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The Queen of Thailand Deep in the Heart of Texas

There are many hallmarks of a good diplomat — the ability to understand foreign cultures, communications skills, flexibility, the ability to think on one’s feet. One usually thinks of such skills being used in negotiations on peace accords or bilateral treaties and not with what amounts to a high-level sales trip to Nieman Marcus.

However, that is precisely the situation Richard Howland found himself in when, as the Thailand desk officer, he got involved with Queen Sirikit’s 1981 trip to the United States, which focused on selling Thai silk to places like Texas. No matter the amount of advanced planning, some things are bound to go wrong, like the unexpected guests who showed up at the Marcus residence, the toasts that ran counter to protocol, and the sudden request for a plane. And that doesn’t even touch on the late-night dancing at the world’s largest honky tonk, the ineffectual Thai ambassador, or the childrearing advice for the wayward Crown Prince. 

Richard Howland was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning January 1999. Read about the FSO wife who wrote Anna and the King of Siam. For other adventures in protocol, check out the Art of Protocol and Nikita Khrushchev’s disastrous trip to the United States.


The Thais in Texas are Upon You 

HOWLAND: One of the first events that came up at the beginning of my tour [on the Thailand desk], when I was kind of feeling my way with my new boss, Dan O’Donohue, DAS [Deputy Assistant Secretary] for Southeast Asia in EAP [Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs], was that the Queen of Thailand was going to make a trip to the United States. She made a trip every other year to publicize Thai products, mostly silk.

The Thai silk industry had been created after the Second World War by Jim Thompson, a legendary former OSS [Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA] operative who stayed on in Thailand afterwards. He mysteriously disappeared in the Malaysian jungles in 1968 and no one to this day has ever figured out what happened to him. Some say that he was still on the CIA payroll and he simply was exfiltrated and sent somewhere else under a different name. Still a mystery.

Anyway, after Jim Thompson disappeared, the Queen pretty much took over the silk industry, much of which was in the under-developed Northeast, the Khorat Plateau. The Thai of that area were of Lao origin, and it used to be a backward area, so the silk industry was highly beneficial to development there.

The Queen also tried to publicize a kind of unusual weaving industry, which made rattan and other forest products into unique and very elegant forms of Thai basketware, furniture and other things. It was actually stunning stuff. So, she wanted to publicize this by getting these products into the best Department stores in the United States, such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, etc.

Another reason for her periodic visits was to escape the fishbowl of always being on display in Thailand, just to have a little time for herself. So in addition to the commercial aspect she came to have a good time, and that had to be taken into account. Anyway, in October of ‘81 she came to the United States in order to do a silk and basket promotion. She went to Seattle, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Washington, New York and Boston. In each place there was some prestigious, upscale department store that was showcasing her and the Thai products.

Now, O’Donohue was rather blasé about the Department’s getting involved beyond providing security protection, which was handled by what was then the Department’s Bureau of Security, SY. I argued that, given the April 1981 coup attempt, where she had for the first time made an influential political statement publicly to the nation, and given Prime Minister Prem’s support by the royal family, someone should escort her just be there in case some question came up from a reporter. I said a thousand things might happen, who knows? I was not too familiar with this lady at the time.

I had always heard about the Queen of Thailand, one of the world’s Ten Best Dressed women for 25 years or so, but in my delusion, I thought but she’s just, well, you know, an Asian noble woman and might need help getting around. O’Donohue of course, knew better, but he agreed to let me escort her in Dallas, where the Queen was going to be the main attraction for a major Neiman Marcus promotion of Thai fashion and home products, silk and baskets. It was her longest stay in one place.

So, O’Donohue grudgingly agreed, and then I suddenly realized I knew nothing about dealing with royalty. Actually Mort Abramowitz gave me a good idea. Mort had replaced Charlie Whitehouse (at right) in Thailand as Ambassador [1978-81]. To say that Mort was underwhelmed by the royal family would be the brightest light on his attitude, which was:  What are they still doing here? Get them out of the way. They’re undemocratic. They have no purpose here.

Most others felt that in this rapidly modernizing state, the only things the Thai had to hold onto were the King and Queen and Buddhism. Everything else everyday was changing. All the mores were changing. All the customs were changing. You had prostitution, you had drug dealing, you had jewel smuggling, the Khmer Rouge, refugees from Indochina, the boat people, etc., etc. The only things that were still Thai and went back through history were the King and Queen and Buddhism.

But Mort said, “Do you know how to deal with this woman? You know, you cannot stand up when she’s sitting down. You can’t bend over her. You always have to keep your eye on what you are doing and saying.” Good stuff.

