From the Writers Secrets Series at www.writerssecrets.com
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note.
I looked in the mirror this evening, really looked. I wanted to see what remains
of the audacious boy who nearly 50 years ago went to London, stuck a feather
in his hat and called it macaroni.
I am glad to report there are still flecks of blatant youth to be seen and enjoyed.
And in this article I shall share the remains with you, for it is a tale worth hearing,
even to getting up at 4 a.m. on a chill windy night to do so.
Such a tale, of course, deserves, nay demands, grand music, waltz music,
the kind that sets you reminiscing every time you hear it; each hearing
resurrecting that boy, that day, and the opportunity to feel all over again that
thrilling reaffirmation that I was there…. that I walked those stairs… and that
the band played on just for me, proving in every note that I was a good long way
from Main Street, Downers Grove, Illinois.
And so I give you “The Embassy Waltz”, from “My Fair Lady” (Lerner and Loewe,
The boy who asked.
My mother used to say, and say with insistent belief and admonition, that if
you are not invited to the party, invite yourself. And on this basis I have prospered,
whilst watching the less determined founder and catch only what could be glimpsed
through a window locked tight against them. That, I tell you, has never been my
problem, and never will be. I am proud of it. Honi soi qui mal y pense.
U.S. Ambassador Walter Annenberg, my angel.
I am renowned for having multiple schemes afoot at any given time, and these
auspicious days in London were no exception. Thus each morning after the post
had arrived and while bread crumbs still littered my “desk”, I set about the
task of answering every piece of correspondence that might prove helpful to
my Ph.D. dissertation dealing with how the Royal Brits created the unbeatable
standard for public ceremonies. They were not merely adept, not just superb,
they were quite literally awesome, though this is by no means how they started,
as my dissertation conclusively proved, which made it front-page news all
over this seat of kings, this England.
In this connection I wrote to Ambassador Annenberg to see what assistance His
Excellency might provide. No one told me to do this; I just did it, with, as it turned
out, spectacular results.
These results were assisted and took flight with the smooth polish of Robert
Montgomery Scott, key aide to the Ambassador, as civilized a man as I have ever
Thus to meet him I trekked to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, eagerly
absorbing everything placed before me, no detail too small or insignificant. And so he
asked me whether I would like to attend the Queen’s next garden fete as a member
of the Ambassador’s official party. I didn’t have to be asked twice, and my thanks
today are as profound and lavish as they were that day.
The Lord Chamberlain requests…
When one is young, socially climbing, shrewdly adept at evaluating the value of
everyone and everything, your fireplace mantle is the visual epicenter of your
progress, for there your visitors look to see how far you have come by who is
seeking the pleasure of your company, where, when, carefully scrutinized, their
relationship to you determined accordingly. In this constantly moving universe
nothing remains as it was. In this process an invitation from Her Majesty
trumps a whole deck of lesser folk.
That is why the minute, the very minute, my bit of engraved cardboard arrived
in hand-addressed outsized envelope, I sauntered down to the office in London
House, Mecklenburg Square, to let it be casually known that my social standing
had just surged, even amongst the scoffing “rugger buggers”, who lived to lark
Oh, yes, the envy was palpable, positively green to all, but especially to the
Colonel (ret.) who administered the residence. After a lifetime of service to the
Windsors he wasn’t invited, thereby exacerbating an already very touchy
situation for madame his wife was expert at making this good man miserable,
the pinched, pained look her metier and potent weapon.
She made it a point to congratulate me on my coup and in such a way that her
good and patient lord squirmed, all too aware of his ample inadequacies.
How had I been invited?, she wanted to know. God forgive me if perhaps I
left the indelible impression that the Ambassador was an Old Family Friend,
And so, resplendent in regulation morning dress, top hat and tails the finest
money could rent at Moss Bros, all de rigueur except for the silk tie at my
throat. I decided to wear my Harvard tie. Who would notice the difference
“I’m going to Buckingham Palace.”
After the obligatory photos were taken (“If they could see me now”), I waded
into the traffic to snag a taxi and the soon-to-be ecstatic driver. Nobody had
to tell him where we were going; my clothes said it all. I gave him the vehicle
pass which allowed us through the great gates to the Palace, a scene known
worldwide. “We’re going to Buck-en-ham Palace!” Indeed we were, each for
the first time.
My driver maneuvered us into the most fashionable of traffic jams, each
entry a chauffeur driven limousine transporting the luckiest people in London
that radiant summer day; office holders in billowing gowns and highly
burnished gold chains designating consequence, ladies in extravagant
flower hats, a milliner’s dream, plus royaliste que le roi.
