Lyndon B. Johnson and Princess Margaret make an unlikely, but colorful, pair in Season 3 of The Crown. (Stop reading if you don’t want to get spoilers!)
In the Netflix show, the bawdy princess and the uncouth Texan bond over dinner for 140, dirty limericks, and trash-talking a slain president, John F. Kennedy. The shrewd Margaret, dispatched by her economically teetering country to get a bailout from the Americans (she secures it), connects with LBJ over a shared sense of what it’s like to be “number 2,” in the shadow of another’s charisma or title.
But is it true? What’s the real story behind the meeting of Lyndon B. Johnson and Margaret? Although there are elements of truth to the story line – Margaret and Lord Snowdon did have a whirlwind tour to America, and they were invited to a dazzling dinner with Johnson – some of the more colorful moments are fictionalized, such as the dirty limerick. You can see more photos from the dinner – and Johnson’s diary describing it in detail – later in this article.
Newspaper articles and Johnson’s diary from the time describe a joyous occasion between a princess and a president who clearly connected, a night of dancing, and a country excited about the visit of “Meg and Tony” as the newspapers called them. What’s left out: The trash talking of Kennedy and references to the bailout. In fact, one Associated Press article from the time described how Margaret sat out a lot of the fast dancing at the dinner, leaving that to Lord Snowdon. There’s also no evidence that Princess Margaret kissed LBJ at the dinner, as The Crown shows. She did dance with him in real life, though.
Here’s what you need to know:
Princess Margaret & Lord Snowdon Enjoyed Themselves ‘Wildly’ at the Dinner, News Reports From the Time Say
Newspaper archives from the time tell the story. So do the photos available through the LBJ library, which show a joyous night.
Tom A. Cullen, European Staff Correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, wrote about the buildup to the dinner. His story appeared in the November 2, 1965 edition of the Petaluma Argus-Courier.
The article reported that Princess Margaret would attend a dinner in her honor with LBJ on November 17, 1965.
The two had met before. They were guests at a Jamaican independence celebration in 1962. “It was to have been Princess Margaret’s show, but Lyndon Johnson, who was then vice president, was restless, irrespressible,” Cullen wrote of the Jamaica celebration. At that banquet, reported Cullen, Princess Margaret “drew Johnson aside and with a twinkle in her eye, remarked, ‘If I were not such an admirer of yours, I might think that you were trying to upstage me, Mr. Vice President,’” a charge he laughingly denied.
Thus, it’s clear that the joking rapport shown between Margaret and LBJ in The Crown has a basis in real life. In Washington DC, on the day of the dinner, an AP story from November 17, 1965 described how Margaret and Lord Snowdon went on a “rainy sightseeing tour” that included a trip to the top of the Washington monument.
“Marvelous,” the princess described it. The pair was driven around town in a Rolls-Royce limousine. Margaret was “wearing a gay lilac wool suit and matching cone-shaped hat trimmed with gray beaver.” They also went to Mount Vernon, where Margaret saw a picture of her mother and father.
An article in the Central New Jersey Home News, dated November 21, 1965, described how the band struck up “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” when Lyndon B. Johnson and Princess Margaret took the floor for a dance at the dinner.
The president was recovering from an operation, and the occasion was “a gay dinner party for 140 guests, with 50 more invited to drop in later for the dancing.” The president was described as “having squired Margaret around the floor,” while Lady Bird, LBJ’s wife, “foxtrotted with Lord Snowdon,” Margaret’s husband.
The Intelligencer Journal, of Lancaster Pennsylvania, wrote on November 25, 1965 that the White House party included Justice Abe Fortas of the Supreme Court and Defense Secretary McNamara. Johnson also invited most of the White House staff to attend; the article stated that, in contrast, JFK had “left the staff out to make room for outsiders” when he entertained royalty.
According to the Morning Call, on November 15, 1965, the Johnsons invited 15 more couples “in Princess Margaret’s age group” to come for dancing in the east ballroom “which will be set up cabaret style.”
The article reported that the White House “tried to get a cross section of personalities in American life for their big party. They wanted some ‘swinging types’ to add to the gaiety.” Jackie Kennedy was invited but unlikely to attend because the White House memories were too much for her; the president’s daughters, Luci, then 18, and Lynda, then 21, were expected to attend with their boyfriends.
According to Johnson’s daily diary, preserved by the LBJ library, the dinner menu consisted of Atlantic Pompano amandine, roast squab, artichoke with vegetable puree, a hearts of palm salad, brie, and praline glacé. Kirk Douglas and Henry Ford were among the celebrity guests at Margaret’s table. The President and Mrs. Johnson gave Margaret an autographed family photograph and two water colors by Lily Sandorff.
President Johnson didn’t retire until 2:30 a.m.
The Janesville Daily Gazette, on December 27, 1965, quoted the former White House chef as saying of Margaret, “She traveled all over the country, but the White House was the only place that served her American wines.”
