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25 of History's Greatest Moms

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With their words, actions, and unconditional love, mothers have a profound influence on their children. Our mothers give us life, nurture us, and support us as we grow from babies to adults. They teach us, take care of us, and give us advice (wanted or unwanted!), and often provide this sort of motherly presence for many others in their lives as well. To celebrate Mother’s Day, here are 25 of history’s greatest moms.

1. MARIE CURIE

Although scientist Marie Curie (1867—1934) is best known for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she also raised her two young daughters alone after her husband died in an accident in 1906. One of their daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie, went on to co-win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband for their own work with radioactivity. Joliot-Curie said her mother instilled hard work and flexibility in her children: “That one must do some work seriously and must be independent and not merely amuse oneself in life—this our mother has told us always, but never that science was the only career worth following.”

2. SOJOURNER TRUTH

In 1826, Sojourner Truth (circa 1797—1883) and her baby daughter escaped slavery in Ulster County, New York. Soon after her escape, she heard that her 5-year-old son, Peter, was illegally sold to a man in Alabama. Truth raised money for a lawyer, filed a complaint in court, and successfully got Peter out of slavery—a landmark case in which a black woman successfully sued a white man in court. Truth went on to become a Christian preacher in New York City and toured the northeast, speaking about the Bible, abolition, and women’s suffrage.

3. ABIGAIL ADAMS

As the wife of President John Adams, Abigail Adams (1744 —1818) was the second First Lady of the United States. Because her husband was often away from home for work, she often single-handedly ran their farm, wrote letters supporting equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery, and educated their five kids who survived into childhood—including future president John Quincy Adams. Quincy Adams wrote: "My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence."

4. IRENA SENDLER

Irena Sendler (1910—2008) was a Polish employee at the Warsaw Social Welfare Department who smuggled almost 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, saving their lives. Using the code name Jolanta, she gave these children false identification documents, established temporary (non-Jewish) identities for them, and placed them in convents, orphanages, and Christian homes. Although the Nazis arrested her, tortured her, and sentenced her to execution (she survived because the Gestapo was bribed), she didn’t give them any information about the whereabouts of the children or the inner workings of her smuggling operation. A mother of three kids herself, Sendler received Poland’s Order of the White Eagle award in 2003.

5. KATHY HEADLEE

Kathy Headlee, a mother of seven (the youngest of whom she adopted from Romania), started Mothers Without Borders to help orphaned children around the world. Beginning in 1992, she led a group of volunteers to distribute relief supplies to orphanages and train caregivers in Romania. Since then, Mothers Without Borders has sent volunteers to help children in Bolivia, Bosnia, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Nepal.

6. J.K. ROWLING

J.K. Rowling wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother (while briefly receiving state benefits to get by), and she now serves as the president of Gingerbread, an organization that works with single parents and their children find resources and programs to help them succeed. “I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life,” Rowling said of that time and the work she put in. For Mother’s Day 2016 in the UK (which occurs in March), she tweeted: “Today's Mother's Day in the UK. If your mum isn't here to treat, do something nice for yourself, because she's part of you. Take a hug, too.”

7. HOELUN

Famous as the mother of Genghis Khan, she survived getting kidnapped, widowhood, and being an outcast, to becoming the mother and advisor to one of the largest empires the world has ever known (as well as being one of the few people who could yell at Genghis and get away with it). Around the time of her first marriage, she was kidnapped by Yesukhei, the chief of a minor clan (legend has it she took off her shirt, threw it to her husband, and shouted “Fly for your life, and while you live remember my fragrance”), and was forced to marry her captor. Several years (and children) later, Yesukhei was killed and Hoelun and her young children were kicked out of the clan, forced to barely survive on whatever they could forage on the Mongolian steppes. Eventually, one of her children with Yesukhei, Genghis Khan, would become a great conqueror—but his mother could still put him in his place. According to Frank McLynn in Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, Genghis was planning to execute his brother for treason when Hoelun found out, traveled to Genghis’s headquarters, and begged Genghis to be merciful. When that didn’t work, “Hoelun grew angry, got to her feet and roundly rebuked the khan for thinking to execute his brother … Genghis raised her up and said he would grant the boon because of his love and deference for his mother.”

