Death Of An Icon

She was always the most beloved member of Britain's Royal Family. The Queen Mother, who died today at 101, will likely be remembered best as the aristocrat with the commoner's touch. Her death--"peacefully in her sleep" after a period of declining health, Buckingham Palace announced today--came after a lifetime which saw more than its share of personal tragedy and profound change.

A palace spokesman said the Queen Mother died at 3.15 p.m. local time at Royal Lodge, Windsor. "[She] had become increasingly frail in recent weeks following her bad cough and chest infection over Christmas," said the spokesman. "Her condition deteriorated this morning and her doctors were called." Queen Elizabeth was at her mother's bedside when she died.

The Queen Mother was born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on Aug. 4, 1900. She married into the Royal Family in 1923, and became queen in 1936 only because of the abdication of Edward VIII to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The Queen Mother resented Simpson, describing her as "the lowest of the low" and blaming her for damaging the reputation of the monarchy.

As the wife of King George VI, the then Queen Elizabeth worked hard to reinstate that reputation. Britons remember with special fondness her role in the darkest days of World War II, when she refused to leave Buckingham Palace during the London Blitz. She visited bombing victims in London's poorest neighborhoods in her high heels, and when her own palace was bombed in 1940, she won national adoration with her remark: "I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."

The Queen Mother moved out of Buckingham Palace when her husband died in 1952 and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth, ascended the throne. The Queen Mother did not give interviews, but nonetheless remained a highly visible and public icon. She was described as a rock of support for her daughter, and tried to set a high moral tone after the embarrassing public breakdowns of the marriages of her younger daughter, Princess Margaret, and her grandchildren, Princess Anne, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew.

At the same time, she was seen as an endearingly quirky figure who loved gin and having a flutter at the horse races. Some 40,000 people turned out to celebrate her 100th birthday outside Buckingham Palace 19 months ago and she received gifts by the sackful. "It seems strange in a way that someone as diaphanous as the Queen Mother, all chiffon and sparkles, should turn out to be a pillar of strength to the monarchy," her biographer, Elizabeth Longford, wrote in 1993. Britain's Royal Family will undoubtedly be weaker--and less popular--without her.