In Canada, the 75th anniversary of the Royal visit to North America is being honored this year with special commemorative coins and whiskey. In the United States, there has been little historical account of the jammed-packed two days in the District of Columbia and northern Virginia during the inaugural trip to North America of the British King and Queen. This post is to mark that particular spur in the Royal tour. The garden party hosted by Ambassador and Lady Lindsay and its attending controversies have been the focus of much of what is written about the spin through the nation’s capital. But there were other events at the British Embassy, motorcade parades and stops at sites meant for crowds, news accounts and, most particularly, cameras. The interest and excitement was significant to the city as a whole of this first visit of a reigning British monarch to set foot on Canadian and American land. On the other hand, with the rapidly changing events in Europe on the eve of the Second World War, there was great anxiety at the Foreign Office, State Department and the White House about how the visit would be perceived.
Before Washington, George VI and Queen Elizabeth took a month-long train ride across the entire breadth of Canada. Whistle-stopping in Windsor, there was a view across the Detroit River of an illuminated sign from the nearby American city, “Detroit Welcomes Their Majesties.” This was the first U.S. greeting of the Royal pair and a good indication of what the reception would be after they crossed the border at Niagara Falls and entered a country of wide spread isolationism and resentment against unpaid debts from the Great War. In fact, the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax, was not so warmly received in the Motor City a couple of years later: he was pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables by America First supporters. But for the King and Queen, thousands from Detroit crossed the bridge into Canada to personally cheer them. More Americans journeyed north to see the pair before their East Coast tour: an estimated 50,000 from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota in Winnipeg, and 60,000 in Vancouver.
Their Britannic Majesties arrived by train at Union Station in Washington the morning of 8 June and were met by a large group headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first time the President had welcomed a foreign dignitary to Washington outside of the White House. After military honors that included playing the national anthems and a 21-gun salute, the procession of cars, with the King (in a heavy, gold-braided admiral’s uniform) and President in one limousine, the Queen (hoisting a parasol) and Eleanor Roosevelt in another, circled the Capitol Building before driving to the White House where the Royal couple and entourage were to stay. Bizarrely, given the sensitivity and context of the times, a lot of military might was on display during this “unofficial” visit. The parade included a phalanx of tanks and cavalry and fighter planes, including ten B-17 Flying Fortresses, overhead. By some estimates 600,000 people turned out (although the New York Times pegged the crowd at 250,000 to 500,000) in the still-small town despite a suffocating 92-degree day. Police, soldiers and sailors were stationed every ten feet along the motorcade route. Work in the city came to a stand-still.
At the While House, soldiers with fixed bayonets stood in place, the first time since the Civil War such guards were posted at the Executive Mansion. After a reception for the Diplomatic Corps and a luncheon that included Canadian Prime Minister William L. Mackenzie King, all went back out on the streets for, according to the President’s diary, a “sightseeing tour.” The sites included the Lincoln Memorial, the Naval Air Station, the Army War College (Fort McNair), the under-construction Jefferson Memorial, the memorial to the heroes of the Titanic disaster, and (to escape some of the sun), Rock Creek Park. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her diary of the reaction in Washington:
The long expected arrival of Their Britannic Majesties has at last taken place. We drove down yesterday through an avenue crowded with people. In the course of a long life I have seen many important events in Washington, but never have I seen a crowd such as lined the whole route between the Union Station and the White House yesterday. It was a gay and happy crowd in spite of the sun and heat.
Light-posts in the city flew both American flags and Union Jacks and shopkeepers along Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues even had occasional banners of “God Save the King.”
Back at the White House, the motorcade made a quick stop to greet 5,000 Boy and Girl Scouts gathered on the South Lawn before going on to the main event: the famous British Embassy garden party. There the press was tightly controlled with only five cameras allowed: three motion and two still. A Chicago Daily Tribune photographer managed to sneak in (perhaps the only gate crasher) and the paper ran a four-column report on his triumph.
There followed a State Dinner hosted by the Roosevelts for eighty-six and a “Musicale” with 325 invited guest (324 attended). These were United States-hosted events, for which there was not the clamor and uproar for invitations as there was for the Embassy garden reception, at least not reported by the press. The King’s speech at the White House concluded with the wish “our nations may ever in the future walk together along the path of friendship in a world of peace.” A society of orchid growers from across the country sent so many white blooms that the dinner table was hardly visible.
Former Congresswoman Isabella Greenway, who had lived next to the Embassy in the old Wardman home (with stairs and a gate put in by Lady Lindsay for ease of access for her long-term friend) described in a letter the plan following the Royal Garden party (15 May 1939, Arizona Historical Society, MS311.F1826): “To clean up the garden, men will have to be employed all night to work by flood lights.” For what came the next morning at 10 o’clock, the Embassy took to be a different but another very important garden party for the King and Queen: a reception for 150 veterans of Mons, Ypres, the Somme, and other Great War battles, as well as British war nurses and other subjects, and a group of Americans who had served with Canadian or British regiments. The red-coated, pith-helmeted band from the Exeter of the British West Indies Fleet reappeared from the day before and played “God Save the King” from the Portico terrace.
