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Toward the end of his life, the Duke of Windsor is reported to have unleashed some particularly bitter words against a family member he thought betrayed him: "She isn't just two-faced," said the former King. "She is forty-faced."

Who could this hydra-headed royal monster be? Somebody whose duplicity kept her out of the public eye, you would think. In fact, the Duke was speaking about his sister-in-law, the be-hatted, beloved Queen Mother. He believed that she had driven a wedge between him and his family; the Queen Mother believed, quite rightly, that Edward VIII's abdication had unutterably altered the course of her family's life.

But was the Queen Mother - a Scottish earl's daughter born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon in 1900 - really so scheming, and so able to disguise this from the public behind yards of tulle? Not if you're to believe William Shawcross, author of the first authorized biography of "the Queen Mum" (not a nickname she fondly embraced.)

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Search the 1,096 pages of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and you would need an electron microscope to find any criticism of its subject. There is a footnote, taken from Isaiah Berlin's diary in 1959, when he had dinner with her and pronounced that she was "not indeed particularly intelligent nor even terribly nice." A needle in the haystack!

"Yes, but they went on to be great friends," says Mr. Shawcross, sitting in a café in Mayfair, only a couple of kilometres from where the Queen Mother lived at Clarence House, one of her main residences until her death, at the age of 101, in 2002.

What about the comments of Edward Stourton, a broadcaster and writer, who called her "a ghastly old bigot" and said she had made disparaging comments about "huns and wops?" Mr. Shawcross practically spits out his tea. "Absolutely ridiculous. Of course she wasn't."

He is a bit testy on the subject of whether the biography soft-peddles its subject's life; he has just crossed swords with a BBC interviewer over the same issue.

Mr. Shawcross quotes the Queen Mother writing, "What a lot of our life we spend in acting," and telling friends that "I'm not as nice as I seem." Those are intriguing clues to a character - so was she, in an uncommon moment of self-reflection, onto something?









"I don't think it is true," he says. "In the 1,000 pages she seems pretty nice. She's strong, though. The cliché is that she was tough, used as a critical word. But I don't think she was tough in a cruel sense. She went through a lot - you can't do that with a weak character."

Of course, she went through enough for 10 lives. Raised as the much-loved daughter in an idyllic setting - summers were spent at Glamis, the family seat and famously haunted Scottish castle - the Queen Mother witnessed, in 100 years, unimaginable change on a personal and social scale.

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When Albert, the Duke of York, courted her, she repeatedly turned down his proposals, worrying about the strictures of a royal life (and she couldn't have known that he would one day be King and she Queen during Britain's darkest days). Elizabeth's mother wrote, wisely, that Albert would be "made or marred" by his choice of bride. In the end, she did "make" him, by standing beside him during the war - in one instance, Mr. Shawcross reveals, a bomb landed so close to Buckingham Palace that it shattered the windows as the monarchs ran into a corridor.

If the Queen Mother was a greater supporter of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement strategy than her husband, Mr. Shawcross says this was a popular belief at the time. In 1939, the couple made a dangerous transatlantic crossing to drum up support in Canada and the U.S. It was the beginning of her lifelong affair with Canada.

"It was her favourite place on Earth," Mr. Shawcross says. "She loved Canadians, and why not?" At 84, she insisted on taking the fastest elevator up the CN Tower, and "was ensconced with a drink at the top before the rest of the party arrived."

Ah, yes - the drinks. Apart from the hats, the gin is perhaps what we most closely associate with the smiling Queen Mother. A vulgar but inquiring mind has to ask, is there any truth to the story she once yelled to her gay footmen, "Would one of you old queens get this old queen a drink?"

Mr. Shawcross, a serious journalist with books about the Shah of Iran and the bombing of Cambodia to his credit, has the good grace to laugh. He says he wasn't able to track down that anecdote, but he does agree that she liked a drink or several.

The Queen Mother was an inveterate letter writer, and Mr. Shawcross was given access to vast stores of them at Windsor and Glamis castles. He was approached by the Queen's private secretary six years ago and asked to write the book; he was already a friend of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, and had met the Queen Mother in the 1990s.

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Perhaps that's why the biography is a gentle ride - the Queen allowed him free rein to write what he liked, and asked only to read the manuscript pre-publication (in the end, the only things she corrected were the names of two racehorses). Another reason may be that the Queen Mother, in the way of her generation, was not one to dwell on unpleasantness. One just got on with things. Her family referred to her, affectionately, as "the imperial ostrich."

Some of that unpleasantness had to do with Princess Diana. To a woman of the Queen Mother's era, discretion was all. She never gave interviews, and couldn't understand Diana airing her woes in public (as for what went on between them privately, we'll never know, because Princess Margaret burned their correspondence).

The Queen Mother witnessed a number of momentous changes: She saw the British Empire dissolve and another, more diverse country take its place. She presided over a monarchy that could have fallen apart in the 1930s and the 1990s, but didn't, thanks in part to her serene presence. Blithe, twinkling, one gloved hand always aloft, she sailed above it all.

To her biographer, though, that's an incomplete picture: "She was a much broader, more fully formed and interesting person than the sort of chocolate-box, Hello! Magazine image of her later years made people think. It did her a disservice - she was much more substantial than that."

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe's European bureau.

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