On November 17, 1965, at 8 p.m., President Lyndon B. Johnson hosted a dinner dance at the White House for Princess Margaret and her husband, Lord Snowdon. Only 140 people were invited—among them Ted Kennedy, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, George Hamilton, and multiple members of the Rockefeller family, according to the New York Times. And while what happened in the State Dining Room was behind closed doors more than 50 years ago, the public is now getting an inside look—albeit reimagined.
The fête is a central plot point of The Crown season three, which dropped Sunday on Netflix. It’s a sensational episode—Swearing! Drinking! Matters of national importance!—but how much of it is based on fact, and how much is fiction?
Before we dive in, a warning: This post contains The Crown spoilers (although a lot of it is, uh, history).
Let’s start with the mood: The show takes great pains to set the backdrop for the meeting, painting a picture of an economically troubled Britain and deteriorating Anglo American relations. This is true: Britain was in the midst of decolonization and had a weakened economy; its role as a global power was diminishing. It also did little to support the United States’ escalating conflict in Vietnam, causing a strain between the two governments. In the book *Twentieth-Century Anglo-American Relations,* author Sylvia A. Ellis writes that “most scholars of Anglo-American relations agree that the alliance between Britain and America weakened substantially during the mid-to late sixties, and have argued that this decline was epitomized, and perhaps even hastened by a frosty or at least cool personal relationship between Wilson and Johnson.” And though Prime Minister Harold Wilson visited the White House numerous times, Johnson didn’t make it over to Great Britain once during his tenure.
So while it’s unknown whether or not Queen Elizabeth actually wrote a dramatic letter to her sister detailing the dinner’s great national importance, there was indeed a significant international relations subtext at play.
The Crown paints the evening as an extravagant and rowdy affair. How much of that actually happened? Lucky for us, there were reporters inside. The New York Times described it as a “small but unusually spectacular dinner dance.” Roast squab, hearts of palm salad, and a praline glacé were served, and by all accounts, Margaret wore no tiara but a spectacular set of diamonds. Both the princess and President Johnson made polite speeches: The Washington Post reports Johnson toasted their countries’ friendship “in the hope that it will never weaken.” Meanwhile, Margaret thanked America for its hospitality. “We are having the most wonderful time in the United States. The hospitality and kindness we have received everywhere has touched us greatly and make us take home such superlatively happy memories.”
After dinner, when the party moved to the East Room, things began to pick up.
The president and princess danced to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Meanwhile, Lord Snowdon grooved to “rock ’n’ roll numbers” with “enormous gusto and expertise throughout the evening.” As a reporter for the New York Times observed at the time: “There was laughter and chatting; Margaret smoked a cigarette on a long holder and everyone looked totally at ease.”
And Johnson did give that cheeky speech, sharing the following advice with Lord Snowdon about how to keep his wife happy: “First, let her think she is having her way. And second, let her have it!”
But what about the dirty limerick contest? That’s not mentioned in any article. (But to be fair, if it did occur, it was likely not quite fit to print.) However, the party did go late into the night: The princess left at 1:35 a.m., while the Johnsons headed upstairs at 2. Sounds like quite the evening indeed.
Originally Appeared on Vogue