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 impeccably decorated houses. When Blackwood telephoned Lady Mosley, “she said she had become stone deaf. I then realized that if I hoped to talk to people who had once surrounded the Duchess, I must expect to encounter the hurdle of various physical disabilities.” This demure statement should be taken as a coded health warning for sensitive readers.
Lady Mosley was about to publish a life of the Duchess. Not having heard exactly what Blackwood said, she imagined that she wanted to review it, and invited her to lunch. Sir Oswald made up to the visitor, but kept losing the thread of his disquisitions.
“The trouble with England now…” Sir Oswald said to me. All his statements were delivered with such self-importance they sounded like pronunciamentos. “The trouble with England now…” he repeated. He never stopped trying to be hypnotic. I braced myself waiting for some abrasive opinion. But the trouble with England now was that it no longer had any hostesses. “Where are the great hostesses?” Sir Oswald asked with rhetorical melancholy. “Tell me where are the great hostesses of the ilk of Sibyl Colefax and Emerald Cunard?”
After the Duke of Windsor’s death, his cousin, Lord Mountbatten, proposed to the Duchess that she should set up a charitable trust in the Duke’s name. The Duchess was said to be delighted, but Maître Blum scotched the plan and was thought to have sold off many valuable items which might have been included. Lord Mountbatten was now dead, and when Blackwood telephoned his daughter,
Countess Mountbatten became so agitated she sounded close to tears. “Oh, it’s the most ghastly business! Daddy minded about it all so much. The lawyer has got all those lovely things. I can’t tell you how many she’s got. You’d never believe what beautiful things the Duke and Duchess used to have. And all of them royal….”
“I believe that Maître Blum also has some of the royal swords?”
Countess Mountbatten gave a heavy, upper-class sigh. “Oh, my dear, I’m afraid it’s very much worse than that,” she whispered mournfully. “That frightful old woman’s got the royal insignia and the regimental drums.”
Blackwood is a dangerous interviewer. You can hear her subjects’ intonations. And sometimes you can hear her own—for instance when she talks about the Duchess’s former sister-in-law, Mrs. Maud KerrSmiley, “who considered that Ernest [Simpson] had married beneath him.” Every time Blackwood mentions Mrs. Maud Kerr-Smiley a hiss of ridicule goes whistling through the syllables. True, the name is a gift—perhaps from P.G. Wodehouse in the Great Beyond. There are Wodehouse touches in Blackwood’s book anyway, and it is all the better for them. Both writers have a fine sense of upper-class absurdity.
Sir Walter Monckton was the Duke of Windsor’s legal adviser and friend: he helped him write his abdication speech and accompanied him across the Channel afterward. Blackwood went to see his widow in the “home” where she lived. It was a beautiful country house with golden pheasants parading on the lawns.
Fires had been lit in the fireplaces and above them were ancient portraits of somebody’s ancestors to give a feeling of continuity. Only a faint smell of antiseptic and the terrible state of the inmates ruined the imposing atmosphere. Having lost all their faculties, they sat motionless in their various chairs. Some of them looked at television with their eyes closed.
Lady Monckton was thrilled by Blackwood’s visit, though she thought she was Lady Mountbatten (not the one who grieved so for the regimental drums, but her dead mother).
Yet when the old lady spoke of the past she was lucid. She told Blackwood that while the Duke had always been “madly in love” with his wife, the Duchess was never in love: she just wanted to be Queen. This was not news: it was the accepted opinion. It doesn’t matter. The interview with Lady Monckton is a little masterpiece. The old lady’s charm revives and she begins to sparkle at the thought of what fun life used to be in the Duchess’s entourage. Eventually a nurse asks Blackwood to leave. Lady Monckton will be exhausted. “I couldn’t see any real reason why Lady Monckton shouldn’t be allowed to become overtired if she was enjoying herself for one moment…I wished…she could get on a jet and fly to Paris to join the young Duchess and her dead husband. I wished she could have a glamorous dinner with the Duchess, that all the flowers on the table could be sprayed with Diorissimo”—which is what used to happen for the Windsors’ parties.
