Is it possible to transform an ordinary day into an extraordinary one? It is when you’ve accepted an invitation to attend a formal dinner at Windsor Castle hosted by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales. For fairy tale purposes, let’s call it a ball.
What to Expect
In my 2009 book, A Traveler’s Passport To Etiquette, I state, “when you plan ahead, everything goes according to plan.” I’ve never been one to leave anything to chance, not even errands. For Windsor Castle, the plan was to prepare for my Cinderella moment. When I was a royal correspondent for the weddings of TRH Prince William and Prince Harry, I was every bit an outsider. To see a room or two of a majestic castle such as Windsor has always been on my bucket list. I imagine that it wouldn’t be a bad place to isolate either—no wonder the queen considers it home.
From Rags to Riches
With a colorful parade of Assyrian fairy godmothers, my life has been a series of fairy tales that Hans Christian Andersen could not have written better. Since childhood, I have been soaking up every tale like a sponge, and now those tales have transported me to a real-life castle – Windsor Castle!
I doubt that anyone in the royal family has ever used the word ‘gal’ in conversation as in ‘golden rules gal,’ so I decided to use my formal name at dinner: Mary Beth Ella Gertrude. I hope the calligrapher has miniature handwriting for the place cards like the four and a half-size Cinderella slipper.
Prince of Wales Coat of Arms Place Card
For my glass slipper to fit, I consulted a friend and colleague, William Hanson, Executive Director of the English Manner in London and my go-to for all things royal, who says that less is more when it comes to oversharing. “Especially about taboo subjects of politics, religion, and idol gossip. Humor works used sparingly,” he states. As an American citizen, I do not need to bow or curtsey when meeting any member of the Royal Family. According to Hanson, “For those who wish to curtsey, it is not a low, sweeping thing like you’d see at the end of a stage show but instead a delicate bob: hands by the side, one foot behind the other, a bob and nod of the head.” Bobs and nods sound confusing, so I’ll play the American card and stick with a handshake. But, wait! The royal expert also says that I’m not to extend my hand until one is offered. We are, after all, still in the midst of a pandemic.
The Heir Apparent
In the United States, the future King of England is often referred to as Prince Charles when he is Charles, Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth created the title for him in 1958, but his investiture wasn’t until 1969. To date, Charles is the longest-standing Prince of Wales and the oldest British heir apparent. Once again, royal expert Hanson to the rescue on the correct form of address: “The Prince of Wales is addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’ and then ‘Sir.’”
Say This, Not That
Conversation etiquette is effortless at this stage in life, but engaging with royals may be a different story. Here’s what I do know: tea is the answer to everything, but what about other British habits? I don’t drink sherry or Guinness. I don’t own a hunting dog or even know how to hunt, and I only know how to describe rain as wet! Hanson states members of the royal family will be well versed in handling the conversation, and the key is to allow them to guide it. “Keep answers to a bite-size chunk, and avoid asking direct, personal questions. It is considered very bad form to report back to friends and (even worse) the media as to details of the conversation,” he says. What happens inside the castle walls will undoubtedly stay there. There’s a good reason Queen Elizabeth has never granted a press interview. #thefirmrules.
If The Shoe Fits
The dress code for the evening is formal attire which means floor-length evening gowns. Copy that! So I wear English fashion designer Vivienne Westwood (another royal etiquette tip: covered shoulders, please), with my Jimmy Chooz (style aptly named ‘crystal tiara’) and a matching clutch that was a gift from my husband. I can’t wait to make my first scuff marks on the grounds of Windsor Castle.
Getting Windsor Ready
October 19th: Buffed and Puffed
I get a body scrub and facial, so my complexion is snow white.
October 20th: Cut, Color, and Manicure
Nail color is Essie’s classic, ‘Jackie Oh My.’ I may not be a Kennedy, but she was American royalty, and I don’t want my nails to scream, ‘she’s trying too hard.’ The color blush is understated, and therefore appropriate.
October 21st: Depart for London
Rainstorms, power outages, and the rerouting of my aircraft won’t stop British Airways or me. I barely had time for a cup of coffee but made mine decaf: I need my beauty sleep.
