Washington is a town of marble and bronze, of monuments and memorials raised to the famous. But the famous have a way of becoming the forgotten, and as the years go by we can find ourselves wondering Who is that? What was that?
They unveiled a new statue on Sunday, of a woman whose story deserves to be remembered. It's across from the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue NW, in that seemingly endless stretch of embassies and chanceries and ambassadorial residences.
The woman is handsome -- tall and high-cheekboned and dressed smartly in the style of the 1940s: pearls and heels, hat and handbag. She seems to be striding forward, her right arm raised. The story of how she ended up in Washington, looking as if she might march down Massachusetts Avenue and then straight to the White House, begins on the night of Aug. 15, 1940.
About 8:30 p.m., two cars and a baggage truck pulled up next to a ship that was berthed at a Finnish port called Petsamo, on the Barents Sea. The ship, called the American Legion, already was full to bursting, stuffed with more than 800 Americans and diplomatic evacuees eager to escape a Europe that was rapidly falling under the Nazi jackboot.
But they would have to make room for a few more: Norway's Crown Princess Martha, her daughters, Princess Ragnhild, 10, and Princess Astrid, 8, and 3-year-old Prince Harald, the heir to the Norwegian throne. When their caravan arrived, passengers on board the American Legion broke into cheers -- not least because it meant the ship finally could set sail.
About midnight the following evening, Capt. B.E. Torning gave the order to cast off. The ship moved slowly out of the fiord, then gingerly threaded its way through a series of minefields.
The United States was not yet involved in World War II, but the rescue of the crown princess was itself a provocation. Her husband, Crown Prince Olav, and father-in-law, King Haakon, had escaped to London to set up a government in exile. Hitler, it was suspected later, wanted the American Legion stopped in a remote part of the Arctic and its most famous passengers removed and brought back to Norway.
The American Legion escaped German clutches. Five hundred miles off the North American coast it was joined by two U.S. destroyers, a demonstration that the U.S. government still recognized the exiled royal family as the rulers of Norway. It arrived in New York on Aug. 28.
President Franklin Roosevelt himself had offered refuge to the royal family. They stayed briefly at his Hyde Park estate and then at the White House, before they settled into a Tudor-style mansion north of Bethesda, off a small road called the Rockville Pike.
The house was part of a 105-acre estate named "Pook's Hill," after a book of Rudyard Kipling stories favored by the estate's owner, Merle Thorpe. Thorpe was the editor of Nation's Business, the magazine of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He leased his estate to the royal refugees and then sold it to them.
Journalists at the time paid the unassuming bluebloods the ultimate compliment, calling them "real folks." The princesses entertained Girl Scouts at the Norwegian Embassy; Prince Harald skied on Pook's Hill. Newspaper photographers would snap the family's picture at public appearances. "And the Harald," Crown Princess Martha always pointed out helpfully, "is spelled with two a's."
The family spent a total of five years at Pook's Hill, joined only occasionally by their father, who made clandestine trips from Britain. Crown Princess Martha worked quietly behind the scenes to support the war effort. They were special favorites of the president, and when FDR took his final oath of office at the White House, an 8-year-old Prince Harald was standing behind him.
The war finally ended, and on June 7, 1945, the royal family returned home, arriving to the thunderous applause of the Norwegian people. Martha died in 1954 at the age of 53.
On Sunday, the former boy prince, now King Harald V of Norway, unveiled Washington's newest statue, created by sculptor Kirsten Kokkin. It commemorates 100 years of Norwegian independence from Sweden and a century of diplomatic relations between Norway and the United States.
"The artist has fully captured the strength and determination of the crown princess," said King Harald, "and has succeeded in capturing the grace and vitality of her personality."
"This is the first time all three of us are here in Washington since 1945, together," Harald said on Sunday, standing with Ragnhild and Astrid at the embassy. "It's quite an occasion for us."
I wondered, did being in Washington so long as children give them an American accent?
"I'm afraid so," said Princess Astrid.
Harald V is the first king I've met, if I can say that being among a scrum of Norwegian journalists counts as having met him. But it does allow me to indulge in a few wonderful phrases:
"As I was saying to the King of Norway the other day. . . ."
"That reminds me of something the King of Norway once told me."
"Oh, you like this tie? Yes, well, I wore it when I met the King of Norway."
The statue is in front of the Norwegian Embassy, at 34th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. My e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.