When Radio Was Rare and New

Photo: British Pathe

August 29, 1924

An excerpt from my forthcoming book, Foster Place.
Part Nine
(Part One may be found here.)

Radio was new. The wireless was exciting. The New York station WJZ sent out an official announcement stating that an airplane would fly from Mitchel Field and out to sea when the RMS Berengaria arrived in port that late August afternoon.

“Through use of the recently perfected system of transmission we will broadcast the aviator’s words of greeting so that not only the Prince on board but the entire radio audience will hear them.”

The ship was besieged by hundreds of journalists and photographers cramming onto the vessel in their suits and straw hats. One by one, they circled, waiting to climb the ship’s ladder made for one crew member, hoping to get an interview, a candid shot, or the scoop. To be shot at by a cameraman in such a fashion was, as Prince Edward later wrote, “an assassination” — a phenomenon he was unaccustomed to experiencing. The onslaught of publicity that afternoon was an appetizer. 

Filmed crossing a plank, the Prince and Lady Mountbatten, who sported a gorgeous white coat and matching hat, were expected to disembark. Instead, the Prince, his cousins, and equerries boarded the Black Watch yacht, thirty odd pieces of the Prince’s luggage — old and new — in tow. They were on their way to Glen Cove for dinner and a rest before the Prince departed for Washington, D.C. the following morning with; Oliver Sawyer of the State Department at Washington; Sir Walter Peacock, Inspector Burt of Scotland Yard, London, and Maj. Oscar Solbert of the United States Army, sent by President Coolidge to act as special aide-de-camp to his royal highness.

David Windsor would travel by special train in an official capacity to pay his respects to President Coolidge and his wife, Grace. The family, still in mourning, would greet the British heir and host a quiet state luncheon with John Coolidge, their surviving son. The previous month, Calvin Coolidge, Jr. had developed a blister on his toe following an afternoon of rugged tennis with his brother. A blister on his toe led to infection. The robust young man spiked a fever and was rushed to Walter Reed Medical Center with a severe case of blood poisoning. Days later, the handsome young man, 16 years old, was dead. 

When the Prince returned to Long Island, the onslaught of publicity continued. Throngs of reporters and people from all walks of life swarmed Broadway in lower Manhattan to witness the Prince. Every day, every movement of the Prince watching the polo matches at Meadow Brook was captured in black and white moving pictures and stills. 

There were lunches, dinners, fox hunts, and dances. Besides polo, the Prince’s days were filled with golf, swimming, and, how shall we say, other sport. A good sport, the Prince drank from the cup when America beat the British to win the tournament. Toward the end of his stay on Long Island, reporters caught up with the Prince, vacationing at the Burden estate. He, Captain Trotter, and Captain Lascelles met the journalists outside. 

“You’ve trailed me for nearly a month,” the Prince said. “Here’s where I get back at you fellows.”

As Tommy Lascelles later said, “The newspapers gave exaggerated publicity . . . his amusements, expensive tastes, uselessness.”  

The month-long frenzy, though, had come to an end. Due in Calgary on September 19, 1924, the Prince bid farewell to state troopers at 10 p.m., heading for his private ranch. There, plans would change. 

Two days prior to the ship’s arrival, wireless operators on board the RMS Berengaria were busy with invitations sent to the Prince from almost every theater in New York, including The Circus in Luna Park and The Frazee, where Sweeney Todd was playing. 

The Prince refused every invitation. 

Hours before the ship’s arrival, the planned radio address, advertised for months, failed even though Lieutenant Connell had circled the plane back to Mitchell Field five times to fix the problem. At 4:15 pm, a printed statement was issued.

“We regret exceedingly that as a result of generator trouble we were forced to disappoint the large radio audience listening in this afternoon for an aerial report of the arrival of His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales. As we have repeatedly stated, airplane broadcasting is still in an experimental stage, but we believed that with the indulgence of the public, we will be alt to lessen the chance for failure in the future. Frequent tests prior to today’s were most successful and we had every reason to expect a successful test today.”