Lady Diana Cooper was a famous wit and beauty and the widow of Britain’s first postwar ambassador to France. “I hear she makes no sense,” she said when Blackwood told her about Lady Monckton. “She’s much luckier than me. I make perfect sense and I am absolutely miserable. I loathe being old. I hate every second of my life. My eyes, my ears, are going. Everything is going. All I enjoy now is driving my car. And I suppose I won’t be able to do that much longer. I can’t walk a step without it hurting. But let’s have a drink.” She envied even the incarcerated Duchess, artificially kept alive and tortured by expensive doctors, because she had heard that the Duchess was unconscious. And she envied her friend the playwright Enid Bagnold: “Enid is now ninety-two and she is as mad as a coot. She’s become totally gaga. She hardly makes a grain of sense when I go to see her. But Enid claims that old age has been the happiest time of her life.” Blackwood checked this out with a friend of Bagnold’s: “It was nonsense. Enid Bagnold was not at all happy. She was in a desperate state of ill health and she minded it as much as anyone else. She liked to pretend to Lady Diana Cooper that she was ecstatically happy.” Blackwood concludes from this: “Old ladies had their own form of oneupmanship.”
The Marchesa Casa Maury (formerly Mrs. Dudley Ward) became the Duke’s mistress in 1919. He dropped her when he met Mrs. Simpson, and never spoke to her again. He told the palace switchboard to refuse her calls. When Blackwood went to see her, she was confined to a chair. She had broken her hip and just come out of hospital. “‘We never stopped dancing,’ she said. ‘The Duke was mad about dancing. In a way that was all we did—well, not quite.’ She gave another little laugh.
“I doted on the Duke,” she said.
Her husband didn’t mind. “If it’s the Prince of Wales—no husbands ever mind.” The Marchesa was willing to admit the Duke was “very sexy” (qualified a moment later to “quite sexy”), and also
“a pretty miserable fellow… He was always crying. He was always in floods of tears. It was usually because he’d had some row with his father. The Duke hated his father. The King was horrible to him. His mother was horrible to him too…”
Blackwood fell for this “gallant, old, humorous lady of eighty-six.” The Marchesa displayed a liberal and generous nature. She blamed herself for being conventional, “I would never have dreamt of doing anything to upset the monarchy. That’s why I knew our romance would never last. In that way I was never fair to him. My attitudes were just as bad as those of the Palace… When I heard he had abdicated to marry the Duchess—I really admired him. It was very brave of him.” She wouldn’t talk about the Duchess except to say she had made the duke “very nasty. He never used to be nasty. But now I hear all these stories that he has become so mean with money—that he never tips his servants. He didn’t used to be like that She must have made him like that.” Blackwood “wondered if she had taken in that the Duke was dead.”
The only person in England sufficiently concerned about the Duchess to plan to go and see her was the Duchess of Marlborough, “Then at the very last moment she canceled her flight. She told me that she had a cold and she had to restring her pearls.” And the only person who thought the Duchess was probably quite all right was cheery Lady Tomkins, the wife of another former British ambassador to France. “Suzanne Blum is rather a splendid old girl,” she said, after describing her as “not the sort of woman one could have as a friend.” She thought that if it hadn’t been for Maître Blum, after the Duke’s death the other royals would have pounced on the treasures he had given his wife. Especially Lord Mountbatten.
And this is the big question, the crux of the book, the mystery waiting to be unraveled by the detective. Was Maître Blum exploiting the Duchess or was she protecting her? Blackwood dismisses both these obvious possibilities and decides instead that “the necrophiliac lawyer” was in love with her client and wanted to keep her alive at any cost, even when it would be kinder to let her die. If she was selling off the Duchess’s valuable possessions, it was to pay the doctors. Maître Blum was ecstatic about the Duchess’s appearance: she “still had the most fantastic body. You ought to see it. The skin on her body is perfect. It doesn’t have a line. She has the lovely, soft body of a young girl.” This clearly wasn’t true any more than Blum’s assertion that the Duchess had always been exceptionally kind, charitable, cultured, and dignified, that she did not sleep with the Duke until they were married, after which they led a secluded life, reading good books, shunning nightclubs, and only occasionally taking a minuscule drink when politeness demanded it.
