This month is the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s becoming Britain’s first female prime minister. After recuperating from a series of small strokes and coping with the loss of her devoted husband, Denis, after more than 50 years of marriage, the Iron Lady, now 78, seems to be stepping out and speaking up once again.
A recently painted portrait of her was unveiled at an anniversary banquet at the Savoy Hotel last week, where speakers praised her as the greatest prime minister since Winston Churchill. Ignoring doctor’s order not to speak in public, she responded to the many tributes.
In her portrait, Lady Thatcher looks dignified and elegant in her bright blue suit, double strand of pearls, and trademark bouffant hairdo. Last year, Lord Snowdon took a much-discussed photograph of her, which made her appear old, frail, and bewildered and enraged her friends. The portrait’s admiring artist Richard Stone, who has painted all the “senior Royals” including the Queen, found Thatcher ” fascinating company” and has made her look a lot better–much more fitting the classy lady.
I met Margaret Thatcher after she left Downing Street, during the time she was on her $50,000-a-shot American speaking tours. She spoke at a sales conference for the publishing company for which I worked. The conference was held in Orlando, at the most posh hotel in Walt Disney World. Thatcher’s demands, besides the fee and transport to and from in the company jet, were few but very specific. She asked if there was a beauty salon available, because she would certainly need “a wash and starch” before going on.
I was supposed to introduce her and give her a company award before she spoke. Amazingly, we wore almost exactly the same thing: A blue and white polka-dotted suit. Hers had a bow, mine didn’t, but the polka dots obscured such details. Before going on, we looked each other up and down. I admit I always admired Thatcher’s intelligence, her decisiveness, and her achievements, but I never aspired to her sense of style.
All I could think to say was, “I admire you so much, Lady Thatcher, I dressed just like you.”
Her hooded blue eyes were cool. Those eyes, you remember, Francois Mitterand once compared to Caligula’s. He compared her lips to Marilyn Monroe’s.
She thought a moment. “You have good taste,” she said.
The speech she gave, I’m sure, was the one she a delivered in all such settings, touching on her accomplishments, her views, and the advice she gave to male world leaders like George Bush during the build-up to the Gulf War. “Now, George, I said, this is no time to go wobbly.” She even managed to make a few vague compliments about our company.
In truth, what she said didn’t matter. Though most in our audience knew little about her–the magazines we published dealt with bathroom and kitchen renovations–we applauded and cheered, flattered that this great lady had come to the Grand Floridian to speak to our little gathering. Our anglophile CEO, a generally somber, parsimonious number-cruncher, was so overcome with delight that he collapsed into satisfied giggles (inviting Thatcher had been his idea) and was unable to announce the schedule for the rest of the conference day, including what time the buses would leave for Mickey and Minnie’s birthday celebration at the Magic Kingdom.
A few of us were invited upstairs to lunch with Lady Thatcher in a penthouse suite. I noticed, as she downed her gin-and-tonic, that she played up to the men, and ignored the women. Maybe the twin polka-dot suits had begun to get on her nerves.
At lunch, she stayed in control, tasting the wine, leading the conversation. She was utterly unfazed when a waiter, either awed or terrified, couldn’t seem to serve her a dish without shaking noticeably. It was the first time I ever thought about the possibility of terrorism. A few years earlier, Thatcher had escaped an IRA assassination attempt at a hotel in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference. She had been in the bathroom when the bomb beneath her bedroom went off.
During the lunch someone asked about Hillary Clinton. It was just after the brief two-for-the-price-of-one Clinton presidency when Hillary had made, as Thatcher’s countrymen might say, “a right muddle” of her health-care initiative. “Doesn’t she know what she is doing is unconstitutional?” Thatcher demanded. “Why don’t the American people realize that?” she thundered, rattling the dishes and the waiter, once again.
When America elects its first female president I have no doubt she will be in the Thatcher mold. For Thatcher’s greatest appeal combined her toughness, her belief in conservative ideals, and her understanding of the good sense of ordinary people. She always remained herself, professionally and personally–the shrewd, resolute greengrocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire who could rustle up bacon-and-egg suppers for her Cabinet between late-night confabs and believed absolutely that people want to keep control of their own pocketbooks and their own destinies.
While she was prime minister she only showed her emotions in public once–not during the Falkland War, but when her hapless son Mark managed to get himself lost in the Sahara Desert for a day and a half during an auto race. When she teared up, every mother understood. Also, when prime minister, she abandoned the cares of state for a weekend to expertly wallpaper her daughter Carol’s small London flat. Why call in a professional? Wallpapering, she said, relaxed her.
Truly, an Iron Lady.
–Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.