Upper crust gets low-down The queen: A new "tell-all" biography of Queen Elizabeth is from the pen of a viscountess, and the British establishment is steamed.

January 25, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- A woman with a noble title is not supposed to dish royal dirt.

But Sarah Bradford, the Viscountess Bangor, has done that and more. She has researched, written and publicized the book of the moment, "Elizabeth, A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen." It's a purported tell-all account of Queen Elizabeth's life and her relationships with the strong-willed man she loves, and the royal children who have been so notoriously unlucky in love.

The book, which hits British stores today, has been serialized in The Times of London and its contents picked up and transformed into banner headline stories in the tabloid newspapers.

Ms. Bradford, a non-academic historian who has previously written a biography of Elizabeth's father, King George VI, says she figured that the hardest part of the new book would be the research. Instead, it's the public relations fallout, as critics and courtiers savage the biographer and the book.

"It was quite intimidating," she says. "I set out to write a totally non-controversial book about a non-controversial figure. It became a minefield."

The book reopened decades-old rumors about the alleged infidelity of Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The author quickly pointed out, however, that the 48-year marriage remains rock solid.

The book also painted a rather chilly picture of the queen's relationship with her heir, Prince Charles, with the Times headlining that portion of the book: " 'You called me darling!' said Charles, amazed."

Some of the papers that didn't gain serial rights ripped Ms. Bradford for writing the book and the Times for publishing the extracts. Others claimed it contained recycled rumors and stories that appeared decades ago.

"Even five years ago, no paper would have run these stories," says Nigel Evans, publisher of Majesty Magazine. "But this is the tail end of a really big set of stories about royal marriages. Though it is a quite well-trodden path, the papers put a spin on this."

The Spectator, a conservative journal favored by what remains of Britain's establishment, weighed in with a double-barreled attack against Ms. Bradford. Frank Johnson, the editor, wrote, "When they wanted money, Viscountesses used to sell off the grand silver. Now, it seems, one of them is prepared to sell off the grand gossip."

Spectator media critic Stephen Glover excoriated the author for including in her book a provocative description of the queen's early years of marriage.

Ms. Bradford wrote: "In the beginning the marriage was a success on every level; physically, mentally and temperamentally the couple were compatible. Elizabeth was physically passionate and very much in love with her husband. Philip found her sexually attractive and was equally, though perhaps more coolly, in love."

The queen celebrates her 70th birthday in April. She has never granted a formal interview during her reign, which began in 1952 after the death of her father.

A detailed look at the life and times of Elizabeth will be written -- after her death. Only then will Buckingham Palace make available the tens of thousands of private papers and diaries collected by Elizabeth during her lifetime. Gaining the first crack at the collection, which is housed at Windsor Castle, will be an officially commissioned biographer. In the years to follow, other serious researchers will be granted access to the documents.

"The papers will enrich our view of the queen," says Philip Ziegler, who authored the official biography of Elizabeth's disgraced uncle, King Edward VIII. During the course of his research, Mr. Ziegler is said to have talked with members of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and the reigning monarch.

"Eventually, we will have a more informed view of the queen than what we have at the moment," he says. "It will show much more significant a role she played on various questions."

For now, Elizabeth's biographers are left creating their portraits from old newspaper clips, staged public appearances, a few well-orchestrated television documentaries and the inevitable friends, courtiers and "palace sources." "Any book about the queen today is bound to be based on gossip," Mr. Ziegler says. "And 75 percent guesswork."

The biographies usually come out in clumps, with the 40th anniversary of the queen's coronation creating a market for the last dozen or so books.

"It's very difficult doing a biography of the queen," Mr. Evans says. "The whole royal industry has profited from the fact that the royals don't have direct contact with the media. You can write a whole book quoting friends."

Ms. Bradford says it's possible to fashion a thorough biography of a reigning monarch. People do talk, she says. And the royals are never far from the news.

As the queen has proven time and time again, she remains above the royal fray. But when she acts, Windsors react.

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