- Journal of SD History
The Prince of Wales Visits San Diego
A Study in Perception
Early in the afternoon of April 7, 1920, a small steam tender from the famous British battleship, H.M.S. Renown, chugged its way through San Diego harbor. As it came down the channel, vessels of the American Navy at anchor in the harbor launched a volley of sea-artillery shots. The tiny British launch responded by dipping its colors in answer. On board, H.R.H. Edward, the Prince of Wales prepared to set foot for the first time on the west coast of the United States. The artillery fire alerted the Prince's welcoming party of his imminent arrival. Anxious anticipation spread amongst the huge crowd that had gathered at the foot of Broadway to meet this eminent royal visitor. The small steam launch docked at the municipal pier and Edward, dressed in the uniform of a naval officer, stepped on the wharf and saluted Mayor Louis Wilde, Governor William Stephens, and the other assembled dignitaries. The crowd burst into spontaneous cheers and applause. The Prince then ascended the gangplank to meet a large contingent of British subjects, all veterans of the several wars Great Britain had engaged in over the preceding thirty years. Beyond this, the huge roped-off throng, waving British and American flags, cheered wildly for the prince as he entered an open car for a tour of the city. After pictures before the Plaza de Panama (Spreckels Pavilion) in Balboa Park, the sightseeing excursion concluded at the city stadium (later known as Balboa Stadium) where a crowd in excess of 25,000 waited to greet Prince Edward. So began what the San Diego Union would call a "gala day in San Diego."1
Throughout the twentieth century, the United States has maintained a preoccupation and a fascination with English royalty. American cities and towns generally respond to regal visits with all the pomp and ceremony that Americans think members of the British royal family are accustomed to receiving. Often, the accompanying observances reflect more of a pride in the city's ability to host such an eminent figure and less of any real tribute to the imperial guest. Sometimes, a royal visit can have a major political impact. In February 1983, for example, San Diego City Councilman Bill Cleator committed the tragic faux pas of "laying hands" upon the visiting Queen Elizabeth II. The subsequent furor contributed to the collapse of his mayoral campaign. In general, however, such occasions merely reinforce images of Anglo-American solidarity and, as such, are merely symbolic in their import.
Although there exists an abundance of individuals who can claim noble birth, certain royal figures command special attention. In our own day, Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, for different reasons, exert a powerful influence on those with royal imaginations. In the 1920s, Edward, the Prince of Wales, far outshone any other British royal figure in terms of charisma, charm, magnetism, and personality. Heir to the throne of the British Empire, Edward fascinated and excited a post-war American public. Besides being a representative of America's strongest ally, the Prince embodied to many a democratic spirit associated with Anglo-Saxon civilization. As the San Diego Union editorialized in anticipation of the Prince's imminent arrival:
We speak the same language; we are inspired by the same high ideals; our history is out of the same source; even our quarrels have been partisan rather than national -- family differences upon questions which might have been settled amicably if the obstruction of stubborn and arrogant personalities had not intervened. 2
The presence of the Prince of Wales on American soil suggested, in fact, that all was well with that 'special relationship' even if the U.S. Senate had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations.
As a consequence of this 'democratic' categorization, the Prince of Wales underwent a process of humanization in American eyes. Brought down from the high reaches of nobility, he was portrayed in the American press as a regular guy in his manners and deportment. Neither arrogant nor condescending, this courteous, mannerly Prince of Wales appeared eminently approachable by any of the common class. "That he is human is the pleasing point about him", lauded a local reporter.3 Not only did the Prince possess human qualities, it was even possible to mistake this paragon of English royalty for an American. Upon his arrival in San Diego, a number of admirers who had the good fortune to meet the royal personage himself declared that the Prince was so distinctly American in appearance and manner that they wished to claim him as their very own.4 Another source declared that the Prince was as "American" as any boy in our public schools.5
Finally, this sense of boyishness further accented the Prince's already considerable appeal. Although twenty-six, Edward sustained a very youthful image which the American press exploited fully. It remains one of the ironies of his royal mystique that a high officer in the British Royal Navy, which Edward was, could frequently be referred to as "boy" or "lad". This attribute also made the blue-eyed Edward extremely attractive to the young ladies of the twenties which, of course, only enhanced his star quality in American eyes.
The first public hint that the Prince of Wales might pay a visit to the United States appeared in the New York Times in January 1920.6 At that time, Buckingham Palace announced that the Prince of Wales planned to undertake an extensive tour of the Dominion of Australia in the coming spring. The journey intended to pass through the Panama Canal on its way to Australia and some west coast destination was required in order to refuel and resupply the Prince's private liner, the British warship Renown. Discreet diplomatic enquiries were made of the U.S. government and, on February 20, the British Admiralty announced that the Prince of Wales would arrive in San Diego enroute to Australia at the end of March.7 San Diego's naval connections deemed the city an appropriate west coast destination, but the Prince, the Admiralty, and the British Foreign Office intended the visit to be a short one-day stopover. The Prince's presence constituted an unofficial visit. Extensive preparations were ill-advised.8
The mayor of San Diego thought otherwise. In the winter of 1920, Mayor Louis J. Wilde found himself embroiled in a political scandal that threatened his political career. His private fund-raising activities with a nebulous firm known as the Community Oil Well Company had come under heavy press and legal scrutiny.9 Determined to fight back in any way he could, the beleaguered mayor regarded a royal visit as an excellent opportunity to deflect criticism and garner praise for his administration of the city. Within a week of the announcement of the visit, Mayor Wilde instituted tentative arrangements to greet the Prince with the appropriate display of pomp and circumstance. As a first step, he named a close political crony, Duncan MacKinnon, as Chairman of the Reception Committee. Working hand in hand with Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific fleet and Major H.D. Gerrard, the British Vice Consul in San Diego, MacKinnon soon transformed the Prince's visit into a veritable celebration. Plans for suitable U.S. Navy escorts for the 32,000 ton Renown were put into place. On March 6, MacKinnon and Rodman, much to the mayor's delight, decided to invite the prince to address the people of San Diego at the city stadium in Balboa Park.10 Soon, a major dinner and a formal ball at the Hotel del Coronado had been added to the agenda.
Word of the celebratory aspect of the visit soon reached the office of Governor William Stephens in Sacramento. Recognizing a political event when he saw one, the progressive governor soon wangled an invitation from Mayor Wilde which, of course, he immediately accepted.11 By the end of March, the General Reception Committee consisted of exactly one hundred white males. An Executive Committee of sixteen, with MacKinnon as Chair, and consisting of local luminaries such as General J.H. Pendleton, G. Aubrey Davidson, Carl Heilbron, John D. Spreckels, and Admiral Hugh Rodman, was established to oversee the great day. The institution of subcommittees of Finance, Entertainment, Sightseeing, Luncheon, Stadium Events, Dinner, and Ball added considerable bureaucratic momentum to the princely preparations. Then, at the beginning of April, in a self-fulfilling gesture, Mayor Wilde declared an official half-day holiday for the city of San Diego in honor of the visit of the Prince of Wales.12
Meanwhile, external officials began arriving in San Diego in anticipation of the honored guest's arrival. The State Department sent Robert Wood Bliss, a Foggy Bottom Counsellor, to welcome the Prince of Wales to the United States and to represent President Wilson at any official functions that might occur. In addition, President Wilson authorized the Head of the Secret Service, J.M. Nye, to oversee any security arrangements. The scope of Nye's assignment was necessarily increased as a consequence of Mayor Wilde's preparations.
The British government, too, dispatched a liaison representative to San Diego from its Embassy in Washington. Air Commodore L.E.O. Charlton, the British Air Attache in the United States, received instructions to act as the connecting link between San Diego and the Prince of Wales. The Foreign Office stressed repeatedly the unofficial nature of the Prince's visit and urged him, at all costs, to avoid any commitment which might involve the Prince in a large public gathering. When the H.M.S. Renown reached Panama on April 1, the Prince's Secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Grigg cabled Charlton reiterating the royal party's aversion to any overt public displays during their brief San Diego stopover.13 Charlton, however, failed to comply with his instructions.
Working closely with MacKinnon and Nye, Charlton complied with each item the Reception Committee placed on the agenda, including the city stadium appearance. Assessing Charlton's motivation for not pursuing his instruction remains a matter of conjecture. Certainly, he was quickly enamored of San Diego itself. He told a local reporter, "San Diego is more like paradise than any city I have ever seen...It is unsurpassed for beauty".14 As a royal representative, Charlton also benefitted from the sheer extent of the arrangements. In carrying out his liaison duties, Charlton received the complete red-carpet treatment at all times. His personal host, Admiral Roger Welles, even provided the Air Commodore with his own private naval launch for his "pleasure and convenience".15 Thus, personally overwhelmed with the welcome preparations as much as by his own favorable treatment, Charlton might well have anticipated an equally favorable response from the royal party.
On April 3, Duncan MacKinnon publicly announced the tentative schedule of events worked out by the Reception Committee. After the arrival of the H.M.S. Renown off Point Loma on the morning of April 7, a distinguished welcoming delegation, including Mayor Wilde, Governor Stephens, Mr. Wood and Mr. Nye, Air Commodore Charlton, and Duncan MacKinnon himself, would board the anchored vessel and formally greet the Prince. Thereafter, the entire party would attend a luncheon given by Admiral Rodman on the USS New Mexico. The Prince was scheduled to come ashore at the municipal pier about two o'clock. Following an informal reception with British war veterans at dockside, a motorcade would conduct the Prince on a sightseeing journey through San Diego which would terminate at city stadium. There, with the aid of new amplifier machines provided by the Magnavox Company of San Francisco, a number of speeches would be made, climaxing in an address from the Prince himself. MacKinnon left no doubt that the stadium appearance of the Prince of Wales would be the "outstanding feature of his visit."16 In the evening, Mayor Wilde would host a formal dinner and a late-night ball, the latter affair serving as a coming out party for his teenage daughter Lucy. Before sailing the next day, the Prince would host an invitation-only reception for 400 people on board the Renown.
The Reception Committee had left no stone unturned in its efforts to ensure the success of the royal visit. A collection of young San Diego girls had been enlisted to take British junior officers on tours of the city. Harry Adsit, the chairman of the Special Entertainment Committee, issued assurances to concerned parents that there would be at least two girls in each car with the officers.17 The mayor's Committee on Entertainment of Enlisted Men, besides distributing apples, oranges and copies of the San Diego Union to the crew of the Renown, arranged a dance at the Cristobal Cafe in Balboa Park for those fortunate few granted shore leave. Special arrangements for the press and still and motion-picture photographers had been put in place at virtually every point on the royal tour. Elaborate security precautions had been coordinated between Nye's Secret Service and representatives of the Navy, Marines, the Sheriff's Office, and the Police Department. At the stadium, prior to the arrival of the Prince of Wales, "a program of singing, stunts, and Scotch music", augmented by the 32nd Infantry Band from Camp Kearney was prepared to entertain the waiting crowd. Nothing had been left to chance. Everything was in readiness for what the Reception Committee promised would be "this great day for the city's history."18 The only problem was that nobody had yet informed the royal party of the proposed schedule of events.
When Duncan MacKinnon announced the proposed schedule, he declared that a cable sent by the Commander of the Renown, Rear Admiral Lionel Halsey, from Panama indicated that the Committee's agenda conformed to the wishes of the Prince in every aspect. This was not entirely accurate. Unfortunately, owing to the difficulty of wireless communication, contact with Air Commodore Charlton in San Diego proved impossible until only 48 hours before the arrival of the Renown. As a consequence, the royal party did not receive a copy of the final agenda until April 5. The scheduled appearance at the city stadium shocked the Prince and his entourage.
H.R.H. did not like the look of this, and I felt that it was not very well in keeping with a private and unofficial visit of this sort that he should be asked to address a big public audience, especially as one can never be certain what American orators are going to say once they are on their feet.19
After consulting with his advisers, the Prince instructed Grigg to cable Charlton immediately and instruct him to have the stadium engagement canceled forthwith.
When Charlton informed the Reception Committee of the Prince's demand, the committee members begged Charlton to ask the Prince to reconsider. They argued forcefully that a cancellation at such a late date would involve not only great public disappointment but, quite possibly, would discredit the Wilde administration. Charlton, no doubt less than pleased himself with his own position, repeated the plaintive argument of the committee to the royal party on board the Renown. Given the circumstances, the Prince decided to keep the engagement. Nevertheless, he warned the Reception Committee that he would say only a few words expressing his pleasure at visiting San Diego and he insisted that the speeches of welcome addressed to him be kept as brief as possible. A greatly relieved Reception Committee promised that no speech would exceed three minutes.20 Thus, a flurry of last-minute diplomacy had resolved a potentially embarrassing incident. Nevertheless, the sensation of relief experienced by Mayor Wilde, Duncan MacKinnon, and the Reception Committee was inversely proportional to the growing anxiety among the Prince's entourage. As H.M.S. Renown approached Point Loma on the morning of April 7, both the city and the royal party experienced a sense of strong anticipation: the former of excitement, the latter of dread.