Following, the Royal motorcade went up to Capitol Hill where in the building’s Rotunda, the King and Queen shook hands with members of the Senate and House of Representatives who had nervously awaited their arrival while being entertained with stories by Vice President John Nance Garner. To break the tension, Garner yelled “The British are coming!”—the Revolutionary War cry—as the couple arrived. Disapproving Senators reigned in Garner as the Monarchs entered and stood, as it happened, under the painting by John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, in 1781 at Yorktown: war, past and future, was the constant backdrop to the whole trip. Other members of Congress tried to be humorous and loose, with Representative Nat Patton bellowing “Cousin George, I bring you greetin’s from the far-flung regions of the Empire State of Texas.” The King had got into the act and addressed Isolationist Senator Ellison D. Smith of South Carolina, whom he had met at the Embassy party, as “Cotton Ed.”
The day before, a young Congressman from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, held a stag cocktail party during the Embassy garden party. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickles was one of the rare ones who eschewed the coveted Embassy garden party invitation in order to drink with Johnson, and thus avoid what he saw as an event for social climbers. When Ickles heard that yet another Texan, the Vice President, had slapped the King on his back during the garden party, he wrote that the Isolationist “Cactus Jack” had “no breeding or natural dignity” and, at the White House dinner, man-handling the Royal again, showed no more dignity “than he would have shown at a church supper in Uvalde, Texas.”
Escaping the crush of congressional posturing, the Royal entourage boarded the presidential yacht USS Potomac (a refitted Coast Guard cutter to accommodate Roosevelt’s wheelchair) for lunch and a cruise down the river to Mount Vernon in Virginia. Eleanor Roosevelt swallowed a deep-seated fear of drowning to join the group. At the home of George Washington, the King laid an arrangement of white lilies, red carnations and blue irises, wilted from the heat, on the tomb. James Roosevelt filmed the ceremony, a tradition begun by the King’s grandfather, the future Edward VII, in 1860. During that event, the Prince of Wales, accompanied by President Buchanan, also planted a chestnut tree beside Washington’s tomb. A different grandson, David, placed a wreath there in 1919. During the wreath-laying by George VI, the Scottish-born head gardener of Mount Vernon almost fainted with emotion upon presenting a bouquet to the Queen. He led them on a tour of the kitchen and flower gardens of the estate.
The next stop, a short car ride away, was one not symbolically significant but was at the specific request of the King and Queen. At nearby Fort Hunt, the Civilian Conservation Corps had a camp for unemployed youth, set up in 1933 (Camp NP-6). This New Deal public works project had been investigated by Former Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden six months early, escorted by Lady Lindsay, also after a visit to Mount Vernon. Eden had brought a report back to Great Britain and the Royals’ thorough inspection of the place and individual hand-shake all of the 187 boys greatly impressed Eleanor Roosevelt. One news report (The Atlanta Constitution, 10 June 1939) had the King asking a Lieutenant Colonel and district commander about the military aspects of the CCC. When told that the CCC had no military purpose, the King replied “But don’t you think that the discipline developed as a result of the necessary control and the improvement in the health of the men will be a great advantage in case of a military emergency?” Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) were planted to commemorate the visit to the facility—as it happened, soon to be turned into a top-secret location for interrogating high-level German prisoners of war.
Wreath-laying ceremonies with great symbolic import continued that day: at Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Calla lilies were laid at the Canadian Cross of Sacrifice, a monument to American soldiers who had enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces and lost their lives in the Great War.
That evening was the Monarchs’ reciprocal dinner in honor of the Roosevelts at the British Embassy. Among the thirty-six who attended: Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (a regular, along with Lady Lindsay and Eleanor Roosevelt, of the “air our minds” group), and neighbor and former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Alanson B. Houghton. The President left that night to go to his home Hyde Park in New York (ninety miles north of the city) to prepare for the more private visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth after their attendance at the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens. The Royal pair left Washington also that night by train but rather than arrive in one of the city’s stations, disembarked at Red Bank, New Jersey, where they boarded the USS Warrington, a U.S. Navy destroyer, for a grand harbor entrance to New York City.
