The Last of the Duchess is detective thriller, Gothic horror story, and society gossip column all in one: a publisher’s dream. It is also a grisly anatomy of old age.
The duchess in question is the Duchess of Windsor. In 1980, eight years after the Duke’s death, the London Sunday Times decided to ask Lord Snowdon to go to Paris and photograph her. She had not been seen in public for some years, and lurid rumors were circulating about her fate. Caroline Blackwood was to write the accompanying copy. She thought “it might be interesting for someone to take a photograph of Lord Snowdon caught in the act of photographing the Duchess. One royal divorcée taking a snap of another. Surely this would have a certain historic value and be a record of an event that had an Alice in Wonderland unreality.”
But it was not to be. The Duchess’s lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum, vetoed the whole enterprise. She had power of attorney. At first she refused to see Blackwood, and when she finally received her in her hideous and forbidding flat, she bullied and insulted her, threatening to sue (she was famous for suing) and even to kill her if she wrote unfavorably about the Duchess—a threat which Blackwood, not quite convincingly, pretends to believe. “There was something ruthless and demented in her glinting, paranoid eyes.” Maître Blum and her client were both eighty-four years old, but whereas the lawyer rushed around acting on behalf of rich old women (in the Fifties she had specialized in Hollywood personalities like Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Jack Warner, Walt Disney, and Merle Oberon), the Duchess was assumed to be terminally ill or gaga or both. Blackwood heard that she never left her house in Neuilly, that Maître Blum called every day and forbade the door to everyone except the three nurses in attendance. The butler (rumored to be armed) had orders to turn away all callers. Blackwood surmises that the Duchess’s periodic spells in the American Hospital were necessitated not so much by crises in her health as by the butler’s holidays.
She had planned to interview as many of the Duchess’s acquaintances as she could: a string of pearls with the Duchess’s portrait in the central medallion. Things did not turn out as planned: there was to be no portrait, but the pearls are real pearls all right: vivid evocations—cruel, comical, and sometimes heartbreaking—of ancient survivors from an extinct culture. The Windsors’ closest friends after the war were the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and his wife, who was still so beautiful that Blackwood was reluctantly beguiled. Both couples had flirted with Hitler. The Mosleys were locked up during the war, but the Windsors, according to Blackwood, kept in touch with Mosley even after the Duke was appointed governor of the Bahamas. After the war all four of them settled in exile outside Paris and dined in each other’s …