My Other Grandmother: on the Queen
In 1950, Princess Elizabeth’s former governess, Marion Crawford, published The Little Princesses, an account of her years raising Lilibet (the future Queen) and her spirited sister, Margaret. It was, to put it mildly, unauthorized — the royal family never spoke to Crawford again for the rest of her life. The book, published two years before Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, nonetheless offered an extraordinary window into the personality of the two daughters of King George VI. And more to the point, in my family, the book made a huge impression on my grandmother.
My mother was 13 when Marion Crawford’s book appeared. My aunt was 15. My grandmother devoured the book, and provided mama and Aunt Marianna with all sorts of anecdotes about the grace, charm, and spunk of Elizabeth and Margaret. They were such well-mannered girls, according to Crawford, and my grandmother — who valued charm and politeness very highly — wanted to make sure her own daughters looked to the Windsor princesses as role models.
To give one example that made an impression, Crawford noted that Elizabeth and Margaret, despite (or because of) their royal station, were expected to do their own chores. The princesses made their own beds. When the daughters of aristocrats came to play and spend the night, these other girls assumed that life in the palace would mean being waited on hand and foot, and were astonished by the ways in which Elizabeth and Margaret cheerfully did simple tasks for themselves. My grandmother was a member of polite society — and a fairly competent amateur plumber. Grandmother found much to admire in the mix of grace and competence that young Elizabeth exhibited, and regarded her as a kindred spirit. Mama and Aunt Marianna grew a little tired of lectures about the exceptional skills and delightful spirit of Elizabeth and Margaret!
My mother is now 85, her sister, nearly 88. Elizabeth Windsor has been an indelible influence and inspiration on mama and aunt for three-quarters of a century. I too was raised on stories of “the little princesses,” and was shaped, encouraged, and chastened by anecdotes (some no doubt apocryphal) of the Queen’s wit, strength, kindness, and extraordinary sense of duty.
It is very hard to be around people in great pain. The thing about being the Queen is that you are the very person who is required in moments of intense national and personal tragedy. While I too grew up impressed that Her Majesty was a competent Jeep mechanic and a skilled horsewoman, I have always been most moved by the way in which, time and time and time again, she has shown up to hospitals and funerals and wakes, comforting the hurting, the angry, and the utterly desolate. At the heart of what it means to be a gentleman, I was told, was the willingness to meet people in their intense physical or emotional pain, and do what one can to offer consolation, however inadequate. Year after year after year, the Queen did just that. No human being in history has met with more shell-shocked, anguished survivors of tragedy than she. She did not have the magical touch to relieve suffering — but she came anyway, trusting that her willingness to be alongside her subjects at the worst moments of their lives would bring at least a little comfort.
Princess Elizabeth working on a Jeep engine, World War Two
Here’s a video of Her Majesty visiting victims of the Ariana Grande concert bombing in Manchester in 2017; the Queen is 91, almost certainly did not know who Ariana Grande was, but came to chat, to check in, unafraid of the sight of wounded and shattered children. She knew she couldn’t fix anything — but that wasn’t her job. Her job was to be a public witness to pain, to say, “I see you in this awful moment, and I grieve with you.”
Time and again, at the worst moments of my life, I have imagined what the Queen would say if she were with me. I’ve had a thousand Queen Elizabeth dreams, mostly where she comes to me and tells me, almost as an aside, that she knows that everything is very difficult at the moment, and goodness, life really is a challenge, but we each must do our best, and she’s quite sure that if I just ate a little something and washed my face, I’d somehow summon the strength to face even the most unpleasant consequences of my reckless behavior.
I know that some people roll their eyes when those eulogizing the Queen speak of her devotion to duty, her work ethic, and her commitment to service. They don’t believe she ever knew anything of real suffering, and that her almost unimaginable privileges meant that her concept of duty and service has no meaning for us, the ordinary. I know that for me, her determination to “suit up and show up” even in her pain and in later years, her frailty, was not just a personal inspiration — it was a source of strength that I could tap into. “The Queen is tired, and her feet hurt, and she’s shaken so many hands, and her tummy feels funny, and yet… there she is, Hugo, out there comforting and reassuring so many desperate for comfort and reassurance. If she can do that, you can get out of bed on three hours sleep and break down a pallet of bottled water.”
