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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 2011

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Two Hundred Years of American Painting: the Nuts and Bolts of mounting a Major Bicentennial Celebration in Germany

The King’s Speech, the film about King George VI, reminds me about the late Queen Mother — his wife and mother of the current Queen Elizabeth — and President Truman.

President Nixon in 1972 gave Queen Elizabeth as a state present, a large crystal swan made by an American sculptor. It was life size and covered with thousands of minutely detailed crystal feathers. It was an intricate, expensive, delicate piece of kitsch, like the Faberge eggs made for the Tsar.

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The ceremony for the presentation of the swan was at the U.S. Embassy on Grosvenor Square in London. As crystal swans did not fall into the remit of the Political Section, the Embassy Cultural Affairs Office (I was its lowest ranking member) had to arrange the guest list, our side of the reception speeches, the drinks, etc. Queen Elizabeth was not able to attend but a number of royals did so, including younger ones and the wonderful Queen Mother, by then, the widow of King George VI. She was a warm, delightful lady in flowery hats and dresses and was a great favorite of the British public.

The Cultural Affairs Office sent invitations to royals, ministers, etc. To swell the crowd, we tried to find anyone in the British elite who had some connection to swans. The swan list was hard to make big enough. It turned out that all the swans in England belong to the Queen but not many people seemed to care about them beside her. The Keeper of the Royal Swans was established in 1295 to stop the killing and eating of swans by commoners. Even today, The Keeper oversees the “Upping of the Swans” in summer each year on the Thames, to tag and count them.

Even as late as 1895 you could be transported to a penal colony for a seven year term for killing a swan. For centuries their meat was prized by all classes but reserved to the upper classes. That is a taste now mostly defunct, but not entirely in America. One of my heavily drinking uncles was fishing and drinking, on Sue Creek in Baltimore County. A swan landed near his row boat so he killed it with an oar and shared the savagely acquired royal dish with our family when I was a kid. Not bad, but not worth seven years transportation.

The Queen Mum did not attend the opening swan reception but came in the late afternoon next day to the Embassy to see the crystal swan. She mistook Bernard, our English staffer art expert, for an American. He had a very Welsh face and British accent, but he was on duty standing near the swan to welcome guests and so mistaken for an American. After the Queen Mother had signed the special swan guest book, she tut-tutted to Bernard over the earlier signatures in the book by the younger royals. She said, “Such poor handwriting” and noticed that the bar in the swan reception area was open and staffed to serve drinks.

She asked Bernard if she might have one of those wonderful “American” drinks, a "gin and tonic". He fetched her one at once. She downed it fast and asked for another.

When he brought it, she drank it and chatted with him about how much she had enjoyed the visit she and her husband, George VI, had with President Truman in 1951. Truman made an official welcome speech to her and her husband on October 31, 1951. On the BBC Historic Recordings site, after Truman's welcome speech, she makes the formal reply because her husband's bad stutter still impaired him.

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She told Bernard the following story. Although it was nearing the Christmas season, Washington, D. C., was, unseasonably, very hot. There was no air conditioning in their quarters in Blair House (the White House was being renovated so Truman’s official residence and official guest quarters, was Blair House across the street from the White House). One afternoon, in Blair House, President Truman showed the royal couple the box containing a model train set he had bought as a family Christmas present. The King asked if it could be assembled. Truman said for sure. It was so unseasonably hot that as the two men unpacked the toy train and began to assemble it, they decided to shuck their shirts and even pants. They assembled the train track on the floor crawling around on their hands and knees in their underwear. They finally made it run and even whistle.

The Queen Mum told Bernard, that scene was one of the best parts of their official visit to the United States. Not long after that visit to the U.S., her husband died, and Queen Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952. That made her Mom into the Queen Mother. Besides being a great public favorite at royal events, she had an active interest in gardening, fishing, etc. After her long widowhood, she died in her sleep at age 101. Bernard told me the story. So, at least some good came of Nixon’s swan.

Speaking of swans, a Vienna Opera stage hand once made a big mistake. He sent the magical boat drawn by a swan onto the stage too soon during Lohengrin. Leo Slezak was singing the role of the hero. At the end of a very dramatic aria, he was supposed to get into the swan drawn boat mournfully and be carried magically off stage in it. As Slezak was still finishing his tragic song, the boat, sent too soon, moved across the stage without him. As Slezak watched the swan disappear into the wings, he quipped to the audience, "Wann fahrt der nachste Schwan?" or "When's the next swan?"

Most Embassy events are not glamorous or fun. Some years back I checked and found 10,000 official U.S. visitors came to London in one year. They all needed appointments, briefings, transport, etc. for meetings on things from airline regulations to taxation agreements. Nothing nearly as interesting as King George VI and President Truman assembling a train set in their underwear.

I hope no more crystal swans show up.blue star


imageBob Baker: 5 years intelligence analyst (USIA IRS); passed FSO exam; A-100 class; French language training; first post: Kampala, Uganda; next: Bamako, Mali; a year as a producer trainee, WETA; posted to London, Bonn, Berlin, Sydney, Los Angeles (Foreign Media Center), Vienna Regional Programs Office; retired in 1992; currently writing memoirs in LA.

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