And then the queen said ...
Name-dropping doesn't get much better than that, does it? The queen of England, last in these parts in 1991, arrives in Virginia on Thursday - for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown - offering a fresh opportunity to pick up a royal anecdote for your next cocktail party. The queen, courtesy of the movie The Queen and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren's sympathetic portrayal of the title character, is hot these days, having survived that tabloid-queen daughter-in-law of hers, Princess Diana, and, at 81, is still beloved by her subjects.
Alas, she'll barely step foot in Maryland - on May 8, she's scheduled to visit the Goddard Space Flight Centre as her official programme insists on spelling it - so maybe I won't get a fresher quote than the one I've been recycling for 16 years.
That was when Queen Elizabeth last paid a state visit to the U.S., visiting Washington and making a brief side trip to Baltimore to see her first ever (and maybe only, for all I know) American baseball game. As apparently is customary on her travels, she hosted a reception for the press covering her state visit, so I got to meet the queen.
Well, if you define meet as a gathering in which about 250 reporters were invited to stand around as the queen was escorted around the room. I think we had been warned not to speak unless spoken to, but when it looked like the queen's circuit was going to totally bypass us - three Sun reporters had attended - we persuaded one of her handlers to steer her our way.
What do you say to a queen? A fellow Sun reporter said something about us being from Baltimore, where she was going to be seeing her first baseball game. I understand, the reporter continued, it's a lot like cricket.
And then the queen said (in a tone that would not have been out of place if she had been saying, "Off with their heads!"), "No, it's not."
I seem to recall some further and rather curt explanation about why baseball is nothing like cricket, but the queen basically was finished with us and sailed off, no doubt to set other reporters straight on their own misguided views.
Still, you gotta love the queen. For all the glamour that Princess Di - and now her son, Prince William - brought to the British monarchy, they seem almost too current, too of-this-world, too, dare we say, common. Queen Elizabeth, in her unchangingly frumpy frocks, sensible shoes and nondesigner handbags, restores the monarchy to where it belongs - out of the tabloids and as a sort of living, anachronistic throwback to another era. (Well, maybe not entirely - the official portrait of the queen to commemorate this state visit has been shot by none other than Annie Leibovitz.)
"She is beloved," said Stuart Semmel, a University of Delaware professor who specializes in British history. "Not only do an overwhelming number of Britons want the monarchy preserved, they think she is the best thing about it. ... After Elizabeth, the only way is down."
Perhaps the only monarch who was more popular than the queen was her mother, the late Queen Mum, whom Britons revered because she and her husband, King George VI, remained in London during the Blitz, Semmel said.
She's had some dips in popularity over the years - there was the famous "annus horribilis," as the queen referred to 1992, when her sons' marriages broke up and there was a fire at Windsor Castle, and then there was August and September of 1997, when Princess Di died, and, as The Queen depicted, she belatedly addressed her grieving nation - but she's largely remained popular among her people, Semmel said.
"One of the main ways a constitutional monarch stays popular is by not saying anything about politics," Semmel said. "And she's been excellent at that."
Someone who had more of a brush with the queen than I did in 1991, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said she was "very lovely."
"I'm not much on the royalty stuff, I'm more bacon-and-eggs," Schaefer said yesterday. "But she was very gracious."
Schaefer was invited to the White House for the state dinner for the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, and joined the couple in the owner's box at Memorial Stadium for the game.
"They gave him to me, I was supposed to tell him what was going on," he said of his duties explaining baseball to Prince Phillip. "He's a very nice fella.
"And she made out like she wasn't bored," Schaefer added.
"Oh, please, it's like watching mud dry," he said. (Maybe the queen agrees - she left after three innings.)
No word on whether Schaefer made the list for this year's state dinner at the White House - the first lady's office said the invitation list for the May 7 event is not yet available for public consumption. But the queen won't be among strangers - she had a particularly delicious exchange in 1991 with George W. Bush, then merely the president's son, who The Washington Post said at the time was known to be so "unpredictable" that he was forbidden from speaking to the queen. Still they got to talking - and somehow, the queen asked if he was the black sheep of the family, according to The Post, which went on to relate the rest of the conversation:
He: "I guess so."
She: "All families have them."
He: "Who's yours?"
The answer is lost to history - The Post says mom Barbara Bush swooped in and told the queen not to answer.
Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella