The Golden Girl

updated 10/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Time to play royal Jeopardy!

Category: There will always be an England.

Answer: The most beloved Briton since Winston Churchill.

And the correct question: Who is Elizabeth the Queen Mother? During the festivities and fireworks for her 90th birthday last August, dry British eyes misted and stiff upper lips quavered. Elizabeth, after all, is a national institution. Adored for her approachability and cheerful mien, the QM was summed up by society photographer Cecil Beaton: "She is the great mother figure and nanny of us all."

Yes, and a good deal more. She's hardly some dotty old dear fit for a Monty Python sketch. Brooding beneath the quaintly appalling hats is one of the most gifted public-relations minds of the century. Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a determined and serenely beautiful outsider unhampered by royal stodginess, was the Di of her day. As a bright and bubbly teenager, she enthusiastically helped care for World War I soldiers recuperating at Glamis, her family's 17th-century castle in Scotland. But fearing life in the royal fishbowl, she twice rejected the marriage proposals of the painfully shy, stammering Prince Albert. He called her "the most wonderful person in the world." She finally assented and won the nation's heart when she impulsively placed her bridal bouquet on the tomb of Britain's Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. She gave her husband indispensable support and encouragement as he assiduously visited factories and toured the Empire as the new Duke of York. "Work," she once said, "is the rent you pay for life."

After Edward VIII tarnished the crown by abdicating in 1936, the young mother helped polish it to new luster as Queen Consort to her husband, who took the name George VI. During World War II, Elizabeth innately understood what the presidents of some airlines and oil companies rarely grasp: the need to offer aid and succor at the front lines. As London's working-class East End was hit nightly by German bombers, the Queen comforted the bloodied, homeless survivors in the rubble and soothed with quiet strength. British bulldogs hung on even harder through the Blitz when the Queen refused to send Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret out of the country. No wonder Adolf Hitler called her "the most dangerous woman in Europe." When George, never strong physically, died of cancer at age 56 in 1952, some friends say that the Queen Mother blamed his early demise on the abdication and that she never forgave Wallis Simpson. "You think that I am a nice person," Elizabeth once said. "But I am not a nice person."

It is amazing that this 5-feet-tall aristocrat, the last Empress of India, and honorary colonel of 18 regiments, who has probably never cooked a meal or made a bed, is considered "everybody's mum." A red-hot number in the '20s, she still likes "drinky-poos" (gin and tonic) before dinner, but she has never forgiven President Jimmy Carter for his shameful breach of etiquette: He kissed her on the lips. She is a multimillionaire and noted bon vivant, the only Windsor exempt from the Queen's ethic of total thrift. London couturiers quake when they see her coming. It's not her taste in tulle, it's that she reportedly rarely pays her accounts. And she's still keen as a tack. Says one old friend of her wicked wit: "She doesn't take prisoners."

Nor much time off. Although she dropped out of public life for a while after her husband's death, the Queen Mother is patron to 300-plus organizations and puts in more than 100 appearances each year. A master at finding the fine line between friendliness and decorum, she has coached both Di and Fergie on royal etiquette. She remains closer to the Heir Apparent, her first grandchild, than almost anyone in the family. She taught him to fish on her beloved River Dee in Scotland and was the only relative to visit the lonely lad during his Australian school days. On a birthday walkabout outside Clarence House in London, she recently accepted a posy from 7-year-old Nick Peacock. "Can I be king?" he asked. Everybody's favorite mum cocked her head and replied, "You'll have to work very hard." Roll up your sleeves, Charles.

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