How The Wedding of British Princess Created an American Queen

In the media maelstrom around today’s wedding of England’s new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (more popularly known as Prince William and Princess Kate), the frequent note that Michelle Obama was not invited failed to recognize it as a lucky break, sparing her the position of having to turn it down or worse, accept. For the Obama Administration, battling budget cuts with Congress, seeking to close the unemployment gap and facing the looming crises of how to give Social Security a future, it is good politics, a blessing in disguise.

Queen Elizabeth welcomes Michelle Obama and President Obama to Buckingham Palace in April 2009

Nancy Reagan at the American Embassy in London, just before departing for the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana

The Reagans learned this. If earlier incumbent First Families felt overlooked by not attending British royal weddings, the media-induced over-analysis which followed Mrs. Reagan’s presence at the 1981 royal wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana so warped her public persona that it threatened to undermine her husband’s political agenda for months to follow.

From the Presidency’s inception in 1789 following the nation’s liberation from the rule of the British King George III, the men who’ve run the nation and the women who’ve run its symbolic home base have had to walk a tightrope. Striking a balance between a regal appearance that conveys dignity and unpretentiously behaving to suggest common-man empathy is nearly impossible for those First Couples of the democratic republic. It’s all the more complicated when they’re functioning in a context of circumstantial crises.

Getting his own luggage from a car trunk, Carter was seen as too much the Commoner

Vigilantly scrutinized by the taxpayers who provide them a lifestyle intended to ensure some conceptually conflicting vision of an “appropriate” national brand, the public feels the right to obsessively analyze not just decisions made on their behalf by a President and First Lady, but also on their food, clothing, friends, vacations, children, dog breeds, even their bodies.

Serving expensive food during the Great Depression, the Hoovers were perceived as too much like King and Queen

If the First Couple appear too defensive about their “personal” decisions, the reality that they’re valued more as National Symbols than as real people often slaps them where it hurts the most – at the polls. Republicans claimed that by carrying his own valise and dropping Hail to the Chief’s musical prelude Ruffles and Flourishes Jimmy Carter diminished America’s global status. Democrats shrieked that serving out-of-season, imported fruits proved that Herbert and Lou Hoover were unconcerned about starving families during the Great Depression. Both men lost their bid for re-election.

Finding that the political opposition has transformed the benign preferences of a First Family into political capital precedes even the Federalist whisper that Jefferson’s wearing slippers to receive foreign ministers proved he was socialist.  It goes back to anti-Federalist papers accusing George and Martha Washington of “aping royalty” because he refused to shake the hands of reception guests and she insisted on sitting while “receiving” them.

George and Caroline

At least the man who refused to be called King whose wife was nevertheless informally titled “Lady Washington” didn’t send a wedding present for the April 8, 1795 St. James Palace wedding of England’s future King George IV and Queen Caroline. A President’s vague diplomatic acknowledgement of events like the wedding of the heir to the British throne was entirely permissible through a State Department communiqué, but personal familiarity with British Royal Families by American First Families put an Administration at risk of being called monarchist. The only behavior worse than admiring Kings and Queens was emulating them.

William and Adelaide

James and Elizabeth Monroe

With Queen Hortense of Holland and Queen Caroline of Naples among her family friends, it was entirely in character for Elizabeth Monroe to create a new, exclusive presidential protocol based on those practiced by European royalty. It resulted in boycotts of her receptions and two Cabinet meetings in 1817 and 1818 called by the President to justify the effort as raising the executive branch’s prestige over the judiciary and legislative. When the Monroes left Washington and failed to host the annual July 4th open house reception for the public, insult was hardly mitigated when it proved they had not broken tradition and sailed for England to attend the 1818 royal wedding nine days later at Kew Palace of Prince William and Princess Adelaide, another future King and Queen. They were just home in Virginia.

