Duke and Dutchess of Windsor
Duke and Dutchess of Windsor; drawing by David Levine

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.

Since the Windsors’ failings were unveiled as recently as 1974, in Lady Donaldson’s uncompromising though fair-minded biography, there seems little point in reviewing the evidence again so soon, unless new light is going to be cast on the hoary old story. New light? The ghosts envelop the wretched Windsors in such murky clouds that the few areas—usually those involving the Duchess—which Lady Donaldson did not totally succeed in illuminating seem even less clear than before.

For instance, the exact nature of the Duchess’s feelings around the time of the Abdication are still a matter for guesswork. Since her subsequent statements, particularly with regard to her divorce from Edward Simpson, have tended to be contradictory or misleading, we have to fall back on other evidence. But where is this to be found? Bryan and Murphy come up with a gossipy account “merrily related” by Mary Kirk Raffray (the third of the four divorcées whom Ernest Simpson married) before her death in 1941. But their use of the word possibly (authors’ italics) in the course of her and their story does not inspire much confidence.

The most reliable evidence presumably consists of the numerous letters which the Duchess wrote her favorite aunt, Bessie Merryman, in the course of the crisis. According to Bryan and Murphy, this correspondence was destroyed by the recipient some time before she died, at the age of one hundred in 1964. However, according to a former member of the Duchess’s household, Mrs. Merryman actually returned these letters to her niece, and they are now said to be in the safe-keeping of the latter’s formidable female lawyer, Maître Blum. Until such crucial source material as this becomes available, it seems pointless to rehash the Abdication story.

Then again there is reason to believe that, despite all the research that Lady Donaldson did in the Foreign Office archives and the documents on foreign policy that were captured from the Germans, the full story of the Windsors’ relations with the Nazis has yet to be told. Once again Bryan and Murphy have nothing much to contribute. Until new evidence materializes, or until the Royal Family allows access to the Duke’s letters to some of his German relatives—letters which, according to a recent statement by Lord Dacre, George VI sent Anthony Blunt on a secret mission to retrieve from one of the Hesse houses—let us have a moratorium on the subject, more especially since any new evidence is more likely to confirm the Duke’s pitiful silliness and resentment rather than his potential for effective treachery.

Another ugly matter on which the ghosts cast absolutely no new light is the murder of Sir Harry Oakes, when the Duke was Governor-General in Nassau (“Elba,” the Duchess called it). Despite many lurid accounts of the case, the Duke’s suspiciously dilatory conduct—his refusal to bring in Scotland Yard, or the FBI men that Roosevelt had offered; his insistence on using a pair of crooked gumshoes from Miami—still remains puzzling. What was the nature of the business dealings that the Duke is rumored to have had with Sir Harry? Is it true that another rich friend of the Duke’s, Robert R. Young, was also financially involved? To look back still further, how successful were the Prince’s attempts to get rich American friends to cover the heavy losses he is said to have incurred in the 1929 crash? These are the kinds of questions that a biography as critical in tone as Bryan and Murphy’s should attempt to answer. Instead we are fobbed off a lot of the time with tattle. It’s not that we cannot see the wood for the trees; we cannot see the trees for the undergrowth.

The ghosts are even harder on the Duchess than they are on the Duke. Their main “revelation” is very old hat; the Duchess’s affair—trust the authors to call it an “unnatural liaison”—with the millionaire playboy Jimmy Donahue. “It was folly enough,” Bryan and Murphy are forever going tut-tut, “for her to have so intimate an association at all, but to have one with a braggart homosexual was reckless insanity. He robbed her not only of her reputation, but of the last shreds of her judgment.” As usual the authors are the ones who are “reckless.” “Braggart homosexuals” don’t ruin ladies’ reputations, or many men’s for that matter. Besides, for five years Donahue gave the Duchess exactly the kind of El Moroccan fun that she craved and the Duke could do without. Granted, as a lover Donahue left a lot to be desired: besides being homosexual, he was an alcoholic, an exhibitionist, and, at times, a brute. However, he was livelier company than the Duke and a much bigger spender. He also had a more sardonic wit than most of his kind. “Isn’t she crazy to prefer a queen to a king?” he once said in front of the Duchess, who didn’t seem to mind when Donahue had his sheets and pillowcases embroidered with “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (the Garter motto), in her “honor.”

