Queen Mum: What Royalty Is Good For

Once again she stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as Londoners cheered their throats sore. Once again she wore a vivid, upbeat color, a deliberate bright spot for the eye and mind to focus on. In 1945, she was flanked by her husband, King George VI, and her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, both in military uniform. Last week, now a tiny figure 94 years old, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon -- the Queen Mother, to those too stuffy to call her the Queen Mum--wore canary yellow as she stood between her older daughter, in dazzling red, and her younger, Princess Margaret, in bright blue-green. The dots of color could be seen from haft a mile away.

This time the Queen Mum joined in the singing of wartime songs-- "Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye" was the title of one--and watched a flyover by the RAE She left the balcony after fireworks exploded overhead. The crowd called her back, chanting, "We want the Queen Mum!" She stepped onto the balcony again, and they roared.

Queen Of All Our Hearts, gushed a headline in the next morning's Daily Mail. "It just shows that if you scratch the surface, you will find a nation that still cares and is grateful and proud and will never forget," said Nicholas Soames, a government minister and grandson of Winston Churchill. The Queen Mum is a stouthearted example of what royalty used to be good for. During the worst of the war, she bravely went around the country, visiting hospitals and bombed-out neighborhoods, often wearing her lively colors, her flamboyant hats and her three rows of pearls. Her subjects may have been dressed shabbily, but she insisted: "If they were coming to visit me. they'd dress up, too."

The resolutely fancy dress was an act of defiance. Its target, Adolf Hitler, called her the most dangerous woman in Europe because of her morale-building. Early in the war, there was talk that Elizabeth and Margaret should go to safety in Canada. The queen very publicly quashed that idea with a famous string of negatives: The girls would not leave without her. She would not leave without the king. And the king would never leave.

Not all Londoners were grateful at first. Early in September 1940, when the king and queen visited the East End of London, some of the residents booed them. East Enders resented the fact that Nazi bombs always seemed to fall on them, near the docks --the first target the German navigators found as they flew up the Thames in the dark. But on Sept. 13, six bombs hit Buckingham Palace. Two of them exploded in the quadrangle, 80 yards from a sitting room where the king and queen sat watching. On their next visit to the East End, they were loudly cheered. The queen then made her most memorable remark of the war. "I'm glad we've been bombed," she said. "It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face."

After the blitz ended, the queen continued her walkabouts, urging Victory Gardeners to keep growing their own vegetables. "Wherever I go," she said in one radio broadcast, "I see bright eyes and smiling faces. For though our road is stony and hard, it is straight, and we know that we fight in a great cause."

For a land grown deeply cynical about monarchy in the 1990s, last week was a welcome change of focus. Forgotten for at least the moment were the failed marriages and arrogant neuroses of the younger royals. (The separated Prince and Princess of Wales made one joint appearance, exchanging a hollow kiss.) The Queen Mum helped to rescue the house of Windsor from decadence before, after Edward VIII abdicated to marry a divorcee, thrusting the throne onto his unprepared brother, a shy, stuttering chain smoker known as Bertie. The new Queen of England was a sturdy daughter of the Scottish aristocracy, and she put some starch into the monarchy just in time for the war.

Now, at least while the VE Day celebrations lasted. she seemed to revive the institution again, by serving as a living link to an age of national unity and greatness. "I do hope all of you will remember with pride and gratitude those men and women, armed and unarmed, whose courage really brought us to victory," she told a crowd of 150,000 people in Hyde Park. She herself was one of those brave people--and chief among the survivors.