First Rule of Protocol:  Do not mention The King and I under any circumstances

I said, “Well, you know I served in a Buddhist country and I had good relations with [Cambodia’s] Prince Sihanouk.” Mort just laughed at that. Sihanouk wasn’t in the Queen’s class. Mort went on:  you know, my predecessor, Charlie Whitehouse, I criticized him for paying so much attention to the Queen of Thailand, the King and Queen, but you see he came from that level, Charlie Whitehouse of the Newport Whitehouses. Charlie was Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s first date. He was 17 and she was 15. They grew up in Newport together. Charlie Whitehouse knew how to comport himself around the Queen.

My other concern was, of course, if she was going to Neiman Marcus in Dallas, you would have all the Neimans and the Marcuses and all the hangers-on wondering about how you deal with the Queen. I needed someone to go down and brief them, for instance, especially on just one little tip, one little point, that you never mention that play and movie The King and I in front of the royal family of Thailand.

Even I knew that was the Number One no – no. I could just hear someone saying, “Oh, I just love that play about your country and didn’t you like Yul Brynner as the King?”

So I called Charlie Whitehouse at his estate in Middleburg. He was not divorced then. He was still married to Molly and they both thought it would be a lark….We went for lunch to the Metropolitan Club and he briefed me about how you deal with Queens in Thailand. He also suggested that he could arrange for Jackie Onassis to give her a lunch when she visited New York. That was a master stroke. I then brought him into the State Department to brief all the people that were going to deal with her….

Then she came to Dallas, and Charlie and I were there to meet her again at the airport. The Queen was 49 years old, and she was quite impressive and regal. She was traveling with her youngest child, a daughter named Chulabhorn, known as Julie. She was in her early twenties and was a very interesting and well-educated young woman, very bright. She played the guitar. She and the Queen would sing Thai folk songs together.

Family Thais

There were rumors that the princess had taken up with an unacceptable suitor and the Queen wanted to get her out of Thailand for a while to settle her down. She actually did get married in 1982, but was divorced only a few years later, and never remarried.

Now, it is interesting that in Thailand every new generation of royal family children moves down one step in rank unless they are in the direct line of succession, i.e. Crown Prince or princess. So, if one of the members of the family, say one of these four children, accedes to the monarchy, then their whole line remains in rank. But the other children of the other members of that level of the royal family moved down one step in rank entirely.

The royal couple had four children. The oldest, Ubol Ratana, a very beautiful girl, never liked palace life, never wanted to have anything to do with it from the beginning. She went to school in Thailand, then to MIT, got a degree in chemical engineering at MIT, married an oil man and became an American citizen and went to live in Newport Beach, California with her husband. At the time of the Queen’s visit, she had given birth in California to a baby who then was five or six months old. When she left the royal family, she had to surrender all her status and titles and for a while there was a gulf between her and her family. But now there was a grandchild and so I had a suspicion that one reason the Queen was coming to Dallas was she wanted to see her….

The next child of the King and Queen was the Crown Prince, Vajiralongkhorn (at right), not at all like his father. He was a real bad actor, a fighter pilot, shoot-‘em-up character. We had trained him to be a fighter pilot at one point.. He was a good pilot, but he took on all the worst characteristics of the “Top Gun” type of guy. He was reportedly always getting in trouble, hanging around with criminals and other unsavory types. Although married, he also supposedly had dozens of mistresses. Once the Crown Prince had gone into some restaurant and fired his pistol in the air when he didn’t get the service he thought he was entitled to.

The King was endlessly wringing his hands about this and trying to get us to help straighten him out. O’Donohue again was dead set against that. But the King had one little ace in the hole – John Holdridge, the Assistant Secretary, had served in Bangkok, it was his first post. So, I had a feeling also that the Queen was going to put the arm on Holdridge to do something about the Crown Prince, about getting the Crown Prince out of Thailand for a while. The King also wanted to send him to the United States because there was criticism of the royal family after the April coup attempt, when the Queen had addressed the nation and told the people not to support the coup.

So, the Queen arrived off in Dallas, and Charlie and Molly Whitehouse and I greeted her and took her to her hotel. Well, it was all sweetness and light and everything nice there, at The Mansion at Turtle Creek, a pretty nifty hotel. I was very happy I was on per diem. I think it was $750 for a room in 1981 and she had a suite up on the top floor. Oh, yes, of course the security detail showed up….

