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Queen Mother, 99, is Britain's royal jewel

On her 99th birthday Wednesday, the Queen Mother Elizabeth was greeted by thousands of well-wishers honoring a beloved figure whose popularity remains undiminished by time or the scandals of the younger royal generation.

Queen Victoria was still on the throne when she was born Aug. 4, 1900. Playwright Oscar Wilde had just died. Britons were tasting a new drink _ Coca-Cola _ for the first time.

Her life has spanned the century, and her place in the nation's heart was forged during the worst of its years _ the Nazi bombardment of World War II. Many still remember the courage of the young queen who remained in London even as her home, Buckingham Palace, was struck by bombs.

Now a small, gray-haired woman, the former Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon leaned occasionally on a silver-headed cane Wednesday as she received 99th birthday greetings outside her home, Clarence House.

Several thousand people gathered to offer bouquets, cards and expressions of loyalty and respect. Hundreds show up every year, rain or shine, in hopes of talking with her.

Before going inside for a birthday luncheon with her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, and the rest of the royals, the Queen Mother, in a lemon yellow hat and dress, watched a military band march past, playing Happy Birthday on pipes and drums.

Ignoring a chair provided at the gates, she stood in the bright sunlight, then made her way gingerly across the cobblestones in a pair of white high heels to talk with people in the crowd.

Smiling and chatting, she walked unaided along the lines of visitors before climbing into a golf cart _ painted in her blue-and-gold racing colors and trailing balloons _ to be chauffeured the rest of the way around.

It obviously pleases the Queen Mother _ and those who admire her _ when she can manage without help, despite the frailty of her years.

The British call it pluck. And of all the qualities they admire in their dowager queen, it is probably her pluck they love most.

She was 95 when she first had a hip replaced, and she wouldn't leave the hospital until she could descend the steps on her own. Her fans loved it.

But it was during World War II that the quiet determination of the queen and her shy husband, King George, won the respect and loyalty that has not wavered over half a century.

In 1940-41, as the Germans advanced and other European monarchs took refuge abroad, the king and queen and their daughters stayed.

When Britain stood alone, and the Luftwaffe bombed cities day and night, the royal family took its chances with the rest of the nation and then went to the bombed-out neighborhoods to offer encouragement.

To members of the generation that survived the war, the Queen Mother embodies their pride in their own tenacity and the strength of the nation.

The king died in 1952, but, in all the years since, nothing has eroded the loyalty of the country toward his queen _ not the divorces of their grandchildren nor the royal gossip that fills the tabloids week after week.

Ada Brown, who turned 100 last month, was at Clarence House on Wednesday to pay her respects.

"I was so pleased to see her at last," said Mrs. Brown, clutching a Union Jack. "I wanted to say to her that she had been a wonderful queen, but I was so overcome I couldn't get the words out in the end.

"I just hope I will be able to come back and do this again next year," she said.

After birthday celebrations in London, the Queen Mum was to travel to Balmoral for the royal family's traditional summer holiday in Scotland.

_ Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.