The Coronation of King George VI, May 12, 1937

by William A. Harris, Director

King George VI (MO 1975.90a) and his wife Queen Elizabeth (MO 1975.90b) by Frank Ernest Beresford, 1937, FDR Library.

Saturday, May 6th, marks the coronation of King Charles III in London. In 1937, FDR was invited to the crowning of King George VI, the current king’s grandfather, the main event in four days of coronation celebrations. To many in the United Kingdom, the coronation was a welcome relief after the royal and constitutional tumult of 1936. George VI had assumed the throne upon the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, who decamped for France in favor of life with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Our Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert W. Bingham, outlined the general view of the British Establishment (as well as his own) on the recent abdication crisis and the qualities of the new King and Queen in the first two pages of the letter below.

US Ambassador to the Court of St. James Robert W. Bingham to Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 5, 1937, PSF, Diplomatic Correspondence, Box 32, Great Britain, 1937-1938, FDR Library.

FDR did not attend the coronation. To this day, no American President has attended a British coronation. Instead, he sent ministers extraordinaire to represent the United States. He selected General John J. Pershing, General of the Armies; Admiral Hugh Rodman, retired Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet; and former Ambassador to Germany James Gerard. Gerard was a particularly interesting choice. A prominent New York attorney, he was deeply involved in Democratic Party politics. He had also defeated FDR in the Democratic primary for US Senator in 1914. More recently, Gerard had reviewed Mein Kampf for the New York Times, castigating Hitler, Nazi German anti-Semitism, and Hitler’s “hymn of hate.”

Above left and right, Memo, FDR to Marvin McIntyre and Memo, FDR to Secretary of the Navy, both President’s Official File 48, folder Coronation, FDR Library. The President had definite ideas about his representatives to the coronation, making the selections himself.

Above, left to right, General Pershing, Admiral Rodman, and Ambassador Gerard. Photos courtesy of the Harris and Ewing Collection, Library of Congress. Rodman had been a friend of George V, the new King’s father and participated in the King’s coronation review of the fleet.

Many within the Administration angled for inclusion in the official party. Attendees could expect travel paid for by the government as long as passage was on an American vessel. Any expenditure, however, agitated some in Congress, especially for money spent on a coronation. Knee breeches, apparently the appropriate court attire for such occasions, became a particular focus of criticism. A wealthy man, with an even wealthier wife, Ambassador Gerard made it quite clear that he would pay for his own breeches. Furthermore, in the spirit of international amity, he paid for his own transatlantic passage on Cunard’s Queen Mary, pride of the UK’s passenger liners.

Above left and right, Stewart McDonald to the President and Brien McMahon to the President, both President’s Official File 48, folder Coronation, FDR Library.

Newspaper stories regarding budgets and breeches. The New York Daily News and the Buffalo News, both April 1937.

The President also sent his formal congratulations to the King, not through a diplomatic cable, but by hand directly from Ambassador Gerard to the King himself. It is a flowery note written in a style that must have seemed antiquated even in 1937.

File copy of the President’s letter to King George VI, President’s Official File 48, folder Coronation, FDR Library.

Newspapers breathlessly reported on the ceremonies and associated pageantry. Reports described the rousing cheers received by the American delegation and the splendor of their sartorial selections. The military men wore dress uniforms with feathered hats; whereas Ambassador Gerard donned his specially tailored black breeches. Sitting alongside him was the Soviet Foreign Secretary Maxim Litvinov. That the Soviets were there at all is remarkable and a testament to the importance of diplomatic considerations over personal factors regarding the royal family. The Bolsheviks had murdered the King’s first cousin once removed, the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, in 1918.

Gerard described the full panoply of events in a detailed, five-page afterwards. He paints vivid pictures of the journey from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey in a convoy of cars; the quality of the delegation’s seats in the Abbey, and the spectacle of it all. He also noted his warm exchanges with the King and Queen, who gave him and the Roosevelts formal portraits. An informal invitation to visit the United States as guests of the President was extended to the royals. This gesture ultimately led to their celebrated visit to the United States in 1939. As Hitler’s menace increased, Roosevelt sought positive opportunities to strengthen the nation’s ties with its long-time ally. He appreciated the personal touch and its public relations value.

Ambassador Gerard to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Letter, July 27, 1937, President’s Official File 48, folder Coronation, FDR Library.

As for those breeches donned by Ambassador Gerard and Secretary Litvinov, one wonders whatever became of them. We can presume that they were never worn again, or perhaps we can hope that’s the case. Litvanov went on to become Ambassador to the United States before being retired by Joseph Stalin. He died in 1951. Though Soviet commissars are a thing of the past, another aspect of the coronation survives to this day. Sold in abundance, then and now, were souvenirs–plates and curios and such. We have an assortment here (from the 1911 and 1937 coronations). Nations may rise and fall, but souvenirs live on forever and ever and ever.

Above left, Secretary Litvinov of the Soviet Union. Above right, a toy coronation coach with its original box (MO 1941.13.151) acquired at the coronation and presented to the President. Above left and right, two souvenir plates dating from 1937 ( MO 1941.8.51) and 1911 (MO 1955.92), FDR Library.

Where was FDR when all of this coronation pageantry was unfolding, one might ask? He was being typically American, attending a BBQ in Texas at Amon Carter’s ranch after a few days of deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. He made several successful catches on that trip, at least one of which is preserved here at the Library.

Above left, FDR fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, May 1937, courtesy of the National Archives, and a tarpon caught by President Roosevelt during his May 1937 fishing trip, MO 2007.779, FDR Library.

It had been an eventful week on the international scene. Garnering as much attention as the coronation, the Hindenburg airship had exploded and crashed in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6th. The President was kept advised about the tragic events in the days afterward and signed off on the US response. Every week in a President’s tenure is filled with incident, but May 6-12, 1937, was a memorable few days indeed.

Marvin McIntyre recommending a public statement by the President regarding the Hindenburg disaster, May 6, 1937, FDR Library.

The director would like to thank the archives and museum staffs of the FDR Library for their assistance in creating this blog.