What the authors fail to point out is that the Donahue affair was a corollary of the Windsors’ marriage. In many ways the Duchess’s attraction for the homosexual Donahue parallels her attraction for the undeniably equivocal Duke. I am far from claiming that the Duke was an active homosexual. On the other hand, his constant cracks at “queers”—“those fellers who fly in over the transom”—combined with the fact that quite a few of the Windsors’ male guests looked as if, yes, they had flown in over the transom, lent credence to a French friend’s view that “notre duc a frisé la pédérastie.”

In the circumstances the Duchess, who confessed to Cecil Beaton that she was “very much like a man in many ways,” proved an understanding companion, although even she could not resist an occasional crack. Why did they not have children? “[The Duke] is not heir-conditioned.” By the same token Donahue—who occasionally hinted that he had made a play for both the Windsors—was as suitable a friend to the husband as he was to the wife. As for the Duke’s jealousy, which the authors make so much of, surely he was suffering from something different, if just as painful: rejection. Peter Pan felt left out.

The authors also devote an entire chapter (“The Millionaire Miser”) to the Duke’s notorious stinginess. They put up a good case against him, but do not make sufficient allowances for the Duchess’s generosity or for the difference in outlook between the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, and the Duke of Windsor. The Prince of Wales was brought up never to handle money and so never understood its value. And yet, according to his contemporaries, his youthful instincts were on the whole generous: after all he had a virtually unlimited exchequer to draw on. When he came to the throne, however, financial responsibility threw the new king into a panic, and he earned a deservedly bad press for, among other unwise economies, slashing the wages of his staff.

After the Abdication, the Duke never adjusted to living on a fixed, even if enormous, income. More to the point, he never adjusted to the expenditure which his wife’s legendary taste for luxury necessitated and which his abject worship of her obliged him to condone. And so the making and saving of money became an idée fixe which the Duke seldom tired of discussing, and which obliged him to stoop to expedients at odds with the dignity of a Knight of the Garter.

Bryan and Murphy make much of the sordid transactions that the Duke’s parsimony involved, particularly with regard to his supposedly Scrooge-like treatment of servants. According to close friends and ex-employees, this account of domestic affairs is inaccurate, for although the Windsors were often guilty of a certain old-fashioned rigueur where servants were concerned, they were also capable of considerable kindness. And why do the authors resurrect the old canard about the Windsors charging their hosts a fee for the honor of dining with them, if they are going to deny it in the next paragraph? On the other hand, it is all too regrettably true that the Duke was ever ready to accept hospitality from social climbers whom, in former days, the Prince of Wales would have condemned as “bounders” or “Zweiter Gesellschaft“: But then, as the years went by, the poor Windsors were left with very little alternative except, as Proust wrote of his maid, “to put up with understudies.”

The irony of this situation would have fascinated the author of A la Recherche du temps perdu, not so Bryan and Murphy who hold their priggish noses as they spell out the squalid details. But given their position as rulers of café society, were the Windsors all that guilty in accepting free trips and other tribute from their rich subjects? It was not as if the Duke was in the habit of having himself weighed in precious stones. No, for me the last phase of the Windsors’ life together had a certain inevitability, a certain poetic justice about it reminiscent of the last chapters of Vanity Fair. How Thackeray would have relished the spectacle of this raffish royal couple on their annual visits to New York or Palm Beach basking in the homage of dubious dowagers, chic tradespeople, seedy extra men, ancient WASPs, and, let us be fair, a small group of supportive friends from the old days, whose disinterested devotion did them credit.

