Queen Elizabeth II was proper in most of her public appearances, including when she met with U.S. presidents. But she had a sharp wit and great comic timing which were, at times, on display when unanticipated humorous incidents occurred during her visits to America.
The queen, who died Sept. 8, 2022 at age 96, first came to Washington in 1951.
At that time, she held the title of princess. This was during the reign of her father, King George VI. In 1951 the White House was undergoing major renovations, so the princess and her husband, Prince Philip, stayed with President Harry Truman and his family at Blair House — located directly across the street.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were able to stay in the White House in 1957 with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and first lady Mamie Eisenhower.
The queen and prince next visited the White House in 1976 during President Gerald Ford’s administration. This was to mark 200 years of U.S. independence from Britain.
While the British were in no mood to celebrate the American Revolution when they fought a war to keep control of their 13 colonies, all was forgiven two centuries later as the countries maintained a close friendship after their divorce.
First lady Betty Ford acknowledged years later in an interview with The Washington Post that she "was in awe" of the idea of hosting the royals at a state dinner, but on meeting them found that "they were no different than the people I knew. They were lovely, gracious, charming and warm."
When the queen and prince stepped off an elevator into the White House residence they surprised 24-year-old Jack Ford, who was getting dressed for the state dinner with his shirt unbuttoned, exposing his bare chest.
Mrs. Ford recalled: "He stood there, mouth open, gaping at the four of us, and the Queen of England turned to me and smiled sweetly. 'I have one just like it at home,' she said."
Then when President Ford asked the queen for the first dance at the state dinner, the Marine Band played "The Lady is a Tramp."
Mrs. Ford said she was surprised the band "doesn’t have sense enough to come up with something appropriate" and quipped that maybe the song "was referring to me." President Ford joked later that he "narrowly avoided a national incident and court martial too."
In 1983 the royal couple had lunch with President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan at the president’s ranch in California during a rainstorm.
Journalists likened the weather to "Scotland on a foul day."
The royals also attended "one of the fanciest dinners in the city’s history” in San Francisco hosted by the Reagans, along with 260 prominent guests, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. They were serenaded by Tony Bennett who, unlike the Marine Band, picked an appropriate song: "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
As the rains continued, the queen joked: "I knew before we came that we had exported many of our traditions to the United States, I had not realized before that weather was one of them."
The queen and prince were then honored at a White House state dinner in 1991 during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. At the arrival ceremony for the couple, the 6-foot-2 president spoke at a podium adjusted for his height, but no one remembered to place a step stool at the podium for the queen, who stood a little over 5 feet tall.
As a result, the queen was all but invisible when she spoke, except for her hat. The moment was immortalized by NBC reporter Jim Miklaszewski, who exclaimed, "She’s gone! All I got is a talking hat!"
Thereafter, many called her visit "the talking hat tour."
When she delivered her historic address to Congress on the same trip the queen said: "I hope you can see me today from where you are," drawing laughs and applause.
The queen and prince made their final visit to the White House in 2007 when George W. Bush was president. The young princess who had visited President Truman was a senior citizen by this time … but not as senior as the younger President Bush made her out to be when in a slip of the tongue he thanked her for helping celebrate the Bicentennial in 1776, rather than in 1976.
Realizing his gaffe, Bush paused, looked at the queen for a moment and told the audience: "She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child."
The queen responded when she toasted Bush at a dinner that night: "I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, 'When I was here in 1776. . . . '"
Bush and the guests burst into laughter and when it was the president’s turn to speak he said: "Your Majesty, I can’t top that one."
Over the course of her life, Queen Elizabeth met with every American president from Harry Truman to Joe Biden, except for Lyndon B. Johnson. Those she didn’t see in the U.S. she met in her own country. She even met with former President Herbert Hoover — who left office when she was 6-years-old — at a luncheon held in her honor in New York City in 1957.
When President Biden met with the queen at Windsor Castle in June 2021 he invited her to visit the White House. That visit never occurred.
Instead, the president and first lady Jill Biden will be attending the British monarch’s funeral in a final tribute to a queen whose charm and keen sense of humor undoubtedly helped strengthen the special relationship between our two countries.
Jennifer B. Pickens (@JenniferBPickens) is a White House historian and first lady expert. She is a public speaker the author of three books on the White House: "Christmas at the White House," "Pets at the White House," and her latest book "Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions."
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