They were America’s closest thing to royalty — and in 1961, President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy traveled across the pond for an extraordinary meeting with the world’s ultimate royals: Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip.
The Buckingham Palace visit is the subject of an upcoming season 2 episode of the Golden Globe-winning drama The Crown, which returns to Netflix December 8. The episode will feature guest stars Michael C. Hall as JFK and Jodi Balfour as Jackie, alongside Claire Foy‘s Elizabeth and Matt Smith’s Philip.
For the glamorous real-life meeting, Jackie looked every inch the princess in a Chez Ninon ice blue silk shantung evening dress and white gloves alongside a tuxedoed JFK.
The Queen, decked out in diamonds and sapphires, wore white gloves and a Hartnell royal blue tulle ballgown as she and Prince Philip, also in black-tie attire, welcomed their American guests to Buckingham Palace for a lavish banquet in their honor.
The evening was also not without its share of drama. Special allowance had to be made for Jackie’s sister and brother-in-law, Princess Lee Radziwill and Prince Stanislas Radziwill to attend the dinner. Although Lee had married into the Polish royal family (hence the regal titles), she and her husband were on their second and third marriages, respectively, and divorcées were traditionally not invited to state dinners at Buckingham Palace at that time. (The dinner was not considered an official state visit; that was expected to follow, but JFK’s assassination two years later in 1963 meant that it never took place.)
According to the Jackie Kennedy biography America’s Queen by Sarah Bradford, Queen Elizabeth reluctantly waived her rule about divorce for the occasion, but “retaliated” by excluding Jackie’s requested attendees, Princess Margaret and Princess Marina, from the guest list.
“The Queen had her revenge,” Jackie joked to writer and friend Gore Vidal, according to the book. “No Margaret, no Marina, no one except every Commonwealth minister of agriculture they could find.”
Guest list drama aside, Kennedy White House aide Angier Biddle Duke described the evening as “very pleasant, very charming, very attractive!” in a 1964 interview.
Duke recalled how JFK and Jackie ascended the palace’s grand staircase to greet the Queen and Prince Philip, who then led the group to “a small room” where they enjoyed glasses of champagne before dinner.
Shortly thereafter, “a door opened and there in a long, rather narrow reception room, were the dinner guests.
“Instead of having a receiving line, the Queen took the President, and Prince Philip took Mrs. Kennedy around the room,” Duke recalled. “The guests were lined up in a semicircle, probably in order of precedence. The Queen introduced the President to each one of them individually and they shook hands.
“This was to me, a very delightful and charming and most courteous way of doing things,” Duke said. “It was a delightful evening … I think everybody enjoyed it very much.”
After dinner, the Queen took the First Lady into the art gallery, where they admired paintings that were hung “rather haphazardly” and “without regard to school, nationality, era, date or anything,” Duke remarked.
The president didn’t arrive empty-handed, presenting Queen Elizabeth with a small token of his gratitude: a signed portrait in a silver frame from Tiffany & Co.
The portrait, which JFK signed, “To Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with appreciation and highest esteem, John F. Kennedy,” is currently on display for the first time at the annual Buckingham Palace summer exhibition.
If Kennedy’s gift seems modest, it’s with good reason. “Because Kennedy came to dinner and not on a state visit, that would be the level of gift that would have been considered appropriate,” Sally Goodsir, curator of the new exhibit and assistant curator of decorative arts at the Royal Collection, recently told PEOPLE.
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Though the dinner went smoothly, another recent meeting with a world leader was weighing heavily on JFK’s mind that evening, according to former British ambassador David Ormsby Gore.
A 1965 interview with Ormsby Gore — one of JFK’s closest friends, who was later romantically linked to Jackie following the President’s assassination — sheds light on Kennedy’s mindset during the dinner, which came on the heels of his Vienna summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Ormsby Gore, also known as Lord Harlech, said the meeting was “most disagreeable,” with Khrushchev trying to “browbeat” and “frighten” the young president.
“In London [President Kennedy] was mainly worried as to how he was to put this to the American people and that night, at dinner at Buckingham Palace — the Queen gave a dinner for him — he was very concerned about preparing for his television broadcast as soon as he got back,” recalled Ormsby Gore. “He thought it right that the American people should be told immediately what the real position was between the Soviet Union and the United States.”
The Kennedys and their entourage left for the U.S. late that night. Though JFK would never meet the Queen again, he followed up his visit with a thank-you note.
“May I also at the same time say how grateful my wife and I are for the cordial hospitality offered to us by your Majesty and Prince Phillip during our visit to London last Monday,” he wrote. “We shall always cherish the memory of that delightful evening.”