2/11/09 - the demise of kings

In today's excerpt - World War I had brought the demise of five emperors and eight kings -- replaced by democracies, dictators and communist regimes -- and so the British royal family felt obliged to reinforce the relevance of royalty. So the future King Edward VIII went on a 1919 goodwill tour of America with an overwhelming reception not unlike that shown Princess Diana decades later. Edward gained lasting fame in 1936 when he abdicated his throne for his American bride, Wallis Simpson:

"With the collapse of the European dynastic system, the aristocracy in retreat, labour on the march and nationalism on the rise in the Empire, it was judicious to keep the Americans on board the royal bandwagon. As the King's advisers saw it, this was best accomplished by following Walter Bagehot's dictum that the monarchy needed to be visible, 'to acquire importance and popularity by being seen' ...

"The tour of the Prince of Wales to the United States in 1919, which followed on from an official visit to Canada, was a remarkable demonstration of this policy, though not without worries for the royal family and palace officials, who were well aware of the Prince's petulance and unreliability. ...

"To the Washington Press Club he made an innocuous speech, which impressed his audience for its democratic air. ... More to the Prince's taste, for he was a mediocre speaker, were the dances laid on in his honour, at which many a debutante left in a swoon. As one of his aides said of him, 'he holds very strongly that he can influence American feeling even better by dancing with Senators' daughters than by talking to Senators'.

"The Prince was given a rapturous welcome without any unseemly incidents, [in New York] though on one occasion a girl broke through the Broadway crowd and kissed him on the cheek. ...The British ambassador in Washington said that the Prince created 'a feeling of personal affection' in New York. For many Americans the affection had to do with his modernity, and his being the world's most glamorous bachelor. On departing from the United States on November 23rd, the Prince not only left a trail of adoring women in his wake but also inspired a romantic comedy Just Suppose, by the playwright Albert E. Thomas. ...

"Whether the tour persuaded many Americans that the British monarchy was relevant to the modern world is questionable, but ... he became a major player in the emergence of America's obsession with fame, offering an exclusive and classy contrast to the instant creations of the media.

"For the American media, the Prince had iconic status; he was a celebrity who commanded respect and veneration less because of his actions than because of his royal descent. Edward did as much as anyone of his generation to foster the culture of celebrity in the United States. In turn, America's emerging popular culture propelled his fame worldwide."


Frank Prochaska


'A Prince in the Promised Land'


History Today


December 2008


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