In the early summer of 1961, Queen Elizabeth sits down on a couch at a country castle to share a TV dinner with her mother.
On the plates: macaroni and cheese. On the TV: Jackie Kennedy dazzling Paris.
“She’s so young,” the queen mother says. “I always thought she was the same age as you.”
The queen replies, “She is.”
The moment is striking.
In a few days, Jackie Kennedy will leave France and arrive with her husband at Buckingham Palace for dinner. Already, the queen is slowly boiling over with jealousy. Her mother simply cannot stop talking about Jackie.
The moment is also not real.
It comes at the beginning of episode 8 of the second season of the hit Netflix show “The Crown,” which depicts the life of Queen Elizabeth II after she takes the throne following the early death of her father, King George.
The show follows the queen’s life as she navigates family troubles and weighty world events. As a historical document, it’s certainly not a dissertation. The spirit is there, even if the macaroni and cheese is made up. (Though it did look rather delicious.)
In the arc of the show, the Kennedys’ visit to Buckingham Palace comes at the climax of the season, using the visit — and all its tension — to depict a queen coming to accept her personal limitations (dowdy, unsexy, not well read) but also firmly grasping the crown’s power.
Britain did indeed go positively mad for Jackie when she arrived. The queen wasn’t pleased.
“The queen’s resentment was real,” Kitty Kelley wrote in “The Royals.”
The show depicts that displeasure in the on-screen queen’s reaction to the Kennedys’ arrival at Buckingham Palace, when her staff of normally stiff butlers and even Prince Phillip jockey to see the first lady emerging from the motorcade.
“It’s mad hysteria,” the on-screen queen says. “Extraordinary behavior.”
“C’mon,” her husband says. “It’s like royalty.”
“Very funny,” the on-screen queen says, not having much fun.
In reality, according to news accounts and biographies of Jackie and Queen Elizabeth, there was a real tension to the visit beyond beauty and star power, a behind-the-scenes, passive-aggressive catfight left out of the episode.
Jackie, in reality, insisted on inviting to the dinner her sister and brother-in-law, a Polish prince who had been divorced twice. One divorce back then was too many for the queen and the monarchy. The queen objected. The first lady objected to the objection.
A tense negotiation among diplomats ended favorably for Jackie — until she saw the full guest list. Left off the queen’s list was her own more fashionable and risqué sister, Princess Margaret, and their aunt Princess Marina. The queen knew the first lady wanted to be photographed with them.
“No Margaret, no Marina, no one except every Commonwealth minister of agriculture they could find,” Jackie reportedly told her friend Gore Vidal, a writer with loose lips. Zing!
In the episode, the first lady is also overheard saying really, really mean things about the queen. Without spoiling the entirety of insults for those who haven’t yet made it to episode 8, here is but one word Jackie used to describe her host: “Unremarkable.” Zing zing!
Jackie wasn’t a fan in reality either.
“The queen was pretty heavy-going,” she told Vidal, according to numerous Jackie biographies. “Phillip was nice, but nervous. One felt absolutely no relationship between them.”
The show and reality do converge on several topics.
For one thing, the meal was not a state dinner. The Brits were sensitive about upstaging the French, who had just fallen all over themselves to welcome the Kennedys. And after all, the president had been in office only seven months. A state dinner could come later.
It never did.
Toward the end of the episode, the queen is out in the forest helping clear wood. A man comes racing out in a Land Rover*, honking the horn.
“What is it?” she asks.
The man says, “You’re needed back at the house.”
Queen Elizabeth jumps into the Land Rover and heads in.
The music turns grim.
She finds her staff huddled around a TV.
“People screamed and laid down on the ground,” the newscaster says, “as shots were heard …”
* This post originally said a man came racing out in a Jeep. It was a Land Rover.
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