Long before Princess Diana graced the covers of countless newspapers and magazines, another girl from an aristocratic family married into the House of Windsor and soon gave the royals a much-needed shot of good publicity.
Her name was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and now, as Britain's beloved "Queen Mum," she's getting ready to celebrate her 101st birthday on Aug. 4.
"She was the first royal PR [success] of the century," says Bob Houston, publisher of Royalty Monthly magazine.
Marrying Into the Royal Family
Like Lady Diana Spencer, Lady Elizabeth was the daughter of an earl and enjoyed a privileged background. As Diana's childhood was marred by the trauma of her parents' divorce, Elizabeth's happy girlhood was shattered when World War I broke out — on her 14th birthday. One of her brothers was killed in the conflict.
After the war, Elizabeth became a popular debutante. She attracted the attention of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V and Queen Mary. The war had wreaked havoc on monarchies overseas, and for the first time in centuries, the monarch was willing to welcome a well-born — but not royal — bride into the family.
Elizabeth wasn't too keen on Prince "Bertie" at first; he was painfully shy and stuttered. He proposed three times before she finally said yes.
After their marriage in 1923, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and her duties as Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York. She and Bertie had two children, Princess Elizabeth — the future Queen Elizabeth II — and Princess Margaret.
Her quiet life was shattered when King George died and Bertie's elder brother became King Edward VIII. The new king was enamored of Wallis Simpson, an American woman who had divorced her first husband and appeared ready to ditch her second as well. The Church of England, of which Edward was now the head, did not recognize divorce. And the public would not accept a divorcée as queen.
In December 1936, Edward abdicated to marry "the woman I love," and Bertie and Elizabeth had to step up to the throne, as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
The Royal Show Must Go On
The new queen had quite a task: She had to support her husband, who felt himself completely unprepared for kingship, and restore public faith in a monarchy tarnished by the abdication crisis. She did both, superbly.
"She put the show back on the road and kept it going, all through the war years," Houston says.
When World War II broke out, Queen Elizabeth flatly rejected suggestions that she and her daughters would be safer in Canada. "The children won't leave without me, I won't leave without the king, and the king will never leave," she said.
The young princesses were sent to the shelter of Windsor Castle, but the king and queen remained at Buckingham Palace, which was bombed during the Blitz. The queen often visited bomb-ravaged areas of London, chatting with displaced residents.
She made it a point to dress in pastels, like blue, dusty pink and lilac, so people could spot her easily. Her famous big hats were designed to turn up so that people could see her face.
Worn out by the war and the pressures of kingship, George VI died in 1952, and his elder daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne. His widow, now the Queen Mother, remained one of the most popular members of the royal family — a position she holds to this day.
Everybody's Favorite Royal
Now a great-grandmother, she maintains an avid interest in horse racing, and still enjoys a glass of gin.
Last year, on her 100th birthday, thousands of people lined London streets to catch a glimpse as the Queen Mother rode by in a carriage.
Although she is truly a member of the old guard — when she was born, Queen Victoria was still on the throne — Britons across the board feel great affection and respect for the "Queen Mum," says Houston. "The depth of warmth felt for the queen mother is immense, for all generations."