Iris loved the pool. This was a fact. She would go every day if she could, in her one-piece swimsuit and terry cloth swimming robe.
She would ring our buzzer and say, “Can Kristine come down to swim?”
I don’t know what was stranger: that she wanted to go to an outdoor pool in the company of a little Black child in Toronto (it was the early 1970s, just post the Civil Rights movement), or that Iris was, in fact, Lady Iris Mountbatten, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and second cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.
The name Mountbatten will be familiar to Royal Family watchers. The birth of Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, son of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, made headlines last year. Archie’s parents, who have since dropped their royal titles, recently announced they are making a move to Canada.
The name Mountbatten is steeped in tragedy. As noted in her New York Times obituary (she died in Toronto on Sept. 2, 1982), Lady Iris Victoria Beatrice Grace Mountbatten was first cousin of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was killed by Irish Republican Army terrorists in 1979 — hence the name Louis for the son of Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.
But one could not say that tragedy marked the life of Lady Iris. No, she had been a train bearer at George VI’s coronation, and was known for being a beautiful debutante and leggy fashion plate, with photographs of her seen regularly in the papers.
It was not always that way for Lady Iris; she often was described as a rebel or a “black sheep” in the papers. She renounced any claim to the throne in 1941 upon marrying Captain (later Major) Hamilton Joseph Keyes O’Malley of the Irish Guards, a Roman Catholic. That marriage would end in divorce in 1946, just as her two subsequent marriages, first to American jazz guitarist Michael Neely Bryan, and lastly to Toronto actor-announcer William Alexander Kemp. She left England for the U.S. of A in 1947.
By the time I was born in 1970, five years after Lady Iris’ eventual arrival in Toronto, she had slipped away from the social scene for the most part (though she would attend a Drake concert — jazz singer Jodi Drake, that is — in 1979).
My west Toronto neighbourhood did not know any of that, not until the early 1980s when a fire took out Lady Iris’ townhome on High Park Avenue, just north of Bloor Street. At the time it was not a big story anywhere but in my house, my family being immigrants from Guyana (formerly British Guiana).
That we did not put two and two together is amazing. Then again, in those days people were allowed to be as they were.
Things are different now, but nothing happening in the House of Windsor today is new — particularly where sweeping exiles, divorcees and scandal under the proverbial rug are concerned.
Admittedly, the players in this current royal exodus are different now, as are the circumstances. Yet the three women — Mountbatten, Markle, and even her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II — have much in common.
These women have never been idle, working, one could say, in the marketing and entertainment industries. Lady Iris did ads, including one for a cold cream, and even hosted a program on members of various royalty living in Toronto. Markle is best known for her role as attorney Rachel Zane in the USA Network’s “Suits,” and used her skill in calligraphy to supplement her early acting career.
It should be of no surprise that both women are listed in the International Movie Database (IMDB). Indeed, so is Queen Elizabeth II, much to the seeming surprise of James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, when she appeared in a skit for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Yes, acting runs in the family of the House of Windsor.
All three women have had to deal with the rigours of the press. Of the three, Lady Iris has been the most direct about her disdain of it. As she told the Toronto Star, again in the April 26, 1981 edition, “I have been misquoted up and down the pike, misunderstood and misrepresented like you would not believe.”
And all three women were directly impacted by divorce; Lady Iris was not the only one. One could argue that news reports of Mountbatten’s divorces mirror tweets of today, with small snippets of announcements appearing in the papers.
We should not forget that the spectre of scandal divorce has ravished the Queen’s family for the past few decades going back to Mrs. Wallis Simpson, the divorcee for whom Prince Edward VIII gave up the throne. Indeed, the Queen’s very seat on the throne is ensconced by it, as it was Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, who took the throne in Edward’s place. The scandal of the American Mrs. Simpson now dogs Markle.
Everybody seems to think they know the motives of all these women. I can say plainly that I did not know Lady Iris as “Lady Iris” at all. I was but a child when she came knocking at my door.
What is clear now is that Lady Iris was able to live a full life balancing intrusions from the press and maintaining a social calendar — a social calendar that included keeping the company of the Black Canadian child who lived next door.
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