It is actually shocking that it took me this long to write this Shelved Doll, because I think Elizabeth The Queen Mother, or “Cake” as she was known to her friends, is one of my favorite women of the past hundred years. (I plan to call her Cake for the rest of this piece, so just be ready; it’s because I have decided we’re close personal pals.) She’s not probably someone whom a ton of people who are not me obsess over. For instance, Colin Firth, who played King George VI in The King’s Speech, didn’t even know that George’s wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, was the modern day Queen Mother.
My affection for her may seem surprising because generally the women I fall in love with lived life on a very grand scale. They’re pretty appetitive. For instance, I adore Madame Pompadour because she was very smart, but I also admire her because she stalked King Louis XV through the forest to make him fall in love with her. I love Josephine Baker because of . . . everything. Because she was a spy for France during World War II in addition to being a naked dancer who got her start in the Harlem Renaissance and then adopted 700 children. ( Or 10? I think it was 10.)
You would probably expect that if I were to side with anyone from this period of English history it would be Wallis Simpson, for whom George’s older brother, Edward, abdicated the throne in order to marry. Wallis did weird sex stuff and was maybe a hermaphrodite and thought that “no woman can be too rich or too thin.” She was a snazzy dresser and sounds like a piece of work; generally, in movies, this is how she is portrayed in contrast to my dear friend Cake.
In The King’s Speech, which is really about Bertie (who was Prince Albert before he became King George) and Cake, Wallis Simpson reclines super glamorously in a black evening gown while Bertie becomes King. In W.E. I feel whoever did the costumes made sure that Wallis always wore something fabulous, while Elizabeth was dressed in the most deliberately unflattering way possible. And this is to say nothing of Hyde Park On Hudson where Elizabeth is portrayed as a raving shrew who hates hot dogs and has no sense of the common touch. I think nothing could be further from the truth.
So. Elizabeth was supposedly the daughter of a cook. According to a historian named Lady Colin Campbell and The Daily Mail, this wasn’t that weird:
In the days before antibiotics, child mortality rates were high and sole male heirs stood a good chance of being killed in a war.
As a result, Lady Colin claims it was important that aristocrats left a ‘spare heir or two’, and sometimes enlisted the aid of their domestic staff.
‘The grander the couple, the more likely that there was a serious problem, for great estates were entailed upon the title, meaning that a peer could not leave his property to whom he pleased,’ she said.
‘The aristocracy was filled with horror stories about widows and daughters of great peers living in penury while some distant cousin was lording it over them.’
Lady Colin refers to the time when George VI allegedly took offence to the growing friendship between the young Princess Elizabeth and ‘Little Porchy’, who later became Lord Carnarvon.
According to Lady Colin, the King is alleged to have said: ‘Young Porchester is charming, but there is no possibility of my condoning a union between a daughter of mine and a butler’s son.’
So, it was common.
Wallis Simpson didn’t take kindly to that bit of information, and continually referred to Cake as “Cookie”. She also sometimes called her “The Fat Cook.” This is seemingly different than her “Cake” nickname, which originated when, according to a family friend:
“We were at a wedding. When it was announced that the couple were about to cut the cake, a ceremony she must have seen scores of time, she called out: ‘Oh! The cake!’ ”
They make up simple nicknames really easily in England.
Cake was, as you would expect, from the British upper class. She was born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon in 1900, the youngest daughter and ninth of ten children of Lord Glamis. Unlike a lot of the stories you hear about women trying desperately to marry royalty – I am thinking of Harry Hunters in England right now – Elizabeth was reluctant to do so.
And Prince Albert wasn’t really a Casanova. (The opposite can be said of his brother, Edward, who was known for having several mistresses even before Wallis Simpson.) Bertie had a debilitating stammer, and lost his virginity at the age of 22 to a woman who his brother claimed was a “lady of the evening.” He also spent his youth infatuated with a musical comedienne called Evelyn Laye, who was nicknamed “Boo.”
