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QUEEN’S YOUTH WAS THE JEWEL OF BRITISH CROWN

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In light of recent problems with Princess Di and Fergie and the burning palace, 66-year-old Queen Elizabeth II is experiencing the challenge of her life. Not only has she had the most depressing year of her tenure, but the entire institution of monarchy is now under attack in Britain, where her subjects are debating the necessity of royal symbols and trappings.

Few would have predicted such trouble at the beginning of her reign almost 38 years ago. Because she is now gray and dowdy, few remember the young queen, who at 29 was trim and pretty.When she appeared at royal gatherings in an off-the-shoulder gown with royal trimmings accompanied by the dapper Philip in his navy blue uniform, she was stunning. She was chic but reserved. Most thought she was a welcome contrast to her predecessor, the more august and venerable King George VI.

She was never as sophisticated and glamorous as Diana, but she was appealing not only to British subjects but to Americans as well. For instance, on June 26, 1959, she sailed up the St. Lawrence River on her floating palace, the "Britannia," and swept into Montreal Harbor.

An attractive young woman with a skirt specially weighted to prevent it from blowing in the wind came down the gangplank, she was met by President Dwight Eisenhower, who joined her to open the new St. Lawrence Seaway to official use. A joint U.S.-Canadian project, it took six years to build. In completed form, it allowed the American Middle West and the Canadian prairies to enjoy Atlantic shipping and commerce.

Following the dedication ceremonies, the royal yacht sailed up the new waterway on a 2,000-mile course through Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan, on the way to Chicago. There the queen visited the International Exposition on July 6. It was the first time the queen had visited Chicago, and the first time in 100 years that Chicago had been visited by British royalty.

Americans were excited about the chance to see the attractive young queen in person. At 33, she was at her best with short dark hair always covered with a crown during official appearances.

The trip to America seemed to be glamour of the first order, and the choice of the "Britannia" enhanced the effect. Actually a pocket-liner, it was half as long as the "Queen Elizabeth" and was known as the biggest vessel in private use anywhere. It carried a crew of 20 officers and 22 men, all of whom were volunteers.

By tradition, they communicated only by signals or in writing and wore white sneakers, making the yacht the most silent on the seas. The old royal yacht, "Victoria and Albert," which took Queen Alexandra to meet the czar of Russia, took a crew that went barefoot.

The "Britannia" was not without criticism at home in England even then. It was launched in 1953 at a cost of well over $8 million and an operating cost of $11,000 a week. Prince Philip also had a "commando raft" designed to get the royal Rolls Royce off the ship in places where no landing facilities were available. The deck was designed to accommodate the royal helicopter so it could carry dispatchers to and from the queen.

Although Princess Di today is more glamorous and charismatic than the queen in her heyday, her potential crown has been tarnished by bad publicity and a failing marriage to a much less exciting Charles. No wonder the British citizenry is getting more and more critical of royalty.

Its heyday, symbolized by the young, attractive queen, is in descent.

Dennis Lythgoe's column is published on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.