Monday, April 21, 2014

Hot Dogs and Cocktails: When FDR Met King George at Hyde Park on Hudson by Peter Conradi

Reviewed by Jeanne

A few years back, there was a book entitled The Roosevelts and the Royals: Franklin and Eleanor, the King and Queen of England, and the Friendship That Changed History.  I didn’t recall ever hearing about such a close bond before and had good intentions to read the book, but as with most things I intend this didn’t happen in a timely manner.  The next time I thought about it was when I heard about the movie “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” which covered the same ground. I was rather underwhelmed by the film, but that’s a review for another time.  (See intentions, above.) Anyway, in the intervening decade or so, all copies of the book had disappeared and I was contemplating whether or not to use Inter-Library Loan when I found there was a new book out called Hot Dogs and Cocktails by Peter Conradi which covered the same territory. Also, I had previously read The King’s Speech by Conradi, a book which (surprise!) covered the events of a movie.  And yes, he admits in his introduction that his inspiration for this book was the movie.

The crux of the incident has more to do with symbolism than anything else.  It’s hard for some nowadays to remember that America’s ties with England were not nearly as warm as they are today; there was no “special relationship” as Churchill dubbed it in 1946.  This was 1939 and, after one world war, Americans were in no mood to go poking their noses in another European matter.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, two bright young things who had recently ascended the throne, were planning a North American visit to Canada. It was proposed that they make a detour to U.S. to garner some favorable publicity and to lay the groundwork for US interest and aid should Germany go to war with the UK.  After all, this would be the first time that a British monarch would visit the United States, not to mention one who only became king because his brother was besotted with a (gasp!) American (double gasp!) divorcee.  The idea was to showcase the King and Queen as two down-to-earth, unpretentious people with whom Americans could identify; hence the great Hot Dog Question.

During the early excited flurry of interviews about the upcoming visit, Eleanor had been asked what was to be served at the proposed outdoor “picnic.” The First Lady answered a bit offhandedly that they might serve hot dogs.  People were instantly agog, though the reaction was split between those who thought it an insult to offer royalty that ghastly common food and those who were delighted to think that royalty would enjoy something so American as a hot dog.

If you didn’t know Conradi was a Royalist at the beginning of the book, you certainly would before long.  King George VI and Queen Elizabeth are paragons of patience, good will, and family values.  At one point, the author remarks on the contrast of Roosevelt’s messy family life (strained relationship with his wife, affairs, overbearing mother) and the strong family ties of the Royals—which one can only do if omits most relationships outside of King, Queen, and daughters. There are several other such instances, but the author is so earnest that he apparently sees no contradiction. Nearly two thirds of the book is devoted to setting the stage for the historic meeting, such as some background on FDR and family, as well as the King’s stuttering and the Canadian part of the journey. Some of the most amusing parts are from Canadian, American, and British newspaper stories of the time, representing various viewpoints from charmed to offended.  Proving that some things never grow old, there was much discussion as to whether Americans would or should curtsy. 

In short, this is a fun little book, light on analysis and heavy on admiration.  Brew a pot of tea and pick up a scone from Blackbird and enjoy!

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