The first night she of course just collapsed into bed. That was a Wednesday. The second night was a Thursday and she was going to be feted at the Dallas Art Museum. I was not invited, which was okay, I don’t remember why. Charlie Whitehouse went to that. During Thursday she was sort of resting up with her entourage. In fact, habitually, the Queen never arose until noon, why was that? Because they’re a very hard working royal pair in Thailand. All day long they are out working.

She is out doing volunteer stuff. She has her own Save the Children projects, plus the events where she has to accompany the King. One project was to rescue prostitutes and train them and give them a decent place in society. She was endlessly doing good works, but she also had her silk business, and the King of course had a tremendously full schedule. This was the 1980s, and all day long they were busy and in the evening they usually have some diplomatic event or some royal ceremony. Also, it appeared at that time that they were very much in love. There had never been a hint of scandal for either one of them in all their marriage years.

Seriously — Do not mention The King and I 

The outcome of that was that the only time they got to see each other alone was at 10:00 or 11:00 at night, and then they liked to listen to music and chat and see the children together. So, habitually every night, over their lives, they have gotten used to staying up to 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning together, and then she sleeps late in the morning. It was a sort of Thai thing and everyone worked around it.

So the next morning I went with Charlie Whitehouse to brief the Neiman clan, the Marcus clan, the top level officials of the city of Dallas, including Mayor Jack Evans and anyone else who was going to come into contact with the Queen, about five or six main protocol points.

One:  Do not mention the play/movie The King and I under any circumstances. Two:  Do not stand up when the Queen is seated, but do stand up when she comes into the room. If she beckons you to come over, do not tower over her. Get your eyes down below hers, etc. The group all took it with very good form.

Finally, do not toast the Queen. You can’t toast the Queen. She cannot return a toast. You can only toast the King and then she can return the toast by toasting the President, but the King is the guy. She is a reflection of the King. It’s just done that way. They took all that in and everything was fine.

That night she went to the affair at the Dallas Art Museum, which I understand, was held in a huge pillared Egyptian-type hypo-styled hall, the acoustics of which were very bad. No one could hear any conversation, and the Queen was a little bit unhappy because she was stuck at the end of the table, guests were sitting too far apart and so she never talked to anyone. She had a bad evening. A very bad evening.

Afterwards there was no dancing or any fun or anything like that. It ended at about 10:30 or 11:00 which is much earlier than the Queen liked to go to bed. So, what did she do? She got together with her SY security detail and said, “I’ve heard there’s a real good Western joint over in Fort Worth called Billy Bob’s. I want to go over there and my daughter does, too.” The daughter was a guitar player and liked Western country music and she’d heard about this place.

So off they go. I didn’t have a clue that this was going on, but with the SY guys I guess she was safe. Off to Fort Worth and the bar scene, and they had a glorious time. I wish I could have been along. It would have been great fun.

They came back to the hotel at 4:00 in the morning after her night out and that’s when I began to realize that’s how the Queen really viewed this American trip  — as an escape every other year. As a kind of “get out from under the palace” vacation and have a good time, which was a very important insight. That was Thursday night.

“Mr. Mayor, we have a diplomatic crisis here. The Queen is not dancing”

On Friday Charlie and Molly Whitehouse left and I was on my own, protocol-wise. The Queen and her party toured the Neiman Marcus store, opened the exhibit and watched a fashion show. That night, Friday night, there was nothing planned for her, rest night. Saturday night was a dance at The Happy Valley Country Club. But Friday night, for some reason I can’t remember, there was just nothing planned. I took my tennis racket and got directions to a local tennis court, and played a few sets of tennis.

I went back and went to bed. At 12:30 am the phone rings. The Queen is hungry. She wants something to eat. Okay, so I went up and talked to the Chancellor of the palace, Lord Poonperm, and the King’s Private Secretary and nephew, Thongnai Thongyai, who was along on the trip. The Queen wanted Chinese food. As we’re standing there an American man and a Thai woman carrying a baby come up and get out of the elevator. I took one look and I thought, my goodness it’s the first grandchild, and it was she. A very emotional moment because we had the door open, and the Queen saw the child and cried. Everything was patched over. The oldest daughter was back in the family. It was great.

But where was the Chinese food? I called the Dallas police protocol number and explained, and happily they knew about the Queen of Thailand. They said, don’t worry about a thing. This happens all the time. We’ll get a Chinese restaurant open for you. Just go to such and such an address. We collected this huge Chinese meal, took it back to the hotel and were up all night eating Chinese food and playing with the grandchild. I had a great time. The Queen and her daughter were reconciled, which was a major step for the royal family.

