The unlikely friendship featured horses, gin martinis and shared laughs

By Sam Gillette
February 27, 2018 11:09 AM
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Credit: Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Ronald and Nancy Reagan left the White House in 1989, but that didn’t end their friendship with the British royal family — a bond that involved laughs with Queen Elizabeth over drinks. (Vodka and orange juice for Mrs. Reagan, a gin martini for the Queen.)

“A close camaraderie developed between the Reagans and the royal family,” writes former White House aide Mark Weinberg in his book Movie Nights with the Reagans, which was released on Tuesday. “The president admired [Queen Elizabeth’s] lifetime of service to her country and her sensible, unpretentious style when they were together.”

As much as the former president enjoyed the monarch’s sensibility, he loved her skills as a horsewoman even more. According to the book, Reagan “was known to say that riding with the queen at Windsor Castle in 1982 was one of his fondest memories of his time as president.”

The author also enjoyed his time in the Queen’s presence.

The royal couple and the Reagans
| Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty

“Her Majesty was gracious, pleasant, and so much more ‘real’ than I imagined,” Weinberg writes.

During one occasion when Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, visited the Reagans at their ranch in Santa Barbara, an intense storm required alterations to their plans. The Queen “was not bothered a bit.”

“Prince Philip, on the other hand, was known to be temperamental,” the author writes. “It was hearsay, but I was told he could be impatient and even unpleasant about logistical matters such as when motorcades would be moving, and who would and would not be allowed to ride with the Queen and him.”

He adds, “In fairness, he did seem to have taken on the tough job of making sure the operation surrounding the Queen ran smoothly, while she remained the center of attention — the ‘bad cop’ in the situation, as it were. And always a step behind her.”

President Reagan laughing during Queen Elizabeth’s speech
| Credit: Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

Despite Prince Philip’s rumored grumpiness, the two famous couples hosted each other regularly.

In March 1983, the First Lady flew up from Los Angeles with Queen Elizabeth to the Bay area, where she and the royal couple had dinner at Trader Vic’s — along with their respective entourages.

“Before the meal was served, the Queen enjoyed a Tanqueray martini, while Mrs. Reagan sipped vodka and orange juice,” wrote Joan Goulding about the event for United Press International. “They then dined on Indonesian lamb, finishing the meal with rum ice cream topped with pecans.”

Weinberg writes that the staff in attendance was shocked by Prince Philip’s “salty language in front of the Queen and Mrs. Reagan, but neither woman seemed to notice or care.”

“‘The Queen was laughing a lot,'” a bartender at the restaurant told Goulding. “‘A Secret Service man said it was the first time he had seen her smile.'”

Credit: Simon & Schuster

The Reagans were also friendly with Prince Charles and his then-wife Princess Diana, who Weinberg remembers as “shy.”

“Charles is smart, savvy, and politically astute,” Weinberg writes. “On the few occassions that I saw Princess Diana, she seemed shy. It’s not that she was standoffish, she just wasn’t as gregarious as her husband.”

Weinberg remembers one trip to London in particular when the Reagans visited the young royal couple at Kensington Palace.

The Queen and Alastair Bruce Discuss the Imperial State Crown

“As we were leaving, I saw the two young princes,” he writes, “William and Harry, in their pajamas, watching us from the window.”

As the years went on, the author writes that Mrs. Reagan became rather close to Prince Charles. They started writing letters after his second visit to the White House in 1985, which continued until Mrs. Reagan’s death on March 6, 2016. In one of the prince’s letters to the First Lady, he wrote about his disastrous marriage to Princess Diana.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their visit to the White House
| Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

“One day I will tell you the whole story,” Prince Charles wrote in a letter, dated June 21, 1992. “It is a kind of Greek tragedy and would certainly make a very good play!”

Prince Charles dancing with Nancy Reagan in 1981.
| Credit: Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images

The royal offered his support after President Reagan’s death by attending the funeral in June 2004.

“Before the formal ceremony, [Prince Charles] called on Mrs. Reagan at Blair house, the presidential guest house,” Weinberg writes, “and handed her a handwritten letter of sympathy from his mother, the Queen — another example of the extraordinary relationship between the Reagans and the Windsors.”