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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT