Queen Elizabeth II’s 1983 SF trip was marred by tragedy

Queen Elizabeth II's 1983 SF trip was marred by tragedy

In 1983, at the age of 57, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip spent three days in rainy san francisco we have a rare royal tour of california. The trip involved drinks at a famous tiki bar, some A-list San Francisco celebs, 5,000 protesters and the tragic deaths of three Secret Service agents. Here’s how it all played out.

Her Royal Highness landed at SFO on March 2, 1983, after spending some time in Los Angeles and at Ronald Reagan’s ranch in Santa Barbara. She emerged from Air Force Two in the rain in a posh red hat and raincoat, accompanied by first lady Nancy Reagan. The delegation had planned to sail up the coast on Britannia, the royal yacht, but the bad weather changed its plans.

On the runway, Elizabeth was greeted by San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who quipped, “This kind of weather happens in California every few centuries,” before handing the queen the key to the city.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and first lady Nancy Reagan greet Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives at San Francisco International Airport on March 2, 1983.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and first lady Nancy Reagan greet Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives at San Francisco International Airport on March 2, 1983.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

The early arrival meant the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square (now the Westin St. Francis) had to clear out six floors of guests to make way for the royal couple. They were given the Presidential Suite on the top floor, since renamed the Windsor Suite to honor the visit.

On the first night, the foursome of Elizabeth, Philip and the Reagans got dinner and drinks at Trader Vic’s — the famous now-shuttered, high-end tiki restaurant and bar at 20 Cosmo Place (now Le Colonial).

The following day, at Davies Symphony Hall, Tony Bennett regaled the queen with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” alongside actress Mary Martin and young comic Robin Williams. The queen and Philip also took in a performance of the flamboyant satirical revue “Beach Blanket Babylon,” which the Chronicles reported left Elizabeth “chortling.”

The following day, a quick trip down the peninsula included lunch at Stanford and a tour of Hewlett Packard’s headquarters in Palo Alto, before the royals headed back to the city for the main event — a lavish banquet at the MH de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park (that building was demolished and rebuilt in 2005).

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip hosted President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan on board HMY Britannia on March 4, 1983, in San Francisco.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip hosted President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan on board HMY Britannia on March 4, 1983, in San Francisco.

David Levenson/Getty Images

About 260 top-tier guests were invited to one of the fanciest dinners in the city’s history. Tea New York Times reported that the two stone lions out front were washed, the tapestries were vacuumed and ornamental trees were brought in from the city’s greenhouses to line the entranceway.

Before dinner, Reagan, looking a little nervous and reading from his notes, stood next to the queen and gave a speech. He proclaimed the museum to be “one of America’s great cultural landmarks” and thanked the queen for lending the de Young some Leonardo da Vinci horse drawings from the royal library at Windsor Castle.

In words that now seem unusually complimentary of San Francisco from the mouth of a Republican, Reagan said the “beautiful city” was “home to so many different people that represent the culmination of our nation’s great wartime alliance.”

The queen then rose to speak. Her frilly champagne Hardy Amies dress and giant diamond tiara, necklace and earrings were offset by the shows she slid on to read her notes.

She opened with a joke about exporting Britain’s weather to California but remained stone-faced as Reagan erupted in laughter. She thanked her hosts for showing her the new technology being built in California, which she referred to as “the miracle of the space shuttle, or of the silicon chip.” The queen said she’d always wanted to visit “spectacular” California and joked, “What better time than when the president is a Californian?” to yet more overzealous laughter from Reagan beside her.

The banquet included pheasant, caviar, goose liver and lobster terrine. Guests included Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Gordon Getty, Billy Graham (the evangelist, not the music promoter) and Joe DiMaggio, who told the New York Times, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I didn’t know that we were going to actually be introduced to the Queen.”

The queen puts Frank Sinatra in Hollywood before her trip up to the Bay Area.

The queen puts Frank Sinatra in Hollywood before her trip up to the Bay Area.

Tim Graham/Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Not everyone was so enamored by the British monarchy. Three blocks from the museum, about 5,000 protesters showed up in Golden Gate Park to object against Britain’s role in the Troubles in Northern Ireland — at their bloody worst in 1983. At the time, because bombings and assassinations were a regular occurrence in London and Belfast . The previous year, 10 Irish Republican Army prisoners died after a hunger strike in a Belfast prison.

The protests could reportedly not be heard at the banquet, but at the earlier event at Davies Symphony Hall, one protester yelled, “Stop the torture,” interrupting the queen’s remarks.

After a private soiree on the bay on the royal yacht, which had made it up the coast, the couple left San Francisco to see Yosemite — a trip that would result in a tragic accident.

As the queen’s motorcade was heading toward the mountains on Highway 132 near Don Pedro Reservoir, a US Secret Service vehicle drove ahead to detect any suspicious activity. Heading in the other direction, also on patrol in the area to aid the royal motorcade, came a Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department vehicle. They collided head-on, killing all three occupants of the US Secret Service vehicle — agents George P. LaBarge, 41, Donald A. Bejcek, 29, and Donald W. Robinson, 38. After multiple investigations and accident reconstruction, no charges were pressed against Sgt. Rod Sinclair, the driver of the sheriff’s vehicle, who survived the crash.

It is unclear if the queen was made aware of the fatalities as she toured the valley later that day.

The 1983 visit would be the only time in her life the queen made it to California.

Queen Elizabeth II visited Yosemite National Park on March 5, 1983.

Queen Elizabeth II visited Yosemite National Park on March 5, 1983.

George Rose/Getty Images

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