Other stories, other lives

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On the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020.  Yesterday was a sunny one most of the day with strong chilly breezes rushing the streets and avenues. Temps were in the mid-40s by late afternoon and down to the high 30s. I saw a photo of a town called Upton in Massachusetts where the ground and the trees were snow-covered. 

I was reminded of when I was growing up in one of those Mass. towns. The first snowfalls came in November. We were ice-skating by Thanksgiving. The kid loved to skate; I was pretty good. Every afternoon after school on the rink on the sports field behind the high school, until dark and then all day on weekends. Heaven.

Our version of snow in November.

I haven’t skated since then so it was several decades ago. A couple of years ago I went to a skating party over at the Wollman Rink. I was looking forward to getting back on the ice. However, I had not learned that I’d been away too long from the ice. The natural confidence was gone. I was almost wobbly at first; not the speed champion at age 12. It turned into worry. The thought of actually falling came to mind several times. I wanted to quit. I stayed with it for awhile, just to calm myself, and it was enjoyable. But, nevertheless, it was worrisome. It’s my problem. I should have been doing it every week of winter for years, just for the exercise. Shudda-cudda-wudda.

I’m reading at book called “The Quest for Queen Mary” by James Pope-Hennessy, and edited by Hugo Vickers. Longtime NYSD readers might recall that we’ve had the privilege of publishing Hugo a couple of times.  His histories are always engaging and mainly contemporary to 20th century royalty and international society.

James Pope-Hennessy was hired back in the mid-1950s to write a biography of Queen Mary, who had died at age 84 in 1953.  She was the wife of King George V of England, as well as mother of George VI and the Duke of Windsor, as well as the Dukes of Kent and Gloucester; and grandmother to Queen Elizabeth II. When first offered the job — for which he had already been officially approved for the assignment by Buckingham Palace, i.e., the Queen — he wasn’t interested. He had a Liberal’s attitude about the Royal Family and Queen Mary’s public image was solitary and sour. 

He told his elder brother, the famous British art historian, John Pope-Hennessy, about the assignment and that he planned to turn it down. Big brother, however, advised him to take it. Because: We are seeing the end of Monarchy as a way of governing in our history and Queen Mary was an excellent example of what that life was like for a human being in this historical moment.

John followed his brother’s advice and took it on. Because he was palace approved, anyone he wished to meet and interview was accessible. This covered a lot of territory, including her immediate family ( the Windsors, previously the Saxe-Coburgs, had children and close relatives all over Europe and Russia — Alexandra, the Czarina was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria). The story of Pope-Hennessy’s approach to the job, as well as the interviews, are interesting to any writer. The biography was widely received when it came out in 1958, and highly approved by everyone who mattered as well as the reading public.

Portrait of Queen Mayr by William Llewellyn, c. 1911.

The Quest for Queen Mary is about the notes Pope-Hennessy took from his interviews of many who knew her long and well, and also includes bits of her personality that wasn’t public. The human side, shall we say, because all of her public images that I recalled as a kid seeing her in newsreels were of a stern old lady who looked like a scold.

One of the oft-told “stories” about Queen Mary that I first heard years ago was her fondness for antiques. She was said to be an avid shopper and collector; visiting antiquaires to inspect their goods was a part of her calendar routine. It was also known that if she saw something she liked and she knew just where she would put it in one of the palaces, she took it. She didn’t ask. It was just assumed that her interest was personal. Or rather, it was “given” to her. This habit/tradition was well known not only among the antiquaries but also those who were social friends of the Queen whom she might visit at home. If, for example, she saw something in your house that she could really find a nice home for, she would exclaim its beauty and perfect and charm, and you, the host would give it to her. No matter …

Back in the 1980s I took my first trip to London with an old friend, an American “antiques” dealer named Stan Mirkin. We’d known each other having shared the same location for our businesses back in the ‘70s. Stan went four times a year to fill his shop, Red Crow Antiques, in Pound Ridge, New York. He always invited a friend for the company. The days were spent in the British countryside, driven by a “Courier” to the various antiques purveyors/supplies. Then back in town for dinner we were joined by dealers in London whom Stan did business with. 

It was there that I learned that a number of London dealers had started out in life as footmen for the Royal Household – that is the residences of the Royal Family. Up close and personal. So there were always stories about the “Family” and its members who were mainly popular with the staff. The most popular royal back then was the Queen Mother. 

Queen Mary with her granddaughters, Princesses Margaret (front) and Elizabeth, May 1939.

One night at dinner with Stan and his two guests, one of them talked about the time Queen Mary paid a visit to his shop, which was newly established. She looked everything over carefully and curiously. Finally she told him that she was looking for a wedding gift for a young couple, and there was a five-foot-high antique urn that she thought would be perfect for them.

Naturally the owner/manager took the information for delivery and it was sent from the Queen. Gratis. A few months later, a young couple came into the shop and spent some time looking around. Finally, in conversation with the manager, they told him that they had received a wedding gift from the shop, from Queen Mary. 

Naturally, he knew exactly what the gift was and asked if they liked it. They did like it, the wife replied, although it is “rather large and …” they live in this tiny flat where it takes up half of the living room.

Oh, said the manager, understanding and thoughtful. He told them that he “understood” the problem, and offered to take it back in exchange for something they liked. They took him up on his offer, and the Urn was returned.

A few months later, Queen Mary, on one of her forays, returned to the shop to have a look around. And when she saw the urn, her eyes lit up and she exclaimed to the manager: “A PAIR!!”  So thoughtful was the Queen that it was sent to the newlyweds to go with the one she already sent.

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