Books: Flying Visits: The Queen in California |
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The Queen in California

The Royal Scuba Tour of California began last Saturday with scarcely any rain at all. The clouds over San Diego were full of water, but none of it was actually falling out of the sky as the Britannia edged towards Broadway Pier on the Embarcadero, just along from Anthony’s Fish Grotto.

The surrounding area was heavily populated with members of the Secret Service wearing hearing aids and talking into their sleeves. Less numerous but more cheerful were the citizens of San Diego, some of whom were allowed on to the pier itself, at the end of which an honour guard of sailors and marines drilled with clattering M-14s, while E-9 Master Chief Dye conducted the orchestra and frogmen were under water checking for bombs.

As things were to turn out, the frogmen were the only people appropriately dressed for the upcoming week of official events, but as yet nobody knew that. The American media were in position and fully equipped with Canon 600-45 telefoto lenses the size of garbage-disposal units and microwave dishes aimed at their own relay helicopters, which were up there in the grey sky like benign vultures.

The British media were scantily accoutred by comparison but looked less scruffy than usual. Several of our photographers, though they had not gone so far as to put on a tie, had shaved only a few days before. Relations between the Palace and the British media had been strained by recent events, but with goodwill on both sides the special relationship could still be restored. As for the special relationship with the United States of America, the Queen and President Reagan would take care of that later, on horseback.

A 21-gun salute crashed out as the Britannia tied up. You couldn’t help thinking that all the explosions might be setting a bad example, but out on the water the voices of dissent were limited to one small boat carrying the rubric god save the queen from nuclear attack. This was easily countered on shore by such friendly messages as body beautiful car wash says welcome queen elizabeth. The lady thus addressed carefully negotiated the gangway. Her pearly queen frock was too thin for the weather but the pain-trained royal constitution made light of the discomfort. As for the Duke, he was in naval uniform with fully faded gold braid: very Falklands factor, very stiff upper teeth.

With the Reagans saving themselves up for later, the welcoming committee of lesser dignitaries could be rapidly dealt with. The Royal Couple then climbed into a COMNAVSURPAC Admiral’s barge to inspect the harbour, across which small squalls were skittering as a portent of bigger things. Somewhere out there in the rain sat the aircraft-carrier Ranger, with a single Tomcat parked on deck to indicate American air power. Lunch for the royal party would be served below decks, but first there would be a reception on the Britannia for the media, including the British media, who had all rushed back to the Holiday Inn to pick up their engraved invitations, clean their fingernails and tweeze out those ugly superfluous facial hairs.

This event was a big plus for the British Press. The ground rules were that nothing the Royals said should be quoted, but one of the American radio reporters nastily went on the air straight afterwards and said that the Queen had made a dull remark about the wet weather. Since only the presence of a canvas awning over the deck had saved everybody from being washed into the sea, Her Majesty’s remark was scarcely inappropriate, but that was a minor consideration beside the fact that the American media had made the British look comparatively well behaved.

Brimming with self-righteous fervour, the British Press from then on were Royalists to a man. Although it was too early to say that the Palace and Fleet Street were as one, nevertheless there was a palpable sense that the Brits were all in it together, if only in their native capacity to sneer at, nay revel in, the rain. The Californians, by sharp contrast, were in a panic, having counted on the standard sunshine for a number of alfresco events, culminating in the famous horse ride during which the President, an A-picture leading man at long last, would finally and incontrovertibly get the girl.

On Sunday the Royal Couple lunched in a foursome with Mr and Mrs Walter Annenberg in Palm Springs. In his erstwhile role as US Ambassador to the Court of St James, Mr Annenberg evidently endeared himself to the Monarch through his unique command of the English language, by which his house, when he had the builders in, became a domicile undergoing elements of refurbishment. The Queen must have dug Walter’s act in a big way, since it now cost her a flight and two motorcades in each direction just to get more of it.

Back at the Britannia, which had meanwhile moved north to Long Beach, she changed clothes for the biggest event of the week not counting the hose ride, namely the jumbo dinner in Sound Stage 9 at Twentieth Century-Fox. There was more rain on the way, but her spirits must have undergone elements of refurbishment in Palm Springs, because instead of ordering the Captain of the Britannia to set course for England she voluntarily entered the limousine that would take her to break bread with Marie Osmond, the current Tarzan, the man who used to be Davy Crockett, and at least two of the Gabor sisters.

