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 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT