Queen Elizabeth puts a lesson from Jackie Kennedy to good use in Ghana
At the opening of “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah is speaking out against the queen and starting to sing a Soviet tune. But put that problem on the back burner — we’ve got some obnoxiously beautiful Americans coming to town.
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The queen is feeling old. Her body hurts where it didn’t used to; her face strikes her, when she catches it in the mirror, as “middle-aged.” And to make matters worse, the American President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, who is the same age as Elizabeth but who always looks impeccable and can debate philosophy and has somehow charmed the French, are on their way to London for an “informal” dinner. Even choosing her gown for this event, Elizabeth half-confesses some of her insecurities when she tells her dressmaker that she just doesn’t want to feel “second best,” only to get the reply, “Quite, especially if one is the senior of the two individuals.” This doesn’t really land, so he corrects himself, “In terms of rank, ma’am, not age!”
Following the Margaret-and-Tony-centric episode 7, we got another installment of The Crown revolving around another glamorous couple. Much has been made of the fact that Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour would appear in the second season of The Crown as JFK and Jackie Kennedy, respectively, but that noise is nothing compared to the fuss made by the characters of The Crown over the arrival of the president and the first lady at Buckingham Palace. It bordered on absurdity, honestly, the way everyone lost all composure — indeed, behaved practically like over-enthused Americans — as they raced to see the Kennedys enter the building, and especially the outrageous degree to which Prince Philip fell all over himself to sit next to Jackie during dinner.
But sit next to her he did, and flirt outrageously with her he did, and offer her a tour of Buckingham Palace he did. At this last point, however, Philip’s wife puts it all to an end, probably because she just can’t stand to be the object of Porchey’s pity anymore. The queen herself takes the first lady on a tour of the royal home, and is surprised to learn over the course of their conversation that the charming Mrs. Kennedy is an introvert, like herself, who also has a more outgoing sister and does not personally care for the spotlight. Once they’re petting Elizabeth’s corgis together, the queen is completely converted in her views on the elegant American.
Soon after, Elizabeth spends some time with Margaret, who takes evident pleasure (but pretends to take none at all) in informing her sister that their childhood friend Patrick Plunket heard some unflattering talk about the queen from Jackie at a Radziwill dinner party. Margaret refuses to tell her the details, however, so a curious Elizabeth must ask Patrick to come see her to get the true story. Though obviously reluctant to repeat what he heard, Patrick is finally obliged to admit to his sovereign that Mrs. Kennedy described Buckingham Palace as “second rate, dilapidated, and sad, like a neglected provincial hotel… one came away with a sense of a tired institution without a place in the modern world.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jackie summed up the queen, who had found their interaction to be so pleasant, as “a middle-aged woman so incurious, unintelligent, and unremarkable that Britain’s new reduced place in the world was not a surprise but an inevitability.”
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In an admirable demonstration of English dignity and quickness that already negates the first lady’s alleged uncomplimentary take on the monarch, Elizabeth replies simply to this revelation, “Well, we must have her again soon.”
Let’s put that unpleasantness behind us, though, and return our attention to the newly independent Ghana, where the United States had been all signed up for the project of building the Volta Dam. Considering President Nkrumah’s new Soviet contacts, however, the Americans are backing out of the deal, the Russians look likely to swoop in and take it, and the Brits see Ghana distancing itself from the West as fast as it possibly can.
Inspired by Jackie Kennedy’s brilliant show of strategic elegance in Europe and feeling challenged by the First Lady’s rude remarks about her, the queen decides to go to Ghana herself and essentially charm Nkrumah into sticking with the English and Americans rather than turning to socialism. Everybody, from the newspapers to the PM to Prince Philip — who tells his wife “you’re the lamb the lion will have for lunch” — thinks it’s a terrible idea and advises her against it, but she is determined.
Things get off to a shaky start in Ghana, with Nkrumah getting the photo op he wanted, letting Russian engineers into the country to begin work on the dam, and otherwise calling the shots. At a reception one evening, however, the queen whispers an instruction to a shocked Michael Adeane, who asks Martin Charteris to call the prime minister before approaching Nkrumah with her request. It’s genuinely hilarious to watch a shocked Charteris narrate over the phone as the Ghanaian president approaches the English queen, saying, “I think we both understand the significance of this moment.” Not backing down for a second, the monarch responds, “Yes, but do we understand the terms?”
They dance the foxtrot. Everyone is delighted. Queen Elizabeth wins. (Recap continues on page 2)
Back in the U.S., JFK delivers an address and then gets handsy with a girl at the after-party. Jackie spots him through a doorway, and he follows her into their private rooms, where, conveniently, a TV is on, reporting the news of Queen Elizabeth’s brilliant victory in Ghana. The tension is palpable between the American first couple, but Jack does thank her — somewhat sincerely, but also apparently with the knowledge that it will hurt her — for being “instrumental in changing a significant matter of foreign policy.” He explains, in a somewhat heavy-handed bit of exposition, that the queen got wind of the first lady’s cruel remarks and went to Ghana against all advice and danced with Nkrumah against all expectations as the direct result of Jackie’s slights.
A little while later, when Jackie is back in England, she requests a private audience with Her Majesty before a luncheon they will both attend. Elizabeth agrees, but chooses to hold the meeting at Windsor Castle, because “sometimes only a fortress will do.” But it turns out she needn’t have gone military on the first lady, who apologizes for having insulted the queen, deeply troubled by having caused any offense.
JFK didn’t exactly look great in the episode’s one brief scene that depicted him alone with his wife, but the explanation that Jackie gives the queen for her behavior paints him in much darker shades than we are used to seeing the handsome, tragic 35th president. She intimates a strain in their relationship, that “Jack didn’t appreciate being upstaged” in France, where Jackie was so universally adored. And she tells Elizabeth about the couple’s treatments from “Dr. Feelgood” Max Jacobson, who gives the Kennedys a special cocktail before they travel — “vitamins, but other substances too.” (That would be amphetamines.) Apparently, on the night of the dinner during which Jackie brutally badmouthed the queen, she had gotten a little boost from her doc that made her chatty. After sharing her story, she professes her admiration for Elizabeth, mentioning her victory in Ghana especially.
Elizabeth spends this conversation buttering a scone as if her life depends on it, but she is much more shaken by what she hears, we see later, than she lets on to the first lady. “She was so broken and fragile and lost,” she tells Philip before bed, regretful that she didn’t give Jackie credit, as the president did, for practically daring her to charm her way through the Ghana incident. But her husband, curmudgeonly Brit though he can be, reassures her. “You did exactly the right thing,” he tells her. “There’s ice in those veins when there needs to be. Three cheers to that.”
Later — in November of 1963, to be exact — Elizabeth follows, like the rest of the world, the news of the assassination of the president. Watching TV together, her mother remembers Elizabeth saying that the first lady was unhappy in her marriage to the president. “Yes, but that’s the thing about unhappiness,” Elizabeth replies, realizing the truth of her words even as she says them. “All it takes is for something worse to come along and you realize it was actually happiness after all.”
The Queen Mother is appalled to see that Jackie wasn’t given a change of clothes, but Elizabeth, recognizing a fellow savvy introvert, immediately understands, as we all now know, that Jackie chose not to change out of her bloodstained pink suit very deliberately.
She rushes out of the room to tell Adeane to mandate a week of mourning in the royal household and to ring the bell at Westminster Abbey — a ritual usually reserved for a death in the royal family. She waves off his protests about protocol and locks herself in her study to write a letter: Dear Mrs. Kennedy…