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
June 3, 2012 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
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
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT