People

The royals in Detroit

The Prince of Wales, center, with Henry Ford, right, and Edsel Ford at the Edsel Ford estate in 1924.

Ever since the Revolutionary War severed our ties with Britain, Americans have been fascinated with British royalty. And whenever  members of the royal family visited Detroit, they were treated like, well, royalty. Usually they would wine and dine with Detroit’s peerage — the auto barons.

In 1919 the then Prince of Wales, who would later become the Duke of Windsor, visited the city of Windsor, Ont. A Detroit News reporter who sought him out on the train, found him on the rear platform staring across the river at Detroit. The prince plied the reporter with questions about the American city, which he said, “looked a lot bigger than Windsor.”

Crowds line up to catch a climpse of the Prince of Wales during his visit to Detroit in October 1924.

      At a party for the prince at Windsor’s Essex County Golf Club, Detroit Mayor James Couzen was notably absent. A few weeks earlier the mayor had incurred the diplomatic displeasure of the British by welcoming an official from Ireland, which was then fighting for its independance.

But Henry Ford attended. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time,” the Prince told Ford. “How much do your tractors cost?” He needed one, he explained, for his ranch in Alberta.

The prince stopped in Detroit Oct. 14, 1924 for a brief 12-hour visit. Mothers of Detroit’s flappers urged their daughters to primp, convinced that despite all royal tradition, the prince might choose an American wife. (The prince would later give up the British throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson.)

No public appearances had been scheduled, but that didn’t stop the women. They caught a glimpse of him at Ford Junction, north of the Ford Highland Park plant when his train arrived from Chicago at 1:25 pm.

But the prince had eyes only for the assembly line where he watched workers assemble a car in 17 minutes. Henry Ford then drove the prince around the plant in that car.

Ford later revealed that he told the prince that there “was a workman I thought to be an Englishman. The prince went right over and asked him what part of England he was from. The man answered, ‘I’m an Irishman.’ Everyone laughed.”

The prince attended a dinner dance at Edsel Ford’s home as cordons of police circled the estate to keep the crowds of eligible women at bay. Detroit News reporter Vera Brown (who once showed up for an audience with the Pope in a black nightgown because she didn’t own a black dress) sized up the prince and said he prefers a certain type of woman: brunet of medium height, slender with large dark eyes. The Prince had not yet met Mrs. Simpson, who fit the description. At 2 am the prince led the partyers and musicians across the Ford lawn to the Ford yacht, the Sialia, which was waiting in Lake St. Clair.

The Duke of Windsor, right, with Henry Ford on a return visit to Detroit in 1941 to tour defense plants.

      The yacht preceeded upriver, around the head of Belle Isle and turned to the foot of Mercer Street in Windsor. A crowd there cheered as the weary prince ended his visit, stepping aboard his private rail car, “Kilarney.” Later, as the Duke of Windsor, he returned to Detroit in 1941 to tour arms plants.

In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stopped in Windsor for about 40 minutes June 6 before continuing on to Niagra Falls where they crossed into the U.S. and spent 36 hours in Washington on a visit with President Franklin Roosevelt.

Controversial Royal Oak Radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin saw the visit as a plot to get America to join the war on the side of the British. “I trust no misunderstanding will be placed on your hospitality,” he said to Roosevelt on his popular radio program. He advised listeners to barrage Congress with letters demanding a neutrality law to prevent foreign entanglements.

In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II visited Windsor, arriving on her royal yacht Britannia through the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway. The ship cruised up the Great Lakes where she saw the newly finished Mackinac Bridge.

She returned to Windsor in 1984. As the queen and her husband Prince Philip sat in pink plush arm chairs on a platform with Detroit’s new Ren Cen towers as backdrop, Windsor Mayor Elizabeth Kishkon told the couple they “thrilled our city” by agreeing to visit. The queen sent a message to President Ronald Reagan aboard Air Force One: “I was delighted to hear that metaphorically speaking we were only divided today by a strip of water between our two countries and I send you our warm good wishes from Windsor.” It was signed “Elizabeth.”

The president replied: “Thank you for your greeting and welcome to our country. Nancy and I wish you the very best and hope your visit will be a happy one. We are pleased that nothing more than water separates our countries and pray it shall be always thus.”

With the Detroit skyline as a backdrop, Queen Elizabeth II visit Windsor’s Dieppe Park in 1984.

      One American visitor in the crowd said, “I came all the way from Pontiac because I’m from Jamaica and I love the queen because the English are beautiful people.” Emrol Nembhard, a janitor, continued, “Before they gave Jamaica her independence in 1962, they left us a wonderful legacy: The language, the culture, respect for your elders and all that kind of thing.”

The Windsor mayor confessed to her own fantasies about English royalty. “As a child growing up in London, I felt the very real charm and magic of the Royal Family. Many was the time I pressed my nose up against the gates of Buckingham Palace hoping to catch a glimpse.”

Another royal visitor to the Detroit area did not earn such lavish attention.

Photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who became Lord Snowden while married to Queen Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret, managed to get himself arrested in Detroit in 1974 by a rookie policeman who was displeased that Snowdon had taken a photo of him about to arrest a criminal.

Snowden had been sent to Detroit by his editor, Harold Evans of the Sunday Times of London, to photograph Detroit. Earlier Evans had invited Mayor Young to be his personal guest at an international conference on “Exploding Cities” sponsored by the Sunday Times and a United Nations agency. But no mention was made of the royal photographer’s planned visit to Detroit.

The rookie cop either did not recognize the visitor, or was not impressed if he did. Snowden’s jail stay lasted only a few hours. Earlier Mayor Young had refused to be interviewed by Snowden.

Lord Snowden, Photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, takes pictures of the funeral procession of a Detroit police officer in 1974.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News