LONDON — There is no doubt the past 12 months have been yet another annus horribilis for Queen Elizabeth II, with Harry and Meghan quitting royal life, Prince Andrew entangled in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, and the monarch’s 98-year-old husband Prince Philip in and out of the hospital.
Then there’s the coronavirus, which has driven top members of the royal family into self-isolation at various castles and estates across the U.K: the Queen and Prince Philip to Windsor, Prince Charles and Camilla to Balmoral in Scotland, and Prince William and his family to their country home on the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk, England.
While daunting, the next months could mark the start of an annus mirabilis for the monarch, who is lifting spirits across Britain with gusto: Last week she urged the public to unite in the face of the COVID-19 threat, saying that “my family and I stand ready to play our part” in helping to keep Britons safe and the virus from spreading.
British media organizations have been hanging on her words, sometimes before those words are even spoken. On Monday, The Times of London reported on its front page that Queen Elizabeth is planning to make a televised address to the nation in the coming weeks and is in talks with the British government about ensuring the timing is right.
Although Britain has been a constitutional monarchy since the 17th century, the Queen still holds sway, and people look to her for leadership — and comfort. Few know this better than Hugo Vickers, who was supposed to be touring the U.S. right now, talking about the Queen, her real and fictional family, and a plethora of book projects.
The royal expert and author has completely rewritten “The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon — Duchess of Marlborough,” (Hodder & Stoughton, Zuleika) which he originally published in 1979; has penned “The Crown Dissected, Seaons 1, 2 and 3” (Zuleika) a fiercely funny critique of the Netflix series, and saw his authorized biography of Cecil Beaton reprinted to coincide with a new exhibition of the photographer’s work at the now temporarily-shut National Portrait Gallery.
At the moment, Vickers is working on another book, based on what his sources told him “raw” about Beaton, what Vickers thought about them, and what they all had to say about each other.
“Of course, the cast of characters is wonderful, everybody from Audrey Hepburn to Julie Andrews, Truman Capote and Steven Tennant, and it goes off on lovely tangents every now and again,” says Vickers during an interview at his home in West London in the days before social distancing took hold.
That Beaton book won’t come out until next year, but readers can certainly lap up Vickers’ knowledge, research, criticism and deadpan humor in his other books published so far this year. Foremost is his biography of the American heiress Gladys Deacon: smart, rich and so beautiful she held the likes of Marcel Proust, Winston Churchill and Auguste Rodin in her thrall.
Evicted from Blenheim Palace by her husband, the Duke of Marlborough, she would become a recluse, confined to the psycho-geriatric ward of a mental hospital in the English Midlands. The tenacious young Vickers — who became fixated on Gladys’ story — tracked her down at the hospital, sat and chatted with her, brooked insults from her (she once spat on him), and learned what he could about her extraordinary life during the Belle Époque, and then some.
She talked to him about the men and women she’d met, including Gabriele D’Annunzio and Adolf Hitler. “He had the whole world up in arms,” she said of the latter. “He was larger than Winston. Winston couldn’t have done that!” she told Vickers. She argued that Isadora Duncan “had no sense of rhythm” and called Rodin “a great man. He not only thought up the ideas, but executed them with his own hand.”
The book is filled with heartbreak, jealousy, mystery — and crime. Vickers opens with Gladys’ father, Edward Parker Deacon, shooting dead his wife’s lover in a Paris hotel room. “Murder,” Vickers writes with typical understatement, “is disruptive business in a family.”
In the introduction, Vickers also recounts his own quest to find Gladys, and admits during the interview that his family was troubled by his habit of rushing off to spend time with her.
“When the book came out, my father said to me: ‘You can see why we were worried.’ I asked him: ‘What do you mean?’” to which Vickers senior responded: “‘Going to sit in the lunatic asylum once a week for two years — it’s not a way to earn a living.'”
Vickers also lends his sense of humor — and attention to detail — to his takedown of “The Crown,” which he accuses of bastardizing certain historical facts.
He points to a whole episode that depicts Prince Philip as “hating to kneel before the Queen at the coronation, which is absolute rubbish! My theory is this: Because ‘The Crown’ is very lavishly produced, well-written and well-acted, you can’t just dismiss it. Most people think it’s true. Fiction should help you understand the truth, it shouldn’t pervert the truth and twist it around against it.”
Vickers also takes issue with the scenes from season three showing the young Princess Anne in bed with Andrew Parker Bowles (who would become the first husband of Camilla Parker Bowles, now the wife of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall).
“Surely, any other citizen in this country would have sued for invasion of privacy, or something like that. It has been in various books that Princess Anne had an affair with Andrew Parker Bowles, but it’s not generally known. Now it’s very widely known. And, in the shows, she says something like, ‘It’s just a bit of fun,’ which means that it was trivial — and it probably wasn’t. And it’s none of our business whether it was trivial or not. It might have been very serious.”
He’s not crazy about some of the performances either, describing the Oscar-winning Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth as “severe, cold and bossy…not at all like the real monarch,” and Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip as “rather a dull stick, though mercifully he has thrown off the overt cockiness of Matt Smith.” The show’s suggestion, in season two, that Princess Margaret would have made a better queen also bothers Vickers.
His feeling about the actual Queen could not be more different. During what were to be his now-derailed series of lectures at private clubs on the East and West coasts of the U.S., Vickers had planned to show a color image of the smiling, bright-eyed monarch, alongside a black-and-white one of her disgraced uncle, the Duke of Windsor, who gave up the throne in 1936.
“It’s the contrast between the Duke of Windsor, who took the path of perceived happiness, with dead eyes at the age of 70, and the Queen, having done her bit, sparkling away at the age of 90,” he says.
He also lauds the monarch for her generosity with Prince Harry.
“The Queen’s been very clever to leave the door open for Prince Harry. She’s suspended all the ceremonial titles, like Captain General of the Royal Marines, but he can reaccept them. I must say, too, that whenever I bump into influential journalists, I keep saying we must all be very nice to him when he does come back. We must welcome him back, but it won’t be easy.
“I could be wrong, I just think that unless he’s a figure on the balcony, and unless he’s wearing that uniform, what is he? He’s just a guy with a beard and a wooly hat. And that’s not going to last very long,” says Vickers, referring to the shot of a jet-lagged Prince Harry stepping off the plane at Vancouver International Airport in early January. “Most of us feel that he’s rather out of his depth, and he’s being manipulated, which I don’t like.”
The Queen is more than a big-hearted grandmother, argues Vickers. “The Royal Family is above politics, so when the Queen goes to Grenfell Tower, she’s not seeking reelection,” he says, referring to the social housing estate that tragically burnt down in London in 2017, killing 72 people.
“She brings with her the aura of having been to Germany, China, Japan, Russia, Dublin — all of those places. And perhaps, more significantly, she brings with her Dunblane [the site of a primary school massacre in Scotland that killed 18] and all the other tragedies that she has visited. And then she’s visiting your tragedy, and the atmosphere is always extraordinary when she does something. We’ll never see [a monarch] like her again, because she became Queen so young and the times were such that it’s a formidable record.”
The Queen turns 94 next month, and judging from the fight she’s showing in the face of COVID-19, there’ll more royal drama to come — and maybe an annus mirabilis in store.