The day after that was all family-oriented until the country club dance in the evening, a big dance and fashion show to which I was invited. After the fashion show was over a few people went out dancing. Now, in Charlie Whitehouse’s briefing, he had mentioned that the Queen had to have the first dance. I certainly couldn’t dance with her because I was not the ranking man present. That was Mayor Jack Evans of Dallas (at left). He was standing at the bar downing a bourbon, the Longhorn Bar.

I went up to him and I said, “Mr. Mayor, we have a diplomatic crisis here. The Queen is not dancing and this is the first dance and she has to be out there on the first dance and you’re the ranking person.”

“Gosh,” he said, “I can dance with the Queen? What do I do?”

I said, you just walk over there and bow and say, “Your majesty, may I have the honor of the first dance?”

He said, “I don’t know if I can do it.”

I said, “Yes, you can and you better.” He did and he went out there and had the first dance. I think the next person was the head of the museum or something, and then I had the third dance with the Queen. What a moment in my life, I tell you. After that we went back and she played with her grandchild all night again. The next day, Sunday, she toured the city with the Mayor’s wife.

Unexpected Guests and The Case of the Missing Thai Ambassador

On Sunday night was the Marcus black tie-white tie dinner for the Queen at the Marcus residence, which was a much understated, quiet, pleasant, little ranch house. Many rooms, but not one of these huge ugly mansions that clog the suburban landscape now. It was quite elegant in its way, but it had a very Texas kind of ranch house look and feel, a nice clapboard white exterior. I really liked it. We got there a little early.

So, Sunday night, there I was alone with the whole Neiman Marcus entourage waiting at the residence for the Queen. I’m standing with Mrs. Marcus, a lovely lady, and up drives the Queen’s party. She was supposed to arrive just with her daughter and a handful of palace officials.

Instead a fleet of cars drives up. As she’s getting out and we were greeting her, I see that there are dozens of Thai ladies getting out of the other cars. Of course, the Marcuses were having a white tie, sit – down dinner with place cards and liveried servers. Then someone says to me, “Oh, the Queen thought this would be such a wonderful event that she just invited all her ladies in waiting to come along.”

Mrs. Marcus – I’ll never forget – her hand was shaking. She said, what on earth do I do?

Now through all this Dallas visit the Thai Ambassador, of course, was present, a real disaster as are many older Southeast Asian Ambassadors. He’d gotten his position by family connections. He was utterly hopeless. He wasn’t even obnoxious. At least if he was obnoxious and effective you could put up with him, but he wasn’t even obnoxious let alone effective.

Anyway, whenever any crisis like this came up with the Queen, if anything happened when she turned to him to ask him something, he magically evaporated. He wasn’t there anymore. He just had this ability like a chameleon to blend in with everything so that he couldn’t possibly get himself in trouble by saying or doing the wrong thing….

As Mrs. Marcus first turned to the Thai Ambassador and he disappeared. Then she turned to me. I said, “Ma’am, this happens in Southeast Asia all the time. You find the people come hours late with hundreds of people you never knew were coming. I’m sure you have some card tables around?”

“Well, yes.”

I said, “Just set up a few card tables in the library. The Thai will sort it all out by order of precedence and they’ll take care of the whole thing. Some people will eat in there. You may have to send out for some Thai food.”

“I can’t do that!”

I said, “Of course you can. That’s the only thing to do.”

I didn’t know if this was the right idea, but what else are you going to do, put them back in their cars, tell them they’ve got to go home? Do that to a Thai? Out of the question. Set them up in the study. What about the order of precedence? Then I turned to the Thai Ambassador hoping he could sort that out. But as I had said, he quickly disappeared.

Then I went to the Lord Chancellor of the palace. He was rather drunk. So finally I said, “All right, give me a list of these people’s names. You go here and you go here” and so forth. They were all perfectly happy wherever I put them. It all sorted itself out.

Before the dinner we toured the Marcus house and his collection of pre-Columbian art and tiny books. He has the world’s leading collection of tiny books, which he had, in a tiny library with tiny shelves. It was marvelous, the Queen loved it. We got to the dinner and it was all nice. I was not at the head table, thank God. The Queen was up there at the head table.

The dinner was soon over and I’m sitting there thinking this visit has been a big success. But then Mr. Marcus stands up and, after having been told not to toast the Queen, he gives a long glorious toast to the Queen and then he sits down. Nobody moves. Chancellor Poonperm was by this time, after many drinks, was just totally out, and the Ambassador was sitting across the table from me.

I said, “Mr. Ambassador, you have to stand up and toast the President” and he said, “I can’t because nobody has toasted the King.”

