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Getting Treated Like Royalty : Fans of Former Prime Minister Thatcher Flock to Her Book Signing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One would think the people who queued up Friday to buy an autographed copy of Volume 1 of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs--at 30 bucks a pop--would expect the royal treatment.

Instead, it was the other way around. A few hundred of the faithful awaited the former prime minister in awe, straightening their shoulders, watching their grammar and practicing the proper way to address her.

“I was going to call her Mrs. Thatcher,” one woman said after driving 40 miles and waiting two hours in line outside Brentano’s bookstore in Century City. “No!” her husband yelped, whipping out a sheet of rules handed out moments before. “She wants to be called ‘Lady Thatcher.’ ”

Something happens to Americans in the presence of a Briton, especially one as legendary as she. And Thatcher saw a city on its best behavior as she blew through Los Angeles (“dashed in and dashed out,” as she put it) on the final leg of a whirlwind tour to promote “The Downing Street Years.”

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Unfortunately, security was so tight that hardly anyone knew she was here. Everyone from the State Department to Scotland Yard was marshaled to protect her. Advance notice of her public appearances was short and restricted. Brentano’s shut down the store all morning for safety reasons and the clerks had to wear clearance badges. “Compared to this, Jimmy Carter was a breeze,” one said.

She was competing on the book-tour circuit with the blond hunk Fabio and the nasty shock jock Howard Stern, both of whom have more hair but little else on the commanding Thatcher, particularly when it comes to bringing onlookers to their knees. As she signed their books, several patrons asked if she would stay and be President. One likened standing in her presence to a “religious experience.”

“I saw all of your interviews and I think you’re just great,” Lillian Cole, a transplanted Londoner, blurted as Thatcher scribbled away.

“Thank you,” the former prime minister responded without pause. “ I think I’m great sometimes, too.”

She did seven cities in 14 days, launching each book-signing fete with a gallant entrance and the question: “Where are my PaperMates?” She had a nasty cold when she hit Los Angeles but you would not have known it. Never was so much as a hanky displayed. Her impressive hairdo stood in place, as commanded. (“Make it high, Colin,” she is said to have told her hairdresser in a recently aired British documentary.)

Admirers were told how to conduct themselves: “Lady Thatcher will sign her name only, with no personal inscriptions. No photographs are allowed of Lady Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher should be addressed as Lady Thatcher.”

She signed an average of six books a minute, hundreds of autographs in a single sitting, but the flamboyant signature never faltered. “It was like she was using an auto-pen,” Steven Sorrentino, one of the book tour directors, said reverently.

Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher is not royalty, but you would never guess it from her American reception. Her demeanor did not make the distinction any easier. In Los Angeles, she wore purple.

“Long live the queen!” one admirer was moved to announce (referring to another British notable) as her book was being signed.

“She’ll be delighted,” Thatcher declared.

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Attendants scurried around her like Cinderella’s mice-turned-coachmen. Elizabeth Buchanan, personal assistant and pseudo-lady-in-waiting, saw to every detail. “Watch the lining on the skirt, ma’am,” she said when a sliver of the underside of Thatcher’s purple suit revealed itself. A Scotland Yard guard respectfully plucked a minuscule piece of lint from her lapel.

Painfully precise, Thatcher’s tour was scheduled to the second. “We are 15 minutes, flat,” she informed a television news interviewer. Remarks Friday at the Downtown Central Library would begin precisely at 5:10 p.m.; anyone not seated by 5 would be excluded.

Authors plugging their works on book tours generally beg for media attention, but this time around, the mountain came to Mohammed. “At 10 she is going to Fox TV,” said a reporter struggling to decipher her top-secret schedule. “No, wait. Fox TV is coming to her.” The Times editorial board caravaned to the Bel-Air Hotel to share scrambled eggs and one hour of questions, no more. (Brioche was also served but Thatcher, never a big fan of things French, asked for toast.)

It must have been a nice change for Thatcher, who was rudely ousted in 1990 after 11 years as prime minister. In Britain, her book has been regarded as “a bit of a joke,” Mark Lawson, a reporter for the Independent of London, confided.

Here, though, fans pressed against Brentano’s glass just to get a glimpse of her. Many still addressed her as prime minister, a courtesy afforded former American leaders but not British ones.

She was asked if she might consider returning to power again, as though everyone here had nicely forgotten the day she left 10 Downing Street in tears and defeat.

“She can’t, she just can’t,” reporter Lawson said of her political chances. “In Britain, she would not even be asked that question.”

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Even her beloved book, a work she herself has anointed a piece of history, seemed dwarfed by her towering presence. A few who had read it found it impersonal and distant, revealing little of what makes Maggie tick. (This, apparently, is reserved for Volume 2.)

But never mind. She was back in the limelight again, back in Reagan Country, where plenty of people still admire her conservative, anti-union, anti-Communist brand of politics.

“This is exactly like an election tour for her,” assistant Buchanan noted. “But she doesn’t have to worry about the polls.”


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