The headline on the 8 April edition of the San Diego Union clearly expressed the successful public impact of the Prince of Wales' visit to San Diego. "YOUNG PRINCE, CHEERED BY THOUSANDS, HEARTILY ACKNOWLEDGES BIG WELCOME". Complete with front page photos of the Prince, the H.M.S. Renown, and an aerial shot of the huge crowd at the city stadium, the press trumpeted the excitement and the festivity of the occasion. "It was a big day for San Diego, and it also was a big day for the prince. Both admitted it."21 It was also a big day for Mayor Wilde. "Led by the Mayor L. J. Wilde, who never fails to shine as an entertainer, San Diegans gave Prince Edward the time of his young life."22 From the public's perspective, everything came off magnificently as close to half the population of the city turned out to greet the next King of England.
Certainly, the press coverage proved overwhelmingly positive. Only two negative references appeared in the local paper and neither was directed toward the person of the Prince himself. In one incident, the Prince's personal aides received some criticism for their impatience and rudeness during picture taking at dockside at the foot of Broadway. In that regard, a poll of reporters despaired that this delightful and unaffected Prince seemed to be surrounded by the insolent bureaucracy of British nobility.23 In fact, all reports stressed just how much Prince Edward reflected the strength and spirit of the nation which acted as his host. After an introductory session with the press on board the Renown, each reporter noted the athletic and hearty handshake he had received from the Prince. "There was nothing limpid or soft about those handshakes. They were typically American."24 Not British, but American. In many ways, the visit of the Prince of Wales provided an opportunity for the city of San Diego to self-indulgently celebrate itself.
Each step of the agenda received in-depth coverage and the Prince's enthusiasm with the city's preparations was fully documented. "Being young and full of boyish enthusiasm and "pep", he was equal to the occasion."25 The most controversial items on the agenda came off like a charm. After introductory speeches by the governor, the mayor, and Duncan MacKinnon, the Prince, in a few short words, expressed his appreciation for the reception and offered his best wishes for a long era of prosperity for San Diego and its people. That evening, the dinner, "one of the most brilliant affairs in the history of the city" and the ball, "the crowning event of a busy social season", climaxed the stay of the Prince of Wales in San Diego.26 The San Diego Union reported that the mayor seemed very happy. No doubt, for all in all, the visit of the Prince of Wales represented a political triumph for Louis Wilde.
From the perspective of the royal entourage, the fact that the day passed without any major embarrassments or complications provided a measure of satisfaction. The stadium appearance proved particularly trying. All the speeches, with the exception of that of the Prince of Wales, exceeded three minutes. Governor Stephens, a "very pleasant and friendly old gentleman of the Anglo-Saxon American type" did manage some effective remarks on the cooperation of the British Empire and the United States in peace and in war.27 However, Mayor Wilde made a very unfavorable impression. Besides giving an obscure speech which nobody understood, the mayor appeared to the royal party as "an unpleasant character, who seems likely to be sent to prison before long for some pecuniary fraud practiced on the city."28 The most impressive item at the stadium reception turned out to be the sound amplification system. In fact, at the Prince's request, the Magnavox Company sent a specimen of their invention to the Renown in order that the Prince's party might experiment with it. As to the rest of the agenda, the royal entourage made little comment. The celebrated dinner and ball went off "in a normal fashion".29 Singularly uninspired, the Prince of Wales and his party returned to the Renown early the next morning grateful that the official aspects of this unofficial stop had transpired without serious incident.
On the afternoon of April 8, the Prince held an on board reception for 400 selected guests. A Scottish pipe band played American popular melodies for the assembled guests while "masculine and feminine" refreshments were served: "tea and cakes for the ladies; other things for the men."30 Oblique references such as "masculine and feminine" suggest that more than Scottish music was served to the men of prohibition America on board the British warship Renown that spring afternoon. Finally, the guests clambered into their launches to return to shore. Governor Stephens raised three cheers while the Prince waved a smiling farewell. Then, with the unofficial visit at last concluded, Edward, Prince of Wales sailed off into a California sunset.