These and several hundred other guests arrived by limo, stepping out under an awning while the shivering media, under nothing but the wet night sky, took notes and fired flashbulbs. ‘I’ve had the brivilege’ said Henry Kissinger, ‘of meeding the Gween before, bud id’s always a special oggasion.’ The limos being a block long each, it took a while for all the guests to be delivered, even though Chuck Pick, chief executive of Chuck’s Parking, took personal charge of the platoon of carhops unloading the precious cargo. Chuck made up in histrionics for what many of the guests were too old to manage. Fred Astaire was one of the younger luminaries present. Some of them had risen from the grave for the occasion but they had more in common than mere immortality. Gradually it dawned that they were nearly all Republicans. The Democrats were at home, seething. When Nancy Reagan finally welcomed the Royal couple, she was shaking hands with practically the only invitees who hadn’t voted for her husband.

Inside went the Royals with the First Lady attached, leaving the media out in the rain with about a thousand security personnel and the terminally hysterical Chuck. The British media took shelter for the several hours that would elapse before they were allowed in to catch a brief glimpse of the uncrashable bash.

Your reporter found himself huddled under a wooden staircase with a tabloid gossip famous for never having written a sentence both true and literate at the same time, and a photographer who carries an infra-red lens for taking pictures of the Princess of Wales through brick walls at night. I was starting to see things from their point of view. When your subject matter is inside eating, it is not nice to be outside suffering. But when we eventually got inside it became clear that the guests had not been having much fun either.

The royals were seated with the British film-star colony all along one side of a long table up on stage, like a Last Supper painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Before and below them stretched a sea of Americans all staring in their direction. It was a stiffening circumstance in which only Dudley Moore could possibly look cheerful, although Michael Caine was also trying hard. Jane Seymour looked very attractive, which was more than you could say fro Anthony Newley. Rod Stewart, clad in a black and gold John Player Special pants suit, sported an extravaganza hairstyle that left his wife Alana’s coiffure looking like a crew-cut, but facially he resembled an ant-eater who had run out of ants.

The Duke was talking to Julie Andrews. In between the Queen and the First Lady sat Tony Richardson, looking very calm. Later on it emerged that this was because, having not been apprised of the placement until he was about to sit down, he had died of fright.

To have expired was to be fortunate, because the Entertainment now began. Emcee of the Entertainment was Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s straight man. It is conjecturable that Carson would be lost without McMahon, but there can be no doubt that McMahon is lost without Carson, who was not present, having stayed at home because of a wisdom tooth, or perhaps because of wisdom. McMahon introduced Dionne Warwick as a Great Song Stylist. For the benefit of the Queen and other strangers, he explained what a Great Song Stylist was. A Great Song Stylist was someone who was not only a singer with Style, but a stylish singer with greatness.

Ed took so long over the introduction that Dionne felt compelled to deliver an extended set. She was breathtaking if your breath is taken by a display of technique. She clapped her hands and swayed her hips. Gene Kelly, seated just in front of me, did neither of these things. Nor did the Queen, but she evidently quite liked George Burns, the next act on. George also went on too long, but at least he was himself. Frank Sinatra and Perry Como pretended to be Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, doing that endless medley which is a good joke if the previous numbers have been kept short.

The Entertainment had elephantiasis, like the evening in general. When Hollywood gets beyond energy without taste, it arrives at taste without proportion. Perry ruffled his hair to prove that it really grew on top of his head, even if it had started its life somewhere else. ‘You obviously do not adore me,’ Frank sang at the Queen, who if she didn’t nod her head, didn’t shake it either. The big night out was a downer, but it wasn’t her fault. They had put her on display.

In fact she had been had. The evening was a pay-off for Ronald Reagan’s financial backers, who would never have met the stars if the stars had not come to meet the Queen. Buckingham Palace had been hustled into bankrolling the next campaign wagon.

But if the Queen felt manipulated she didn’t show it. The rain was sufficient proof that not even the President could fix everything. It fell all night and on through the next day. Sections of California began dissolving into the sea. Lady Susan Hussey, the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting, packed away the silk frocks and laid out the macintosh, the boots and the sou’wester. If necessary, flippers and breathing apparatus could be flown out from home. It was time for a show of True Brit — the truly British grit not soluble in water. Up in the Sierra Madre at the British Home for old people, the lawn squished like spinach quiche. The media stood in it ankle deep while Her Majesty met an old lady in a wheelchair and received a quilt for Prince William.

The awed Time reporters, all wired up like the Secret Service, talked into one another’s hearing aids through their sleeves, but the Queen had already moved on to the City of Hope Paediatric Hospital, there to be met by the founders, these latter including the inescapable Zsa Zsa Gabor in a royal purple fur coat, taken from a species of animal to which she probably represents the sole source of danger. The hospital had been specially repristinated at a cost of $100,000, much of it spent on the water-based paint which had been carefully applied to the gutters, down which it was now flowing.

