Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Bumming a smoke from the queen: When the security bubble bursts

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Sun June 3, 2012
Queen Elizabeth II looks out of the window of her horse-drawn carriage as she leaves Buckingham Palace.
Queen Elizabeth II looks out of the window of her horse-drawn carriage as she leaves Buckingham Palace.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: In 1982 a man got past everyone at Buckingham palace into the queen's bedroom
  • It made headlines, showing that even the protective bubble of the exalted is not airtight
  • Other breaches -- the Pope's butler, Reagan's stage crasher -- show this, he says
  • Greene: Bizarre incursions are mesmerizing and show life has no guarantees

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. (ET) hour.

(CNN) -- So there he was, sitting on the queen's bed, wearing a soiled T-shirt and jeans, holding a broken ashtray and bleeding from a cut on his hand:

A man named Michael Fagan, who was 31 at the time, had climbed a wall of Buckingham Palace, crawled through an open window and made his way to the bedroom of Queen Elizabeth II, who was sleeping.

When she awakened to find the guy sitting there staring at her, it is fair to surmise that she was not pleased.

Especially when Fagan asked her if she had a spare cigarette.

This happened on July 9, 1982, generating international headlines, and only because the queen survived unharmed does it read like a comedy of errors. The errors were plentiful, including the queen's repeated attempts to summon help, at first to no avail.

But now, 30 years later, during the celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in London this week, it is instructive to recall the monarch's rude awakening by the bleeding intruder who was in search of a smoke. We assume that the handful of people at the absolute pinnacle of life -- the queen being the lead example -- have the means and the staffs and the security teams to insulate themselves from indignities that mere mortals have to put up with.

Analysis: Why Queen Elizabeth's jubilee celebrations matter to Brits

And, most of the time, they do.

But when there are breaches of presumed privacy, boy, does it cause a commotion.

Follow CNN's live jubilee blog

We don't have to go back in history to look for instances of this. Just consider what Pope Benedict XVI is thinking right now in the wake of the news that his butler, Paolo Gabriele, has been arrested, accused of having the pope's confidential documents in his home.

William and Kate arrive at the Thames
The queen rides to the flotilla
British lads show excitement for pageant
Grannies love the queen
Serenading Queen Elizabeth II
The queen departs the pageant

The investigation is still playing out in Rome, but if the allegations prove true and it turns out that Gabriele, one of the few people who had access to the pope's living quarters, including the pope's desk, lifted the information, then the pope will know with certainty that even with his rarified position, he can't count on personal privacy behind the guarded walls of the Vatican.

In the United States, President Ronald Reagan, after an assassination attempt on a Washington sidewalk in the second month of his first term, was assured that efforts would be redoubled to make certain no one who wished to hurt him would be able to get that close again. Nancy Reagan was said to be especially adamant that her husband be kept out of harm's way.

So it was almost beyond belief one afternoon in April 1992 when Reagan, out of office but still being protected by the Secret Service, was in Las Vegas to receive an award and was accosted right onstage.

Reagan had just been given the award -- a 2-foot-high crystal statue of an eagle -- when a man named Richard Paul Springer, 41, walked through the ring of security around the former president and onto the stage, grabbed the crystal eagle, smashed it forcefully to the floor (with Reagan being struck by the flying glass), and commandeered the microphone.

Reagan was hustled offstage by the Secret Service, and Springer, too, was hauled away. But there was widespread incredulity that someone could get past all the federal, local and private security that is always on hand for an appearance by a president or former president.

Some breaches are more comical than frightening. Elvis Presley was famously kept away from the gazes and grasping hands of his admirers when he was not performing. His privacy at home was especially important to him.

But his old friends and employees sometimes tell the story of what happened when a crate arrived at his home with ventilation holes punched into it. The delivery service said that fans had sent him, as a gift, a top-pedigree dog.

So, according to the story, the crate was carted into the house, and was opened. Out climbed two young women. They were escorted off the property.

The persistence of those who infringe upon the privacy of the exalted can be astonishing. It turned out that Michael Fagan, the queen's uninvited visitor, had managed to sneak into Buckingham Palace a month earlier and had helped himself to a bottle of wine. For that he was charged with theft -- but was not charged criminally for the subsequent trespass that took him to her sleeping quarters, because at the time it was considered a civil violation.

And Squeaky Fromme, sent to prison for a failed assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford in 1975, wrote to him while she was incarcerated -- a letter described as "strange" by Ford. She was able to reach the president once he had left office -- the letter made it to his home, and he read it -- even while she was locked away from society.

The oddity of these encounters that happen when the personal space of the most protected people on the planet is violated -- the bizarreness of the moments when they are reminded that nothing in life is guaranteed -- can be both mesmerizing and haunting.

Just ask Queen Elizabeth, in the unlikely event you ever get close enough.

But you probably shouldn't ask her for a cigarette.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT