by in London.

The news of the Queen's pregnancy was confided by Prime Minister Diefenbaker to the French Ambassador, who spilled the beans prematurely in Paris. The band leader at the teenage ball, hoping to see his own name mentioned in the gossip columns, planted the item about Princess Anne. As for the motorcycle picture, that was the result of luck, a shrewd guess and what will be recognizable to connoisseurs as a typical Paris Match exercise, for Paris Match photographers are widely regarded as the second-story men of the press: a skillful, reckless but naughty elite. The magazine's London editor, Serge Lemoine, had long been wanting an off-guard picture of Margaret. He decided his chances would be better it she were out of London, and best of all it she were the house guest of hosts approximating her own age and gaiety. Learning from “contacts" that she and Tony would be visiting the Jeremy Frys (Fry was Tony's first choice of best man) he and photographer Roy Dickens also went week ending, cased the Fry estate, got thrown out by detectives, returned stealthily, affixed their camera—with telescopic lens and remote-control trigger—to a wall overlooking a likely stretch of driveway, retreated to a lookout point and waited all Saturday and Sunday. Late on Sunday afternoon the royal guests emerged right on the chalk mark, so to speak, and they got a shot that out-informalled their wildest hopes.

Such examples do not, of course, begin to exhaust the natural means by which the public may get the lowdown on royalty. Nor does anything except Lemoine's mention of "contacts” hint at some of the far-from-natural means.

To clear away the orthodox methods first: the primary one is resourceful on-the-spot research which—without insensitivity, impertinence or trespass—can often do wonders. One reporter, refused a tour of the public rooms in Buckingham Palace by the press secretary, simply applied a few days later for permission to view the royal philatelic collection, which is housed at a considerable distance from the Privy Purse entrance—the door journalists are shown in through. He saw most of what he wanted to see during the long walk through the corridors. Another reporter, one of the milling host detailed to report Princess Margaret’s wedding, got what amounted to an exclusive story by fastening her eyes on Tony throughout and chronicling his minutest action and change of expression—including a nervous lapse into the old hand game of “Here's the church and here’s the steeple...” while he waited for the service to begin.

This kind of reporting is mostly hard, nonmysterious work.

MISS JOAN REEDER, a sob sister who spent two years working the royalty beat for the Daily Mirror, now looks back on the assignment as “a Kafka-like exercise in frustration."

"You're on call twenty-four hours a day," she says. “You’re asked to check with the palace on every one of the offensive rumors that comes to your editor’s ears. On royal tours you meet deadlines on hands and knees, with the typewriter on the dock. The job’s immensely hard on your feet—you spend seven tenths of your time standing. My pet hates were Ascot and the royal garden parties. You only get one ticket so you're there alone. You’re jostled by crowds. At one garden party the crush was so bad I couldn't even see what the Queen was wearing. Finally I left and went to the call-box at St. James' subway station and rang back to the palace press secretary to find out from him. He hadn’t got close enough to see either. And then there’s your wardrobe. You have to manage to arrive everywhere wearing the appropriate clothes. Covering a state visit to Paris, once, I got an unexpected chance to get right inside the opera house for the command performance. But I hadn't an evening gown. I finally went in my nightgown under my topcoat.”

“Your writing suffers,” she adds reflectively. “I got to hate the word ‘radiant.’”

Miss Reeder found, as have other reporters, that once she was accepted as trustworthy she could count on some unofficial help from the palace press secretary, Colville. Though he would volunteer no information he would confirm and even embellish a story she had dug out for herself and would also give answers to specific written questions—if he considered them seemly. He would, for example, list royalty's taste in books by dead authors but not by live ones, in case the citation were used as a plug.

The easier and more glamorous route to exclusive royalty material is the simple lucky break. Stella King Glenton—now one half of the English royalty-writing team of Stella King and Robert Glenton, but an Evening Standard gossip columnist at the time—found herself in possession of all Antony Armstrong-Jones’ personal and family albums and letters the day his surprise engagement was announced. Armstrong-Jones had approached her somewhat earlier in his career to collaborate with him on his autobiography. He had then cooled towards the project but had never repossessed his documents.

Mr. and Mrs. Glenton were able to scoop everyone else in Fleet Street with a fast fact-packed news story, a Sunday supplement feature, a full-length book, a magazine series which they marketed in England, Canada and the U. S., and a series for worldwide syndication. Needless to say, they both quit their jobs and became full-time freelance royalty-writers.

Are they able to dig up comparably exclusive material now? "We're both lucky," says Mrs. Glenton modestly. "We have a lot of contacts.”