I just want to take a moment to think about how one gets a nickname like “Boo.” For instance, I would love it if you started calling me “Boo.” I would think that was really special. But you’re not going to, are you? Of course you’re not. I mean, you’re not going to do that unless you’re a ghost.
He came backstage clutching the most beautiful bouquet and he paid me the loveliest compliment I have ever received. ‘Miss Laye,’ he said, and he struggled to get the words out because of that cruel stammer, ‘I would really like to invite you out to supper, but if I did that, there would be gossip and publicity. Your people wouldn’t like that and neither would mine.
Their’s was not a fairy tale romance by any means.
The mere fact that Bertie appeared to be interested in any woman was enough to make the Royal Family take notice, and they began attempting to find him a suitable bride. One like . . . Elizabeth.
Except that she really, really did not want to marry into royalty.
Besides which, when she was first introduced to Bertie, she was having an on-again-off-again romance with Captain James Stuart. But she fell in love with him. He proposed to her in 1921 and, supposedly weeping, she replied that she could never marry him because she was “afraid never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.”
Queen Mary visited her soon thereafter and proclaimed that dear Cake was the one woman who could ever make Bertie truly happy. She then promptly exiled James Stuart to Oklahoma. I don’t think that was strictly necessary, but I guess it should be a warning to all of us about getting involved with any member of British aristocracy.
So, Bertie proposed again in 1922 and Elizabeth reiterated her father’s notion that none of his children should have any post at court.
In 1923, she finally broke down. She married him.
In an impromptu, unplanned gesture – which is the kind of thing that makes me really, really love Cake – on her way out of Westminster Abbey after her wedding, she laid her wedding bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in memory of her brother and all the men who had died in World War I. Her family’s estate had been used a hospital for soldiers – JUST LIKE IN DOWNTON ABBEY – and she had spent much of her teen years writing letters for wounded servicemen and playing games of cards with them.
Of course, this lovely gesture received no publicity at the time because the press barely covered the royal wedding. It certainly wasn’t aired on the news because of concern that “disrespectful people might hear it whilst sitting in public houses with their hats on.”
It is astonishing to me that there was ever a time when that is the way things were done. Astonishing and fantastic.
And the couple was very happy! For a few years. Though they were both somewhat retiring by nature, his family claimed that Bertie was much stronger and more forceful with Elizabeth to support him. They became parents to Elizabeth (the current Queen) in 1926 and then to Princess Margaret in 1930. And all seemed very well! This was around the time that Albert/George found a therapist to help with his speech impediment so that he could speak on radio and at public presentations. And at this point, we can all take a brief break to watch The King’s Speech.
And then in 1937, King Edward abdicated, so he could go marry Wallis Simpson. Some critics say that my friend Cake mysteriously orchestrated all the drama so that Bertie and she could be King and Queen. This theory seems to fly in the face of the fact that she kept refusing Bertie’s proposal because she did not want to lead a public life of any kind. When she heard about Wallis Simpson’s demands she referred to her, furiously, only as “That Woman.”
Edward and Wallis, who later became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, continued to dislike Elizabeth for the rest of their lives but a friend reported that “Elizabeth never said anything nasty about the Duchess of Windsor, except to say she really hadn’t got a clue what she was dealing with.”
And Wallis really, really would not have been able to deal with the war that was coming. The couple would have been glamorous peacetime, but not wartime, leaders. World War II was when Bertie and Elizabeth shone.
It was immediately assumed that, with the break-out of the war, the Royal Family would leave for someplace safer, such as Canada. This is almost certainly how the situation would have played out had Wallis and Edward been in charge. When asked whether or not they would vacate, Elizabeth replied (and if someone asks you what purpose the Royal Family serves, remember this moment):
“The Princesses cannot go without me. I cannot go without the King. And the King will never leave.”