8. CANDY LIGHTNER

In 1980, a hit-and-run drunk driver killed one of Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old twin daughters, Cari. The driver had had three prior convictions for drunk driving, and had been arrested two days prior for a different hit-and-run. Within a few months, Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to try to end drunk driving, pass tougher legislation, and help the victims of drunk drivers. Through its work to raise awareness and get legislation passed, MADD has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.

9. WARIS DIRIE

In 1970 when she was 5 years old, Waris Dirie was a victim of female genital mutilation in her home of Somalia. Then, when was 13, her parents arranged for her to marry a man in his sixties; she ran away from home and eventually arrived in London. Although she became a successful model (and even appeared in a 1987 James Bond film), she retired from modeling in 1997 to devote her time to combating female genital mutilation, partially through her work as a UN Special Ambassador. She founded an organization called Desert Flower that combats female genital mutilation around the world. As the mother of four children, she told Harper’s Bazaar that female genital mutilation isn’t just a women’s issue: “Every education begins with Mama. We have to rethink what we teach our sons. That's the most important thing."

10. INDIRA GANDHI

As India’s first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (1917—1984) worked to institute democracy and create jobs to combat food shortages—she was responsible for India's green revolution, which made the country self-sufficient and no longer reliant on imported grains. “Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratizing force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances,” she famously stated. She also entrusted a sense of duty in her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, who both grew up to become politicians; Rajiv became Prime Minister of India after his mother was assassinated in 1984.

11. ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER

After working as a law professor and academic dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter (born 1958) was the first woman to serve as director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. In 2012, she wrote a massively popular article for The Atlantic, called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She discussed her decision to leave her high-stress government job so she could be closer to home and take better care of her two teenage sons. Her article sparked a national discussion about how mothers balance work and home life, and how society and the workplace need to change to better facilitate mothers who work.

12. ELIZABETH CADY STANTON

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815—1902) was a leader in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, all while raising her seven children. She worked with Susan B. Anthony to establish the National Woman Suffrage Association, successfully helping to get women the right to vote via the 19th Amendment. In addition to writing articles and giving speeches on the topic of universal suffrage, Stanton supported education for girls, and her own daughters went to college at Vassar and Columbia.

13. DANA SUSKIND

Dr. Dana Suskind, a widowed mother of three, is a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative to encourage parents to talk frequently to their babies. Based on her research, she focuses on educating parents on the importance that speaking and interacting in the first three years of a child’s life has on that child's brain growth and development.

14. NANCY EDISON

The youngest of Nancy Edison’s seven kids was Thomas Alva Edison. Although some stories about his mother’s virtues were most likely exaggerated, we do know that rather than give up on his education, Nancy Edison decided to homeschool her son after his teacher deemed him "addled" (i.e. mentally ill or incompetent). Edison, who may just have been dyslexic in a time before that learning disorder was studied or understood, said of her: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

15. JULIE ANDREWS

Although you may know Dame Julie Andrews (born 1935) for her film roles as Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp (two surrogate-mothers of sorts for generations of children), she’s also an author. Andrews writes The Very Fairy Princess children’s book series with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. Hamilton told Today that her mom was firm, protective, and despite her busy schedule, “very hands-on, always there making eggs at 5 o’ clock in the morning before we went to school.” Practically perfect in every way.

16. LOU XIAOYING

Lou Xioaying was a poor, uneducated woman who supported herself by scavenging through the trash in Jinhua, China, but starting in 1972, she adopted or rescued 30 babies she found in the trash. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution (and later China’s one-child policy), and extreme poverty, especially in rural areas, meant that some parents dumped their unwanted babies in the garbage. “These children need love and care. They are all precious human lives," Xioaying, who had one biological daughter at the time she began rescuing infants, told the press in 2012. "I do not understand how people can leave such a vulnerable baby on the streets.”

17. PRINCESS DIANA

Diana, Princess of Wales (1961—1997) used her status as a royal figure to work with charities that supported children’s hospitals and to raise awareness and combat landmines, which were a significant problem in the '90s. Years after her death in 1997—her sons were 15 and 12 years old when she died—her legacy remains one of humanitarianism. Her oldest, Prince William, notably became a royal patron of a Child Bereavement charity. Speaking about Mother’s Day, he said: “I too have felt and still feel the emptiness on such a day as Mother's Day.”

