Elizabeth The Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, is a biography of one of the most public—and yet most private—people in the world.
Vanity Fair contributor Sally Bedell Smith is the first American author to have special access to Queen Elizabeth's inner circle—from her advisors and ladies-in-waiting to her horse wranglers, corgi trainers, and close friends.
Wednesday on Up to Date, Steve Kraske talks with Sally Bedell Smith about the fascinating life of Queen Elizabeth II, who, from the moment of her ascension to the throne in 1952 at the age of twenty-five, has been the object of unparalleled scrutiny.
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of the bestselling biographies of William S. Paley, Pamela Harriman, Diana, Princess of Wales, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II
A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She was awarded a Sigma Delta Chi Distinguished Service Award for magazine reporting in 1982 and was a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in 1986.
Sally lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, Stephen. They have three grown children.
The following is an excerpt from Elizabeth: The Queen:
A ROYAL EDUCATION
It was a footman who brought the news to ten-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor on December 10, 1936. Her father had become an accidental king just four days before his forty-first birthday when his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Edward VIII had been sovereign only nine months after taking the throne following the death of his father, King George V, making him, according to one mordant joke, "the only monarch in history to abandon the ship of state to sign on as third mate on a Baltimore tramp."
"Does that mean that you will have to be the next queen?" asked Elizabeth's younger sister, Margaret Rose (as she was called in her childhood). "Yes, someday," Elizabeth replied. "Poor you," said Margaret Rose.
Although the two princesses had been the focus of fascination by the press and the public, they had led a carefree and insulated life surrounded by governesses, nannies, maids, dogs, and ponies. They spent idyllic months in the English and Scottish countryside playing games like "catching the days"-running around plucking autumn leaves from the air as they were falling. Their spirited Scottish nanny, Marion "Crawfie" Crawford, had managed to give them a taste of ordinary life by occasionally taking them around London by tube and bus, but mostly they remained inside the royal bubble.
Before the arrival of Margaret, Elizabeth spent four years as an only- and somewhat precocious-child, born on the rainy night of April 21, 1926. Winston Churchill, on first meeting the two-year-old princess, extravagantly detected "an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant." Crawfie noted that she was "neat and methodical . . . like her father," obliging, eager to do her best, and happiest when she was busy. She also showed an early ability to compartmentalize-a trait that would later help her cope with the demands of her position. Recalled Lady Mary Clayton, a cousin eight years her senior: "She liked to imagine herself as a pony or a horse. When she was doing that and someone called her and she didn't answer right away, she would then say, 'I couldn't answer you as a pony.' "
The abdication crisis threw the family into turmoil, not only because it was a scandal but because it was antithetical to all the rules of succession. While Elizabeth's father had been known as "Bertie" (for Albert), he chose to be called George VI to send a message of stability and continuity with his father. (His wife, who was crowned by his side, would be known as Queen Elizabeth.) But Bertie had not been groomed for the role. He was in tears when he talked to his mother about his new responsibilities. "I never wanted this to happen," he told his cousin Lord Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten. "I've never even seen a State Paper. I'm only a Naval Officer, it's the only thing I know about." The new King was reserved by nature, somewhat frail physically, and plagued by anxiety. He suffered from a severe stammer that led to frequent frustration, culminating in explosions of temper known as "gnashes."
Yet he was profoundly dutiful, and he doggedly set about his kingly tasks while ensuring that his little Lilibet-her name within the family-would be ready to succeed him in ways he had not been. On his accession she became "heiress presumptive," rather than "heiress apparent," on the off chance that her parents could produce a son. But Elizabeth and Margaret Rose had been born by cesarean section, and in those days a third operation would have been considered too risky for their mother. According to custom, Lilibet would publicly refer to her mother and father as "the King and Queen," but privately they were still Mummy and Papa.
When Helen Mirren was studying for her role in 2006's The Queen, she watched a twenty-second piece of film repeatedly because she found it so revealing. "It was when the Queen was eleven or twelve," Mirren recalled, "and she got out of one of those huge black cars. There were big men waiting for her, and she extended her hand with a look of gravity and duty. She was doing what she thought she had to do, and she was doing it beautifully."
"I have a feeling that in the end probably that training is the answer to a great many things," the Queen said on the eve of her fortieth year as monarch. "You can do a lot if you are properly trained, and I hope I have been." Her formal education was spotty by today's standards. Women of her class and generation were typically schooled at home, with greater emphasis on the practical than the academic. "It was unheard of for girls to go to university unless they were very intellectual," said Lilibet's cousin Patricia Mountbatten. While Crawfie capably taught history, geography, grammar, literature, poetry, and composition, she was "hopeless at math," said Mary Clayton, who had also been taught by Crawfie. Additional governesses were brought in for instruction in music, dancing, and French.
