“A Stupid Insult:” MAD Magazine and the British Royal Family, 1959

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In June 1959, the U.S. embassy in London sent a despatch with the subject line “Denigration of the British Royal Family in American Cartoon Magazine.”  With it, the embassy’s public affairs officer, F. Bowen Evans, enclosed the following letter from the editor of the newspaper Sunday Pictorial complaining about the (in)famous American parody magazine MAD and a photostat of the offending page.  The British publication called itself “The newspaper for the young in heart.”

expressing offense from a strip that appears in MAD magazine, and hopes that attempts would be made to stop the strip's publication
Letter from Lee Howard to F. Bowen Evans, American Embassy London, Jun 3, 1959

In his despatch, Evans noted that the Sunday Pictorial had a circulation of over 5.5 million and an adult readership of about 40% of the adult British population.  Characterizing the depiction of the people in the cartoon as “nasty, if not vicious,” he stated that “It is reasonably certain that most of these readers are as insulted . . . as are the editors of the Sunday Pictorial.”

On May 31, 1959, under the headline “A STUPID INSULT,” the Sunday Pictorial printed several panels from a feature in MAD magazine, although they refused to provide publicity by naming it in print.  It had received a copy of the magazine from a reader in Canada.  The strip in question starred three characters – a mother, father, and son named “Liz,” “Philip,” and “Charlie.”  The three bear a striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and their son Prince Charles.  In the panels printed, Liz is berating Charlie for not acting like a future king.  Philip tells Liz to stop nagging their son.  Charlie complains “Why can’t I be an ordinary boy, mother?  Why can’t I go out with ordinary boys and have fun once in a while!”  Liz replies “Hold your tongue, Charlie!  You’re beginning to sound like your father!”  The newspaper, referring to the strip as “muck,” “smart-aleck bunk,” and a “calculated satire” on the royal family, concluded about MAD that “It’s sickening.”

Given that there was “no mistaking the identity of the characters in the cartoon,” Evans suggested that the Department of State determine if the U.S. Government could take action against MAD. At the end of July, several weeks after receipt of the despatch, the Department responded with the following instruction.

concludes there is no legal action that can be taken against MAD, deemed inappropriate for the State Dept to approach MAD through the Cartoon Cmte, they relayed to the Sunday Pictorial that MAD has done the same with VP Nixon
Department of State Instruction Regarding Disparagement of British Royal Family in Cartoon, Jul 21, 1959

The evidence indicates that the embassy followed the guidance found in the last paragraph, where the Department concluded: “Although publication of the cartoon was in bad taste, it is felt here that making an issue out of the incident would likely add more grist to the mill of this dispute.” The files contain nothing further on this matter.

Source: U.S. Embassy London to Department of State, Despatch 2914, June 5, 1959, and Department of State to U.S. Embassy London, Instruction A-53, July 21, 1959, both from file 911.63/6-559, 1955-59 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

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