The True Story of How the Kennedys Met the Queen

What really happened the day the first couple came to Buckingham Palace.

kennedys and queen elizabeth
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In June of 1961, British royalty met the American kind when John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie visited Buckingham Palace for the first time. It's a scene that will likely be depicted in season two of The Crown, considering the sneak peek photo below, which gives a taste of Michael C. Hall's portrayal of JFK and Jodi Balfour's Jackie.

Fortunately for fans of the Netflix series, the black tie banquet in the president's honor featured drama that was practically made for television.

According to America's Queen, a biography of Jackie Kennedy by Sarah Bradford, there was some initial hesitation in inviting Jackie's sister Princess Lee Radziwill and her brother-in-law Polish Prince Stanisław Albrecht Radziwiłł to the event.

Traditionally, divorcées were not invited to State Dinners at Buckingham Palace—Stan was Lee's second husband; Lee was Stan's third wife—but the royals eventually relented and extended an invitation to Jackie's relatives. After all, this was only a banquet and not an official State Dinner.

But the Queen "had her revenge," at least according to Jackie's friend, writer Gore Vidal: Princess Margaret and Princess Marina, two attendees Jackie had specifically requested, were not invited to the party.

Jackie apparently found the guest list less than scintillating. "No Margaret, no Marina, no one except every Commonwealth minister of agriculture they could find," she reportedly told Vidal. Jackie also told him that while Prince Philip was "nice but nervous," the Queen was "pretty heavy-going."

Per Hello Goodbye, a chronicle of "remarkable meetings" by Craig Brown, "When Vidal repeats this to Princess Margaret some years later, the Princess loyally explains, 'But that's what she's there for.'"

Perhaps these rumors of name-calling and drama-filled dinners are just that: rumors. After all, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan described the evening in his diary as "very pleasant." That exact phrase was also used by Kennedy's chief of protocol, Angier Biddle Duke, when he spoke about the night in a 1964 interview. "It was a delightful evening," he said, "very pleasant, very charming, very attractive evening! I think everybody enjoyed it very much."

And the president himself wrote kindly of the evening in a birthday note to the Queen. "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 Philip during our visit to London last Monday," he said. "We shall always cherish the memory of that delightful evening."

Unfortunately, Kennedy never made it back to Buckingham Palace. He was assassinated in Dallas in November of 1963. Prince Philip attended the funeral.

In the years following JFK's death, the British government established the Kennedy Memorial Trust, which operates in two parts: a physical memorial in Runnymede, England (the site of the sealing of the Magna Carta) and a scholarship for British post-graduates attending either Harvard or MIT.

“The unprecedented intensity of that wave of grief, mixed with something akin to despair, which swept over our people at the news of President Kennedy’s assassination, was a measure of the extent to which we recognized what he had already accomplished, and of the high hopes that rode with him in a future that was not to be," Queen Elizabeth said at the dedication of the Runnymede site.

Jackie attended that ceremony with her brothers-in-law Bobby and Ted Kennedy and her children, Caroline, then 7, and John, then 4. As they stood beside the memorial, John John held his mother's hand on one side and Prince Philip's on the other.

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

The modest gift Kennedy presented to the Queen during his first and only meeting, a signed picture in a silver Tiffany's frame, was displayed publicly for the first time at Buckingham Palace over the summer.

Caroline Hallemann

As the digital news director for Town & Country, Caroline Hallemann covers everything from the British royal family to the latest episodes of Outlander, Killing Eve, and The Crown.