Some Spanish paparazzi managed to photograph the Duchess with a longrange lens when she was being lifted by a nurse: her body was shrunken and her face “looked a little like a Chinese mandarin, but more like a dead monkey.” A friend who had threatened his way through Maître Blum’s barriers a few years before reported, “The Duchess had shrunk to half her original size and she seemed to be unconscious. She was lying in bed looking like a tiny prune. She had turned completely black.” Blackwood stood outside the Duchess’s house. The goldspiked gates were locked, the windows shuttered all except one. “It was disquieting to picture Maître Blum… creeping up the stairs to the Duchess’s bedroom, and pulling down the poor woman’s sheets in order to gaze at her.” Maybe it is as a small token revenge on behalf of the poor woman that Blackwood constantly refers to the “brown flowers” of age on her lawyer’s hands and arms.
Like all respectable witches, Maître Blum has a familiar. Hers is not an owl or a cat, but a young Ulsterman called Michael Bloch who wrote to her when he was doing research for a book on Sibyl Colefax. He became her law pupil and moved in with her and her second husband—a retired general who dies during the period of Blackwood’s interviews. His widow arranges a spectacular funeral, but otherwise his death does not seem to affect her, except that her wardrobe changes from comme il faut beige to deepest comme il faut black. Michael Bloch, on the other hand, habitually wears a red-and-white-striped cricket blazer with flowers in the buttonhole. She bawls him out and he fawns on her; he calls her “mon Maître” and—absurdly—“My Master,” when speaking English with Blackwood. He appears terrified of his Master, but once he is indiscreet enough to let slip that her relationship with the Duchess is “very special…of a romantic nature…”
Naturally Lord Snowdon was not permitted to photograph the prune Duchess, nor was Blackwood allowed to interview her. So she decided to write a profile of Maître Blum instead. Maître Blum refused, abusively, as usual. The Sunday Times tried bribery: they offered her a photo session of her very own with Lord Snowdon. She was beside herself with excitement and joy. Her snobbery, especially about royalty, had always been out of control; in Blackwood’s opinion it was the fount of her passion for the Duchess. She chose to regard her own interview as a sacrifice made for the sake of her idol, but of course she censored it. The Sunday Times profile was bland compared to this book, which could not be published until after Maître Blum’s death last year.
Two years after her interview, Maître Blum announced in the press that the Duchess had made a miraculous recovery and it was now a problem how to amuse her. Maître Blum said that the Duchess was “sitting up and was listening to Cole Porter.” There were rumors that the Duke’s collection of Sèvres snuffboxes had been offered for sale. A detective told Blackwood that the Neuilly house was so well protected that only a helicopter raid could establish what was going on there, and “that would be against the law and therefore very expensive.” He wondered whether the Duchess might not be dead. Suppressing deaths was also illegal, but it was sometimes done, just the same: “Usually it was because there were trusts involved.” A doctor from the American Hospital said that when the Duchess had been admitted eight months before “her condition had been so pitiable it had upset the nurses.”
When Blackwood was next in Paris, she rang the bell by the spiked gate. The butler turned her away on the intercom. At her second attempt he let her in because she was able to say that she was the niece of one of the Duchess’s friends and was bringing flowers from her. The garden was neglected, the house pitch dark, the silence unearthly. It was impossible to believe that nurses or anyone could be in it.
That is the spine-chilling, and at the same time affecting, end to both the Gothick tale and the detective story. They are interspersed with ruminative passages; what would Maître Blum have felt it she had been invited to accompany the Duchess to the Duke’s funeral at Frogmore? Not a very rewarding speculation, but an opportunity for a riveting step-by-step account of the event, at which the Duchess was already showing pathetic signs of senility. There is an attempt to see parallels in the lots of the Duchess and her lawyer. Both were brought up in genteel poverty and taught to regard marriage as the only way out. Suzanne Blum fought her way to a career. Wallis Warfield didn’t. So what? An opportunity for a mildly feminist lament on the fate of women in their generation. But being déclassée in Baltimore and marrying a king, and being the child of an Alsatian Jewish grocer in Niort and becoming a lawyer are not really comparable destinies. Blackwood sees a symbiotic relationship between the Duchess and her lawyer which made them both look Oriental. But since she tells us they both had face-lifts, that idea doesn’t really work either.
More to the point are biographies of the Duke and Duchess that fill in the background. They have never been told with more wit and deadpan wickedness, and if there are no new revelations about major facts, there are previously unpublished and unpublishable horror stories about the behavior of the ducal couple and their friends. They make one “gasp and stretch one’s eyes” in pleasurable disapproval and dismay.