“His Honor the Mayor of Reading, Mrs. Templeton-Smythe and Miss
Templeton-Smythe”, figgeting with her braces while the brilliant caravan
moved at snail’s pace from Trafalgar Square, up The Mall. “We’re going
to Buck-en-Ham Palace…” the only guest delivered by taxi!
The happy crowd along the way pointed at me and my garrulous cabbie… and
they cheered, laughed and wished me and my minute entourage the best. So
merrily we rolled along until we reached the red carpet. I paid the driver in the
cab and paid him lavishly.
He leapt out, opened the door, gave me a broad smile and a deep bow hoping
perhaps I’d leave him the entry pass… but I wanted it as a souvenir, too. And so
as the Guardmen saluted I took my first step on the first red carpet I had ever
been on. Nothing like starting at the top.
As I ascended, I recalled the scene from the Russian version of “War and
Peace” (1966) when the young Countess Rostova moves up the great steps
leading to her first grand ball. It is thrilling, magnificent, perfect for “la jour
de ma vie”. I was young, replete with the highest animal spirits, glad to
be here, ecstatic to be here with a joyous excitement that was pure exhilaration.
God Save The Queen!
“Is that a Harvard tie?”
As the queue of grandees moved slowly up, conversations broke out between
the guests. The blue-haired lady behind me acted completely unlike we are told
Brits act… she cast a glance at me and said, “Is that a Harvard tie?” It was, I
responded. How did she know? Her son had gone. Ahhh.
Thus began the most amicable of relationships with the most charming
and practical of ladies, The Lady Whitby. She remarked on both of us being
present alone and proposed a deal; she would introduce me to “everyone”
(her word) if I would be her escort for the afternoon. I didn’t have to think twice
about this either. Done.
I knew nothing about her, of course, but she provided enough details to
make it clear that she was a notable personage. She was Ethel Murgatroyd,
a qualified surgeon and physician. She was the widow of one of the most
distinguished men of his generation, Sir Lionel Ernest Howard Whitby, CVO,
MC, British Army officer and academic. Regius Professor of Physic at the
University of Cambridge, Master of Downing College, Cambridge, etc., etc.
Well might the lady say she’d introduce me to all.
But first she wanted me to look at the vibrant tableau before us. She took my
arm and bade me see all that was on display, the pomp, the circumstance,
a scene worthy of Thackeray for surely on such a day as this Becky Sharp
would have wheedled a ticket from Lord Steyne to attend. Or, indeed, have
come without a ticket for she was an arriviste worth watching. And with that
Lady Whitby and I descended into the crowd where we did the expected thing,
scrutinizing those as they scrutinized us, my lady chirping details, piquant and
indiscreet about “God Save The Queen”, Inc., Happy and Glorious their way of
Then there she was… Elizabeth of England…by the Grace of God and infinite
finagling… the very quintessence of monarchy, a fervent believer in what she
must do and how she must do it.
Lady Whitby tugged at my sleeve, and we briskly descended into the 42 acres
of gardens right in the middle of London. We needed to step lively, and we did
for the Sovereign was now walking among her guests, creating memories that
would be cherished heirlooms for generations to come, just as she did for me.
Royal garden parties have three kinds of guests. The most significant
have a lavish tent lavishly appointed. These worthies are all presented, and
may even chat with Majesty. The second group is made up principally of her
good and worthy subjects who have, one way and another, improved the realm,
like the Canadian Girl Guides or the current hero who had rescued a child from
certain doom in a deed of derring-do.
Then there are the people like me, who had “danced with a man who danced
with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales”. The Queen made her gracious
progress through the ranks, the crowd sticking to her like so many post-it notes.
Then she saw Lady Whitby who had a practised way of arriving just where she
needed to be at just the right time. H.M. saw and clearly recognized her; passing
a friendly comment of the “nice to see you” variety. In her turn Lady Whitby sank
in a lithe curtsey that belied her years. “My young American friend,” she advised
majesty, “Mr. Lant.”
I got a smile too, and so the cat did look at the Queen who knew the value of anything
she might do. She had the divinity that doth hedge, and I was grateful that it touched
me. Oh, yes, I did bow, from the neck. Being American I didn’t have to. But I reckoned
it the gracious thing to do, especially given the fact that I am a Son of the American
Revolution. George Washington took command of the Continental Army outside the
window where I am writing for you now. We won that fracas, no need to remind her.
I have my gracious manners, too.
Lady Whitby and I, having succeeded in our mission repaired to the nosh
table, both tucking in with a will. Social climbing is arduous, meticulous work
with Pimm’s called for to refresh and the best cucumber sandwiches a
hungry lad could wolf down. We could now find a comfy place beneath the
great trees and exchange the tales which so gratify ladies of the blue-haired
ilk and cultural historians who (if they’re smart) “always remember the ladies”.
I always do.
