'Elizabeth' Shows Many Facets of Britain's Queen

By Donahue, Deirdre | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 29, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Elizabeth' Shows Many Facets of Britain's Queen


Donahue, Deirdre, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


The British national anthem might be "God Save the Queen," but according to Sally Bedell Smith's new biography, "Elizabeth the Queen," the petite monarch has done a heroic job of rescuing the royal institution herself.

Oh, and that annus horribilis back in 1992, when her kids were truly being royals pains? So last century.

Moreover, the 85-year-old great-grandmother has somehow made quaint Victorian values such as duty, tradition and sacrifice hip.

"When I heard people clapping at the end of 'The King's Speech,' I felt really encouraged that my book would find an audience," says Smith, 63.

"The more I learned about (the queen), the more I admired her," says Smith, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and former New York Times reporter. "That doesn't happen often."

Smith's previous biographical subjects include CBS' ruthless titan William S. Paley; adventuress-turned-U.S. ambassador to France Pamela Harriman; Jack and Jackie Kennedy; Bill and Hillary Clinton; and Princess Diana.

In 2008, Smith's publisher asked her to write a biography timed to Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee this year, marking 60 years on the throne.

"What's extraordinary about Sally," says Smith's editor Kate Medina of Random House in an e-mail, "is how she uses her incredible access to get inside the lives and minds of those we've previously admired only from a distance, so she brings the queen to life as never before, and as a remarkable human being -- a girl who fell in love at 13 (with her future husband, Prince Philip), became a working mother, has done her job with grace in public, and playfulness in private, over 60 tumultuous years."

On Feb. 6, 1952, the 25-year-old Elizabeth became queen after her father, King George VI, died of a blood clot in his sleep. Only one other British ruler, Queen Victoria, has hit a Diamond Jubilee.

Queen Elizabeth will follow her usual practice of marking Accession Day -- Feb. 6 -- "in quiet commemoration," according to Smith. The Diamond Jubilee celebrations will begin in May, culminating in a four-day national celebration the first week in June. (The queen's actual coronation was June 2, 1953.)

But, while Queen Victoria was too frail to climb the steps to St. Paul's Cathedral during her Diamond Jubilee, Elizabeth remains in motion. She continues to ride horses -- without a helmet -- and terrorizes visitors to her Scottish estate Balmoral with her high- speed driving. One of her private secretaries has explained the secret to the queen's extraordinary vitality: "She sleeps very well, and secondly she's got very good legs, and she can stand for a long time. ... The queen is as tough as a yak."

In writing "Elizabeth the Queen," Smith received assistance from Buckingham Palace but did not interview the queen. In 60 years, she has never granted a single interview.

Smith toured all the queen's residences in England and Scotland. She also was allowed to travel with the queen and her husband on both domestic and international trips and witness what life as a royal entails. She spoke with more than 200 people -- friends, relatives, staff, duchesses and dog handlers. …

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