Margaret Thatcher, regardless of one’s viewpoint, was a formidable presence. I quote Prime Minister David Cameron: “She saved our country, and I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.”
Knowing British society, I understood how she had to out-tough, outsmart and outwork the male world of British conservatism. I still chuckle “hearing” her say to George H.W. Bush on the eve of Desert Storm: “This is no time to go wobbly, George!” As general manager of Blair House, it was my privilege to host her during her official visit with President Ronald Reagan, when, in November 1988, he honored his last official visitor, the world leader he was closest to in terms of philosophy and ideology.
I was a bit apprehensive during the advance visit. During the six-year restoration of Blair House, reopened shortly before, a new building housing the primary suite was added to the complex.
The Decorating Committee, taking into account that most governments were still headed by men, had decided to make the primary bedroom the more masculine, and decorated the second like a flower garden — from the silk moiré on the walls and the George III canopied tester bed to the embroidered carpet and flower prints.
I apologized to the Brits, expressing the hope that Dennis Thatcher would not feel too out of place. “I can put sheets on with green monograms, but that is as much as I can do to de-feminize it.”
But I was reassured.
“Oh, Dennis will be very much at home here. On the prime minister’s recent visit to the Arab Peninsula, he was put up in the pink marble harem quarters, and as he absolutely roared with laughter over this, you have no need to worry.”
Prime Minister Thatcher, fighting a nasty cold during her entire stay, was working hard in the library, where our head butler brought her hot tea with lemon and the occasional Jack Daniels; her days were long, her nights short. She had four television interviews one morning, starting at 7 a.m., going from site to site in the house. Groomed to perfection, she looked totally relaxed and made a big impression on everyone by being considerate, appreciative and on time.
I had expressed surprise the first morning when, at 6:30 a.m., she was the first one to come downstairs, to which she replied: “Never keep anyone waiting.”
But my most vivid impression of her was the night of her State Dinner at the White House.
She appeared on the small landing, directly above me, and smiled. Dressed in a two-piece, gold and pink long, silk dress, her hair coiffed to perfection, she was so impressive that I could not help myself, but blurted out with my undecorated Danish directness: “I know, Prime Minister, it is quite inappropriate for me to say so, but you look absolutely smashing.”
She chuckled. “It is never inappropriate to say so,” said Thatcher, The Right Honorable Prime Minister of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as she walked down the stairs to begin her gala evening across the street.
This remains my enduring impression of her — not her tough, take-no-prisoners rule, her rough treatment of her opponents, her later fall from grace or her long debilitating illness, but the fact that she was able to maintain an utterly feminine presence and a loving family life with husband Dennis and her twins during such tumultuous times. She was indeed quite remarkable.
Benedicte Valentiner is the author of Bedtime and Other Stories from The President’s Guest House and lives in Santa Fe.