Elizabeth was not expected to excel, much less to be intellectual. She had no classmates against whom to measure her progress, nor batteries of challenging examinations. Her father's only injunction to Crawfie when she joined the household in 1932 had been to teach his daughters, then six and two, "to write a decent hand." Elizabeth developed flowing and clear handwriting similar to that of her mother and sister, although with a bolder flourish. But Crawfie felt a larger need to fill her charge with knowledge "as fast as I can pour it in." She introduced Lilibet to the Children's Newspaper, a current events chronicle that laid the groundwork for following political news in The Times and on BBC radio, prompting one Palace adviser to observe that at seventeen the princess had "a first-rate knowledge of state and current affairs."
Throughout her girlhood, Elizabeth had time blocked out each day for "silent reading" of books by Stevenson, Austen, Kipling, the Brontës, Tennyson, Scott, Dickens, Trollope, and others in the standard canon. Her preference, then and as an adult, was for historical fiction, particularly about "the corners of the Commonwealth and the people who live there," said Mark Collins, director of the Commonwealth Foundation. Decades later, when she conferred an honor on J. K. Rowling for her Harry Potter series, the Queen told the author that her extensive reading in childhood "stood me in good stead because I read quite quickly now. I have to read a lot."
Once she became first in line to the throne, Elizabeth's curriculum intensified and broadened. Her most significant tutor was Sir Henry Marten, the vice provost of Eton College, the venerable boys' boarding school down the hill from Windsor Castle whose graduates were known as Old Etonians. Marten had coauthored The Groundwork of British History, a standard school textbook, but he was hardly a dry academic. A sixty- six-year-old bachelor with a moon face and gleaming pate, he habitually chewed a corner of his handkerchief and kept a pet raven in a study so heaped with books that Crawfie likened them to stalagmites. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who would serve as Queen Elizabeth II's fourth prime minister, remembered Marten as "a dramatic, racy, enthusiastic teacher" who humanized figures of history.
Beginning in 1939, when Elizabeth was thirteen, she and Crawfie went by carriage to Marten's study twice a week so she could be instructed in history and the intricacies of the British constitution. The princess was exceedingly shy at first, often glancing imploringly at Crawfie for reassurance. Marten could scarcely look Elizabeth in the eye, and he lapsed into calling her "Gentlemen," thinking he was with his Eton boys. But before long she felt "entirely at home with him," recalled Crawfie, and they developed "a rather charming friendship."
Marten imposed a rigorous curriculum built around the daunting three- volume The Law and Custom of the Constitution by Sir William Anson. Also on her reading list were English Social History by G. M. Trevelyan, Imperial Commonwealth by Lord Elton, and The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot, the gold standard for constitutional interpretation that both her father and grandfather had studied. Marten even included a course on American history. "Hide nothing," Sir Alan "Tommy" Lascelles, private secretary to King George VI, had told Marten when asked about instructing the princess on the crown's role in the constitution.
Unlike the written American Constitution, which spells everything out, the British version is an accumulation of laws and unwritten traditions and precedents. It is inherently malleable and dependent on people making judgments, and even revising the rules, as events occur. Anson called it a "somewhat rambling structure . . . like a house which many successive owners have altered." The constitutional monarch's duties and prerogatives are vague. Authority rests more in what the king doesn't do than what he does. The sovereign is compelled by the constitution to sign all laws passed by Parliament; the concept of a veto is unthinkable, but the possibility remains.
Elizabeth studied Anson for six years, painstakingly underlining and annotating the dense text in pencil. According to biographer Robert Lacey, who examined the faded volumes in the Eton library, she took note of Anson's assertion that a more complex constitution offers greater guarantees of liberty. In the description of Anglo-Saxon monarchy as "a consultative and tentative absolutism" she underlined "consultative" and "tentative." Marten schooled her in the process of legislation, and the sweeping nature of Parliament's power. Elizabeth's immersion in the "procedural minutiae" was such that, in Lacey's view, "it was as if she were studying to be Speaker [of the House of Commons], not queen." Prime ministers would later be impressed by the mastery of constitutional fine points in her unexpectedly probing questions.
