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Laurie Graham on Hugo Vickers, Behind Closed Doors | Slightly Foxed Issue 72

Death and the Duchess

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I’m not usually tempted by biographies of royals, living or not long dead. They tend to be written in deferential tones and I prefer some­thing neutral or, better yet, something with teeth. However, twenty years ago, when I was preparing to write my novel Gone with the Windsors, I read a huge number of books about the Duke and Duchess. Panegyrics, hatchet jobs, you name it. Hugo Vickers’s Behind Closed Doors had yet to be published. When it came out in 2011, I felt compelled to read it. Vickers had no axe to grind. He hadn’t known the Windsors. Could he deliver the sharp-eyed skinny?

In case you’re too young to remember, here is the short version of ‘The Love Story of the Century’. Once upon a time a popular English prince, with more charm than brains, fell in love with a sassy American divorcée who didn’t give a fig for stuffy royal protocol. They ran away to distant shores and lived controversially ever after.

In the 1930s, when Edward VIII abdicated and married Wallis Simpson, it was a very big deal indeed. The notoriety that engulfed them seems rather overblown today. Yes, he gave up the Throne, but his brother made a perfectly good and some would say better King. Yes, the Windsors flirted with Nazism, but in the Thirties so did more Brits than is now comfortable to remember.

The abdication shock aside, opinions of the Windsors varied. They were a breath of fresh air. They were grotesque freeloaders. He was a modern man, in tune with the average Joe in the street. No, he was a besotted fool, a rabbit beguiled by a ferret. Wallis was le dernier mot in Dior-clad elegance – a capital crime among the cardigan-wearers of upper-crust England. She was a sexually magnetic siren. No, she was a bloke in drag. Were they living proof that love conquers all or just a pair of ill-matched gadflies making the best of a bad job?

Vickers’s book, oddly, is arranged back-to-front. Part 2 is a familiar spin through th

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I’m not usually tempted by biographies of royals, living or not long dead. They tend to be written in deferential tones and I prefer some­thing neutral or, better yet, something with teeth. However, twenty years ago, when I was preparing to write my novel Gone with the Windsors, I read a huge number of books about the Duke and Duchess. Panegyrics, hatchet jobs, you name it. Hugo Vickers’s Behind Closed Doors had yet to be published. When it came out in 2011, I felt compelled to read it. Vickers had no axe to grind. He hadn’t known the Windsors. Could he deliver the sharp-eyed skinny?