The conversation was smooth, laced with humor, clever repartee the order
of the day… until she revealed a most important fact of historical significance,
namely the murder of King George V with a death-delivering injection of
morphine and cocaine. It was authorized by Queen Mary and delivered by
Lord Dawson of Penn (1864-1945), physician to the Royal Family and
President of the Royal College of Physicians.
Sir Lionel Whitby was part of his team and was in a position to confirm this
hottest of scandals, then known to only a handful of people, and now to me. I had
tomorrow’s headline in my pocket, a guarantee of worldwide coverage, fleeting fame
if I but told what I now knew. Some would have made a different decision. But not me…
Done for the best of reasons.
King George was, so the story goes, about to die, his life moving peacefully
towards its close, in Lord Dawson’s graceful words. He should know. He
administered the two injections to his sovereign who had still been able to
hold a session with his Privy Council shortly before his expedited demise.
Why did this certain act of heinous regicide occur?
His wife wanted the news to appear in “The Times” first of all. That, she averred,
was more suitable for a great king than papers of lesser standing and prestige.
Thus was the fatal thrust delivered, thereby assisting the Grim Reaper and the
titled press lords of Fleet Street, who may have known but did not say.
And so the new Queen Dowager got the press time she wanted, no one
the wiser. I was in this secret now and kept the faith these forty years.
I have my own take on this matter. I believe that dose was so ordered by
command of Queen Mary as a kind of comeuppance to the King-Emperor.
He had so long oppressed her, denying whatever she might do that was not
rigid and controlled, right down to hair style, frock length and even what
music she could play. The day she warbled “Yes! We Have No Bananas” (1922)
on the ukulele, His Majesty went apoplectic. “You forget yourself, Mary” being the
mildest of his explosive expostulations. She was little better then a high-class
Geisha, who had married to please everyone but herself, and lived to pay an
No wonder she became nervous and stressed, no wonder at all, for His Majesty
was a control freak, and the people he most wanted to control were his wife and
his son the Prince of Wales, their perfect lives anything but.
In the end she may have relished her dark role as regicide. I have no proof of this,
of course, and if I did I would have to keep it safe and sound. But as her nemesis
the Duchess of Windsor, Queen Mary’s detested daughter-in-law, wrote in 1956
“The Heart Has Its Reasons”. What I do know for a certainty is that “The New York
Times” didn’t publish the facts until November 28, 1986; years after I knew the
dastardly deed that killed a king.
Then it was over. I thanked Lady Whitby for her every kindness, and she did
the one and certain thing that showed I was “in”, for she invited me to luncheon
the next Sunday, to her grace and favor apartment once occupied by George III’s
father, Frederick, Prince of Wales at Hampton Court Palace. “Poor Fred, once
alive, now dead.” (1707-1751).
Life is full of surprises like this if you are open to them… and it is one of my best traits
that I was open to them then… and I am open to them now.
Once Lady Whitby left, I was alone in the most famous Palace on Earth and here
the Brits astonished me again… for no one, no undercover agent, no authority
figure at all made themselves known. And that unnerved me not a little, for I
was used to the unending layers of “security” at the White House, each new
layer making us less secure than before. The Windsors, by contrast, bet
that generations of service would provide better security than thousands
of hovering officers with the latest gizmo, everything in their back pack but
Alone amidst the grandeur.
I took the occasion to visit the Throne Room where, quite alone and apprehensive
about the lack of expected guards, I made a point of gazing at every celebrated
picture, not just perusing but drinking in the serene, exalted perceptions painted
by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). It was one of the high points of my life.
Then the Guards saluted me one last time, as I made my way out of the
precincts of majesty, out to the Mall. I had an engagement at the Royal Academy
of Art but no funds for a taxi. It was a glorious day, however, and so I walked.,
everyone knowing from whence I came.
Then I became sharply aware that the sole of one shoe had become loose and
made a slurping noise as I walked. I picked up some string in the street and solved
the problem. After all I am that Yankee Doodle dandy… I am that Yankee Doodle boy.
About the Author
2016 is fast approaching and with it Dr. Jeffrey Lant’s 69th birthday. He is, he likes to
say, in the prime of his prime. Thus does the “scribbling” life he commenced at age
5 continue. Twenty books. Thousands of articles. Untold radio and television programs;
worldwide recognition and enthusiasm, all of which culminated with the publication of
his autobiography, “A Connoisseur’s Journey, being the artful memoirs of a man of wit, discernment, pluck and joy”. It was a book that screamed “classic!”, and he has
delighted in the several awards that followed.
To get your copy go to www.writerssecrets.com. You will also want to join his writing
course and learn from this master communicator just how you can improve everything
you ever write.
Listen in to a wonderful reading by the author himself Dr. Jeffrey Lant