Los Angeles Times

Well played, ma’am

For 70 years, she was iconic yet enigmatic. No wonder Americans were captivated.


My mother often shared two memories of her experience as a young woman during World War II: Her grandmothe­r, an Irish woman with memories of hunger and fear under British rule, cheering the Blitz, to her family’s horror; and the impressive sight of the royal family remaining in London even as bombs dropped on Buckingham Palace. Like millions of others, my mother saw young Princess Elizabeth, who later volunteere­d as a military truck driver and auto mechanic, as especially heroic.

Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at age 96, would live at the center of such complicate­d and often opposition­al mythology for decades to come.

As has been said many times over, we look to the royal family for the kind of jewel-encrusted, gilded coach-chauffeure­d institutio­nal ritual that this country, by choice and definition, does not have.

But Queen Elizabeth II

enthralled us at an even more basic level. For Americans, who experience­d her at a physical and emotional distance, she was an almost mythologic­al figure, the most enduring main character in the world’s longestrun­ning soap opera.

Over the years, that character has been cast in many lights: fairy tale princess, colonial despot, selfsacrif­icing monarch, money-sucking figurehead, under-appreciate­d working woman, unfeeling motherin-law.

Though she was queen for longer than most of us have been alive, Elizabeth usually entered the modern American conversati­on through either celebratio­n — weddings, jubilees — or scandal. The marriage between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer renewed American interest in the British monarchy — and when that marriage ended in scandal, revealing Diana’s deep unhappines­s, many blamed, and continue to blame, the queen. After Diana died, Elizabeth’s days-long silence reinforced the belief that she cared little for the People’s Princess, that indeed her coldness had contribute­d to Diana’s tragic fate.

Others believed it was the queen who had been mistreated.

As screenwrit­er Peter Morgan explored in “The Queen” and, more recently, Seasons 3 and 4 of “The Crown,” one of Elizabeth’s greatest talents was her ability to remain both iconic and enigmatic. Her every action was open to interpreta­tion because, as monarch, she refused to respond definitive­ly to question or criticism.

There may be no other person who lived in the modern public spotlight for so long and still remained, essentiall­y, a cipher, a wellknown figure not really known at all.

Which is one reason “The Crown” has been as big a hit in the United States as in the United Kingdom. While royalists and others pressured Netf lix to attach an absurdly unnecessar­y disclaimer that the series is a work of fiction, audiences understood that it represents exactly what Elizabeth II was able to do so successful­ly: occupy a near-magical crossroads between real and make-believe.

Nineteenth century political writer Walter Bagehot argued that the unwritten British constituti­on relied on two kinds of institutio­ns: the efficient and the dignified. The efficient, including the House of Commons, did the work of government while the dignified, the monarchy, maintained the nation’s honor and to a lesser extent its narrative.

Elizabeth’s understand­ing of Bagehot’s definition occupies an entire episode of “The Crown,” but her grappling with the larger concept fuels the entire series. So do the inherent contradict­ions in her life that have continued to fascinate Americans for generation­s. Like her father before her, she was thrust into a job she did not want long before she felt ready. She lived in a fancy palace but was chained to her desk and her schedule like the most overworked bureaucrat. She was the symbolic leader of her nation but unable to voice her own views on almost anything.

She was the essence of privilege but also of duty; she may have had a splendid collection of hats and several castles at her disposal, but she never seemed to be living the high life. By all accounts, she was happiest tramping through the mud in Scotland, where she hung out in Balmoral but also drove her own Land Rover until fairly recently. And where she died.

More than anything, Queen Elizabeth II was an increasing­ly singular fixed point in a franticall­y changing universe. In recent years, she seemed to exist in a world apart from even the rest of the royal family. As allegation­s of sexual abuse left Prince Andrew stripped of his royal titles, as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle left the family they accused of racism, the queen’s longevity softened any criticism aimed at her through or by her progeny.

The royal family may be in tatters, and the fate of the monarchy has been questioned for years, but Elizabeth II was England’s beloved queen until the moment of her death.

Scandal and celebratio­n, birth and death, war and peace, prosperity and decline: For almost a century, she watched her country and the world writhe and shift through the modern age while she stood fast, for good and ill, in a role she believed was appointed by God and was certainly rooted through centuries.

We knew this day would come, just as we know even the most epic story must end, that even the most resilient character will at last fall silent, but there is no avoiding the shock or filling the vacuum. Impossible as it may seem, the queen is dead, and we will never see another like her in this world.

What happens next will simply be an epilogue.

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 ?? Dorothy Wilding Bettmann Archive via Getty Images ??
Dorothy Wilding Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
 ?? Mark Mainz Netf lix ?? “THE CROWN” (with Olivia Colman as the queen in Seasons 3 and 4) has been a huge hit in both the United States and United Kingdom.
Mark Mainz Netf lix “THE CROWN” (with Olivia Colman as the queen in Seasons 3 and 4) has been a huge hit in both the United States and United Kingdom.

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