It was a surprising first encounter that piqued my interest in Queen Elizabeth II, who until that moment had been a regal and distant icon. My husband and I were introduced to her at a garden party at the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington during her state visit in 2007, and she and my husband had a strikingly spirited conversation about the Kentucky Derby, which she had seen for the first time the previous weekend. Street Sense, the winning horse, had come from 19th to first in a thrilling finish, which prompted the Queen and my husband to replay the entire race, going back and forth. I was transfixed by her animated gestures, sparkling blue eyes, and flashing smile that are familiar to her friends but rare in public. As I watched, I remembered what British artist Howard Morgan had told me years earlier after painting her portrait: “Her private side took my totally by surprise,” he said. “She talks like an Italian! She waves her hands about!”
Nine months later when Random House asked me to write a biography of the Queen, that revelatory memory sprang to mind, and I leapt at the chance to discover the woman behind the image of diamonds, velvet and ermine. I knew that that the Queen had spent her long life in her very own remarkable world, and that penetrating the royal bubble would be challenging, especially since she has had a policy for her entire reign of not granting interviews.
When I began my research, I returned to a group of key sources who had helped me when I was reporting my book about Princess Diana in the late 1990s. They not only agreed to assist me again by introducing me to more people close to the royal family, they served as my advocates in getting cooperation from Buckingham Palace. The senior staff at the Palace briefed the Queen and gave me the green light, opening access to her inner circle of friends and advisers who could describe the humanizing traits we can all relate to: her kindness, humor, spontaneity, and even coziness.
With the assistance of the Palace, I was able to watch the Queen and Prince Philip in many different settings over the course of a year, and I accumulated impressions that helped me understand how she carries out her role, and how earnestly she does her job, with great discipline and concentration in every situation.
Traveling with the Queen was particularly valuable, especially the overseas royal tour I took to Bermuda and Trinidad. She was 83 years old at the time, and her program called for long days of meeting and greeting. Her stamina was impressive, matched only by 88-year-old Prince Philip. I got a real sense of how much in sync they are, with expert choreography honed over many years in the public eye. During these trips I was also able to see the Buckingham Palace machinery on the road, get to know the Queen’s senior officials, and develop a feel for the atmosphere around her and the way her household has changed from the early days when it was run entirely by aristocrats. Her advisers include savvy young women who learned their skills in the private sector; even some of the footmen have master’s degrees.
Getting to know all the places important to the Queen further deepened my understanding: the rolling hills where she spends hours watching her racehorses work out; the countryside around Balmoral, her estate in Scotland where she escapes on long walks and rides on horseback; the stud farm where she oversees the breeding of her thoroughbreds; the modest cottage near Windsor Castle where she visits her elderly first cousin Margaret Rhodes most Sundays after church to drink a gin and Dubonnet while chatting about friends and family.
I was also fortunate to attend several dinners at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Prince of Wales Foundation. Sitting at a table decorated with George III silver gilt candelabra and sculpted centerpieces, I could immerse myself in the experience of being served by footmen in royal livery in rooms where the Queen entertains heads of state.
But the best moments were my two social encounters with the Queen at private gatherings while I was doing my research. After I had been working on the book for a year, I met her at a reception at St. James’s Palace. When I mentioned that my daughter was getting married to an Englishman in London she asked, “When is the wedding?” “The Fourth of July,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, “that’s a little dangerous.” Once more I saw the smile and the twinkle that had been so captivating on our first meeting in Washington.
A month before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, we met again in St. James’s Palace, this time at a party given by one of the Queen’s cousins. I knew the Queen would be there, but I didn’t expect her to stay for 90 minutes, which was unusual. She was in high spirits, and she was making her way happily on her own, without any attendants running interference for her. What struck me was that here she was in her own grand palace, but she was merely another guest, which was a measure of her unexpected humility. As Margaret Rhodes explained it, the Queen can “uphold her identity o f herself as Queen and still be humble. Her inner modesty stops her from getting spoiled.”
Even as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee marking 60 years on the throne in 2012, that “inner modesty” was always evident. In a message on radio and television, she thanked everyone involved in the “massive challenge” of organizing the celebrations, describing them as a “humbling experience” that “has touched me deeply.”
Her unaffected joy was striking, matched by her genuine surprise. “After all these years, she is still overwhelmed by the response, which is a lovely thing,” one of her top advisers told me. At the end of my journey of discovery about the Queen, I realized that the more I had learned about her, the more I had found to admire, which made her life story inspiring for me to write.
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. 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 is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith.