Dear departed Prince Philip, what a jolly good time we shared! I cannot claim we remained close, afterwards, but he did once offer to show me his underwear.
It was long ago and far away – 1983, California – but I remember so clearly. The British royal couple came on their yacht Britannia to cruise up the West Coast, stopping at select ports along the way to dispense royal favors and royal cheer.
I was invited with a handful of American reporters to come aboard the first night in San Diego as honored guests. We were not to report on anything. We were not to speak to the queen unless spoken to (an equerry was standing at her shoulder to murmur in her ear which notables she might wish to recognize, and these did not, alas, include me). We were not to touch the queen. Left unsaid was the punishment for doing it.
Thus briefed, we American reporters were invited aboard and proffered whisky. Yes, we were.
After an aperitif or two, it occurred to me that the real role of the royals here was the peddling of British products. Aside from the few unspeakable and unspoken-to reporters, the many other guests were esteemed purveyors of British luxury wares: Jaguar, Land Rover, Rolls Royce dealers, various importers of refined malts, and such – as well as California politicians perhaps in position to smile on British enterprises. And all the above’s wives … well their present ones.
The first spouse Her Majesty and I encountered – I say we, in the sense I was hanging close by Elizabeth because I’d never seen a queen before, and here she was – anyway, what that woman did was put a hand to the queen’s shoulder.
Royalty does not flinch before commoners, yet I could tell the queen did not enjoy the touch. I imagined the equerry’s hand tightening on sword hilt and an inch of blade rising from the scabbard – but something in Her Majesty’s manner stopping his lethal steel. Of course, he could have dispatched the damsel sometime my back was turned; she was not seen again.
“Queen,” she spoke then, while still she could, as she withdrew frosted fingers, “we have something in common.”
Elizabeth’s eyes didn’t flicker at the presumption. Nor did she encourage an explanation, but she got one.
“Yes! We both own Corgis!”
“Mm,” said the Queen.
The next wife of someone prosperous wondered if Elizabeth had read “The Prince and the Pauper.”
As I recall, it is the tale of a vagabond rogue who sneaks into a prince’s chambers where both realize they look exactly alike and so decide to switch places for a time. The pauper gets to eat bonbons for breakfast and sleep in silk; the prince wins liberty to discover the varieties of gruel and to shelter wherever he can break into. The moral of the story is, of course, that both are ennobled by their experiences.
“So,” asked the merchant’s missus, “did you ever want to do that yourself?”
“Nooo,” said the Queen in roundest vowels, “I rather liked my life.”
And she moved majestically on. Queen Elizabeth II, I regret to say this but I must, is no bundle of fun. She’d be a dud in your book club. She reminded me of Aunt Grace, my grandfather’s spinster sister who gave me handkerchiefs for Christmas when I was small, with the admonishment, “Keep your nose clean.”
Then, across the canopied deck I espied Prince Philip, grinning amid a circle of merry men I recognized as lower sorts, scribes. I managed to escape the queen’s attentions, as usual, and ambled over to join the mirth.
However, as I got there the mood turned. The Prince famously loathed the press, and on this occasion when we were his guests he generously shared with us his regal views of us.
He said he’d been made president of the World Wildlife Federation and been urged to hold a press conference.
“Oh, no,” Philip said he protested, “the first question reporters will ask is, ‘What color’s your underwear?’”
“No, no,” he said he was informed, “these are serious environmental journalists” – suggesting they’d want to know the fine things he’d be doing for elephants in Africa when he wasn’t shooting birds at Balmoral.
“And do you know,” harrumphed His Highness, “the very first question they asked was, ‘What color’s your underwear?’”
With that, Philip tugged his trousers away from his admirably trim abdomen, opening a gap of inches, and glanced downward. Naturally, I understood this was an invitation to see for myself, and being keen for a scoop and highly trained, I went up on my toes, leaned a bit forward and looked down there.
It is my professional duty to acknowledge, for there are standards, that I could not be certain of the tint; his nether garments were obscured by the tails of his stuffed shirt, and as I bent forward His Highness seemed to edge backward. All that I could glimpse was shadowed and thoughtfully arranged. As is proper.
Unfortunately, the prince and I were never able to get together again, surely in part, I admit, because each was dilatory in reaching out. Even so, Britons everywhere became informed about our curious encounter.
I, and Muriel Dobbin of McClatchy Newspapers, and Dick Growald of the San Diego Union had agreed that when we got off the bountiful Britannia with bellyfulls of royal spirits, we’d swap notes, and when the tour was done and they couldn’t cart us to the scaffold we’d publish and be damned. That accord didn’t last eight hours. Next morning, Dick had a story page one in the Union, telling all, the knave.
Now, the Royal Press Corps was barred from the soiree but that did not stop their wicked behaviors. Although none had witnessed anything, each published ledes that went like: “You cannot believe what appalling things the colonial press are saying about Your Royal Family” (Period, paragraph, pick up wire copy … ).
It certainly was not in the spirit of American criteria for journalistic thieving, if any, and I’m sure the British people could scarcely believe what they were being told.
But I daresay, few subjects of the crown ever got the chance, quite the way I did, to get close to Ole Phil, a sharing host, a sartorial wonder, and a prince of a fellow.
At the time of this event, John Lang was a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. He has been an advisor to the Spy Newspapers since 2009.