When Elizabeth turned sixteen, her parents hired Marie-Antoinette de Bellaigue, a sophisticated Belgian vicomtesse educated in Paris, to teach French literature and history. Called "Toni" by the two princesses, she set a high standard and compelled them to speak French with her during meals. Elizabeth developed a fluency that impressed even Parisians, who praised her for speaking with "cool clear precision" on her visit to their city in 1948, at age twenty-two.
De Bellaigue worked in tandem with Marten, who suggested essay topics for Elizabeth to write in French. The governess later recounted that Marten had taught the future Queen "to appraise both sides of a question, thus using [her] judgment." In de Bellaigue's view, Lilibet "had from the beginning a positive good judgment. She had an instinct for the right thing. She was her simple self, 'très naturelle.' And there was always a strong sense of duty mixed with joie de vivre in the pattern of her character."
Elizabeth's mother had an enormous influence on the development of her character and personality. Born Elizabeth Bowes Lyon to the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, she had grown up in an aristocratic Scottish- English family of nine children. In 1929, Time magazine had pronounced her a "fresh, buxom altogether 'jolly' little duchess." She read widely and avidly, with a particular fondness for P. G. Wodehouse. Somewhat improbably, she was also a fan of Damon Runyon's stories about New York gangsters and molls, once writing to a friend in the author's vernacular: "The way that Dame Pearl gets a ripple on, there was a baby for you-Oh boy."
Queen Elizabeth taught her daughter to read at age five and devoted considerable time to reading aloud the children's classics. As soon as Lilibet could write, her mother encouraged her to begin the lifelong habit of recording her impressions in a diary each night. During her father's coronation in 1937, the eleven-year-old princess kept a lively journal, "From Lilibet by Herself." "The arches and beams at the top [of Westminster Abbey] were covered with a sort of haze of wonder as Papa was crowned," she wrote. When her mother was crowned and the white-gloved peeresses put on their coronets simultaneously, "it looked wonderful to see arms and coronets hovering in the air and then the arms disappear as if by magic."
At an early age, Elizabeth's parents began arranging for her to sit for portraits. She would repeat this ritual more than 140 times throughout her life, making her the most painted monarch in history. For the royal family, portraits have long been an essential part of image making, helping to shape the way the public sees its regal icons. When asked if she kept her portraits, the Queen replied, "No, none. They're all painted for other people."
Hungarian Alexius de László, a widely admired society portrait artist, was hired to capture Lilibet in oils for the first time. She was just seven. László found her to be "intelligent and full of character," although he conceded she was "very sleepy and restless." Aristocratic matrons enjoyed the company of the smooth-talking sixty-four-year-old artist, but Elizabeth thought he was "horrid," as she recalled years later with a grimace. "He was one of those people who wanted you to sit permanently looking at you." The resulting ethereal image-a favorite of her mother's-shows the young princess in ruffled silk, with blond curls and wide blue eyes, holding a basket of flowers. Yet her unsmiling expression betrays a whiff of exasperation.
The second artist to capture Elizabeth's image was another Hungarian, sculptor Zsigmond Strobl, who had eighteen sessions with her from 1936 to 1938. She was older, by then the heiress presumptive, and eager to chat with the Hungarian journalist who joined the sittings to help her pass the time in conversation. Being painted or sculpted from life reinforced the virtue of patience. As Queen she would also find her sittings to be an oasis of uncluttered time when she could unwind, connect with a stranger in a private and unthreatening way, speak expansively-sometimes quite personally-and even crack jokes. "It's quite nice," she said during a sitting before her eightieth birthday as she flashed an impish smile. "Usually one just sits, and people can't get at you because one's busy doing nothing."
A favorite topic during the Strobl sculpting sessions was the world of horses, which had become Elizabeth's full-blown passion as well as another opportunity for learning. Her father bred and raced thoroughbreds, continuing a royal tradition, and he introduced her to all aspects of the equine world, starting with her first riding lesson at age three. By 1938 she began learning how to ride sidesaddle, a necessary skill for the yearly Trooping the Colour ceremony celebrating the sovereign's birthday when she would be required to ride in a red military tunic, long navy blue riding skirt, and black tricorn cap at the head of a parade of more than 1,400 soldiers.
Her twice weekly riding lessons helped her develop athleticism and strength and taught her how to keep a cool head in moments of danger. She experienced the uninhibited joy of vaulting fences and cantering across fields and through woodlands-sensations that would temporarily liberate her from the restrictions of her official life. Although she tried foxhunting while in her teens-first with the Garth Foxhounds in Berkshire, then with the Beaufort Hunt in Gloucestershire-she was already captivated by breeding and racing.
Excerpted from Elizabeth the Queen by Sally Bedell Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Sally Bedell Smith. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.