As the quick-witted may suspect by now, there is yet an easier path than Miss Reeder's or the Glentons' to those apparent miracles of omniscience-in-print: it is the public reference library. Royalty-writing in some aspects is a continuous cannibalistic process. The firsthand anecdote that appeared in Mme. Foufounis’ ghostwritten memoirs of Philip strangely reappears in the memoirs of Philip ghostwritten for Queen Alexandra of Jugoslavia. Details from a Canadian reporter's firsthand description of a royal tour turn up thirdhand in a biography of Princess Margaret. In fact dozens of books and hundreds of articles about Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, Tony, the Queen Mum and the kids have been written entirely from old clippings. (This may explain why a number of journalists prefer to use pseudonyms for their royalty-writing. It does not, however, wholly explain why at least three male journalists have felt that the pseudonyms they chose should be feminine.)

Since the archives are vast, memories short and any one reader's range circumscribed, even the authors of these pastiches can end up looking as though they, too, had contacts.

All right then. What about this matter of contacts? Are members of the Queen's household being bribed? Are aristocrats peddling palace scuttlebutt? Are faithful retainers smuggling out stop-the-press bulletins? Are freelance informers infiltrating the House of Windsor?

FOR OBVIOUS REASONS ONLY partial answers are possible. For example the only freelance tipster who's been publicly identified is one Charles Davis, whose photograph appeared three years ago in an English magazine. He was the thin, vaguely Balkan figure with the dark suit, dark fedora and dark mustache lurking in the background while Prince Philip inspected a sausage factory. He seemed to have a notebook in his hand.

Davis apparently sells most of his tips to the Daily Mail's gossip column. He is, however, reported to have claimed selling the story of Princess Margaret's engagement to a French newspaper "but I had the wrong man." On the evidence he is not a very serious threat to palace security. Yet Fleet Street reporters say he is only one of a whole underground army of tipsters, mostly working for the gossip columns, who earn up to £40 a week for scraps of information. They do not say how the scraps are acquired.

At the other end of the scale, only one peer of the realm is even rumored to have forgotten his palace loyalties: in Coronation year the four largest English newspapers were offered a rather bloodless account of what it's like to be the Queen's house guest during the Ascot racing season. It had obviously been written by someone who had once, in fact, been a guest. The price tag was £50. At least one paper bought the account.

As for members of the Queen's household being bribed, there have certainly been attempts. The press secretary himself, Commander Colville, has been approached a number of times. And it is known that Helen Lightbody, Queen Elizabeth's Scottish nurse, has been offered one million dollars for her life story. Both, obviously, turned down the offers and it seems safe to say that no one in a position of trust is trying to make capital of it.

This is not to say that a lady-in-waiting may not be indiscreet at a private party, or an equerry at his club. In fact the consensus seems to be that quite a bit leaks out because of the simple human tendency to gossip and to forget that someone may be eavesdropping—perhaps even a freelance tipster. James Kinross, an ex-guardsman turned literary agent, says crisply, "There are a lot of very queer people, very hard up, knocking about at extremely good clubs." Diplomats, too, have been cited for careless chatter in front of underlings (and—because of their frequent migrations—thereby producing the curious recurrent phenomenon of the American or French or German press scooping Fleet Street with the latest royalty rumor ).

The consensus about palace servants even inside the palace, is that a good many of them are moonlighting as tipsters. (Royal help, too, has turned sulky since the war.) At least one Fleet Street reporter is quite frank about the procedure from his end: "You just go along to their pub behind the palace. The Bag O' Nails, on a Friday night: you buy him a beer and you slip him two quid. For a good tip you'd give him five quid but mostly all he's got is trivial details of redecoration or the Queen's pet corgi made a mistake on the rug that was the gift of King Leopold. Him? Oh, a palace footman, say. If he's got hold of a real bit of scandal, however, he'll bypass you, go straight along to one of the gossip columnists and bargain."

A palace servant caught doing this, of course, stands to lose his job but the information purveyed is usually so innocuous that it's impossible to trace it to a single source.

A good many pound notes are also spread around among the villagers at Windsor when the Queen is in residence, among the farm workers at Sandringham and the gillies recruited locally for the annual shoots at Balmoral. Since they are not on the Queen's full-time payroll they can perhaps be regarded as accepting a modest fee for information, rather than a bribe.

The fee, or bribe, becomes a good deal less modest when the press is on the track of what it regards as a good story. In Prince Charles’ first term at Cheam, offers to the school’s staff for information went as high as £25 per tidbit. At that the reporters weren't thinking big enough: an enterprising chap named Edmund Garner had already planted himself right in the school as a waiter. He worked there from March, 1958 to Christmas, 1959—just long enough to do his research for How I Served Prince Charles of England and Cheam School—and to pinch eleven drawings done by Charles. Then with two English ghost waiters he produced his series with illustrations by the prince, and sold it to magazines in France, Sweden, Italy and Germany, where British copyright laws on the pictures couldn't touch him.