October 22nd: Customs, Pounds, a Taxi, and Away We Go
Without dropping off my luggage, I dash to a nearby cleaner to have my gown pressed. They promised to return it before I turned it into a pumpkin.
October 23rd: Matinee Day
I scored a ticket to the new Andrew Lloyd Webber show, Cinderella the musical, followed by afternoon tea at Corinthia, a hotel near the theatre (British spelling).
Afternoon Tea Sandwiches at Corinthia London
October 24th: Have Covid Test to Travel
In the UK, it’s a requirement to have a Covid test two days after arrival. So collect specimens, post, and pray for no variant. With the television barely audible while dozing off, my favorite British female detectives came to life: Scott and Bailey, Marcella, Happy Valley, and Broadchurch.
October 25th: Private Viewing at Buckingham Palace
What a treat to be up close and personal with the masters: Vermeer, DaVinci, and Rembrandt in the Queen’s Galleries. They were nothing short of magnificent. Mercury is no longer in retrograde, but all of my palace movements were counter-clockwise. Within minutes of arriving, I noticed that a gold family heirloom was missing from my bracelet but later found by a palace guard. Next, my evening watch fell off in the Rembrandt Gallery. Finally, when I hailed a taxi, I tripped on a rainy London curb and bruised my hand and leg. With a sense of Bridget Jones’s humor, I thought of the British pre-World War II publicity slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’
Keep Calm and Carry On
Buckingham Palace for A Private Viewing in The Queen’s Gallery
Johannes Vermeer in The Queens Gallery, One of Only 34 in The World
October 26th: The Big Event
Hair and makeup at the Richard Ward Salon in the Duke of York Square. If it’s good enough for the Duchess of Cambridge, then it’s perfect for me.
An American In Royal London
Growing up, my nickname was ‘Last Minute Lisa,’ but to be late for my date with destiny was not part of the equation. My car left London on the early side to make sure I was on time. With heavy security in place upon arrival, each vehicle was checked for explosives (the queen was in residence), and I had to present three pieces of picture ID, plus my vaccination card. Only official photographers were allowed inside, so I tried to soak up the history of this royal residence. To you and me, Henry and Victoria, George, Edward, and Elizabeth are just names. Still, the list of British monarchs dates back to the 17th century, with Queen Elizabeth as the longest-reigning monarch (In September of 2015, she surpassed the reign of her great-great-grandmother Victoria). From my vantage point, my seat was number 18 away from the Prince of Wales, not bad for over 100 guests at one long table. As far as the eyes could see, there were fresh dahlias in every fall color, perfectly polished sterling, royal red linens, and coordinating seats. The entire evening was organized to a royal T. HRH gave a heartwarming speech to his guests and commented about isolation during the height of Covid. He told me I was ‘brave’ for traveling from the United States to attend the Royal Drawing School Dinner when we were introduced. It was the most fun I have had in years – literally!
An Intimate Dinner: The Principal Gothic Dining Room (Stock Photo)
The Golden Ticket
Everything Has An Expiration Date
My ball clothes have been retired, but the fun continues…dinner with friends at the Garrick Club; the Dickens Museum for great expectations; a rare book show at the Saatchi Gallery; dinner at The Wolseley in Piccadilly; lunch with friends at Wiltons on Jermyn Street; and London is not London without shopping at Fortnum and Mason, floor by glorious floor. Incredibly grateful for this opportunity, I also attended twilight services at Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Square. I prayed for my cousin’s husband Bob, who had recently passed away at Stanford Medical Center. And for the festive finale: cocktails at Sketch London (a Dior former atelier) and Claridge’s to check out their new bar, The Painter’s Room.
Fortnum and Mason’s signature Eau de Nil (bright blue-green)
Halcyon Days Box of Windsor Castle (30 Year Collector)
Holy Trinity, Sloane Square
And They Lived Happily Ever After
Each visit to my favorite city begins and ends like a fairytale: enchanting and storybook, with many blank pages yet to be written. Not bad for 144 hours in London.
Windsor Castle Attire: Jimmy Choo and Vivienne Westwood