In case you’re too young to remember, here is the short version of ‘The Love Story of the Century’. Once upon a time a popular English prince, with more charm than brains, fell in love with a sassy American divorcée who didn’t give a fig for stuffy royal protocol. They ran away to distant shores and lived controversially ever after. In the 1930s, when Edward VIII abdicated and married Wallis Simpson, it was a very big deal indeed. The notoriety that engulfed them seems rather overblown today. Yes, he gave up the Throne, but his brother made a perfectly good and some would say better King. Yes, the Windsors flirted with Nazism, but in the Thirties so did more Brits than is now comfortable to remember. The abdication shock aside, opinions of the Windsors varied. They were a breath of fresh air. They were grotesque freeloaders. He was a modern man, in tune with the average Joe in the street. No, he was a besotted fool, a rabbit beguiled by a ferret. Wallis was le dernier mot in Dior-clad elegance – a capital crime among the cardigan-wearers of upper-crust England. She was a sexually magnetic siren. No, she was a bloke in drag. Were they living proof that love conquers all or just a pair of ill-matched gadflies making the best of a bad job? Vickers’s book, oddly, is arranged back-to-front. Part 2 is a familiar spin through the Duke and Duchess’s back stories. Society names drop so thick and fast you may wish to wear a hard hat. But the meat of the matter, an account of the Windsors’ twilight years, is served first, and what a gruesome dish it is. Hugo Vickers never actually met either of them, though he was occasionally under the same roof. In 1972 he was sent to Paris by Burke’s Peerage to interview the Duke for a proposed reference book. He arrived too late. At the house in the Bois de Boulogne the Duke was already close to death, closeted upstairs with nurses. Downstairs, life went grimly on. The Duchess’s secretary was busy making couturier appointments and searching for a spare man for an imminent dinner party. What a pity Vickers felt too shy to offer himself. It was a missed opportunity, but he recovered his courage suffi­ciently to wangle his way into the Duke’s funeral, albeit assisting behind the scenes, and so was able to launch a long association with senior members of the Windsors’ staff. That is our gain. If you want to know what really goes on, enquire below stairs. Friends of the Duchess claimed she was already showing signs of frailty and confusion, though apparently not at the post-funeral lunch. When asked by Prince Philip if she planned to return to America she replied, ‘I won’t be coming here, if that’s what you’re worried about.’ Nice return of serve. At that point in her life two worries preoccupied her. First, she understood the social Siberia widows can face. She herself abhorred ‘odds’ at her table and had dropped a few widows in her time. Second, she feared poverty. The Duke had left his affairs in order and the Swiss bank account was in good health, but imminent penury is a common worry among the elderly. Enter, stage left, Suzanne Blum, a formidable Paris lawyer, who did nothing to reassure the Duchess. How Mâitre Blum ever got her foot so firmly in the door is a mys­tery. The Windsors already had a perfectly good British lawyer. But they had been domiciled in France for many years and exempt from paying those pesky taxes. Mâitre Blum saw her opportunity and stepped in, to warn and advise. What if the French government reviewed the peppercorn rent the Duchess was paying, or even evicted her? What if they raided her widow’s mite for back taxes? This was the spectre Mâitre Blum raised to alarm the Duchess and win control over her. She said she did it in the name of friendship. Others saw it as undue influence but still allowed it to continue. Georges, the major-domo, listener at doors and counter of spoons, did nothing. Sydney, valet and pug-walker general, turned a blind eye. Lord Mountbatten tried to raise the alarm, but Blum outflanked him. The Duchess, increasingly frail, subsisting on vodka and not much else, seemed too weak to send her packing. She was convinced she was down to her last sou. Perhaps, also, she was intimidated by a woman who looked like a butch version of her late mother-in-law, Queen Mary. While the Duke lived, Wallis had had a purpose in life: to keep the Windsor show on the road. After his death, that role disappeared. For a year or two she tried to keep up appearances, popping into Chanel, tottering into Maxim’s to dine on lettuce leaves. Then she faded from the social scene. She was sick, insomniac, terrified of break-ins. She took to her bed. And with the Duchess safely tucked away upstairs, things started to go missing. Paintings, porcelain, antiques. Hundreds of items were generously donated to Versailles, the Louvre and the Musée de Sèvres. Some might find it suspicious that soon after these donations were made, Mâitre Blum was pro­moted to a higher degree of the Légion d’honneur. The Duchess survived the Duke by fourteen wretched years. She lay in her bed, cut off from friends who were told she was too ill to receive visitors, deprived of her beloved dogs which were deemed too germ-ridden to enter her room, and apparently oblivious of the fire sale going on downstairs. There was a mountain of stuff to dispose of. The gilt epergnes, the jade doodahs and gold snuff boxes. And whatever became of the Fabergé hippo? Someone, probably the Duke’s former private secretary, sent an SOS to Buckingham Palace: the Duchess is alone in the world and dying. There was no reply. The unofficial policy, directed by the Queen Mother, was to maintain a polite distance, and with Mountbatten’s death in 1979, the Duchess lost her only royal advocate. Mâitre Blum’s final move was to wrest Power of Attorney from the Duchess’s secretary, something she achieved like a chess grand master. Financial papers were burned, staff were let go, locks were changed. Vickers logs the chilling steps that left the Duchess powerless and trapped in a body that didn’t know how to die. When death did come, in 1986, many were surprised to discover that she’d been alive all those years, but one man who had kept track was Mohamed Al-Fayed. He already had his eye on the house and saw its potential as a museum and permanent memorial. The Royal Family might have treated the Windsors with disdain, but he would redress that wrong. There was something apposite about Al-Fayed’s interest. Wallis’s taste in décor had once been characterized as ‘very Harrods’. Ouch. The Windsors tended to bring out the killer wasp in commenta­tors. When she was still Mrs Simpson, Wallis had been dismissed as ‘an ambitious housewife, clambering on to the foothills of London society’. Later, Cecil Beaton described her as ‘a brawny bullock in sapphire blue velvet’. And here’s Edith Wharton, commenting on the Duke’s stay at a Rothschild castle in Austria while he waited for Wallis’s decree absolute: ‘Fiction writers had better go out of business if King Edward VIII is taking refuge with the ex-wife of a Brooklyn dentist.’ It’s hard to know which is the more toe-curling: that snob­bish sketch of Baroness Rothschild or the reports that the Duke, when he lodged with her, was a complaining, ungrateful guest. The Duchess’s death wasn’t the end of the story. Mohamed Al- Fayed bought the lease on the house and proceeded to redecorate, reportedly with some touches that might have been over the top even for the Duchess. Hard to believe. Her taste for faux marble and knock-off Louis Quinze was once judged ‘ghastly’ by some snooty arbiter of style. And as for all those china pugs, well . . . Despite the years of quiet decluttering by Mâitre Blum, there remained a quantity of Windsoriana to sell, notably Wallis’s consid­erable collection of jewels. When the vault was opened and its contents compared with the official inventory, some items were already missing. Light-fingered friends are apparently a cross the ostentatiously wealthy have to bear. The major pieces were auctioned in Geneva and realized a stunning £31 million. The name of the bene-ficiary of these proceeds came as a surprise to everyone who had known the Duchess. The Louis Pasteur Institute got the lot. The Pasteur Institute was an esteemed and worthy legatee, but not one in which the Duchess had ever expressed the slightest interest. When questioned, Mâitre Blum conceded that the bequest had been her suggestion but that the Duchess had been in full agreement. Vickers, who regarded Suzanne Blum as Satan in tweeds, tells us that no written evidence was ever produced to prove that the Duchess, confused, mute and too arthritic to hold a pen, had signed anything. And he reminds us that soon after the legacy was paid to the Institute, Mâitre Blum rose still further in the Légion d’honneur. But of course, this too may have been entirely coincidental. Vickers delivers. He neither fawns nor condemns. He simply reports, with an eye for the telling detail and a nose for the smell of a rat, what he observed. Read it and you can’t help but feel pity for the Duchess at the end of her long life.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 72 © Laurie Graham 2021


About the contributor

Laurie Graham is a novelist and journalist. She would have loved to see what use the Windsors might have made of social media had they been alive today.

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