The Radio Corporation of America sent out a text of the message, delivered by Governor Smith to His Royal Highness, Prince of Wales 8/19/1924, Steamship Berengaria.

“I have the honor to express the greetings and extend a warm friendly welcome on behalf of the people of the State of New York on the occasion of the arrival of Your Royal Highness in our harbor. This greeting is sent you through the courtesy of the United States Army Air Service, one of whose airplanes is currently over your vessel.”

— Alfred E. Smith, Governor of the State of New York

Still, scores of rowboats, yachts, and sailboats circled the harbor. Ten thousand people gathered, the eager espying a twenty-mile trail of smoke from the ship’s three funnels while the Prince of Wales stood on the Captain’s Bridge, thanking everyone and distributing gifts. 

Journalists swarmed a nervous heir.

“I have written this,” David Windsor managed, handing over a typed statement. “It’s all that I have to say.”

“Some of my American friends very kindly gave me the opportunity of breaking my holiday trip to my Canadian ranch by a short stay in Long Island, so that I may see the International polo match. There is no need for me to state how glad I was to accept their hospitable offer. It will give me the chance, as a holiday maker, both to renew some of my delightful recollections of American, which I got on my official visit in 1919, and to witness what I believe will be the finest exhibition of a great game which the world can produce today.

“Whichever side wins, I am quite certain we shall have some splendid polo, and from what I saw of the Olympic contests between international associations.

I am looking forward to my brief stay on Long Island more than I can say and know my American hosts are going to give me a real entertainment, splendid in every sense of the world. I only wish it were possible for me to stay longer.”

Still, he was hounded with questions regarding rumors of his recent engagement.

“No, I am not engaged.”

More questions were shouted.

“I am most happy to be back in America. I like your country very much. The fact that I have come here for a holiday is about the best that I can say. I wish you would make it easy as possible for me and let me alone.”

But the journalists were relentless. “Will you marry an American girl?”

“That question can’t be answered. That’s a secret.”

“Are you studying poker?”

“Cut that out.” The Prince smoothed his regimental tie and coat lapel. 

At last, he disembarked, crossing a platform with Lady Mountbatten. The Prince, his cousins, and his equerries boarded four boats, including The Black Yacht, which would transfer the Prince to a small launch by 5 o’clock and then onto the private float of H. R. Pratt at Glen Cove. Finally, by automobile to the James R. Burden estate at Syosset. 

The journalists cornered the only American to dance with the Prince as he crossed an ocean, Miss Cahill of St. Louis, who had met General Trotter first.  

“A few minutes later came the surprise of my life. General Trotter came over to my table and asked permission to present the Prince of Wales. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I would be charmed to dance with the Prince.’ And after I danced once around the ballroom, I realized that my words wore no empty form of speech. He really is Prince Charming and as for dancing, he is absolutely perfect with a wonderful sense of rhythm. 

“After we finished the dance, a Fox Trot, His Royal Highness asked to to sit at his table. And the I received a call-down. He said I mustn’t call him His Royal Highness nor even sir. So what was I to do? I just smiled. 

“At the table were, of course, the Prince, General Trotter and Colonel Scott-Duff. So you see, I was the only lady among three perfectly charming English officers. We all had what the Prince called “lemon squash,” or lemonade, and the Prince danced with me again. By this time, the end of the dancing had arrived, so the Prince wished me a good night and then left with the other gentlemen.”

Meanwhile, the Long Island coast was lined with even more people who were unsure of where the Prince would land. There were more motorboats, more rafts, more sailboats, and more shifts. As papers reported: “from bay to cove to inlet.”

En route to the Burden Estate, he was chased by cars filled with men in bathing suits. And tractors. And expensive imports. 

All were unwelcome. 

“I said all I could say when I talked to newspaper men on the ship,” the Prince insisted. 

State troopers charged with protecting him from photographers and swarms of people were unable to keep photographers from breaking the lines.

“Never mind.” The Prince at last threw up his hands. “Let them come.”

