The silence was interrupted only by the clicking of cameras, the whirr of newsreel and, as one Washington Post reporter noted, “the piping of bob whites down the hill.” On June 9, 1939, King George VI, the first reigning British monarch to set foot on American soil, entered the tomb at Mount Vernon and placed a wreath at the stone sarcophagus of his great-great-great-grandfather George III’s nemesis, George Washington. The symbolism could not have been more potent—or more pleasing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hoped the king’s four-day visit to the United States would win sympathy and support for Great Britain as Europe teetered on the brink of war.
The King’s Speech, the movie that recently took the Oscars by storm, recounts how George VI overcame a severe speech impediment and rallied the beleaguered Brits on the eve of World War II. But the movie leaves untold the tale of how the king also helped Roosevelt rally Americans who were reluctant to enter the fray when Hitler and his military legions began clicking their jackboots. Bitter memories of lives lost in the First World War and lingering resentment over Britain’s unpaid war debts, prompted many Americans to resist British pleas for help. “The English soft soap is being poured over Uncle Sam’s devoted head and lathered into his ears and eyes,” warned isolationist publisher William Randolph Hearst.
Roosevelt believed that the dark forces drawing Europe into war threatened the United States, but his ability to provide financial and material support to Britain—America’s first line of defense against Hitler—was limited by strict neutrality laws and widespread isolationism. Perhaps, he thought, a bit of royal pomp and circumstance might help alter public opinion. So he bypassed the usual diplomatic channels and wrote directly to George VI, inviting the king and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, to visit the United States after their scheduled tour of Canada in 1939. An integral part of the itinerary, the president insisted, would be an informal stay at his Hyde Park estate in New York. As Roosevelt advised the king—presciently, as it turned out—“the simplicity and naturalness of such a visit would produce a great effect.”
Press reports of the royal couple’s disarming grace while on tour in Canada preceded their arrival in the States. At one point, the king asked a reporter where he lived. John Barry of the Boston Globe volunteered, “I’m from Boston. You remember we had trouble with an-other George there once.” King George replied, “Ah, yes. I think I’ve heard about it. Something about tea, wasn’t it?”
Massive crowds, estimated at more than 600,000, greeted the king and queen as they arrived by train at Union Station in Washington, D.C., on June 8, and, in the midst of a blistering heat wave, rode with the president and Eleanor Roosevelt in an open car procession to the White House. In full uniform and wilting in the heat, King George “could not have been more wretched had he been encased in a suit of armor,” reported the president’s private secretary Grace Tully. Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, dazzled.
“She had the most gracious manner,” reported Eleanor Roosevelt, “and bowed right and left with interest, actually looking at the people in the crowd so that I am sure many of them felt that her bow was for them personally.” The first lady later learned that the queen’s cushion had a spring that helped facilitate her seemingly effortless bowing.
The intoxication of royalty had official Washington stumbling over itself to secure invitations to a garden party at the British embassy, causing “more heartburns, more adverse press comment, [and] more of a tempest in a teapot than any social event…in this country,” as one diplomat observed. The event was like heaven, quipped the British ambassador Ronald Lindsay—“some are taken and some are not.”
Vice President John “Cactus Jack” Garner created quite a stir at the party when he broke all rules of protocol and gave the king a down-homey slap on the back. The manhandling continued that night at a White House state dinner when Garner put his arm around the king’s back, prompting Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to sniff in his diary that the vice president had “no breeding or natural dignity,” treating his majesty as if he were a “poker crony” or a “visiting Elk.”
The king and queen were treated to more homespun hospitality the next day at the Capitol. “Cousin George, I bring you greetin’s from the far-flung regions of the Empire State of Texas,” shouted Rep. Nat Patton, while Sen. William Borah, the prominent isolationist senator from Idaho, stood first in line to greet their majesties in the Capitol Rotunda, wearing for the occasion a morning suit he had taken out of mothballs for the first time in 35 years. The king impressed even the crustiest members of Congress when he greeted Sen. Ellison D. Smith of South Carolina, whom he had met at the garden party, by his nickname, “Cotton Ed.”
After two event-packed days in the nation’s capital, the royal couple boarded a train bound for New York City. “Three cheers for the King—and four for the Queen!” gushed one smitten newspaperman as they departed. Even more rapturous press, and cheering masses, awaited them. “Our nation today welcomes King George and Queen Elizabeth,” trumpeted the New York World Telegram. “They are greeted by the American people not merely as representatives of another great democracy, or as royalty, but as two great human beings who have won that distinction in their own right….We like them. And we hope they like us.”
