When Princess Diana visited New York City in February 1989, one of the stops on the tour was the Henry Street Settlement’s Urban Family Center shelter on the Lower East Side. Verona Middleton-Jeter, a social worker who was the center’s chief administrator of homeless and transitional housing at the time, was the one to show her around that day. The moment was portrayed in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene in season four, episode ten, of The Crown, but Curbed being Curbed, we wanted to know the full story. Middleton-Jeter (who retired ten years ago from her role as Henry Street’s executive director) hasn’t got around to watching the show yet, but we spoke to her about what the day was like, awkward handshake and all.
Princess Diana’s visit to Henry Street was really suggested and highly recommended by Mayor Dinkins. My boss, Danny Kronenfeld — he was the executive director at the time — was so excited. One day he called me and said, “Are you sitting down?,” and I said, “No, why? should I sit?,” and he said, “Sit down! Princess Di may be coming to visit us!” I said, “Okay, I can see us doing it to help Henry Street get some publicity and share the work that we’re doing.”
We had to map out what an hour’s visit at the shelter might be like. And at that time, we had a group of formerly homeless women working for Henry Street in a program that we called Self Help, and I pretty much helped develop that program for formerly homeless or domestic-abuse survivors. And they used to go to Mayor Dinkins’s office all the time to advocate for women and children, so it just came to us that that was the group of women Princess Di should meet with, rather than professional staff. I really wanted her to talk to people who’ve gone through it. We had a meeting room where the press would be and then we decided that she would also visit a family who was living there. We also had a day-care center for kids that were in the shelter, so we thought those three areas would be nice touch points for the princess. And it worked out very well.
I just assumed my executive director would be the host, but he said, “No, you are going to be the hostess.” And not being a person that was familiar with protocols or royalty — and neither were the women that were meeting with her — of course we went to the library, and I said, “Okay, we gotta read up. We don’t want to mess up.” And so we all went and did research and came back and discussed protocols and tried to make sure that we did the right thing. We learned that we should not reach for her hand if she didn’t reach for ours and all of that stuff. We were ready.
We had agreed that we would not dress fancy — we would dress business casual, the way we go to work. We all showed up that morning, and one of the leaders in the Self Help group, Shirley, she shows up in the biggest, prettiest party dress you’ve ever seen. So we’re like, “What are we going to do? We can’t stop her from meeting the princess. That would be a disaster.” So we had to find a blazer. I don’t even know whose jacket we found to put around Shirley.
Finally the limousine pulled up and they asked, “Who’s supposed to meet the princess?” So I ran to the curb. I didn’t get a chance to be nervous, but first thing I did, I ran at the curb and she got out, and — exactly what I shouldn’t have done — I reached for her hand! And she reached for my hand, and she said, “Hey, we’re wearing the same colors!” And that was it, that was so perfect, because she was so down to earth, and I didn’t have time to get nervous.
When we were sitting with the women, Shirley, again, she looked at Diana, and she said, “Ooooh but you’re so pretty!” Well, I thought I would die. And I think that’s the picture where I was laughing, and the princess kind of looked down and laughed — and that picture went global. Right afterward, I get this call, somebody from Europe: “Princess Di is laughing with an African American woman. Can you tell us who she is and what it is about?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, ’cause I don’t see that woman. I don’t know.” And somebody sent me the picture, and there I was. It was a good laugh.
She was interested in the problems of homeless women and families, and the program that we had, but she asked more questions about women who were in abusive relationships. When we finished our discussion with her, we went with her to the apartment building. When she visited the family in the apartment, she sat on the bed. The little boy in that family, she sat on his bed and she spoke with him, and the kid had a picture of Michael Jordan and she talked to him about that — and really, again, to sit on his bed? She interacted very comfortably.
Then we walked from Baruch Place across to Baruch Drive, where the [Henry Street] day-care center was. People were lined up — the community, everybody was just out there — and her team had those dividers, so people were on one side and they tried to keep her in line, and as we were walking, there was a kid. She couldn’t have been more than 5. She had a little bouquet of tulips, and the princess just broke out, went on to that little kid, and she took the flowers.
This has been edited and condensed for clarity.