Inside, he had tea, toast, and marmalade then freshened up before dinner with; J. Butler Wright, Third Assistant Secretary of State; Mr. and Mrs. H.R. Winthrop; Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Burden; Roger Winthrop; Colonel J. B. Charlton; Maj. Metcalfe; and Maj. Oscar N. Solbert; aide-de-camp appointed by President Coolidge.

A small party, consisting of J. Butler Wright, Maj. Solbert, and Colonel C.E.C.G. Charlton, Military Attaché, were to depart Syosset for Washington, D.C. at 6:30 the following morning on a special train comprised of three cars. There was a smoker and diner, a sleeper called “The Haynseville,” and “Business Car No. 90,” which belonged to the Samuel Rea, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

Unwilling to disrupt the Prince so early, it was decided that the small party would board the special train at 11 pm and head out on time, stopping in Manhattan and West Philadelphia for the Prince to tour the stations. White House cars would meet the Prince at Union Station, a subdued escort unlike the Prince’s first visit on November 11, 1919. The only official stop would last three hours. 

As I write this blog, it remains unclear when, exactly, David Windsor met Louis Swift on board the RMS Berengaria. The newspaper men reporting from the vessel were fixated on the Prince, particularly his wardrobe, along with members of New York society the heir to the British throne mingled with. John Jacob Astor, age 13, took a photograph.

The list of those disembarking was reported by The New York Times was extensive, but the president of America’s largest meatpacking company was never mentioned. 

The personal invitation, sent from Louis Swift to the British heir, would arrive the following month.

October 11, 1924

The Prince of Wales rolled up his shirt sleeves on his Canadian ranch, able to “feel at home and have his privacy.” But the interested — or the obsessed — had other ideas.

On October 11, 1924, WMAQ The Daily News Radio announced that The Prince of Wales might be heard on the Chicago station at about 1:30 PM Monday when the heir was expected to visit the University of Chicago. A single microphone would be set on a table prior to the luncheon.

The radio station, eager to get the broadcast — one of the very first of its kind — announced too soon. The Prince of Wales, traveling as a private citizen, refused.

Touring Canada after his month-long New York vacation, the heir and his party reserved the entire first floor of the Fort Garry Hotel, built in 1913 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, one city block from downtown Winnipeg’s Union Station. Built in 1913 and in the château style, the hotel would welcome David Windsor’s brother, the future King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth in 1939 after Edward VIII abdicated.

That history, though, was over a decade into the future.

When Edward, Prince of Wales, arrived, his hotel suite was entirely closed off from members of his own party. The Prince, it was reported from Winnipeg, was pleased with his privacy once again and “disported himself like a high-spirited schoolboy.” The Prince retired promptly upon his arrival in the Canadian city.

And while the royal guest danced and dined, playing drums, listening to jazz on a gramophone, politicians, business men, socialites, and secretaries scrambled to arrange last-minute details. Traveling by special train across Canada, the Prince of Wales was scheduled to arrive in the Windy City, mayors and old friends all too eager to write for a moment of the heir’s time, attention, endorsement, and money.

On October 12, the heir would entertain the Mayor of Duluth, Minnesota in his private car. The Prince was gracious enough to extend a half hour to S.F. Snively and five leading businessmen for a 4:30 afternoon tea, the invitation sent by S. Valentine Saxby, Executive Secretary of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.

The half-hour stopover was dubbed “a civic celebration,” and more than ten-thousand med, women, and children waited for the special train to roll into the midwestern station in a cold drizzling rain for hours. Per custom, the Prince stepped out onto the rear platform, a smile and a wave to the cheering crowd. Youngsters waved the Union Jack. Scottish pipers, wearing traditional kilts, played in the royal’s honor. The Prince impressed the delegation with his knowledge of the city, the Great Lakes, and iron mining.

“I am delighted with the reception I am receiving everywhere in the United States,” the Prince told Mayor Snively, “and especially with this tremendous crowd that waited in the rain.”

At 5 o’clock on a dreary autumn day, the Prince’s black special trained rolled out of the station, heading south.