Following a visit to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens—made exceedingly unpleasant for the king by the officious head of the fair who failed to accommodate his urgent need to relieve himself—and a stop at Columbia University in Manhattan, the king and queen arrived, completely exhausted, at Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate 90 miles north of the city.
Against the wishes of Roosevelt’s domineering mother, Sara, who had been fussing over the royal visit for weeks, the president steered the king toward the library bar. “My mother thinks you should have a cup of tea,” Roosevelt said with a smile. “She doesn’t approve of cocktails.”
“Neither does my mother,” replied George VI, as he gratefully accepted a stiff drink.
If the cocktail affair rattled Sara Roosevelt, a dinner debacle that evening nearly undid her. In the middle of the meal, a serving table overloaded with china suddenly collapsed with a huge crash. Then, after dinner in the library, a butler carrying a large tray of glasses, ice and decanters tripped down the steps, sending the tray and its contents hurtling into space. “That’s number two,” the king quipped. “What will be next?” After their wives retired for the night, the president and the king stayed up late together, sharing more drinks. It was the first time George VI had the opportunity to discuss world politics with a world leader, and he found the experience an exhilarating boost to his confidence. The night grew late, however, and the president, playing a fatherly role to the monarch 13 years his junior, gently patted him on the knee and said, “Young man, it’s time for you to go to bed.”
The next day, en route to a picnic outing after church, the president got behind the wheel of a Ford with hand controls designed to accommodate his polio-weakened legs, and took the royal couple on a wild ride. Queen Elizabeth was terrified. “Motorcycle police cleared the road ahead of us,” she recalled, “but the president pointed out sights, waved his cigarette holder about, turned the wheel, and operated the accelerator and the brake all with his hands. He was conversing more than watching the road and drove at great speed. There were several times when I thought we could go right off the road and tumble down the hills. It was a relief to get to the picnic.”
Many Americans, including Sara Roosevelt, were appalled that the king and queen were going to be served hot dogs and beer at the Hyde Park picnic. “Oh, dear, oh, dear, so many people are worried that ‘the dignity of our country will be imperiled,’ ” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her syndicated newspaper column “My Day.” As it turned out, the hot dog menu became the defining moment of the royal visit—a humanizing touch that symbolized fellowship far better than any diplomatic act.
Two American Indians in full tribal garb gave a performance after lunch, singing songs and telling traditional folk tales, which the king and queen seemed to greatly enjoy, although other guests dismissed them as boring. Then there was swimming. The king changed into a one-piece dark blue suit the president’s son James described as “a thing with vestigial remnants of legs and arms that appeared to me to be a genuine relic from the era of his grandfather King Edward VII.” The president appeared to relish George VI’s embarrassment over having to review a troop of National Guardsmen on the way to the pool while wearing the absurdly archaic swimsuit.
After dinner that night, King George and Queen Elizabeth departed Hyde Park basking in the warm afterglow of their newfound friendship with the Roosevelts—and in the president’s assurances of aid when it became necessary.
It soon did: Less than three months later, Hitler invaded Poland and Britain went to war. Roosevelt wasn’t able to ride to the immediate rescue, although he subsequently convinced Congress to begin providing war materiel to Britain through the Lend-Lease program. And two years later, after Pearl Harbor, he helped fulfill Winston Churchill’s prediction that “in God’s good time the New World, with all its power and might,” would set forth “to the liberation and rescue of the Old.”
The King’s Homecoming Speech
George VI’s tour of North America profoundly changed him. “No longer was he overawed by the magnitude of his responsibility, the greatness of his office and the burden of its traditions,” wrote biographer Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. In The King’s Speech, Hollywood depicts George VI still struggling to master a crippling stammer in an address delivered after Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. In reality, his biggest breakthrough came during his coronation speech three years earlier, and the homecoming speech he delivered at London’s Guildhall before war broke out reflected the added confidence he gained touring America. In a rock-steady and resounding voice, the king spoke of his desire to foster during the tour the “sane and wholesome faith” of the British Commonwealth, and “to show, if I could, that its Headship, which I have been called upon to assume, exists today as a potent force for promoting peace and goodwill among mankind.”
The speech was an oratorical triumph. “I have never heard the King—or indeed few other people—speak so effectively, or so movingly,” wrote Alan Lascelles, who became George VI’s private secretary in 1942. The king himself offered a more modest assessment: “It was a change from the old days when speaking, I felt, was ‘hell.’ ”
Michael Farquhar, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of Behind the Palace Doors: Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice, Treachery, and Folly From Royal Britain.