And yet, for all the raffishness of their milieu—more noticeable, it must be said, in America than in France—the Windsors carried out their social duties with exemplary style. Except for the Duke’s bizarre habit of talking schoolroom German to the uncomprehending wives of Seventh Avenue manufacturers (“Meine Muttersprache,” he would explain); and, after a few drinks, of conducting the band—for preference an Austrian one that could play his favorite song, “Ich weiss auf der Weiden ein kleines Hotel“—with an imaginary baton (shades of Dorothy Parker’s Stewie Hunter!), they seldom disappointed their fans. On the contrary, with their chic, their glamour, and, no question about it, their charm, they transformed many a gruesome social grind into a gala occasion. By remembering the names of so many of the starstruck guests, the Duke would show off his miraculous, if somewhat clockwork, memory (a trick his father had taught him as a child) and his no less miraculous manners, and become Prince Charming again for the assembled company as well as himself.

Apart from the malicious choice of unflattering photographs, especially of the Duchess, the most flagrant example of the authors’ bias is their wholly misleading account of the Duke’s funeral at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. “If there was grief anywhere in the Chapel,” they write, “it was not seen or heard…. The insincerity of those worshipful phrases …suggested that these were cinema obsequies, with jewels of paste and with the other properties of plastic and cardboard, like the mourners’ emotions; and with a cast and crew impatient for the scene to end and let them be off.” In fact the “cinema obsequies” were unforgettably moving, so much so that “the cast,” far from evincing the least sign of “impatience” or “insincerity,” were as one in their awe at the way the honor, glory, and chivalry, which the Duke had abrogated in life, came back to roost in death. And despite the onset of arteriosclerosis, the Duchess demonstrated, for the first and last time, that she could fill the role of a Royal personage with as much panache as any of her in-laws.

Despite their reconciliation with the Duchess at the funeral, the Royal Family understandably continues to be haunted by the Abdication. It is, therefore, not altogether surprising that, for all the harsh things it has to say, Lady Donaldson’s biography of the Queen’s uncle apparently met with wholehearted Royal approval. Indeed the book is said to have been pressed on the present Prince of Wales by his parents. Let us hope that the “heir to the world’s greatest position that is determined solely by heredity” (to quote the genealogist Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk’s description of Prince Charles) will heed Lady Donaldson’s moral tale.

According to Anthony Holden’s biography of the young heir, “now more than ever [Edward VIII] is held up to the next Prince of Wales as an example of how not to become a king.” And Holden, who has on the whole done a skillful job of official portraiture, presents us with a paragon of a modern prince—the apotheosis of ich dien—passionately interested in aviation, history, archaeology, anthropology, drama, literature, sport, classical music—you name it—and whose only fault seems to be that he prides himself on being as “square” (Charles’s word) as his dull Dane of a father.

Not for Prince Charles the cocktails that are the solace of his Aunt Margaret, or the drugs and blackmailers that nearly did in Great Uncle George, or the horses that have transformed his sister Anne into such an Olympic trial. Nevertheless British fingers are crossed. While nobody could fail to sympathize with poor Charles when Richard Nixon, as recounted by Holden, tried to foist Tricia on to him (Queen Tricia, indeed!), many monarchists are worried by this paragon’s failure to settle down and marry some nice bun-faced girl—from anywhere in the world except perhaps Baltimore. Since Charles’s eager eyes have a way even in public of clouding over with Angst, people are apt to wonder whether the princely psyche is possibly flawed with melancholia like his great-uncle’s, and whether he has inherited the latter’s disinclination to shoulder responsibility and rule. Not that anyone would blame Charles for crying out, like the previous Prince of Wales, “I’m fed up! I’ve taken all I can stand!…I want no more of this princing! I want to be an ordinary person. I must have a life of my own!” Given the unlikelihood of the British throne surviving another manifestation of Windsor trouble, the Queen had better hurry and give her heir Bryan and Murphy’s awful book. There are so many dire lessons to be learned from it, not least the folly of having anything to do with ghosts.

This Issue

February 21, 1980