At his first and only press conference to tamp down criticism of the handling of invitations to the Embassy garden party, Sir Ronald Lindsay stated that the sole purpose of the Royal Visit was to improve relations between the two countries. He stated “There is no more political purpose to it than that.” A reporter muttered “And that’s plenty” to the rather deaf Ambassador. And indeed it was, since the event was officially portrayed as non-political. The one slip that could have been interpreted as propaganda was when the King, in Banff, Alberta, remarked to an assembly, that “we” (the democracies of Great Britain, Canada and the United States) would “show them” (the Axis powers) in rapidly changing world events and the coming hostilities. This was quickly and effectively suppressed from being reported in America, where public sentiment was strong to stay out of another European war. The success of what was a risky Washington tour, managing the balance between the mystique of the Monarchy with the humbleness of King George and Queen Elizabeth, helped with the aim of rebuilding U.S. public support for Britain although the strict Neutrality laws remained in place for two more years.
Although there was certainly some grumbling by Isolationists, members of Congress and newspapers about President Roosevelt’s real intent of the Royal visit, the one who absorbed the most negative reaction over the British Embassy’s handling of the garden party was the Ambassador’s wife, Lady Lindsay. Previously adroit with the press, she came under an avalanche of media criticism. A group of newswomen, according to Arthur Krock in the New York Times and Frank R. Kent in the The Baltimore Sun, began the brouhaha for being excluded from covering the Washington “social event of the century.” Urged on by the Isolationist Hearst newspaper chain and the public appetite for good social in-fighting, there is probably some truth to that.
Tired and not in good health at the end of an extremely long posting – extended to almost ten years to keep the popular and effective Sir Ronald in his diplomatic post through the Royal visit (and, as events turned out, through the summer) – Lady Lindsay fumbled by not attending to those who had earlier covered her with admiring reports. Once lauded as a landscape gardener, she was now ridiculed for her former profession while being American-born. Archival evidence shows (letters to Eleanor Belmont, Olivia James and Isabella Greenway) she deliberately took the blows that she saw as inevitable in order to deflect criticism of her husband and the Embassy, but was surprised at the demand for invitations and, perhaps, the level of social insecurities of the town. A member of the East Coast elite, part of a group of powerful women in Washington, close to those of the most socially prominent in the city, sharp-witted and intelligent, Lindsay was just too easy and convenient of a target. As for Sir Ronald, it was announced in London just as the King and Queen made their way from Canada into the United States, that he had been awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.
Ultimately, the storm over the Embassy garden party provided a beneficial distraction of the press from the real story: the inevitable preparation for war, which was hovering in the background of every image and step during the Royal visit of 1939 to Washington.
Notes & Bibliography
In a letter to Greenway (18 May 1939) in the Arizona History Society (MS311 F 1826) Lindsay wrote: “for the past 48 hours I have been subjected to personal attacks in what you and I would call the yellow Press of America, and I confess I quiver under it … I also confess to you most confidentially that I think the Government who invited The King and Queen to come to this country should have arranged one large reception for Americans.”
Barrett, Tim. “A Long Island Yankee in King George’s Court: Elizabeth Sherman Lindsay and the 1939 British Royal visit to the United States,” Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 16, nos. 1-2, p. 112-134.
Belair, Felix. “Royal guests taken sightseeing by their hosts,” New York Times, 9 June 1939.
Bell, Peter. “The Foreign Office and the 1939 visit to America: courting the USA in an era of isolationism,” Journal of contemporary history October 2002, vol. 37, issue 4, p. 599.
“British Embassy symbolizes home to war veterans presented to the King,” The New York Times, 10 June 1939, p. 4.
Cantelon, Philip L. “Greetin’s, Cousin George,” American Heritage Magazine, December 1967, vol. 19, issue 1.
“Queen gives dinner at British Embassy in Roosevelts’ honor,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 10 June 1939, p. 2. “Elizabeth, queen of England, startled official Washington tonight, when she used square linen dollies, edged with lace, rather than silk damask, for her dinner at the British embassy for President and Mrs. Roosevelt.”
Farquhar, Michael. “When the King came calling,” American History, 5 April 2011. [link]
Folliard, Edward T. “George VI made hit in America against odds,” The Washington Post, 30 September 1951, p. B3.
Huston, Luther. “Vast crowd in Washington roars hearty welcome as sovereigns pass,” New York Times, 9 June 1939, p. 2.
Pearson, Drew and Robert B. Allen. “Lady Lindsay of British Embassy stirs up Capital’s juiciest social roar in years,” St. Petersburg Times, 28 May 1939, p. 3. “But there is one good thing about it. All the heartaches and headaches are being laid at Lady Lindsay’s door, and the British monarchs are becoming daily more popular in comparison.”
Trohan, Walter. “King’s envoy tries hand as press agent,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 May 1939, p. 1.
“The Washington Schedule of King George and Queen,” The Atlanta Constitution, 8 June 1939, p. 3. See also FDR’s diary.
Winn, Marcia. “How color camera came to be at Embassy party!” Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 June 1939, p. E1.