Angelica Van Buren and Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria had been on the throne two years by the time she received the incumbent First Lady Angelica Van Buren, who was also presented in the French King’s Court on her own royal tour of Europe. Emulating the reception procedures she saw in the castles and allegedly planning to landscape the White House grounds to resemble those of the royals, Mrs. Van Buren proved to be an aristocratic hostess for her widowed father-in-law. French Minister Adolphe Fourier de Bacourt, generally critical of Americans, praised her.

Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Angelica had left England several months before the royal wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, returning to the United States as it was suffering an economic depression. Her “Queen Fever,” as it was called, gave fodder to a famous political attack on her father-in-law by Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle and it helped deny Van Buren a second term in 1840.

Mrs. Lincoln was called La Reine (“the Queen”) by her husband’s staff

When Victoria’s son Edward married Princess Alexandra of Denmark at St. George’s Chapel on March 10, 1863, the United States was split by Civil War but many Notherners and Southerners found common ground in detesting First Lady Mary Lincoln. Even the President’s aides called her “La Reine.”

Edward and Alexandra

She justified over-spending federal funds to redecorate reception rooms by $6000, hosted a state dinner for Prince Napoleon of France and had her state costumes illustrated in magazines with those of Europe’s royalty (whose exploits she closely followed) as efforts to command respect for the Union, especially in light of the tenuous neutrality of France and England. Had she been invited to Edward’s wedding, she likely would have tried to attend.

George and Mary

The incumbent First Ladies at time of the next three royal weddings of Great Britain’s future Kings (George V and Queen Mary in 1893, George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1923, and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1947) were the least likely to see themselves peers worthy of an invite.

The White House wedding of President Cleveland and Frances Folsom

With her own 1886 White House wedding, 21-year old Frances Cleveland had been hailed as an American Princess, although the Women’s Christian Temperance Union demanded she cease wearing low-cut gowns, declaring them vulgar on a national representative. By the time she returned as First Lady three months before Prince George’s wedding, however, she was more interested in baby daughter Ruth and less in weddings.

Florence Harding, known as “The Duchess”

Florence Harding was known as “Duchess” for her regal appearance but High Society mocked her folksiness. While she did entertain Lady Astor, Mrs. Harding did not meet any of the Royal Family.

George and Elizabeth

Bess Truman and Princess Elizabeth

Respectable Bess Truman’s stout figure, plain clothes and grey hair proved uninspiring to a press corps used to her controversial predecessor Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, the one great social pinnacle of her tenure was to entertain the newlyweds Elizabeth and Philip. None of these three American First Lady were invited to the royal weddings.

Elizabeth and Philip

No American First Family had a more genuinely close friendship with members of the British Royal Family than did the Reagans. Even had Ronald Reagan not been inaugurated President in January of 1981, he and his wife Nancy would have been invited to the royal wedding of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and Lady Diana Spencer in July of that year.

California Governor and Mrs. Reagan with Walter Annenberg and a visiting Prince Charles, Palm Springs 1974

Reagan was serving as Governor of California when he and his wife were invited by supporter and friend Walter Annenberg to his Palm Springs estate on March 17, 1974.  In his capacity as the Nixon Administration’s Ambassador to England Annenberg had come to know Prince Charles.Then in the Royal Navy, Charles accepted an invitation to stay at Sunnylands for several days of shore leave from his tour of duty on the HMS Jupiter. During his stay, the British Prince especially hit it off with the California First Lady, later telling an interviewer that Nancy Reagan was “a favorite of mine.”  They remained in touch and saw each other on several more occasions before Reagan’s election as president in November 1980.