18. ERMA BOMBECK

Humor writer Erma Bombeck (1927—1996) wrote books and syndicated newspaper columns about life as a suburban housewife in the Midwest. Taking inspiration from her experiences with her adopted daughter and two biological sons, she told stories and made quips about housework that helped a generation of stay-at-home and newly working mothers find humor in the messiness of their lives. And as one might assume from her sharp-witted jokes, she brought her children up to be independent and passionate. “She liked people who were strong and held their own—she was a very big presence,” her daughter Betsy told People. "If you couldn't hold your own, she could roll over you."

19. THERESA KACHINDAMOTO

As a Malawi chieftain, Theresa Kachindamoto presides over nearly 900,000 Malawians. Because poor parents struggle to feed their children, Malawi has a high child marriage rate—one in two girls is married before age 18. Kachindamoto, who has put laws in place to break up approximately 850 child marriages, organizes meetings to speak to Malawians about the dangers of child marriages (including HIV) and the benefits of education for girls and boys. And although she's received backlash for telling families how to raise girls when she herself has five boys, she also works to end cultural sexual initiation rituals, in which a young girl’s parents pay an older man to “teach” her how to have sex, and she's trying to raise the legal age of marriage in the Dedza district of Malawi to 21.

20. ANGELINA JOLIE

Because of her humanitarian work supporting refugees and education, Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has become as well-known for her charity work as she has for her film roles. Jolie first got involved with humanitarian work for refugees and people displaced because of conflict when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia in 2000. She adopted a son from the country, and eventually adopted children from Ethiopia and Vietnam as well (in addition to her three biological children with husband Brad Pitt). And though she has traveled to more than 30 countries in her role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Brad Pitt told The Wall Street Journal that when she has a day off, “the first thing she does is get up and take the kids out. This is the most important ‘to do’ of the day. No matter how tired she might be, she plans outings for each and all.”

21. MARY KAY ASH

Mary Kay Ash (1918—2001) was 45 years old when she founded Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963, and it has since become a billion-dollar cosmetics company. As a single mom, she was working in sales at a home products company to support her three children, but she was repeatedly passed over for promotions, despite her being one of the top sales directors. Ash took those skills with her when she launched her namesake company, and she worked to give hundreds of thousands of women the opportunity to work as sales consultants on their own time, effectively becoming their own bosses.

22. MARY MAXWELL GATES

The mother of Bill Gates, Mary Maxwell Gates (1929—1994) served on the board of directors for corporations and nonprofit organizations in Seattle. She helped convince leaders at I.B.M. to hire Microsoft to create an operating system, and following that contract, Microsoft went on to achieve massive success. But more importantly, Gates encouraged her son to focus on philanthropy, and the effects of his success are now contributing to worldwide causes because of it. As of 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given billions of dollars to fight malaria, HIV, polio, and poor sanitation, and to improve opportunities for education.

23. ALBERTA KING

The mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., Alberta Williams King (1904—1974) played the organ and founded the choir at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and she was also involved with women’s groups, the NAACP, and the YWCA. She set about to raise her three children with a healthy sense of self-respect and taught them that the segregation they saw every day was simply "a social condition rather than a natural order," as MLK Jr. wrote in his autobiography. "She made it clear that she opposed this system and that I must never allow it to make me feel inferior. … At this time Mother had no idea that the little boy in her arms would years later be involved in a struggle against the system she was speaking of." In 1974, six years after her son was assassinated in Memphis, Alberta King was shot and killed at her organ at her church.

24. JULIA WARD HOWE

In 1870, writer Julia Ward Howe (1819—1910, who is best known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") merged her interests in suffrage and pacifism by writing an “Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World.” Also called the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” the appeal urged women to come together to support peace. Howe viewed women, who were the ones losing husbands and sons to war, as responsible for stopping war. Although she had six children, Howe made time to write essays and organize rallies for an annual Mother’s Day for Peace, planting the seeds of what would eventually become Mother’s Day.

25. ANN JARVIS

Ann Jarvis (1832—1905) inspired the movement that eventually made Mother’s Day into a national holiday. After most of her babies died of diseases—only four of her possibly 13 children survived to adulthood—she wanted to help other mothers. She organized Mother's Day Work Clubs in what is now West Virginia to help provide medical care, raise money for medicines, and improve sanitary conditions for poor mothers.