From all perspectives, the visit of the Prince of Wales to San Diego was a crowning success. The New York Times praised the strong and friendly international relationship symbolically captured by the Prince's presence in San Diego. "One would like to deduce from the Prince's American experiences...that of real animosity to England there is very little in this country and that the little there is can be considered of no importance."31 Even the royal entourage, so ridden with anxiety prior to their arrival in San Diego, praised the "ferment of international cordiality" occasioned by the visit.32 Prince Edward himself apparently succumbed only briefly to the charms elicited by the magic of San Diego. In his memoirs, (A King's Story, 1951), the stopover in San Diego received not one word of mention. As for charms of another sort, the evidence suggests that, despite the persistence of the legend, the Prince of Wales did not meet 'the woman I love' for the first time at the Hotel del Coronado on the night of April 7, 1920.33 Finally, although Mayor Wilde revelled in the social success occasioned by the visit of the Prince of Wales, it alone failed to save his political career. Deserted by the city's governing Common Council, he was driven from office under a cloud of scandal in 1921.34 Nevertheless, the visit accelerated and accented a growing pride among the citizenry in their city. San Diego had shown that it was a city not only worthy of royal attention, but a city capable of being properly attentive to royal visitors. As the San Diego Union proudly claimed, "From the visit of Prince Edward San Diego will add to its fame throughout the nation."35 In the end, from the perspective of the city of San Diego, that was the whole purpose of the visit anyway.
The author would like to extend his grateful acknowledgement to the following individuals and institutions for their assistance in the preparation of this essay: the able and courteous staff at the San Diego History Center, the Central Library at the University of California, San Diego, and the Public Record Office in Kew, England. Special thanks are extended to Ms. Suzanne Galloway of the UCSD Library and Mrs. Phyllis Anderson for their able research assistance.
1. San Diego Union, 8 April 1920, 1.
2. Ibid., 5 April 1920, 4.
3. Ibid., 3 April 1920, 2.
4. Ibid., 8 April 1920, 1.
5. Ibid., 5 April 1920, 4.
6. New York Times, 20 January 1920, 6.
7. San Diego Union, 21 February 1921, 1.
8. Lt. Col. Edward Grigg, Secretary to the Prince of Wales, to Mr. Akers Douglas, Foreign Office (F0) 800/158, "Lord Curzon's Correspondence with the United States", 12 April 1920, Public Record Office (PRO), London.
9. See, for example, San Diego Union, 23 March 1920, 1.
10. San Diego Union, 7 March 1920, 1.
11. Ibid., 25 March 1920, 1.
12. New York Times, 8 April 1920, 17.
13. Grigg to Douglas, FO 800/158, 12 April 1920.
14. San Diego Union, 6 April 1920, 4.
16. Ibid., 1.
17. Ibid., 4 April 1920, 5.
18. Ibid., 7 April 1920, 11.
19. Grigg to Douglas, FO 800/158, 12 April 1920.
21. San Diego Union, 8 April 1920, 1.
23. Ibid., 8.
25. Ibid., 1.
26. Ibid., 9.
27. Grigg to Douglas, FO 800/158, 12 April 1920.
30. San Diego Union, 9 April 1920, 5.
31. New York Times, 9 April 1920, 5.
32. Grigg to Douglas, FO 800/158, 12 April 1920.
33. Benjamin Sacks, "The Duchess of Windsor and the Coronado Legend", in Journal of San Diego History, 33 (Fall 1987): (Part I) 165-178; 34 (Winter 1988): (Part II) 1-15. Through diligent research, Professor Sacks has proven conclusively that the Duchess of Windsor (Mrs. Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., in April 1920) was visiting friends and attending polo matches near San Francisco during the Prince's visit. No doubt all the factual evidence in the world will be insufficient to dispel this popular local legend.
34. During his term as mayor, Louis Wilde, who had already amassed a considerable fortune through his banking and real estate ventures, organized the Community Oil Well Company and sought public investment for a number of proposed drilling ventures in San Diego County. In 1920, an investigation launched by the San Diego Sun, owned by the Scripps family, suggested that Wilde and his cohorts had been guilty of an extravagant and improper expenditure of funds raised by Community Oil. The charges and countercharges provided Wilde's political opponents, both on and off the Common Council, with considerable political ammunition against the besieged mayor. In 1921, with Community Oil having discovered not a drop of oil and allegations of asset misappropropriation still swirling about the city, Wilde decided not to seek reelection. Immediately after turning the keys of office over to his successor, John L. Bacon, Wilde departed for Los Angeles where he died in political obscurity in 1926. See, for example, San Diego Union, 20-27 March 1920; Richard F. Pourade, The Rising Tide. Volume VI of The History of San Diego (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1967), 17.
35. San Diego Union, 8 April 1920, 9.
Richard G. Kurial is Assistant Professor of History at Cariboo University College in Kamloops, British Columbia. He earned his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, San Diego in 1990. He has lectured at UCSD and San Diego State University. In conjunction with the University of British Columbia, Prof. Kurial is currently developing an American studies program at Cariboo University College.