The fact is that, however brisk the belowstairs traffic with the press, the information passed along isn't a quarter so embarrassing and wounding to the royal family as the revelations ex-servants have made over their own names and sold openly to the press. There has been an awful, intimate lot of it.

It started with Marion Crawford, the Scottish woman who was governess to Elizabeth and Margaret for seventeen years and who then wrote a book about her tenure called The Little Princesses (still a standard reference work for royalty-writers). It was a nice, chatty wholesome book but it was the first time in anyone's recollection that a royal employee had taken advantage of a confidential post. Having earned seventy thousand pounds with the first book Miss Crawford compounded her gracelessness by reworking the same material into several more and also by writing a column of knowledgeable royal chitchat in a woman's magazine. She had, however, cut herself off from her raw material. The hazards of this were manifest when, finally, she gave a detailed account of the royal attendance at the Ascot race meet. As it happened, the royal procession which she described was rained out. "Doing a Crawfie" is still a meaningful byword in Fleet Street.

Next in the royal revelations field came John Dean, Philip's ex-valet, F. J. Corbitt, the Queen's ex-deputy comptroller of supply, and, in 1959 William Charles Ellis, ex-superintendent of Windsor Castle. (“I will tell you for the first time: Of the man who probably saved the Queen’s life; Of the way in which Prince Charles overcame his fear of horses; Of the quaint snobbery among the servants; Of the romance of Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend, etc.")

Meantime a new conditions-of-employment contract was being introduced into the Queen’s household. In its first form it pledged the employee to divulge no information for publication during his term of employment. In its revised form (the one now signed by everyone from the Lord Chamberlain down) it pledged the employee for his lifetime.

Ellis, it turned out had made precisely this undertaking. He thus became the first man to be involved in a personal lawsuit with the Queen. After publication of a single installment the Queen's lawyers moved for, and got, a perpetual injunction on Ellis' disclosures.

The next skirmish was the Cronin affair. After Princess Margaret's marriage, the Comptroller of Clarence House hired a butler for her. Thomas Albert Cronin, a purse-faced, silvercrested bachelor, came well qualified. But after twenty-five days he quit and then explained why (he was not given sole charge of the wine cellar and silver pantry: his boss snapped his fingers to summon him) in three installments in a Sunday supplement.

It was a particularly tawdry situation, which was not bettered by the fact that Cronin became a sort of overnight personality. He was surrounded by autograph seekers when he appeared at a youth exhibition in London.

He began getting job offers from all over the world. He went to the U. S. to look into one of them and was invited to appear on the Art Linkletter television show. It was rumored that Bing Crosby wanted to hire him. The handsomest job he was offered was at the Dania Jai Alai Palace in Florida, a five-million-dollar pleasure-dome to which he was to lend a touch of class by buttling in the Royal Box. "He’ll be wearing tails, same as always," said the Jai Alai publicist. "But we want to jazz things up a little so we'll put him in different colored tails every night."

This was the job Cronin took. When he left England he got a celebrity send-off. A Daily Herald reporter happened to notice that one of the men in the crowd was one David Payne, a footman who had also left Princess Margaret's service in short order. Looking for a nice closing touch to his off-to-fame-and-fortune story, the reporter wrote, "Payne must have reflected wryly on their different luck as they shook hands. He is due to make a court appearance today for arrears of maintenance of his wife."

The reporter was wrong. Whatever reflections Payne had they were probably not wry. In less than a month his own royalty revelations, in eight installments, were due to appear in France and Germany (but not in England). Payne had signed a contract similar to the Buckingham Palace one (Cronin had not). The Queen Mother applied for an injunction, which was granted. Foreign publication was halted, the author being liable to English court action.

There has been an even more recent epistle in the royal family's struggle against tattletale hired help.

In May, I960, royalty-writers Graham and Heather Fisher noticed, as they notice everything to do with the palace, that one Ralphe M. White, footman, was leaving Her Majesty's service after eight years. They got in touch with him, as is their wont when they spot a possible source of information. They found him willing, and kindly assisted him in writing The Three Lives of Queen Elizabeth II (three parts) and The World’s Most Famous Grandmother. But, though they announced that he had signed the old contract which forbade disclosure only while he was in royal service, the series has so far appeared only in the U. S. It has not been picked up in England at all.

Furthermore, in spite of the Fishers' skill, experience and infinity of source material, the major revelation in the whole series was that Philip sometimes calls Elizabeth “Sweetie."

Have the royalty-writers exhausted the vein? Is the royal family winning after all? Can it establish its right to happiness and privacy?

I have a contact who might know the answers.