Prevailing myth tends to reduce much of Europe’s royal line to caricatures of blood run disastrously thin: vile goat princes prancing about in diverse Sodoms-by-the-sea, senile voluptuaries bubbling in their brandy snifters, and so forth.
A charming counter to royal retrogenetics is Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who is scheduled to arrive this month on the first state visit to the U.S. of her 19-year reign. When she does, President Bush will find himself virtually eyeball-to-eyeball (she’s 6′, he’s 6’2″) with an imposing 50-year-old woman whose accomplishments might well have earned her a White House visit even if her head were uncrowned. “Our Queen.” says one Danish diplomat, “has a brain.”
Not only will Queen Margrethe unveil a Danish exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. D.C.. but she will be among the artists whose work is on display. Her Majesty paints, embroiders and works in porcelain and has designed scenery and costumes for TV (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep) and the stage (the Royal Danish Ballet). Between theatrical and other engagements, the Queen has illustrated the Danish edition of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Claus M. Smidt, museum curator and art historian, reckons that Margrethe is not a trilling talent, “She is infinitely more accomplished than, say, Prince Charles or Winston Churchill,” Smidt declares. On the literary front, Margrethe and her French-born husband of almost 24 years, Prince Henrik, 56, have translated Simone de Beauvoir into Danish. She also studied politics, economics and archaeology at live universities, and speaks as many languages.
The Queen enjoys a reputation on the Continent as one of the noblesse who takes her oblige seriously. But her heart is in her art. She readily concedes that her artistic leanings prefigured any no-lions of sovereign duty. “It’s very hard not to remember messing around with crayons,” she says. Nowadays that penchant for messing around translates into long hours backstage at the Royal Danish Ballet as the company prepares for its September presentation of 19th-century choreographer August Bournon-ville’s A Folk Tale. “We forget about too much formality backstage,” says the company’s artistic director. Frank Anderson. “The Queen doesn’t mind the odd hours. If we’re not finished on time, she will just miss dinner and work over a cup of coffee.”
This democratic sensibility may derive partly from the curious fact that Queen Margrethe was in a sense voted into office. She is the eldest of the late King Frederik IX’s three daughters; he had no sons. But in 1953, when Margrethe was 13, the Danish citizenry voted to change their constitution’s provision for male-only succession. Thus, Margrethe assumed the throne upon Frederik’s death in 1972.
“I remember very well when the constitution was amended,” says the Queen. “My first thought was. ‘Oh. I can stay all my life in Denmark!’ ” (It is the traditional fate of most princesses to be royal someplace else. One of Margrethe’s sisters, Benedikte, 46, is married to a German prince, while the other. Anne-Marie, 44, lives in England as the exiled Queen of Greece.) Her fellow Danes seem equally taken with her. When Margrethe turned 50 last April, one Copenhagen newspaper proclaimed the celebration “a tribute to the champion of queens.”
Male succession will return to Copenhagen’s Amalienborg Palace after Margrethe’s death. She and Prince Henrik have two sons: Frederik, 22, a student at Arhus University, and Joachim, 21, who attends agricultural college at Naesgaard. The boys have recently traveled in the U.S., with Mom’s enthusiastic approval. “They came home with stars in their eyes,” she says.
A bit starry-eyed herself, Margrethe the history buff was planning to visit Williamsburg and Monticello before her White House date. As for her own place in history, Margrethe remains realistically modest. “One shouldn’t write one’s own epitaph,” she says with a laugh. “I hope people will remember me as one who did her best—and who wasn’t an anachronism.”
—Mark Goodman, Fred Hauptfuhrer in Copenhagen