Her Majesty’s Nightgown

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My brush with history involved Queen Elizabeth and the nightgown she wore on her wedding night. I think.

When her engagement to Prince Philip was announced, I was working in San Antonio in a large department store—Joske’s, the “largest store in the largest state.” I wrote their radio commercials. One day the door of my office flew open, and Mary Louise’s head appeared. Mary Louise was my closest friend. She also was head of the Gift Wrap Department, and all the local lights brought pieces by for her special treatment. Her face was ashen, and she sort of gasped, “Come down to the shop. Hurry!”

The head disappeared, and I followed, almost running to her tiny, jumbled workshop. “Look!” She waved wildly at her desk.

Spread there were yards and yards of sheer silk Georgette. With trembling hands, she picked it up. It was a nightgown, pale ivory with satin roses embroidered across the bodice. Holding it high so it wouldn’t touch the floor, she showed me the robe—ivory silk brocade with a pattern woven into the fabric, miniature lords and ladies bowing in minuet, each tiny couple barely an inch high. There must have been forty yards in the two pieces, and they were entirely handmade.

“That’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw! ” My fingers caressed the gown.

“Don’t touch it!”

“Who’s it for?”

“Princess Elizabeth.”

The Princess Elizabeth? The one in England?”

She nodded violently.

“Who’s it from?”

“Some designer who showed her things in England last year. The princess ordered a nightgown and robe for her trousseau.” Mary Louise’s chin quivered. “Fm supposed to gift wrap and mail them.”

I thought she was going to cry. Then, artist that she was, she backed away and studied the two magnificent pieces a moment and got a grip on herself. Throwing her shoulders back, she said, “I’ve got to wash my hands before handling these any more. You stay here on guard, but don’t touch!”

She came back holding her arms up like a surgeon and muttering to herself. “Nothing cutesy. I’ll stay traditional. Royalty likes tradition.”

Then she took down a large dress box, covered the bottom half with glossy white paper, lined it with tissue, and picked up the robe. Reverently, nearly whispering, she said, “The next hands to touch this will be the princess’s.” Padding the robe with more tissue, she folded it into the box. Then the gown. She covered the top of the box separately. “So the princess can open it without untying the ribbons.”

Then she tied together a pair of white wedding bells with loops of white satin and laid them on a bed of silver leaves, and fastened the whole thing down with cleverly concealed pins and tape. Straightening up, she surveyed her creation.

“Simple, but elegant.”

“And absolutely gorgeous,” I sighed.

“I’ve still got to mail it. The address! Where do I send it?” Panic set in again.

“You finish the wrapping. I’ll get the address,” I said. I ducked out, almost running out of the store and down two blocks to the public library. Where to look? They didn’t have a London telephone book, and I’d never heard of Burke’s Peerage . Consultation with the librarians offered bits and pieces. It would have to do. I raced for the store and Mary Louise’s office.

“Did you get it?” she asked.

“Oh, sure.” I wasn’t all that certain.

“Last name?” “I don’t think she has one. I couldn’t find one.” “Where does she live?” “Buckingham Palace.”

She had packed the white box with its bells and ribbons inside a larger, sturdier box and wrapped it in brown paper. She tied the last knot of heavy twine and reached for a pen.

“Okay, what’s her full name?”

“Well, first you put ‘H.R.H.,’ then ‘Elizabeth’—”

“Why not ‘Miss’?”

“She’s not a miss, she’s a royal highness.”

Mary Louise printed “H.R.H. Elizabeth” and stopped.

“Last name?”

“I don’t think she has one. I couldn’t find one.”

“Where does she live?”

“Buckingham Palace.”

“What’s the street number?”

“It doesn’t have one.”

She looked at me sternly. “No last name, no street number. I don’t like it.”

“It’s all right. The post office knows where Buckingham Palace is! It’s a big place right in the middle of London.”

She printed. I gave her a final reminder. “Don’t forget ‘England.’”

Putting down the pen, she read the address and declared flatly, “It’ll never get there.”

“Sure it will. Come on, let’s take it to the post office.”

The box was almost as big as Mary Louise, so as she staggered through the store, I ran ahead, opening doors. It was a block to the post office. Shoving the box over the counter, she asked the clerk, “Is that address all right? There’s no number and no last name.”

The man read it. “It’ll get there. Do you want to insure it?”

“Oh, yes.”

“For how much?”

“I don’t know. It’s priceless!”

“We’ve got five hundred dollars tops.”

“I’ll take it.”

Half-frightened, half-relieved, we watched as he took the box away.