An UPI article on November 15, 1965, described the dinner as the “most glittering event of the capital’s social season.” It was described as a dinner-dance that would also mark the Johnsons’ 31st wedding anniversary. Those on the guest list included several Rockefellers: New York Governor and Mrs. Nelson, Mr. and Mrs. Laurence, and John Jay, described as a “young bachelor.”
A November 18, 1965 article in the Evening Herald says that the “princess wore a shocking pink ball dress with princess line and matching jacket with low neckline and sleeves edged in crystal and pearl fringe. Mrs. Johnson chose an emerald green silk strapless dress with a bow of matching fabric on the bodice.” An AP story from the same day also reported that Johnson “launched the dancing with Princess Margaret” in what were described as “gay, informal festivities” that went on until 2 a.m. and “the frug and waltz shared equal billing in the East Ballroom.”
The Princess and Lord Snowdon were described as enjoying themselves “wildly.”
The president, “in a happy mood himself, drew rounds of applause and laughter with his champagne toast to the princess, capped by advice to Lord Snowdon from his own formula for a happy marriage.”
“I have learned that only two things are necessary to keep one’s wife happy,” the president said. “First, let her think she is having her own way. And, second, let her have it.”
He also described his marriage to Lady Bird as being “with the most wonderful woman in the world.” The dinner guests “burst into applause.” Town and Country described how Lyndon Johnson also said, quoting Mark Twain: “I have traveled more than anyone else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent.”
The president was recovering from an October gall bladder operation but showed no difficulty dancing.
Margaret “made her appearance in a shocking pink silk ballgown with dazzling diamond necklace, bracelet and drop earrings,” the AP article stated.
She “preferred to sit out the fast numbers, while her husband enthusiastically danced everything from a Dixieland rendition of ‘12th Street Rag’ to a popular Beatle number entitled ‘Hard Day’s Night.’”
The dancing got off to a slow start, the article says, because guests were “unsure whether royal protocol permitted cutting in on a princess.”
Margaret gave a toast in which she said she would take home “superlatively happy memories of all that we have seen and done” and Johnson told the couple, “your coming has been good for us. You have reminded us that we are a young and a gay people who response to the smile and warmth of a young couple.”
The Johnsons and “royal visitors” danced The Anniversary Waltz. Lady Bird “twirled Lord Snowdon through the marble foyer for a last dance and Johnson followed her lead with the princess.”
Princess Margaret & Lord Snowdon Did Visit the United States for a Highly Covered Three-Week Trip
An article on November 2, 1965 by the Associated Press, which ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, blared, “Meg, Tony Ready for U.S. Visit.” It explained that the “maids at Kensington Palace excitedly packed a secret wardrobe” for Princess Margaret’s first visit to the U.S. The princess and her husband were to arrive for a three-week tour, starting in San Francisco.
The AP reported that the West Coast was in the grip of “Meg mania” and socialites were “vying for invitations.” At the time, Margaret was 35 years old. Margaret caused some controversy; according to Radio Times, she offended Grace Kelly by telling her that she “didn’t look” like an actress, and demanded that Judy Garland sing for her.
The princess and Lord Snowdon flew to Washington D.C. for the Johnson dinner party from Tucson, Arizona to Andrews Air Force base and were staying at the British embassy. While in DC, they were to lay a wreath at the grave of President Kennedy and do sightseeing of national monuments.
A November 11, 1965 article reported that the princess and Lord Snowdon did in fact visit friends in Tucson. They arrived there for a 4 and a half day rest. Her host was Lewis Douglas, his wife, and their daughter Sharman, with whom Princess Margaret became close friends when Douglas was the ambassador to Great Britain from 1948-1950.
Douglas invited 200 people to a cocktail party for the princess at an Arizona Inn. At that party, someone “splashed a drink on her beige, chiffon dress,” but Margaret only responded, “I got wet, did you?” with a smile.
The scenes in The Crown showing Margaret partying the night away in California and later feeling ill also have basis in reality.
For most of her trip to America, Margaret was described as “nearly the last to leave a party,” the article stated. Sharman described her as a “bit anxious” and said she needed more rest.
An AP story from November 9, 1965 described Margaret as “fighting fatigue and laryngitis.” Margaret was at a dinner-dance at the Hollywood Palladium wearing “a diamond crown, a necklace with marble-sized diamonds and a cornflower-blue gown that matched her eyes.” Among those in attendance: Bob Hope.
A November 25, 1965 AP story in the Manhattan Mercury reported that Princess Margaret and her husband returned from their American tour to London, with Margaret “dressed in a mink coat and a hat of gold ostrich feathers.”
According to Radio Times, it doesn’t appear that Margaret was responsible in real life for the United States, the next year, bailing out Great Britain’s sterling. The pound was devalued two years later.
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