So it comes as little surprise that Princess Margaret’s royal tour of the United States in 1965, her first trip to the country, was met with apprehension in some royal quarters. The princess, alongside her photographer husband Lord Snowdon, accepted an invitation from Sharman Douglas, the socialite daughter of a former US ambassador to Britain.
With plans to visit the White House while also rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, Margaret’s 1965 trip was the very definition of mixing business with pleasure. And it did not go down well.
The US tour started steadily, with Margaret and Lord Snowdon touching down in San Francisco on November 4, 1965, to a wave of well-wishers. The couple were greeted by Mayor John Shelley, while the San Francisco Chronicle splashed pictures of the royal arrival across the front page.
It was to be the beginning of an adoring relationship with the US media, which extensively covered her Stateside exploits.
“The princess’ first visit to the United States starts off with a whirlwind three days in the San Francisco Bay Area,” wrote the Madera Tribune. “She and Lord Snowdon will be greeted, feted and shown the sights in this hilly city that prides itself on knowing how to live well.”
Knowing how to live well was also Margaret’s specialty, and it didn’t take long for the partying princess to become the talk of the town. “Everyone is conscious of the royal couple’s visit,” joked Bob Hope on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. “I waved at a traffic cop, and he curtsied back.”
On November 7, Princess Margaret boarded a Royal Air Force plane to Los Angeles, and it would prove a homecoming of sorts.
As a young woman, Margaret had always shown a keen interest in the arts, while Lord Snowdon was a photographer by trade. Together the pair felt that the creative landscape of Los Angeles was well suited to their style.
It didn’t take long for the princess and Lord Snowdon to be surrounded by famous friends. They were spotted out and about with the likes of Julie Andrews, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, and they were also treated to a behind-the scenes set tour of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Torn Curtain.
While the glamour of Hollywood shone brightly, it was here that the first cracks began to show. Back in the UK, papers ran headlines alluding to “jet-set parties”, raising eyebrows about who was paying for the princess to have a good time.
Perhaps the most telling tale from their time in Los Angeles comes from an exclusive party thrown by Margaret’s friend Sharman Douglas. The guest list read like a who’s who of Hollywood heavy hitters, with Richard Burton, Judy Garland, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow all in attendance.
But it was Judy Garland that caught Margaret’s eye, and the princess promptly sent an aide to see if she would perform on the spot. Garland was incensed by the casual nature of the royal, and reportedly labelled her a “nasty, rude little princess”, before countering with, “Tell her I’ll sing if she christens a ship first.”
As if offending one star wasn’t enough, Margaret allegedly needled the legendary Grace Kelly, saying “You don’t look like a movie star.” The actress is said to have replied: “Well, I wasn’t born a movie star.”
However, the crowning jewel in the official tour was a visit to the White House, where Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon would represent the crown in a meeting with President Lyndon B.
Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.While the White House tour was a success of sorts – the unlikely foursome dined in the Queen’s Room – the damage was done. In the House of Commons, debate raged about the necessity of the trip, while politicians bickered over the rising cost.
The bill for the 1965 tour topped out at £30,000 – a small fortune at that time. “Never in modern history has a royal visit overseas evoked so much public and private criticism from all shades of opinion and from all parts of the Commonwealth as did the recent trip of Princess Margaret to the United States of America,” said Labour MP William Hamilton.
Returning home to England, Princess Margaret faced royal wreckage as the real fallout from her travels began to bubble to the surface. Sir Patrick Dean, the British ambassador to America, painted a less than flattering portrayal of their trip in his reports.
“They worked and played hard,” he said of the royal couple. “It was a mistake that so much of their time was spent with and organised by Miss Sharman Douglas, though she did her best, after her own fashion, to make sure the visitors had a gay and amusing time.”
While it’s accepted Margaret’s magnetism played a part in strengthening relations between the US and the UK, the lingering rumours of her wild tour resulted in a ban of sorts for the rebel princess.
In 1973, Margaret expressed a desire to return to the United States, but the trip was shut down by Lord Cromer, who was the British ambassador to Washington from 1971-74.
Cromer’s assistant sent a note to the Foreign Office committee on royal tours, advising them that “Lord Cromer is not at all keen on having the princess in the United States, possibly for some time to come. This is mainly due to the behaviour of some of HRH’s friends, who tend to take such visits very lightly.”
The controversial 1965 tour proved to be a topic of enduring fascination. In 2003, Lord Snowdon denied that the journey was worth so much airtime. “I have no idea why there should have been any objection to what went on,” he said.
However, Christopher Warwick, a biographer of Princess Margaret, believes the pair were the perfect choice to represent the crown in an era famed for its loose boundaries and free love.
“Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were the royal family’s representatives of the Swinging Sixties,” writes Warwick.
“They did wave the flag for Britain in 1965, but it’s fair to say that the visit was more pleasure than duty.”
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