In conjunction with the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, biographer Sally Bedell Smith has probed beyond the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy to reveal the true story of the royal life. In the tradition of her previously published bestselling biographies of William S. Paley, Pamela Harriman, Diana, Princess of Wales, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, she creates a rich portrait of a complex personality. Read on for the author's behind-the-scenes insights into capturing the life of one of the world's most mesmerizing figures.
Cara Cannella: You’ve cited the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey as saying that Elizabeth is a stoic who can “take anything the world throws at her.” What support system does she have in place to maintain such steadfastness amid scandal and scrutiny?
SBS: Her strength comes from within, a result of her religious conviction and her life experience. As one of her former senior advisers explained to me, "She has no illusions about what can and can't be changed. She has an acceptance of the way life deals its cards that is rare in the western world."
CC: The Diamond Jubilee culminates around four days of events on the first weekend this June. What will be the highlight of the celebration, and how will the event be received around the world?
SBS: The Diamond Jubilee weekend will feature a series of dramatic events. The most unusual will be the river pageant on Sunday June 3rd, a flotilla of 1,000 boats traveling for seven miles down the Thames, with the Queen aboard an elaborately decorated royal barge. Monday's concert in front of Buckingham Palace will offer a nighttime spectacle, and Tuesday will bring the more traditional, but no less impressive carriage procession to Buckingham Palace following a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul's Cathedral.
CC: You share surprising facts about the Queen here, including this endearing tidbit: “Sometimes before state dinners, the Queen enjoys what her advisers call ‘tiara time,’ using a toolkit to decorate her diamond tiaras by hooking on pearls, rubies, emeralds, or sapphires.” Of all of your discoveries, what other anecdote best capture her at her most down-to-earth?
SBS: Once when the Queen was taking a Scottish clergyman on a tour of her Balmoral Estate, she shouted "Hooray!" when she spotted one of her gamekeepers walking on the hills with a young woman. "Why did you say that, Ma'am?" asked the clergyman. "Well," said the Queen, "His wife left him and I'm delighted to see him out with a new girlfriend."
CC: What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing the book?
SBS: The biggest challenge was persuading those in the Queen's inner circle -- longtime friends and family members as well as senior advisers -- to speak about her private side, and to illuminate aspects of her character and personality that people don't know about or fully appreciate. The most rewarding aspect was finding fresh insights and connecting the dots to explain not only what the Queen does -- which is far more than being a mere figurehead -- and what she is really like, taking the reader as close as possible to Elizabeth the human being.
CC: Which biographies inspire your own research and writing?
SBS: The book that originally inspired me to become a biographer was David Cecil's "The Young Melbourne."
CC: What tools or methods were most helpful in interviewing more than 200 sources about the Queen?
SBS: It is all about preparation. Before I do an interview, I read as much as possible, and write out a detailed list of questions. If my interview subject has written a book, I take extensive notes to help shape my queries. That way I can coax people to go beyond what they have already said. Preparation also signals respect.
CC: If you could share just one lesson from the Queen’s life, what would it be?
SBS: Her sense of duty and her wise conduct over six decades are inspiring, but her humility is her most surprising and appealing quality. As her cousin Margaret Rhodes told me, "she can uphold her identity of herself as Queen and still be humble. Her inner modesty stops her from getting spoiled."
CC: What draws you to your subjects and makes you want to immerse yourselves in their lives?
SBS: I have been drawn to legendary figures, all of them compelling characters, some of them complicated and even dark. The common thread is that in each case I have been determined to get behind the legend -- to dig beneath the surface, penetrate the myths, and analyze the events and relationships that have shaped these lives of consequence, and above all to understand and explain my biographical subjects in new ways.
CC: What are your thoughts or predictions about the future of the monarchy and the Queen’s impact on it?
SBS: The Queen has both modernized and strengthened the monarchy, by knowing how to move with the times without pandering or being trendy. As she has grown older, she has looked to the future, still determined to fulfill her sacred oath to serve until death, but increasingly focused on preparing the next generations of monarchs, not only her son Prince Charles, but the second in line, Prince William. She has taken a strong hand in the education of her grandson, who has learned "by osmosis" to respect the traditions and purpose of the monarchy, but who has also been allowed to blend in with his contemporaries. William's challenge will be to retain his "ordinary" manner while maintaining a regal dignity, and to project freshness and glamour without succumbing to the allure of celebrity.