'The Crown' tells it true: Baltimore Sun uncovered royal scandal

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Baltimore-area fans of “The Crown,” the brilliantly acted, sumptuously filmed and downright addictive Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II, got a neat little surprise in Season 2’s Episode 3, “Lisbon” — sort of the opposite of a shout-out, but fun to hear just the same.

For those who haven’t made it this far in the series, which became available for streaming-at-your-leisure last month, it’s spoiler alert time. For the rest, here’s a little background on how our fair city and its longtime newspaper of record warranted a mention on the show.

The first season of “The Crown” touched on such things as the famous abdication-for-the-woman-I-love business involving King Edward VIII and the divorcee from Baltimore, Wallis Simpson, and the subsequent events that led to Elizabeth assuming the throne.

The early part of Season 2 finds the wearer of the crown rather out of sorts with her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (soon to be given the title Prince of the Realm). Late in 1956, Elizabeth sends Philip on a four-month trip around the world aboard the royal yacht Britannia, ostensibly to open the Olympics in Australia and also spread goodwill among the remotest corners of the Commonwealth.

That voyage can’t help but spark gossip about the state of the royal marriage, especially given that another couple’s marital troubles — Philip’s private secretary, Michael Parker, was being sued for divorce — is shedding unwelcome light on the court. The gossip really heats up in the new year.

In February 1957, Elizabeth and her mother are given a briefing on the state of things. The British press, they are told, “have fallen in line” and are keeping a lid on the tittle-tattle. But it’s another matter with the foreign press; a story about the rumors just broke in the Baltimore Sun.

“Where?” says the Queen Mother, with a condescending little laugh, as if she thinks it all sounds terribly provincial and not worth another thought.

“Baltimore, Mummy,” says Elizabeth firmly, giving her a split-second, fierce look (actress Claire Foy is simply brilliant at communicating with her eyes). If that look could speak, it would surely shout: “Puh-LEEEZE! You can’t possibly have forgotten the place that gave us that wanton woman and this family’s greatest headache.”

For those without encyclopedic knowledge of Britain’s royal family, or instant access to Sun archives, all of this might seem a flight of poetic fancy on the part of “The Crown’s” writers. But the Sun really did light a fire back in the day.

On the front page, Feb. 8, 1957, an article by Joan Graham of the Sun’s London bureau described “a vague unhappy discontent” spreading in Britain about the royals, and how “cafe society figures” were daring to talk “openly of a rift between Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.”

While noting that “the vast majority of the middle and lower classes flatly refuse to believe” the rumors, Graham went on to impart some juicy tidbits about how it had been “hinted by the know-it-alls that [Philip] had more than a passing interest in an unnamed woman and was meeting her regularly in the private apartment” of the court photographer.

Graham also noted that Philip’s journey seemed to be stretched out deliberately. And, having passed up an opportunity to be reunited with the Queen before the two were to make a state visit to Portugal, he was “apparently just hanging around” in Gibraltar. (“The Crown” deals compellingly with what happened when Elizabeth and Philip finally met.)

The Sun’s intrepid London correspondent did allow that “every one of the Duke’s movements may have a perfectly logical reason,” and that his rumored affair “may be merely the outcome of his having had a fairly gay reputation before he married.” (Don’t read more into that — some words were used differently in 1957.)

But Graham wrapped up her story by reiterating her lead zinger, “that every day more and more people” are discussing the rift.

In a 1992 Sun story triggered by another Buckingham brouhaha — Prince Andrew splitting from Sarah Ferguson — writer Richard O’Mara looked back at how the 1957 matter played out.

When Graham’s story “was flashed back to England by the wire services, it detonated with the impact of an IRA bomb,” O’Mara wrote. “Miss Graham found she had a world scoop and had become unwelcome at Buckingham Palace, which hung up on her when she tried to follow up on her story.”

Thanks to Sun researcher Paul McCardell for his invaluable help.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

twitter.com/clefnotes

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