President and Mrs. Reagan at a 1981 Inaugural Ball

Exaggerated, even erroneous press coverage about Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s lifestyle among the wealthiest of Los Angeles society was mere prelude for the onslaught over the most expensive Inauguration to date. Among reports of private jets delivering conspicuously consuming party patrons and the lavish sums spent to ensure their absolute luxury, the new First Lady’s Inaugural trousseau, estimated at about $25,000 was a centerpiece.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan in their White House bedroom, refurbished in 1981

In the first weeks of the new Administration, Mrs. Reagan turned down $50,000 in federalfunds routinely given toincoming First Families to furnish their private rooms; given the high unemployment and recession at the time, she thought it wiser to seek private funds instead. She had no idea that Reagan financier Holmes Tuttle had decided to seek this from some twenty individuals with “oil interests” who might be “anxious to show their appreciation for Reagan policies” shortly after the President decontrolled oil prices.  Over $800,000 was raised, the contributors getting sizeable tax write-offs – and the press directly blamed the First Lady. “Since no money came from the taxpayers, nothing seemed wrong to me about redoing the White House,” she later reflected. Further, although seeking to describe the layout of the family rooms, Mrs. Reagan’s remark that the private quarters were “nothing like Buckingham Palace” was easily taken out of context to imply disappointment she didn’t live in a castle.

The Reagans at a state dinner for the King of Spain

Accustomed to relatively guileless media in Sacramento and gushing coverage of the entertainment industry during her acting career, Nancy Reagan spoke unguardedly to reporters in her first month as First Lady, not always realizing how conversational musings could be easily spliced into provocative, boldfaced quotes. In chatting about general ideason entertaining, her quip, “I want more pomp,” and hope to “get some new china” were to tactfully differentiate the Reagan style from that of their predecessors without mentioning the Carters by name. Without the contrast being made, however, the remarks suggested a new imperialism. Concurrent to her efforts to establish a home, Nancy Reagan was also planning the parameters of her public advocacy of a social issue, as recent First Ladies had. With her staff failing to keep the press informed as the outline of her anti-drug abuse awareness campaign developed, it gave the misperception that Mrs. Reagan was less in public service than in dinner service.

Mrs. Reagan greets Prince Charles prior to a private May 1981 dinner she and the President hosted in his honor

Her only priority after March 30, however, was her husband. That day, following an assassination attempt on his life, the President nearly died. Over the next four months, Nancy Reagan vigilantly guarded his schedule and consulted with doctors until she was certain he would fully recover, while also suddenly having to cope with the deteriorating health of her elderly parents. The trauma took its toll, leaving her anxiety-ridden, fearful of Reagan’s exposure at pubic events, withdrawn and fragile. In early May, the Reagans hosted a small, private White House dinner for Prince Charles, refreshing their friendship with him and he invited them to his forthcoming wedding. .Although the White House stated Reagan wasn’t fully recovered and thus unable to attend, the press suggested it was because he didn’t want his first foreign trip as president to be a social event.  As the July 29 wedding date neared, however, her husband insisted that Nancy go, since the happy distraction “would be good for me,” she recalled.

Nancy Reagan (pink) just after the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana

Determining her role during the one-week trip was difficult. Despite her personal friendship with Prince Charles, her status as President’s wife automatically made her his de facto representative and she was legally required to have Secret Service protection when traveling abroad and stay in the secure Ambassador’s residence instead of an hotel. The State Department soon assumed the trip’s arrangements and although she chose the Steuben glass bowl to give as a gift, it would be presented as an official gift of the United States, its original price of $75,000 reduced to $8,000.

On July 26, the First Lady arrived in London with her hairdresser, maid, nurse, photographer, four staff aides, a photographer and a dozen Secret Service agents. She attended eighteen events, including tea with the Queen Mother She took tea with the Queen Mother, dined with the Queen and Prince Philip, lunched with a lord, and joined alarge dinner dance at the palace with Europe’s royalty

Mrs. Reagan seated with fellow guests at the wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles

. Nancy Reagan first met Diana, the soon-to-be Princess of Wales at a polo match where the Prince was playing.  Struck by her rosy complexion, she found Diana a “stunning” personality. Of the actual wedding, the First Lady remarked, ”Everybody loves romance, and this was the romance of all times.” Asked if she approved of the monarchy, Mrs. Reagan’s spontaneously remarked, “I would hate to see it ever disappear.” Enamored still upon her return, she told the President, “Nobody can give a royal wedding like the British.”

