Her day begins as it does for many mothers—with a call to her daughter. “Your Majesty? I have Her Majesty, Your Majesty,” says the Buckingham Palace operator. But last week Queen Elizabeth II, 59, and her sister, Princess Margaret, 55, beat the Queen Mother to the punch with a message of their own: Happy 85th Birthday, Mummy! They joined her at Sandringham Castle 100 miles north of London, where more than 6,000 rain-soaked admirers turned out to deliver to the birthday girl cards and bouquets picked from backyards across England. Later the Queen Mum attended services at a nearby chapel, where Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, having flown in from Monte Carlo for the occasion, played Happy Birthday. Two days later she was treated by British Airways to a twice-around-the-is-land spin in a Concorde, a jet she had always wanted to fly in.
At 85, England’s most popular royal—and Princess Di’s onetime etiquette coach—remains indefatigable. She signs up for more than 100 official engagements each year (a schedule she’s maintained for 20 years) and is president or patron of more than 300 organizations, as well as colonel-in-chief of 18 regiments. Last month on a state visit to Canada she went, in one day, through two time zones, three walking tours and four airports and finished up at a party. Her philosophy on royal duties: “Work is the rent you pay for the room you occupy on earth.”
It was 48 years ago that the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, then the Duchess of York, was dismayed to learn that her husband, Prince Albert, would ascend the throne because his older brother, King Edward VIII, was abdicating to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. “An intolerable honor,” was the way Elizabeth put it, fretting that Albert, who succeeded as King George VI, was not healthy enough for the job.
During World War II she stood fast, making the courageous decision to keep her family at Buckingham Palace although it was hit by German bombs nine times. She decided to retire from public life after the King’s death in 1952 and her daughter’s ascension. But Winston Churchill rousted her out, insisting she return.
Unlike the other royals, the Queen Mother frequently jokes with the press and does not hesitate to tweak her daughters. Lunching with Queen Elizabeth, she was reportedly surprised when her daughter, who normally doesn’t drink, asked for wine. “Are you sure you should, dear?” teased the Queen Mum, who enjoys a midday gin and tonic. “After all, you have to reign all afternoon.” She can also carry a grudge. She is said still to be annoyed with Jimmy Carter for bussing her at a 1977 meeting. “He is the only man since my dear husband died,” she says, “to have kissed me on the lips.”
The Queen Mother awakens each morning to the sound of bagpipe music (she has a recorded collection) and reads four newspapers before meeting with her private secretary. Together they sift through the 40 or so invitations she receives daily. On the rare occasion when she is lunching without family or friends, she snacks with the staff at Clarence House, her London residence.
Her biggest pleasure comes from horse racing. She is so devoted to the sport that she had a “blower,” a device used by bookmakers to provide live race commentary, installed in her home. At any one time, the Queen Mother owns about 10 horses; over the years, her mounts have won 350 races.
It was suggested after her husband died that the Queen Mum be appointed Australia’s or Canada’s Governor General, a ceremonial post, but Elizabeth II nixed the idea. “Oh, no,” she said. “We could not possibly do without Mummy.” Nor, it seems, would anybody want to.