I said, “Well, you stand up and toast the King.”

“Oh no, I don’t know what the Queen would think of that,” he said.

I said, “All right, I’ll do it.” So I stood up and toasted the King of Thailand. Luckily I pronounced his name right. I didn’t know all the rest of it, but I gave a long glowing toast about his majesty, not only a great monarch, but an engineer, and how important he’s been in the relationship between our two countries. Then the Queen stood up and toasted the President. It was all wrong but nobody really cared. That was the end of the dinner….

The Queen and her party had been booked on commercial air to fly to Washington next, among other things to meet Mrs. Reagan, but she had gotten sick on the flight from Salt Lake City, so she wanted a private plane. I was told she had gotten ill, but I think she just had had enough of riding around in big commercial planes that weren’t Royal Thai Airways….

After that was over, the Queen asked me, “Is there anyway you can get a private plane? Doesn’t the State Department have planes?”

I said, “No, the State Department does not have planes.”

“Well,” she said, “when General Kriangsak was here last year or the year before, he flew all around the country on Air Force One.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know what he did, but I know he didn’t fly around on Air Force One. Air Force One is only the designation for the President; any plane that the President flies on is Air Force One.”

“Well, can’t you find a private plane for me?”

I didn’t know what to do. Charlie Whitehouse wasn’t there and there was almost nobody I could turn to. She was leaving the next day, and my going to the NSC [National Security Council] or the military would take too long. When in doubt, turn to the CIA. I called a retired station chief whom I knew in Laos, and he arranged with a former Air America [an airlines covertly operated by the CIA] pilot, who had started a small charter airline in Tennessee, to send a small jet. The Queen had gone off to pack, and we were all at the airport at 4:00 p.m. I then called my wife and told her I was coming back on this plane….The plane arrived and we boarded with a small group; the others in the entourage went commercial….

Off we went to the Hay Adams [in Washington, DC] where she was staying. That evening was some kind of big affair. I can’t remember what it was. Somebody was giving some event for her, perhaps the Thai Ambassador. In any event she was now the property of State Protocol, and my escort duty was over….

The Crown Prince straightens up and flies right

The Queen did get to see [Assistant Secretary] John and Martha Holdridge. She was desperate to see Martha Holdridge and made a long appeal to somehow straighten out the Crown Prince, her favorite child and the heir to the throne. If I recall, he had impregnated his mistress and she was going to file a paternity suit if he didn’t marry her. He was actually living with her. The royal family couldn’t take it anymore and the official wife had gone to the King and pleaded for a divorce, but was refused.

After the Queen left, the Assistant Secretary told me to try to find a place to stash the Crown Prince of Thailand in the United States until the big scandal blew over in Thailand. So after many phone calls, the Pentagon agreed to send him to advanced pilot training some place in Florida. Jim Lilley and Dick Childress at the NSC arranged for that. But that was a mistake because he could go out on the town and have a good time in Florida, and was throwing money around. Rumors were getting in the press about his behavior.

We then sent him out to Arizona to some flight school out there, where he would learn how to fly F-4s. As it turned out, he made friends with a couple of very solid U.S. Air Force instructor pilots, who didn’t exactly make an honest man out of him, but almost.

They really sat him down and gave him a good talking-to, saying “If you don’t knock it off, boy, we’re going to really put you through the wringer at this base. You want to be an F-4 pilot, you are going to behave and not cause any trouble in this area.” He not only took it, he loved it. Nobody had ever talked to him like that before.

When the Crown Prince went back to Thailand he was a different person. I met him at the Thai Embassy in Washington before he went back, and he seemed perfectly fine. He did not get in trouble after he returned and did marry the mistress. They worked all that out and he’s still the Crown Prince and I hope he’s been a pretty solid guy since then. I don’t know who those unnamed air force officers were down in Arizona, but they made a man out of him at last, not a spoiled brat. That actually worked out pretty well….

I should mention that when I went to Thailand a few months later in January 1982, occasionally a Thai would come up to me and say, “I know you, you are Mr. Thai desk.”

I’d say, “I beg your pardon?”

“Oh,” he would say, “I saw you with the Queen and then with Prime Minister Prem.” Of course her trip was filmed by Thai TV and the TV commentator would ask some one who I was, and would be told that I was the guy from the Thai desk at the State Department. Everybody knew the State Department Thai desk, so I became Mr. Thai desk with the Queen, always standing with the Queen wherever she went. Many people all over Thailand said to me, “I know you, you are Mr. Thai desk.”

I was surprised no one asked for an aid program or even a visa.