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As a five-year-old, I first glimpsed Queen Elizabeth II on the black and white screen in my parents’ mahogany television cabinet in 1953: a glamorous ingenue draped in gleaming robes and wearing a glittering crown during her coronation in Westminster Abbey. Two generations later, children watched her as a proud and bespectacled grandmother in the same majestic setting during the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton.
For sixty years, the Queen has been a constant presence as the longest serving head of state--iconic, distant, mysterious, dutiful--the only person about whom it can truly be said that all the world is a stage.
I first met her in 2007 at a garden party at the British ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C. In a spirited conversation with my husband about the Kentucky Derby, she showed the animated gestures, sparkling blue eyes and flashing smile familiar to her friends but rare in public. I remembered what British artist Howard Morgan had told me after painting her portrait: “Her private side took me totally by surprise. She talks like an Italian! She waves her hands about.”
Nine months later I began my three year exploration of the Queen’s epic life. I was determined to make her accessible, to bring readers into her world and show that private side in an intimate and humanizing way. I also wanted to explain how she has been so successful in her unique role, and how she became “the sheet anchor in the middle for people to hang on to in times of turbulence,” in the words of David Airlie, her lifelong friend and former senior adviser.
As a woman I was intrigued by how she thrived in a man’s world, juggling her roles as dedicated professional as well as wife and mother. I also wanted to describe for the first time her close relationship with the United States--her eleven visits, five of them private, and her friendships with an array of fascinating Americans including all the presidents since Harry Truman--except Lyndon Johnson, who desperately tried to meet her.
There seemed to be a surprise around every corner: her physical courage when she was attacked by a wounded pheasant and charged by “dive bombing colts,” her compassion while mothering a teenaged cousin who had been nearly killed in a terrorist attack, her earthiness while crawling on her belly stalking deer, her joie de vivre while blowing bubbles at a friend’s birthday party, her fierce reaction to one of her top advisers in the days after the death of Diana, her tenderness toward Margaret Thatcher during the former prime minister’s 80th birthday party.
After two years of research and interviewing, it took another year to write the Queen’s story--to weave together the threads of a life of richness and variety with a great cast of characters both famous and little-known. I hope the result will enable readers to immerse themselves in her life--from the grouse moors of Scotland and kitchen tables of her friends to the state banquets and time-honored pageantry, where even in the middle of the solemn ritual of her coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury could sneak the 27-year-old Queen sips from a hidden flask of brandy for a pick-me-up.