Her Majesty got me to suit up and show up when no one else could. She is without the slightest doubt the most influential person in my life whom I’ve never met.
My father was born in 1935, into a Viennese Jewish family. They were instantly in grave danger when Hitler’s armies annexed Austria in the spring of 1938. My paternal grandmother had the good sense to recognize that they needed to get out, and fast. She pursued every avenue she could, asking for help from Denmark, France, the United States and a half-dozen other places. All refused — except, of course, for Great Britain. Most of the rest of my extended family perished in the Holocaust; my father, his sister and his parents survived, taken in as refugees. Daddy spent his childhood on a farm in rural Oxfordshire, becoming a naturalized British citizen after the war. He never forgot — and his son has not forgotten — that the UK said “Yes” when the rest of the world said, “No.” My family still carry British passports as well as American ones, partly out of a sense that we do not wish to cut all ties to the one place on earth that was willing to welcome us in our hour of most desperate need.
The Queen herself did not save my family. But the government that saved them did so in her father’s name, and she was an outward and visible manifestation of the values of decency, democracy, and welcome that made it possible for my father to survive and grow up. When papa did his duty in the Royal Air Force from 1953-55, he took an oath of loyalty to the Queen. He was a refugee boy of 18 when he made that pledge; daddy has been dead for 16 years. And until just hours ago, that same single figure to whom he swore allegiance so long ago still lived, still representing not just duty and tradition but also an openness to the whole world, a promise of warm reception to the desperate.
I have mentioned here my grandmothers, both long gone now. They each loved the Queen, and I do not think either would be put out if I tell you that Elizabeth was, in so many ways that matter, my third grandmother. Some of that is because of what she said and did; some of that is because for all of my life, since I was a small boy, I have an inner sense of who the Queen was, and what she wanted from me. “He is my strength and my stay,” the Queen once said of her husband; in ways that I am sure I share with at least a few, Her Majesty — both the real and internalized versions — was those things for me.
As a British citizen, I have high hopes for the Third Carolingian Age that has just begun. (The last Charles has always been a favorite of mine, and not just for his patronage of theater or for the dog breed that bears his name). Charles III will, I think, astonish his detractors by proving himself to be more of his mother’s son than many imagine possible. Whatever he does, I predict that the reservoir of good will for the monarchy, built up by his mother over seven decades, will last long after what are sure to be absolutely extraordinary funeral proceedings in the days to come. The monarchy will survive.
My mother’s mother encouraged me to be the sort of person who could go anywhere and be at home, whether at Buckingham Palace or on Skid Row. Citing the royal family, grandmother pointed out that a well-brought-up lady or gentleman is willing to go anywhere and meet with anyone. She liked to imagine that someday, one of us might have occasion to have tea with the Queen. That summons never came for me, but sentiment demands that I imagine that just this very night, my grandmother has at last received that longed-for invitation.
This photo was taken on Tuesday, 48 hours before the Queen’s death. Though she’s about to greet a new prime minister, her smile suggests to me a much grander and more inclusive welcome.
My favorite poem about the Queen comes from Carol Ann Duffy, the former laureate; it was written for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
“The crown translates a woman to a Queen –
endless gold, circling itself, an O like a well,
fathomless, for the years to drown in – history's bride,
anointed, blessed, for a crowning. One head alone
can know its weight, on throne, in pageantry,
and feel it still, in private space, when it's lifted:
not a hollow thing, but a measuring; no halo,
treasure, but a valuing; decades and duty. Time-gifted,
the crown is old light, journeying from skulls of kings
to living Queen.
Its jewels glow, virtues; loyalty's ruby, blood-deep; sapphire's ice resilience; emerald evergreen;
the shy pearl, humility. My whole life, whether it be long
or short, devoted to your service. Not lightly worn.”