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Ghost Story

The Windsor Story

by J. Bryan III, by Charles J.V. Murphy
Morrow, 639 pp., $17.50

Prince Charles

by Anthony Holden
Atheneum, 368 pp., $15.00

According to his principal adviser, Walter Monckton, the decision to renounce the throne brought Edward VIII to “the brink of disintegration,” so much so that, three days before the Abdication, Monckton feared the desperate monarch was going to kill himself. Another Mayerling affair? Monckton and the royal valet, Crisp, searched the bedroom at Fort Belvedere. No gun was found. Given the king’s childishly stubborn nature, this was not surprising. Had he ever developed the least inkling of posterity, had he tried to see his dilemma as involving dishonor rather than the reverse, he might have chosen the traditional way out—a bottle of brandy and a revolver—and would have gone down in history as tragic rather than paltry. By living out the full span of their lives, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are now written about as sacred monsters on the café society circuit rather than “the greatest news story since the Resurrection” (H.L. Mencken).

What a world of difference between the Fort Belvedere drama and the Mayerling one. Thanks to their double suicide, the Archduke Rudolf and Maria Vetsera posthumously acquired an aura of legendary romance—Romeo and Juliet as Wedekind might have written it. But then we should bear in mind that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was more intelligent, more adult, and, incidentally, more dissolute than his English counterpart, and that his teenage mistress—a born victim if ever there was one, who spent her last moments willing her feather-boa to an ex-lover—shared only one characteristic with Mrs. Simpson: frivolity.

By contrast, “Bessiewallis” Warfield, to give the villainess of the book under review her childhood name, was a born survivor—one who managed to transform the provincial limitations and genteel pretensions of a southern belle, or belle laide, into the ne plus ultra of stylishness. Thanks largely to miscalculations and political naïveté, she just missed being Queen of England, but she was too full of ambition and nervous energy to spend the rest of her life licking her wounds in the shadows like King Carol of Rumania’s Magda Lupescu. On the contrary, as soon as she became Duchess of Windsor she began consolidating her rule over the brand-new kingdom—café society—that she and her mutinous cohort Elsa Maxwell put on the map. Café society was and indeed still is a kind of third world in reverse, where pleasure, elegance, and status (more to do with money than birth) are the order of the day, where success is mandatory and where want, in so far as it exists, is the pretext for another charity ball. And it is in café society that the Duchess, with or without her Duke, has her historical place.

Just as she merits more gratitude—a statue in every market place, as Churchill jokingly suggested—than the British usually accord her for removing Edward VIII from the throne, the Duchess of Windsor deserves recognition for exemplifying and propagating some of the fancier aspects of the American way of life. As much as anyone else she launched on Europe a taste for a specifically American kind of smartness: the overgroomed look of Mainbocher’s clients who could never be “too rich or too thin,” their overdecorated rooms—all orchids and bibelots—and their “amusing” food. Thanks to all of this, the Duchess won renown for being, no less than her husband, a leader and, commercially speaking, an invaluable promoter of high fashion. If the readers of Vogue prefer Porthault sheets; if some of them still fall back, when in doubt, on a “little black dress,” white gloves, and a large canary diamond strategically placed, or have learned to abominate such solecisms as tomato seeds, candle flames at eye level, or gold as opposed to platinum jewelry in the evening, it is largely owing to the example of a narcissistic little woman from Maryland.

To most of us such preoccupations indicate a lamentable vacuousness, but to an ambitious adventuress, like the Duchess of Windsor, the minutiae of luxury were all important. Inspired in part by her husband’s dandyism, she adopted fashionable perfectionism as a way of life. If she was not to be Queen of England, then she would become “the best dressed woman,” “the most elegant hostess,” “the most discriminating maîtresse de maison” in the world. She also set out to be an indispensable wife to the ex-king—no easy task given the role of ballbreaker that this Peter Pan (Ernest Simpson’s name for the Duke) had thrust on her. By the Windsors’ and café society’s lights—if not by yours or mine—she was utterly successful.

In short, the Duchess saw herself and her style of living as a work of art: an ineffably gracious creation spiced with mandarin touches out of her Chinese past and her favorite novel—the clue to much of her taste—Ann Bridge’s Peking Picnic. Too bad, then, that Bryan and Murphy portray her in such a different light as a wanton destroyer, for her faults were no more epic in scale than her qualities. Indeed, as an old friend observed, the Duchess’s main defect was an impulse to trivialize everyone and everything that crossed her path with a barrage of wisecracks. People were either “ghastly” or “dear.” Given these limitations, no sensible person would expect her to show the least interest in cultural, intellectual, or political matters—though she did “just hero-worship” her fellow Baltimorean, Spiro Agnew. All the same, why did she have to rattle on so much about other people’s facelifts? More especially since the contrast between her own mottled old hands, never for a moment still, and immaculately manicured face gave the show away besides being such an indictment of plastic surgery.