Princess Diana and Prince Charles immediately after their wedding

The London press did not reciprocate, deriding Mrs. Reagan for arriving at the polo match in a six-car entourage while the Queen drove herself in a jeep, for bringing five hat-boxes and the fact that she ”squeezed more engagements into the week before the royal wedding than Alice’s white rabbit.” Reports of her cavorting with Monaco’s Princess Grace made it appear as if the First Lady had striven to befriend her – and failed to report the truth that both women had been friends before marriage, when they were both actresses. Even more rudely inexplicable were the booing she encountered from one crowd. A New York Times reporter speculated that the First Lady’s decision to shake the Queen’s hand rather than bow was the reason Fleet Street created a caricature of the First Lady as a Yankee Queen. It might have died in London had the American press not so widely reported the insults.

Mrs. Reagan hosts longtime friend Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco) at an American Embassy party during the 1981 royal wedding festivities

Once the caricature hit Washington, however, it took on a new life as ammunition of a Democratic strategy in a looming showdown over federal budget and tax cuts, another element in the partisan arsenals of distorted facts and enflamed rhetoric. By that fall, it had manifested into a simple satirical postcard without caption, fanning out from Congressional offices into stationary stores across the country, driving a political attack more efficiently than any op-ed.

Nancy Reagan with Princess Diana during the latter’s Washington visit in 1985

Attendance at the British royal wedding of England’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana had resurrected the old American First Lady persona as royalty in the new form of “Queen Nancy.”

Categories: First Ladies, Presidents, Royal Families, The Obamas

Tags: , , , , , ,

7 replies »

  1. Interesting take as usual, Carl. I am curious though, why do you think the Obamas were not invited to the royal wedding. I’m sure it was not to protect Michelle Obama so what do you think was the reason for the royal snub? I really enjoy your insights.

    • Thanks so much Lisa – I work hard with the intention of providing content that cannot be found anywhere else. I’m responding to messages backwards here, seeing that your’s was first – but if you read my response in the one above, there’s an answer to the media charge of it being a “snub.”

  2. As I understand it, neither the President nor the First Lady were invited for the simple reason that no one wanted the wedding to turn into the security circus it would have had either one of them been among the guests. And who can blame them? Besides, the President and Mrs. Obama are invited to make a State Visit later this year when, presumably, there will be no wedding ceremony and celebration for the Secret Service to interfere with.

    • Here’s the deal. Since this was not the wedding of the “heir apparent,” meaning the very next one to assume the role – since his dad is very much alive – it defined the status as less than a “state” occasion, the parameters of which I admittedly am not clear, except that it is differentiated from one of an “apparent.” So it does not “command” the presence of peers in the way of world leaders (of course even though the crown is without direct role in policy). Confusion in the media which has led some to assume it was a “snub” that the American President nor his designated representative was not invited seems to stem from the fact that many other world leaders were invited – however, these were people who were either monarchs of family relation to the Windsors, or nations that are or once were members of the British Empire and/or Commonwealth.

      • Trust the Brits!

        Seriously, that makes sense if you’re a protocol nerd, as I am. I still insist on distinguishing between “state” and “official” dinners in this country – the Queen gets a state dinner; the PM gets an official dinner.


        • That stuff tends to get me dizzy after a certain point -and question the value of it; that said, order is necessary and lends itself to custom and tradition. Only when it begins to devalue those of achieved merit who may not have been recognized for it by title or award by the established conventions does it become problematic – at least to me. Like “Oscar Winner”etc.

  3. If we didn’t have state dinners, where would men get to wear their white tie with decorations and where would women get to wear their serious jewels?


%d bloggers like this: