Coming to America: Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana's First Visits

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With the media all in a tizzy this week over William and Kate’s 10-day jaunt through North America, let's take a look at the press carnivals that surrounded Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana’s first official visits to our royal-loving shores.

Falling in Love With Queen Elizabeth II

As a princess and heir to the throne, twenty-five year-old Elizabeth first toured the U.S. in 1951, when she got to ride around in President Harry Truman’s state of the art convertible, but her first visit as queen wasn’t until October 1957.

Just 31 years old at the time—two years older than Kate is now—young Elizabeth stepped off a plane from Ottawa, “paused almost imperceptibly,” according to a breathless reporter’s minute-by-minute account, smiled at a crowd of 10,000 howling admirers in Jamestown, Virginia, and met her host, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The queen’s quick, meticulously scheduled visit included a speech to the fledgling United Nations General Assembly in New York, a military flyover, a 21-gun salute, church, and a 1,500-guest formal dinner. Each day’s activities were typed out and distributed like scripts. “If a minor official was supposed to take two steps forward, one step back, shake hands, or even take off his hat, it was all written out for him,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But—never mind all that. OMG, what was she wearing?

“Getting off the plane at the airport in her ‘scarab blue’ coat and her jaunty little hat made of pheasant feathers, Queen Elizabeth looked even younger and perkier than most people probably expected,” reported Charles McDowell, Jr., a staff writer at the Times–Dispatch. “She smiled easily, moved gracefully… At least a dozen women were heard to announce within two minutes, ‘She is radiant.’”

Sound familiar? The Queen, like her new granddaughter-in-law, Princess Kate, has always charmed American crowds. When she returned to North America in 1959 and met President Dwight D. Eisenhower to open the St. Lawrence Seaway, a congressman in the crowd summed up the American sentiment: “We have all fallen in love with the Queen, Ike!”

Princess Diana and 7,000 Pounds of Luggage (oh, and Prince Charles, too)

Princess Diana’s famous first visit to the U.S. in 1985 stirred up such royal hysteria—throngs of well-wishers in D.C. had to be kept from blocking traffic; television anchors were visibly aflutter—that even the austere New York Times described the American public as forgivably “star struck”: The Princess of Wales’ arrival, it said, “provided a respite from such serious but deadly dull concerns as unbalanced budgets and arms control talks.”

Indeed, there was nothing boring about Princess Di’s and, oh yeah, Prince Charles’ four-day tour in the U.S., during which no moment went untelevised, and none of Diana’s dozens of outfits went unscrutinized. The famous couple reportedly traveled with 7,000 pounds of luggage—a haul that, by our calculations, would have cost the modern traveler $6,950 in extra baggage fees. (In fairness, fourteen of Diana’s dresses were later auctioned, in 1997, for almost a million dollars—so perhaps the fashion icon’s math works out in the end.)

The night Princess Di arrived in Washington D.C., she and Charles attended a black tie gala dinner at the White House, hosted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife. The evening included businessmen, politicians and Hollywood luminaries like Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck and Neil Diamond, and a few requisite gaffes: President Reagan expressed his great happiness to welcome “…er… Princess David—Princess Diane—here on her first trip to the United States.”

The evening also included perhaps the most famous fifteen minutes in any modern royal history: Princess Diana, dressed in a deep blue velvet off-the-shoulder gown and a sapphire and diamond choker, waltzed with Saturday Night Fever star John Travolta. That dress sold for $800,000 at a Canadian auction last month.

The Media’s Media

Saturday Night Live has lavished attention on the women of Windsor over the years, with questionably flattering results. Queen Elizabeth has been played by a variety of SNL actors since the ‘70s, including Joan Cusack and, most recently, the bespectacled (and, yes, male) Fred Armisen.

Princess Diana was flawlessly satirized by Madonna in 1985, and last fall, Princess Kate was played by Anne Hathaway in a disturbing, if hilarious, imagination of life behind closed doors at the ol’ Buckingham Hotel. And you wonder why the royals don’t love to vacation on our side of the pond.

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July 7, 2011 - 11:11am
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