Helped by the Queen and Armand Hammer : Mary Armstrong Dies; Twice Rejected England

Times Staff Writer

Mary Armstrong, the centenarian whose ambivalent feelings toward both her native and adopted lands brought her to the attention of such disparate figures as the Queen of England and American philanthropist Armand Hammer, has died.

She died of cancer last Thursday, said John Mills, director of Planned Protective Services, which handled the 101-year-old's small savings account and Social Security payments.

In December, 1985, Mrs. Armstrong, who had lived away from her native England for 65 years, "got fed up" with Los Angeles. Prompting her displeasure, she said at the time, were three muggings coupled with the loneliness that resulted from the deaths of most of her friends. Her husband had died in 1947 and she had since lived alone in a tiny apartment while making drapes for an interior designer.

More importantly, she said, she had once been a young girl growing up on the English coast who kept a picture of Queen Victoria in her room. With her more and more, she said, was poet Robert Browning's century-old phrase: "Oh, to be in England. . . ."

Complicating what would have been a simple decision to return to her native land was that she had become an American citizen and could hope only for a visa that would allow her to remain in England for six months.

She decided to "go to the top," the "top" being Queen Elizabeth II, who reacted to her letter by telling the Home Office to issue a "certificate of entitlement" that would grant Mrs. Armstrong permanent residence.

Here Hollywood would have concocted the time-honored fade-out, with Mary Armstrong heading home surrounded by proper British statesmen and tearful well-wishers.

Alas, Mrs. Miniver she wasn't.

Within hours of the time she boarded a British Airways plane for a free flight from Los Angeles to London, she was having second thoughts.

"The minute I stepped off the plane, I knew something was wrong. I felt a shiver. And I said to myself, 'I'm too old for this cold.' "

A doctor confirmed that she needed sunshine and people, which was difficult because the niece who had shared her home in Newcastle worked full time.

"I only got out of the house twice," she lamented.

So then, at age 100, she wanted to escape the cold of England--an intemperate clime that she said had worsened since her girlhood.

Returning to California with her limited funds posed a problem until what passes for royalty in the United States--the head of a major conglomerate--interceded.

Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, learned of her plight and purchased a return ticket.

So back to Los Angeles she flew in October, 1985, fretting about the cough she had picked up in England and the 26 pounds she had lost.

The by-then seasoned traveler appeared with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" but between one-liners said she didn't really understand what all the fuss was about.

"I'm just an ordinary person walking around like everybody else. I don't like people asking all those questions," she said of her new-found celebrity status.

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