When the Kennedys Met the Windsors

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The visit of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, to London in 1961 has been picking up some headlines recently thanks to it being featured in the trailers for The Crown’s second season. Most of the stories are framed around the question of how the Queen and Jackie got on, particularly in light of Kennedy’s famous womanizing and rumors swirling around ’60s about Philip, so today I thought it would be worth taking a look at what really went down – at least, according to the Queen’s biographers.

Kennedy took office in January 1961 following a contentious election against former Vice President Richard Nixon. He and his young, glamorous wife were heralded as a breath of fresh air in Washington, while coverage of the First Lady often descended into rhapsodies over her beauty, style and famous good taste. Kennedy had close ties to Great Britain, his father, Joe Kennedy, Sr. having served as the U.S. ambassador during the outbreak of World War II, however he was recalled in disgrace after urging appeasement of the Nazis. Disliked by the British and Americans alike, his failure in the high-profile post had a significant impression on his young son.

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When the Kennedys resided in London during wartime, Elizabeth was still a child and it’s unlikely that she ever met the future president. She would, however, have known his parents and was particularly fond of his mother, Rose, who took the time to chat with her and her sister, Princess Margaret, during visits to Windsor Castle.

Elizabeth had spent 1960 in England, ushering in the year with the birth of her third child, Prince Andrew, that February, and then celebrating Margaret’s wedding to Antony Armstrong-Jones. When 1961 dawned, she and Philip made up for lost time by undertaking a long foreign tour of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, Cyprus and Italy, returning home in March. That June, they hosted a dinner for the Kennedys at Buckingham Palace. The event was historical in that it was the first time a U.S. President had been hosted for a meal at the Palace since Woodrow Wilson visited George V in 1918.

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Philip and Elizabeth on the day of Andrew’s christening

The evening was set up for an awkward note when the question of whether or not to invite Jackie’s sister, Lee, then married to Prince Stanisław Albrecht Radziwiłł. Lee had divorced her first husband, while her husband had divorced his first two wives. Technically, divorcees were not welcome at the Palace, but because this wasn’t deemed a state occasion, an invitation was finally extended to Lee so that she could join her sister. Jackie had personally requested to meet Princess Margaret, as well as Marina, Duchess of Kent, however it was decided (presumably by Elizabeth and Philip) not to include them so as to further underline this was a purely social event.

Rumor has it that the Queen was rather hesitant to host the Kennedys, but not because of impropriety or the president’s father. Instead, she was apparently nervous about being photographed next to Jackie given her glamazon reputation. Thirty-five at the time of the visit and mother to three children, the Queen was moving towards what was once considered middle age, while Jackie, only three years younger, was widely heralded for putting a new twist on the role of First Lady. Some of this is of course unfair given that Jackie’s youth only seemed particularly extreme when one compares her age to other First Ladies, while Elizabeth’s role and lifestyle put constraints on her behavior and sartorial choices. And at the end of the day, these were two very different women, albeit with some notably similar circumstances.

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So, the evening itself: Elizabeth wore a blue tulle gown with darker blue straps by Neil Hartnell with long white gloves and sapphire and diamond jewelry. Jackie chose an ice blue gown by Chez Ninon, which looked altogether more modern. Elizabeth’s gown wouldn’t have been out of place in mid-1950s, while Jackie’s did fully capture the vibe of ’60s.

The Kennedys joined a party of carefully selected government officials and their wives for glasses of champagne before dinner. Philip escorted Jackie around the room, while Elizabeth took Kennedy, personally introducing them to the assorted guests. After dinner, the first couple were shown one of the Palace’s art galleries. By all accounts, it was a pleasant evening and smooth sailing – that is, until Jackie chose to dish to friends, including Gore Vidal, after the fact.

Re: the guest list, Jackie told Vidal there was “No Margaret, no Marina, no one except every Commonwealth minister of agriculture they could find,” and that the Queen herself was “pretty heavy going,” while Philip was “nice but nervous.” Specifically, she noted that she couldn’t find the humanity behind the royal facade, only calling out one moment when Jackie was complaining about the pressure of a recent state visit in Canada. The Queen noted cryptically that, “One gets crafty after a while and learns how to save oneself.”

John F. Kennedy Attending Palace Dinner

While conceding Philip and Elizabeth were very nice, she was less than impressed by the Queen’s dress and called her hairstyle “flat.” As for the state rooms at Buckingham Palace, world-renowned, Jackie found them poorly done, their furniture and flowers underwhelming. More damning, she commented on the marriage by saying, “One felt absolutely no connection between them.”

The words were unkind, and presumptuous, but as for rumors of flirting between Philip and Jackie, there is nothing concrete to point to except for Jackie’s later comments that she felt Elizabeth “resented” her. Yes, it’s possible that Philip was flirting, or that he laid the charm on thick in the presence of a famously beautiful woman. And I suppose, if one accepts that as a possibility, then one might imagine there was a knife to be dug given the marital dynamics of the Kennedys. As for the Queen, well, she probably could have done without all of that…if it actually happened.

At some point a formal state visit for the Kennedys was expected, but before that could happen, Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. In the interim, Jackie briefly met Elizabeth again in March 1962 when she was in London to visit Lee. The two visited Elizabeth for a luncheon at Buckingham Palace and, husbands absent, they apparently got along swimmingly.

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The bond between the two countries – and perhaps the two women – was apparent again when Elizabeth reached out to Jackie privately after her husband’s death. In 1965, an acre of land at Runnymede was given to the United States “in perpetuity” to honor Kennedy’s memory. Jackie attended the dedication ceremony with her two children and her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy.

As for the 1961 night in question, whatever truly happened, I have a feeling we’re going to see a slightly more dramatic version come Dec. 8.

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