A Queen in Chicago

The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth brought back memories of her whirlwind Chicago visit of 1959.  But Elizabeth was not the first foreign queen to conquer Chicago.  In the fall of 1926, there was Queen Marie of Romania.

Though Marie was not a queen in her own right, she could claim membership in both the British and Russian royal families.  Her father was Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred.  Her mother was Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Czar Alexander II.

Marie was born in England in 1875, and grew up there. After turning down a marriage proposal from the future King George V—Elizabeth II’s eventual grandfather—Marie married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania in 1893.  In 1914, when Ferdinand succeeded to the throne, she became Queen Consort.

Queen Marie, with King Ferdinand following

Queen Marie, with King Ferdinand following

During World War I, Marie worked as a nurse in military hospitals.  After the war she represented Romania at the Paris Peace Conference.  With her outgoing personality and refusal to be plugged into traditional female roles, she became the first royal media celebrity.  In 1924 she was featured on the cover of Time magazine—not with Ferdinand, just her.

Marie talked of visiting the United States for years.  In 1926 one of her American friends invited her to the dedication of an art museum in Washington state, and she accepted.  That meant a cross-country train journey.  And everywhere Marie went, curious crowds turned out to see her.  By the time she arrived in Chicago on November 13, she was the biggest news in the country.

Despite threatening weather, thousands of people turned out at Twelfth Street Station to see Marie that Saturday afternoon.  She was then whisked to City Hall so that Mayor Dever and various other politicians could officially welcome her. That evening she moved to the Drake hotel, for a dinner with some of the city’s Important People.  Marie smoked a few cigarettes—which showed she was a “liberated” woman—and told stories, and joked around, and charmed everybody.

At the dinner, Marie spoke to the city on a radio hookup.  “After you have all said such amiable things to me, I hope you shall not be disappointed,” she began.  She said that every mayor and governor in America believed their city was the best.  Then she added, “When my son was in America several years ago, he told me that Chicago was of all places the most beautiful town in America.”  She was happy that now she would be able to see this for herself.

On Sunday Marie went on a tour.  She visited some sights and had tea with more Important People.  At Lincoln Park, she got out of her car and chatted with some Romanian women, which put the whole tour way behind schedule.  That night there was another banquet.

Monday was more of the same, including a side trip to Gary to see the steel mills.  That was followed by a third banquet.  Tuesday followed a similar schedule.  On Wednesday Marie left Chicago, after 91 busy hours.

There had been a few bumps in her visit.  A threatened strike by the musicians’ union was negotiated away.  Local communists staged a small protest against the royalist pomp. But the great majority of Chicagoans took Marie’s visit in stride, and seemed to enjoy it.

Queen Marie never came back to Chicago.  Her husband died, and their son turned out to be a disaster as king.  She died in 1938.

Marie wasn’t like other royalty of those days.  She seemed down-to-earth, and she knew how to make the right gesture for the right occasion.  I’m thinking about the photographers here.

When she got to Chicago, she very sweetly asked the local press corps not to take flash pictures of her when she was walking down stairs, because it blinded her and she was afraid of falling.  That was reasonable, so they honored her request.

Now, many Important People would have just let it go at that.  Not Marie.  At the closing banquet at the Blackstone, she was called on to make a toast.  So she stood up, raised her glass, and said “To the Chicago newspaper photographers!”

That was Queen Marie for you.



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