On the way north to Santa Barbara next day, busloads of media shone pearly headlights through the solid white rain. The sea was full of mud and far too rough for the Britannia to leave Long Beach. The Queen’s visit to the Rancho el Reagan was still on, but she would have to fly to Santa Barbara instead of sail and there would be no horse ride. It was a cruel disappointment for the British media but having caught the spirit of True Brit from their Monarch they were stoic in adversity. Even Paul Callan of the Mirror, a gossip columnist with the literary sensibility of a vampire bat, had been heard to squeal ‘She is our Queen!’ at some importunate Americans who had tried to get between him and his Sovereign. The Mail’s Peter McKay, compared with whom Callan writes like Congreve, had a moist glint in his tiny eyes which could only be tears of pride, since it was not yet raining inside the bus.

Behind us, the coast road crumbled into the waves and a tornado punched a large hole into downtown L.A. Up ahead at the airport, the President waited inside the Tracor Aviation hangar for the Air Force DC-9 bearing the Royal Party to come sluicing in under its own power. There were several hundred spectators, all chosen by the White House for their Republican views. I was on top of a filing cabinet with a trainee cheer-leader called Tuesday Pflug. A nice girl who had already met the President (‘I have Ronald Reagan germs on my hand!’) she had never even seen a Democrat, except in police bulletins.

The plane pulled ear-splittingly into the hangar, the Reagans glad-handed the Royals, and they all motorcaded off towards the hills past the happily sodden crowds and such signs of greeting as welcome to goleta queen elizabeth garage sale 26,000 items new and used. The American media kept describing the onlookers as subdood but how isn’t subdood when submerged?

The media contingent for the ranch climbed into the assigned ground-clearance vehicles and after a thought-provoking trip up roads like rapids they debussed to discover a specially installed set of outdoor telephones wrapped in polythene. They also discovered that although there was no horse ride, the President had dressed as a cowboy anyway. He looked radiant, like a man who receives a visit from the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Island on the very day that the Dow Jones Index goes up 19 points. Starting to tell the Press all about it, he was cut short by the Queen, who after jeeping 2,400 feet up a mud mountain to eat a plate of re-fried beans might perhaps have begun wondering about the point of it all. Dimly visible through the mist, the backsides of two riderless horses glistened in the adjacent field.

But the Queen and the President had ridden together in England, and if Reagan gets re-elected they will no doubt ride together again. Back went Her Majesty to spend the night in the Britannia, still stuck at Long Beach. Thence next morning she commuted to San Francisco in Air Force Two, the President’s spare Boeing 707, which landed in a plume of jetwash as the drenched media cowered on a flatbed truck. When the Queen stepped down to meet female Mayor Feinstein, the rain magically ceased. ‘She’s smiling!’ cried a local television front person. ‘That’s a first!’

The merry mood intensified when the Queen checked into 46 rooms of the St Francis Hotel, because the media were staying there too, although only in one room each. The American media started interviewing the British media about whether this sort of thing happened very often. The British media, who were getting to like being interviewed, casually suggested that it happened every day. Suddenly all the limelight switched to their star, James Whitaker, who had arrived from London and moved into the studios of San Francisco’s very own KRON-TV. Billed as Royal Reporter James Whitaker, he immediately established a special relationship with KRON’s beautiful anchor-person Jan Rasmusson. ‘Edward VIII,’ he told Jan, ‘was a person who put his own feelings ahead of duty.’ The Queen, he made it clear, wasn’t like that.

Whitaker’s magisterial tone sealed the alliance between the Palace and the British media. Nothing could now keep the San Francisco stopover from being a success, even if the water level at the Alviso sewage treatment plant went over 9 ft and automatically dumped the raw effluent of a million people into the bay.

When the Royals plus Nancy snuck out for a quiet dinner at Trader Vic’s, they found Whitaker already there, talking to the cameras. Next morning there was a show at Symphony Hall that left the Twentieth Century-Fox Entertainment for dead. Tony Bennett sang ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, a song that makes little sense if the singer is actually in San Francisco at the time he sings it, but what the heck.

That night in Golden Gate Park there was a protest rally involving 136 separate organisations, one of which consisted of a bearded man in a lace ball gown, but as the Royals and the Reagans sat down to a State dinner for 250 guests, including Joe DiMaggio, it was clear that the Scuba Tour had turned into a hit. The memories, as they say locally, Will N. Doer.

— March 6, 1983