The princesses did eventually leave Buckingham Palace – as many children in London were evacuated during the Blitz – but Bertie and Elizabeth remained. Elizabeth learned how to fire a revolver, practicing in the Palace gardens. That always seems like a weird detail for historians to throw up as a symbol of her fortitude, because I’m not sure how that skill would really be useful. But I guess it’s possible that she could have run into Hitler at a dinner party or something. Hitler did call her “The most dangerous woman in Europe.”
Every time buildings were bombed in London, the couple would dress in their finest outfits and go to talk with the people who had lost their homes. I know we kind of assume that’s what President Obama would do, so it’s hard to grasp how forward-thinking that action was. Suffice to say, it was a really big deal at the time. When Buckingham Palace was bombed, Elizabeth famously said, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
She also gave speeches right alongside Bertie, including this one to the women of the British Empire:
The last time that I broadcast a message was at Halifax Nova Scotia where I said a few words of farewell to all the women and children who had welcomed the King and myself so kindly during our visit to Canada and the United States of America. The world was then at peace. For seven happy weeks we moved in an atmosphere of such good will and human kindness that the very idea of strife and bloodshed seemed impossible. The recollection warms my heart and gives me courage. I speak today in circumstances sadly different. For 20 years we have kept this day of remembrance as one of past and never to be forgotten sacrifice. And now the peace which that sacrifice made possible has been broken. Once again, we have been forced into war. I know you would wish me to voice in the name of the women of the British Empire our deep and abiding sympathy on those of whom the first shattering blows have fallen – the women of Poland. Nor do we forget the gallant womanhood of France who are called, with us again, to share the hardships of war.
War has always called upon the fortitude of women. Even in the other days, when it was an affair of fighting forces only, wives and mothers suffered constant anxiety for their dear ones. Their lot was all the harder because they felt they could do so little for the men at the front. Now, this has changed. We are no less than men, and have real and vital work to do. We are given the privilege of serving our country. The call has come, and from my heart I thank you, the women of our great empire, for the way you have undertaken it…
I would like to pay my tribute to all of you who are giving such splendid and unselfish help in this time of trouble.
Many of you have seen your husbands going off to their allotted tasks, and your children evacuated to places of greater safety. The King and I know what it means to be parted from our children. We can sympathize with those of you who have bravely consented to this separation for the sake of your little ones. Equally do we appreciate the hospitality shown by those of you who have opened your homes to strangers, and to the children sent from places of special danger. All this I know has meant sacrifice, and to those who are feeling the strain, I would like to say be assured that in doing your home duties and meeting these difficulties cheerfully, you are doing your part for the homefront. It is after all for our homes and their security we are fighting. And we must see to it that despite the difficulties of these days, our homes do not lose those very qualities that make them the background and joy of our lives….
I pray with all my heart that God will bless and guide and keep you always.
Look, here’s the thing, you can talk all you want about how Wallis Simpson was super stylish and really cool and so on and so forth. She swanned around excellently in ball gowns:
But Wallis Simpson could not have given speeches like that. Partly because I believe she and Edward were fundamentally frivolous, and partly because she just didn’t have that kind of gravitas, even though she supposedly made excellent martinis. But mostly because I believe that W.E. would have fled the country or else handed it over to Hitler
When Bertie died in 1952, the Queen was devastated. She wore black for an entire year and suggested that she might wear it for the rest of her life. It was only her friend Winston Churchill who told her that she should worry less about her attire and more about getting on with her duties.
Which she did. Until Princess Diana’s arrival, Elizabeth remained the most popular member of the royal family, handling multi-national diplomacy missions (on her visit to Iran people were impressed by her habit of talking to everyone from all ranks of society) and assisting her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, to whom she was said to be extremely close, in their duties.
She passed away in 2002 at the age of 101. The wreath from her coffin was placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
And if you’re thinking, “Well done but she still wasn’t as stylish as Wallis”, Wikipedia informs me that she is known for her signature style of “large upturned hats with netting and dresses with draped panels of fabric”.
Team Cake forever.