Rain put a damper on Queen Elizabeth II's 1983 trip to California.
Editor’s Note: Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt was born in eastern Tennessee to Lebanese immigrants, earned a degree with honors from Vassar, became a reporter in Washington, and married Archie Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. President Reagan asked her to serve as his Chief of Protocol, and in her seven years in that post, she organized more than 70 state visits. Ms. Roosevelt held the rank of ambassador and served in the post longer than any other individual. She later led the effort to restore the historic 119-room Blair House, the guest residence for the White House. We asked her to share her memories of the late Queen Elizabeth. Portions of this essay appeared in her memoir, Keeper of the Gate.
I was honored to have met the late Queen Elizabeth on numerous occasions as President Reagan’s Chief of Protocol, and spent ten days with her and Prince Philip when they came on a state visit to California. No one was more regal than Queen Elizabeth — her being 5' 2" notwithstanding. But, during her visit to the western United States, her aplomb was put to the test.
Arriving in late February 1983 on the royal yacht Britannia, the Queen and Prince Philip planned to bask in the California sunshine as they sailed from San Diego to San Francisco. Instead, they were greeted with high winds, torrential rains, eighteen-foot waves, mud slides, floods, and even a freak tornado.
At one point, water flooded the pier where the sleek 412-foot yacht had anchored; the only way we could get the royal visitors off the Britannia was by commandeering some school buses from the nearby naval base. Imagine my amusement at seeing the Queen and Prince Philip sitting in the front seats of the bus laughing like schoolchildren. (I was told this was probably the first time she had ever ridden on a bus.)
A few days later, instead of helicoptering to President Reagan’s ranch near Santa Barbara, as the original scenario provided, rain and fog grounded us, so several four-wheel-drive vehicles were organized to take the royal party up a treacherous mountain road.
The intrepid Queen seemed totally unconcerned. I climbed into the jeep directly behind hers, the one carrying most of her Secret Service contingent. Bob Alberri, the head of the detail, a handsome man with a roguish charm, couldn’t resist teasing me as I averted my eyes from the sheer drop on one side of the road. “Madam Ambassador,” he said, “we’re talking a three-hundred-foot drop!”
The weather played havoc with the Queen’s wardrobe. When she came down the gangplank the first day in a blue-and-white costume and rakish Dutch-boy cap, that was the last the general public saw of her new ensemble. Instead, she had to cover herself with an olive-drab raincoat and huddle under an umbrella.
She even resorted to a plastic rain hat tied under her chin as she rode around Walter Annenberg’s Palm Springs estate in a golf cart. Princess Margaret, observing the royal visit on television in London, telephoned her sister and protested, “Don’t you have anything else to wear besides that horrible old mackintosh?”
The royal party ended up flying instead of sailing to San Francisco, but the social events went on as scheduled and I dined four nights on the royal yacht. We arrived in San Francisco early, and despite meticulous advance planning, no one had foreseen a free day. Reagan's deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver decided to organize a dinner at Trader Vic’s, and the Queen loved it — the first time in sixteen years that the British monarch had dropped in at a restaurant anywhere.
Months earlier, when we were beginning our preparations for the Queen’s visit, I had been hurt and upset because Mike Deaver wanted to take over my duties on this visit. “The president would like me to be the Queen’s official escort,” he informed me. I was surprised because I knew that Ronald Reagan never bothered with details like this.
They would soon find out how much they needed my protocol team of sixty professionals, and, in the end, Gahl Hodges, the head of our visits section, would do much of the work. Actually, having Mike Deaver and the White House advance team out front on this visit meant that we had easier access to the U.S. Navy and Air Force resources. My staff and I could never have coped with the enormous logistical problems we encountered because of the weather.
At one point, the plane with the Queen on board took off, leaving her jewels and the footman responsible for them forgotten on the tarmac. We had to arrange for a later plane to carry them.
In the end, it all worked out for the best. Mike and I shared escorting honors. When the Queen and Prince Philip had separate itineraries, I went with the prince. Not a bad assignment. There were few men in the world more attractive than Prince Philip, with his aquiline features and military bearing. He kept me laughing, to the point that, at one moment, I noticed the Queen giving us a disapproving glance. I could imagine her saying, “We are not amused.”
Elizabeth’s manner was not nearly so austere as her public moments would indicate, and she was far lovelier in person than her photos convey. Her glowing skin was a triumph of nature. Even as she approached her sixtieth birthday, she had scarcely a line in her face. And when she smiled, she looked like a mischievous little girl.
Loyal British subjects never refer to “the Queen,” but to “Her Majesty.” In my earlier days as a journalist, I was always amused by the friendly American crowds yelling “Hi, Queen,” but as Chief of Protocol, I winced when photographers shouted, “Hey, Queen, look this way!”
The worst, however, were importunate fans who tried to get royal autographs. That was a real no-no.