After her death, Jarvis’s daughter Anna Jarvis built off of the work of her mother by writing letters and giving speeches in support of Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson designated Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914. Ironically, Jarvis never became a mother herself, and she became horrified by how flower, chocolate, and greeting card companies exploited Mother’s Day for their own financial gain. Jarvis advocated boycotts of Mother’s Day and tried to sue companies that were commercializing the holiday. But the sentiment of appreciating mothers and all the work they do remained, even if the commercial aspect never disappeared.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless noted otherwise.

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25 Royals in the Line of Succession to the British Throne
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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

Between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcoming their third child on April 23, 2018 and Prince Harry's upcoming marriage to Suits star Meghan Markle in May, the line of succession to the British throne has become a topic of interest all over the world. And the truth is, it’s complicated. Though Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 92 years old on April 21, shows no signs of slowing down, here are the royals who could one day take her place on the throne—in one very specific order.

1. PRINCE CHARLES

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As a direct result of his mother being the world's longest-reigning monarch, Prince Charles—the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip—is the longest serving heir to the throne; he became heir apparent in 1952, when his mother ascended to the throne.

2. PRINCE WILLIAM

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At 35 years old, odds are good that Prince William, Duke of Cambridge—the eldest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana—will ascend to the throne at some point in his lifetime.

3. PRINCE GEORGE 

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On July 22, 2013, Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their first child, Prince George of Cambridge, who jumped the line to step ahead of his uncle, Prince Harry, to become third in the line of succession.

4. PRINCESS CHARLOTTE 

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On May 2, 2015, William and Catherine added another member to their growing brood: a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. Though her parents just welcomed a bouncing baby boy, she will maintain the fourth-in-line position because of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which went into effect just a few weeks before her arrival, and removed a long-held rule which stated that any male sibling (regardless of birth order) would automatically move ahead of her.

5. PRINCE OF CAMBRIDGE

 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge depart the Lindo Wing with their newborn son at St Mary's Hospital on April 23, 2018 in London, England
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On April 23, 2018, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their third child—a son, whose name has yet to be announced, but who has already pushed his uncle, Prince Harry, out of the fifth position in line to the throne.

6. PRINCE HARRY

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As the second-born son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince Harry's place in the line is a regularly changing one. It changed earlier this week, when his brother William's third child arrived, and could change again if and when their family expands.

7. PRINCE ANDREW, DUKE OF YORK

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Prince Andrew is a perfect example of life before the Succession to the Crown Act 2013: Though he’s the second-born son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, he’s actually their third child (Princess Anne came between him and Prince Charles). But because the rules gave preference to males, Prince Andrew would inherit the throne before his older sister.

8. PRINCESS BEATRICE OF YORK

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Because Prince Andrew and his ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, had two daughters and no sons, none of that male-preference primogeniture stuff mattered in terms of their placement. But with each child her cousin Prince William has, Princess Beatrice moves farther away from the throne. If Beatrice looks familiar, it might be because of the headlines she made with the Dr. Seuss-like hat she wore to William and Catherine’s wedding. (The infamous topper later sold on eBay for more than $130,000, all of which went to charity.)

9. PRINCESS EUGENIE OF YORK

Princess Eugenie of York arrives in the parade ring during Royal Ascot 2017 at Ascot Racecourse on June 20, 2017 in Ascot, England
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Though she’s regularly seen at royal events, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s youngest daughter spends the bulk of her time indulging her interest in fine art. She has held several jobs in the art world, and is currently a director at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery.

10. PRINCE EDWARD, EARL OF WESSEX

 Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex leaves after a visit to Prince Philip
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Like his older brother Andrew, Prince Edward—the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—jumps the line ahead of his older sister, Princess Anne, because of the older rule that put males ahead of females.

11. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

 James, Viscount Severn, rides on the fun fair carousel on day 4 of the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 11, 2013 in Windsor, England
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James, Viscount Severn—the younger of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s two children, and their only son—turned 10 years old on December 17, 2017, and celebrated it as the 10th royal in line of succession. (The birth of the youngest Prince of Cambridge pushed him back a spot.)

