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The Wedding of the Century

From the August 3, 1981 issue of New York Magazine.

They were frozen there in a kind of eternal tableau, posed on the sweeping rear lawn of Buckingham Palace on this very special party afternoon, just before the wedding of the century. Instinctively, all the guests gathered understood their parts in the collective ritual of a palace garden party, one of thousands of complicated collective rituals that make English life at once so rarefied, so moving, and, often, so absurd. The queen's garden-party guests—her 7,000 Tongan diplomats and Tory M.P.'s, her children's-charity workers and the mayor of South Ribble, her managers of Sainsbury's and British Shell—arranged themselves into the requisite three paths, neat as primrose borders, where the royals promenaded, stopping only to greet various presented guests. It was assumed that the queen, as was her custom, would take the middle path, where the crowd was densest. No velvet rope was needed to contain it. No beefeaters needed pikes to hold the unruly back. Brixton aside, the rule of civility in England still holds.

Even the weather knew how to behave during the half-hour wait for the royal party. A strong wind blew top hats and boaters toward the delphiniums, providing the necessary lightheartedness of the afternoon. The skies were gray enough not to outshine the queen, and, as if orchestrated, one shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom and managed to illuminate the copper dome of the massive, golden stone palace, with its family snaps by Van Dyck and Winterhalter, its alabaster statues of nymphs and nobles, this monument the Windsor-Mountbatten family calls its London home.

And then there was quiet. High on the terrace, Prince Philip, tanned and elegantly erect, led the promenade with his wife, HM, the queen. They moved slowly, solemnly, with all the pomp the occasion called for, at last turning to face the crowd. There wasn't a hint of a smile or a wave. There wasn't a cough or a fidget. Another moment. Tears came to eyes, lumps to throats. After a thousand years, the monarchy, however pointless, still thrived. What was more, the astonishing poetry of this moment was italicized by everyone's awareness of the coming festivities at St. Paul's.

At some point during the final trumpet run, the crowd began to notice the turquoise dot. The turquoise dot was a hat, a different kind of hat from the one the Windsor women wear. This was a Cecil Beaton-type fantasy of silk flowers and yards of aqua net. It was the kind of hat that showed that its wearer just might have a sense of style and an understanding of the kind of flair that will be required of a royal in a more demanding, electronic-media age. "God Save the Queen" evaporated from the horns and cymbals, and the rumor spread: Lady Diana is here. Is Lady Diana here? Is that Lady Diana in the turquoise hat?

She was, it was. The future Princess of Wales was at her first official engagement with the queen. Soon, Diana's blond hair came into view. She had swept the so unregal Sassoon fringe under her brim, but her face was camouflaged by the netting, a piece of brilliant fashion theater that separated her from the dowdy Windsors, stealing all the attention from her sour sister-in-law-to-be, Princess Anne, and her future mother-in-law. Diana's presence electrified the Tongan diplomats and the charity workers. Suddenly all was frenzy, as if they had spotted Elton John. There was a stampede from the queen's middle lane. The 7,000 loyal subjects of HM raced across the lawn in their haste to get to Diana's path. But the question was, Which path would she take? The north route, toward the royal tea tent and the herbaceous border? The south route, toward the gray-and-green-striped tent? The crowd, as if possessed, surged toward the right, then pushed toward the left, straining, shoving, jumping, fighting to see which way Lady Diana and her fiancé—the fellow who used to attract all the attention—would head. All that nicey-nice collective ritual broke down. Manners vanished. Not a "sorry" to be heard. And when Diana floated eastward toward the gazebo and the delphiniums in a cloud of turquoise-and-mauve chiffon, the guests in their droopy dresses and morning suits got even more frantic to grab a spot in the right-hand path to get a really good look at their next queen.

Girl of the Moment

Well, it's like that in London this summer. Diana's coy smile and Charles's somewhat wary smirk hang in every chemist's window, in every Barclay's Bank. Everyone knows his part in this royal wedding ritual too. The anti-monarchist M.P., Willie Hamilton of Fife, made the predictable declaration about the six months of mush. The bricks fly in Toxteth and Moss Side, but everywhere else it is the bunting and not the bullets that is on English minds. But the bullets—or at least the BBC coverage—are on some minds. The hotels are only half-full. The tourists haven't arrived. Flights are empty. Still, tourists or not, for the moment, unemployment and the disintegrating pound are off the front page, and Diana's family link to Humphrey Bogart has come on. For the moment.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Aug 3, 1981 issue of New York
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