In June 1939, the grandparents of Prince Charles -- young King George VI and Queen Elizabeth -- arrived in Washington for a state visit. President Roosevelt was the impresario on that occasion. Patrician but also a staunch democrat, he was tickled to be host to the young royal couple. But even more, with Hitler and Mussolini hell-bent on war, he knew the symbolic value of this demonstration of Anglo-American solidarity. No detail of protocol, dress, food, entertainment, parade route, guest list escaped his attention. And Eleanor, herself schooled in England, was a willing collaborator on a visit that began in Washington, continued via presidental train up the Hudson to Hyde Park and included a stop at the World's Fair, which had just opened in New York. "Unpacked everything, got the guest rooms all ready and ran up and down 'til my feet ached," Eleanor reported of the preparations. "Franklin telephoned," she wrote from Hyde Park, "that I must tell Elliott not to comment in his broadcast on the King and Queen!"
Another message from Franklin, this one via their sons James, reported that the queen wanted to attend Mrs. Roosevelt's press conference but "not to ask the embassy as they would veto it! Won't the news gals be glad?" her note to Lorena Hickok commented. One of the "gals" did tell the British ambassador, and the queen did not attend. "I understand the girls in Washington just about killed her," Eleanor wrote. "Though Elizabeth reminded Eleanor of Queen Victoria, the queen wanted to try new things.
The young royal couple grew in the estimation of both Roosevelts the longer their visit went on. King and president had intimate talks in which Roosevelt outlined his plans if war broke out for a neutrality patrol in the Atlantic that would lighten the naval burden on the British. The U.S. fleet had just been shifted to the Pacific. Today the move would be called "sending a signal to Japan." A surprising objection to the shift had come from Grover Whalen. He was head of the newly opened World's Fair and wanted the fleet as background for it. "Grover can't have much idea of the international situation if he thinks the fleet was moved to help any fair," observed Eleanor, reflecting talks with her husband.
"Why don't my ministers talk to me as the president did tonight," the king wrote in his diary. "I feel exactly as though a father were giving me his most careful and wise advice."
For Eleanor, a moment of particular satisfaction in their majesties' stay at the White House came at the garden party to which she and the president invited the heads of many of the New Deal agencies as well as the regular departments. "This day is also over," she wrote after the second day's visit, "and has gone well, even FDR is content and I am glad for him. The young royalties are most intelligent. At the tea, they asked everyone questions and left them with a feeling that their subject was of interest and well understood. . . . I begin to think there is something in training."
Behind the scenes there had been family divergences over the entertainment to be offered their majesties. Mama wanted a dazzling but conventional program; Eleanor felt it would be more interesting for them to see and hear entertainers who were uniquely American. Eleanor had invited Marian Anderson to sing at the White House state dinner, as well as Kate Smith and Alan Lomax, a slightly hippie, slightly left collector of folk songs. In Hyde Park, at the picnic outside the president's hilltop cottage, an Indian princess performed and a young Austrian refugee sang. They were not too good, but their participation was significant. Eleanor served beer and frankfurters and, commented Helen Robinson, daughter of Franklin's half-brother and granddaughter of the Mrs. Astor, handled it all as though "it were only a family party."
The dinner that night at the big house was Mama's moment of glory. The king escorted her in, and when the president toasted the king's mother, the king confided to him that his mother frowned when he took a drink. So did Mama, replied Franklin. The dinner was staffed by White House personnel and when some tableware crashed and the butler slipped with an ice tray, Mama was heard to remark, "If my butler had been used instead of those White House people, none of these things would have happened." Eleanor proposed to mention the mishaps in her column. At first the president recoiled, but laughed and agreed when Eleanor explained that people would like to know that accidents happen even in the president's house.
As she had prepared for the royal visit, Eleanor had remarked several times over the "detail" that had to be mastered, and expressed her pleasure at the prospect that the visit in time would be over. But as she and Franklin drove with their guests down the long hill to the Hyde Park station, she felt different, and when Hyde Park villagers broke into "Auld Land Syne" as the train pulled away from the station, she and the president joined in the singing. "We all knew the king and queen were returning home to face a war," she later wrote.
FDR was satisfied and all had gone well, she wrote. "I liked them both but what a life! They are happy together, however, and that must make a difference in the life they had to lead. Mackenzie King [prime minister of Canada] is jubilant over the whole trip. I should think it might give Hitler and Mussolini food for thought. They undoubtedly made friends."
What "a life they had to lead!" She herself had rebelled against the ceremony and pomp in which a First Lady had to participate, so she knew whereof she spoke. When the king and queen left the Roosevelts to go to the World's Fair, Eleanor commented on a "self-consciousness" she had perceived in the queen, and added, "But who wouldn't be? Turning on graciousness like water is bound to affect one in time!" That seemed to her a most awful fate.
The formal picture taken on the Hyde Park veranda on the occasion showed the king and queen, president and First Lady, handsome and gracious with a regal Mama seated at the center. It was one of the great images of the '30s. Though the signal of Anglo-American fellowship that it sent to the dictators was ignored, it counted in the end.