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Here's What Really Happened When Princess Margaret Met President Johnson

Liz Cantrell
Photo credit: Bettmann

From Town & Country

In 1965, Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon embarked on a whirlwind tour of the United States, visiting several cities and concluding with a black tie dinner at the White House, hosted by President Johnson and First Lady Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Johnson.

The special dinner is featured in the third season of The Crown, which premiered on Netflix on November 17—exactly 54 years after the historic event. Episode two, “Margaretology,” follows Princess Margaret (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and Snowdon (played by Ben Daniels) on their journey stateside.

While the official details of Margaret's trip followed proper protocol, given her reputation as a royal rebel, she and Snowdon certainly had their fun. Reportedly, the couple's hard partying and negative press left a bad impression on British diplomats, who barred the princess from making a return visit to the U.S. in the 1970s.

Photo credit: Getty Images

They arrived on the west coast on November 4, landing in San Francisco with a 16-person entourage and 75 pieces of luggage. Margaret and Snowdon then decamped to Los Angeles for several days, where they toured Universal Studios and attended a party given by socialite Sharman Douglas. It was an A-list crowd: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Judy Garland, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Grace Kelly, and Natalie Wood were in attendance. Apparently, Margaret's behavior at the party ruffled a few feathers (Judy Garland and Grace Kelly took ire with some of her comments.)

Next, Margaret and Snowdon spent four days in Arizona, staying first in Tucson at the home of Lewis W. Douglas, former Ambassador to the Court of St. James under Harry S. Truman (Douglas's daughter was a friend of Margaret's) and then a ranch in Sonoita.

They finally landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington D.C. for the last phase of their trip on November 15. A treasure trove of information about the couple's visit to Washington D.C. was preserved in the archives at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. Town & Country was able to the view some of the documents, including Margaret and Snowdon's itinerary and all the glamorous details of the White House dinner.

On their first night, they had a private meal at the British Embassy, where they stayed for the duration of their visit. The following day, the couple toured several of the capital's highlights, such as Mount Vernon, the Jefferson Memorial, and the National Cathedral. They also stopped at Arlington Cemetery and laid a wreath at President Kennedy's grave. That evening, the royal couple attended a reception at the British Embassy and later were entertained by the Attorney General at his home.

Photo credit: Keystone

On November 17 at 8 p.m., a black tie dinner was held in the couple's honor in the State Room of the White House. The evening was technically an "official dinner," as state dinners are reserved for visiting heads of state (such as prime ministers, presidents, or a monarch).

The menu—with dishes likely not recognizable to royal watchers today—certainly reflected the times: guests began with an appetizer of Atlantic Pompano amandine (an almond-encrusted fish), followed by roast squab, artichoke with vegetable puree, and a hearts of palm salad with brie. For dessert: praline glacé. Guests sipped on Wente Pinot Chardonnay, a 1960 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 1959 Almaden Blanc de Blancs.

Photo credit: Courtesy Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library

150 guests were in attendance, including notable political and cultural figures of the time. Kirk Douglas sat at the President Johnson and Princess Margaret's table, while Nelson Rockefeller (then governor of New York) sat with Lady Bird Johnson and Lord Snowdon. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey were also present.

After dinner, President Johnson delivered a toast, thanking Margaret and Snowdon for their friendship and praising the special relationship between Britain and the United States. He also quoted Mark Twain's line: "I have traveled more than anyone else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent."

During her toast, Princess Margaret congratulated the President and First Lady on their 31st wedding anniversary. (The couple wed on November 17, 1934 in San Antonio, Texas.) Margaret also noted the hospitality and kindness that she and Lord Snowdon received across the U.S., saying the experience "touched us greatly, and it will make us take home superlatively happy memories of all we have done and seen."

Margaret and Snowdon departed for England the next day after an exhausting 14-day trip. We may never know what was said at the White House dinner tables or what went on after hours at that Beverly Hills party, but The Crown certainly offers a colorful suggestion of what could have happened.

Photo credit: Bettmann

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