12. LADY LOUISE MOUNTBATTEN-WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor during the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 15, 2013 in London, England.
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Because the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 wasn’t enacted until 2015, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor—the older of Prince Edward’s two children—will always be just behind her brother in the line of succession.

13. PRINCESS ANNE, THE PRINCESS ROYAL

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, visits the Hambleton Equine Clinic on October 10, 2017 in Stokesley, England
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Princess Anne, the Queen and Prince Philip’s second-born child and only daughter, may never rule over the throne in her lifetime, but at least she gets to be called “The Princess Royal.”

14. PETER PHILLIPS

Peter Phillips poses for a photo on The Mall
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The eldest child and only son of Princess Anne and her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, stands just behind his mother in line. Interesting fact: Had Phillips’s wife, Autumn Kelly, not converted from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England before their marriage in 2008, Phillips would have lost his place in line.

15. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

Savannah Phillips attends a Christmas Day church service
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On December 29, 2010, Peter and Autumn Phillips celebrated the birth of their first child, Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, who is also the Queen’s first great-grandchild. She’s currently 15th in line.

16. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
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Less than two years after Savannah, Peter and Autumn Phillips had a second daughter, Isla, who stands just behind her sister in line. It wasn’t until 2017 that Savannah and Isla made their Buckingham Palace balcony debut (in honor of their great-grandmother’s 91st birthday).

17. ZARA TINDALL

 Zara Tindall arrives for a reception at the Guildhall
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Not one to hide in the background, Zara Tindall—Princess Anne’s second child and only daughter—has lived much of her life in the spotlight. A celebrated equestrian, she won the Eventing World Championship in Aachen in 2006 and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year the same year (her mom earned the same title in 1971). She’s also Prince George’s godmother.

18. MIA TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
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Zara Tindall’s daughter Mia may just be 4 years old, but she’s already regularly making headlines for her outgoing personality. And though she’s only 18th in line to the throne, her connection to the tippity top of the royal family is much closer: Prince William is her godfather.

19. DAVID ARMSTRONG-JONES, 2ND EARL OF SNOWDON

David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowdon
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David Armstrong-Jones, the eldest child of Princess Margaret, isn’t waiting around to see if the British crown ever lands on his head. The 56-year-old, who goes by David Linley in his professional life, has made a name for himself as a talented furniture-maker. His bespoke pieces, sold under the brand name Linley, can be purchased through his own boutiques as well as at Harrods.

20. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

Margarita Armstrong-Jones and Charles Patrick Inigo Armstrong-Jones
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David Armstrong-Jones’s only son, Charles, may be 20th in line to the throne, but the 18-year-old is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

21. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) talks with Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (C) as her father David Armstrong-Jones (L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, known as David Linley
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Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones, the youngest child of David Armstrong-Jones and his only daughter, is also the only granddaughter of Princess Margaret. Now 15 years old (she'll turn 16 in June), Lady Margarita made headlines around the world in 2011 when she served as a flower girl at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

22. LADY SARAH CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto, the daughter of Princess Margaret arrives for her mother's memorial service
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Lady Sarah Chatto, Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s only daughter, is the youngest grandchild of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In addition to serving as a bridesmaid to Princess Diana, she is Prince Harry’s godmother.

23. SAMUEL CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto (L) and her son Samuel Chatto (R) leave a Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Lord Snowdon at Westminster Abbey on April 7, 2017 in London, United Kingdom
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The first-born son of Lady Sarah Chatto and her husband, Daniel, has a long way to go to reach the throne: He’s currently 23rd in line.

24. ARTHUR CHATTO

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For better or worse, Sarah and Daniel Chatto’s youngest son Arthur has become a bit of a social media sensation. He's made headlines recently as he regularly posts selfies to Instagram—some of them on the eyebrow-raising side, at least as far as royals go.

25. PRINCE RICHARD, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER

Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester makes a speech during the unveiling ceremony of London's first public memorial to the Korean War on December 3, 2014 in London, England
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At 73 years old, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester is the youngest grandchild of King George V and Queen Mary. Formerly, he made a living as an architect, until the 1972 death of his brother, Prince William of Gloucester, put him next in line to inherit his father’s dukedom. On June 10, 1974, he officially succeeded his father as Duke of Gloucester, Earl of Ulster, and Baron Culloden.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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