Whereas the Duchess was innately frivolous, the Duke was innately silly. To that extent the Windsors’ traits paralleled one another—not, however, in other respects. By virtue of marriage, she made the maximum out of endowments that were minimal, whereas he made the minimum out of one of the greatest birthrights in the world. Hence the Duchess’s life must be reckoned as something of a triumph, and the Duke’s as something of a tragedy—a tragedy not least because in renouncing the throne, he seems to have renounced whatever spirit, whatever character he once had. All the same I cannot go along with Bryan and Murphy who portray the Duke—not just in later life either—as, among other things, a silly ass (out of P.G. Wodehouse), an arrant shit, and a rotten sport who reneged on his gambling debts, cheated at golf, and wore suede shoes.

The trouble with this view is that it makes people overlook the Prince of Wales’s positive side: how, in Lord Annan’s words, “he won in the war the hearts of thousands of veterans, enchanted five continents, cemented the bridge between the United Kingdom and the Dominions, and appeared to be the personification of the new age of youth and informality, a superb complement to the father figure of George V.”

And indeed to schoolboys like myself there appeared to be something heroic about this Prince Charming; in his sympathetic support of the underdog and the unemployed, in the way he kicked over social and sartorial traces, above all in the martyrdom he appeared to suffer at the hands of the Establishment—the Tory government, the Times, the Church—for the sake of “the woman he loved.” True, our juvenile sympathies were largely misplaced, but to this day it seems to me that the Prince/King/Duke’s career is worth pondering as a parable that foreshadowed not only the decline and fall of the British Empire but the collapse of the British ethic—the stiff upper lip and everything that it was supposed to be stiff about.

The King’s rejection, after years of exemplary service, of everything represented by his former motto, “ich dien“; his reluctance to fill the role of “Defender of the Faith,” let alone pay lip service to the Anglican church; his deafness to the call of duty, chivalry, and patriotism that had been dinned into him since birth; and his dedication instead to “the pursuit of idleness” in the company of a speedy adventuress: does not all this anticipate the way things were to be in England ten years later? The way, for instance, so many of his ex-subjects, who had been strictly raised, like the King, to administer a realm that was already doomed, were to lapse, after winning the war and losing the Empire, into laissez aller and permissiveness? If the English finally felt like putting their feet up, working less hard, and opting for Carnaby Street clothes (which incidentally owed a lot to the Windsor look) and a code of behavior culled from the Beatles’ songs, they could always cite Edward VIII’s conduct as a precedent.

No question about it, the permissive society that emerged in postwar Britain was tinged with the Windsor syndrome. Hence a recurrent interest in the character of the Windsors and the story of the Abdication. In the circumstances Lady Donaldson’s excellent biography Edward VIII—an abridged edition of which has just been published * to coincide with an imminent TV series, “Edward and Mrs. Simpson”—filled an important gap. The same could hardly be said of The Windsor Story, a geyser of dirt and hot air unleashed by two elderly ghosts (Murphy wrote both the Duke and the Duchess’s memoirs; Bryan concocted Admiral Halsey’s), who, as they are the first to admit, were often the Windsors’ guests.

Now that arteriosclerosis keeps the Duchess to her bed, and dinner is no longer served in the Neuilly house, the ghosts manifest themselves in other, less pleasant, ways, rattling papier-mâché skeletons in order to titillate a public hungry for thrills, and at the same time revenging themselves—albeit unwittingly—on the hospitality of their former hosts. What makes The Windsor Story even nastier is the air of fastidiousness—one has the impression of little fingers daintily crooked—which these two gentlemen assume as they rake through the muck that they have diligently accumulated.

The ghosts live up to their blurb: “We observe [the Windsors’] marriage not as the sentimental love story of legend but as the nightmare it truly was.” And the book proceeds to depict the Duke as a moronic masochist. (“German by descent, temperament, and preference, he was happiest under a despot.”) Another of the authors’ recurrent themes is that the Duchess—a “modern Medea” (Circe would be nearer the mark)—is a virago whose life has been poisoned by George VI’s refusal to give her the title of Royal Highness that she had been promised.

To take the last point first, it is unfair to claim that the Duke was “goaded by his Duchess; her hunger for the styles and titles of ‘Royal Highness’ was in truth far fiercer than his own.” True, the Duchess resented the gratuitous refusal to recognize her royal rank (a refusal which was to some extent masterminded by her sister-in-law, now the Queen Mother). And right she was to do so! However, as people who knew the Windsors seldom failed to notice, the Duchess hated having a public fuss made of this, to her, embarrassing issue. The Duke, on the other hand, had an obstinate fixation about it, and would rant on about the HRH business to such an extent that I, for one, would wonder whether he was not unconsciously out to deflect obloquy from his head onto hers. Could it possibly be that the self-destructive passion conceived by this weak man for this dominating woman included a vengeful streak? Nobody, after all, could blame the Duke for bearing a grudge.

  1. *

    Frances Donaldson, Edward VIII: The Road to Abdication (Lippincott, January 1980). The complete edition was published in the US by Lippincott in 1975.

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