Of the many books written about the Duchess of Windsor, very few have been written by those who actually knew her. Richard René Silvin is an American historian, lecturer and author of (among other titles) Noblesse Oblige: The Duchess of Windsor As I Knew Her. Not only is he an expert on the Duke and Duchess, Mr Silvin also counted Wallis as a friend in the years following the Duke of Windsor’s death in 1972. So I was naturally delighted when Mr Silvin agreed to give me an interview for the World of Wallis blog which I’m thrilled to present to you.
Q. Mr Silvin, you became a close friend to the Duchess in her later years, could you describe a typical day in the Duchess’ company?
A. I would not refer to my relationship with the Duchess as being “a close friend”. For openers, I was 29, 30 and 31 when I interacted with her and she was in her late 70s. I was running the American Hospital of Paris where she and the Duke had been treated on numerous occasions and which, at the time, was the sole beneficiary of her estate.
In the 1970s, the hospital was in a state of considerable managerial and physical disrepair. I was hired by USAID, a part of the US State Department, to reorganize the management and prepare a master plan for the aging facility. My interaction with the Duchess was initially centered on matters relating to my job at the hospital*. This gradually morphed into “being there” for her if I noticed her lapses of attention and concentration.
Q. The Duchess has become legendary for her style but also for her skills as a hostess and her great attention to detail. What was it like to be her guest?
A. The few times I ate at Le Bois was with the Duchess alone, so I was not personally privy to her legendary dinner parties. Given how immaculately even a simple lunch was presented and served, I could imagine what a grand dinner in her prime must have been like.
Q. What do you believe were Wallis’ best qualities as you experienced them? What were her worst?
A. Frankly, I never noticed the slightest hint of any unattractive or bad behaviour. She was formal and distant. But, most of my parents’ friends on both sides of the Atlantic were equally, if not more aloof. I found the Duchess to be inquisitive and engaging. Please remember, I knew her as a somewhat isolated widow who, quite understandably, was concerned about her failing physical and mental health. So, to me, her “best qualities” were being kind and supportive.
Q. Was Wallis ever regretful or even resentful of her lot? Aside from the regret she expressed at not having children in her memoir, do you think she held any misgivings about the decisions she had made in her life?
A. I never detected any indication that the Duchess was resentful of “her lot”. The few conversations we had which turned personal centered on our mutual love for ocean liners. I did feel that she liked being around a young man who, having been brought up in a formal European context, had manners, which were rapidly becoming obsolete. Ergo, I was “presentable” and given the age disparity, unthreatening.
Q. Friends always remark on Wallis’ wit as much as her style. It’s sad that more people don’t know about that side of her. Did you find her to have a good sense of humour? Was she fun to be with?
A. Yes, I found her fun to be with. Keep in mind however, ours was initially what one might call a “subordinate, business relationship”. The Duchess was increasingly worried about her health and therefore there was no jovial interaction, unlike what I believe would have been the case were I a long-tenured friend.
As I wrote in Noblesse Oblige, I loved to hear her laugh but she had her boundaries. When the vulgar Louisiana congressman, Otto Passman; then the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee (the hospital’s source of funding) made a very crude joke in her presence, she was clearly not amused. Neither was I; he was grotesquely offensive in the formal context of a Board of Governors meeting.
I did see glimpses of what must have been the sense of humor my mother told me about. My mother was a winter resident of the South of France and met the Duchess at the time of the abdication crisis. The two contemporary American women, surrounded by some rather “stuffy” Frenchmen, joked about these old fashioned Frenchmen.
Q. The Royal Family kept their distance from Wallis after the Duke died with one or two notable moments of kindness. Do you feel they could have done more for Wallis in the last years of her life? Would she have wanted them to?
A. I think the Royal Family did their best to be charitable toward the Duchess in her later years. The gesture to allow her to be buried at Frogmore and the Queen’s visit to Le Bois ten days before the Duke died in May of 1972, are notable examples.
I am often asked why the Royal Family did not intervene during the Duchess’ long years of confinement while she suffered being on a nasal feeding tube at Le Bois. Horrific as this period must have been for the Duchess, I understand why the Royal Family felt they had no “place” or jurisdiction in this crisis.
After all, Maître Blum so carefully gave the appearance of doing the right things that any intervention would be unreasonable. In my opinion the tragedy was allowed to fester for two reasons: There was no human heir to look over Maître Blum’s shoulder, and she was the sole trustee.
Q. In the first few years following the Abdication, the Duke wanted the Windsors to be “rehabilitated” as it were and to become working members of the Royal Family with their residence at the Fort. Do you think that’s a role that would have suited Wallis? Would she have been a popular member of ‘The Firm’?
A. I think the Duchess would have made a very good member of “The Firm” based out of either the Fort or some other appropriately grand residence. Her behavior over the decades confirms this. She is said to have confided in friends that she “had all of the inconveniences of being a member of the Royal Family, with none of the benefits”.
In the scenario you bring up, I think her behavior from the time they arrived in the Bahamas until the Duke’s death, indicates she would have enjoyed the life you describe. And, importantly, the Duke would have had activities of his own, which would have lessened the burden the Duchess had to keep him busy and happy.
Q. There have been so many depictions of Wallis over the years in TV shows and films, I’m thinking most recently of Lia Williams and Geraldine Chaplin in The Crown. Which are your favourite portrayals of Wallis and which do you feel is the most accurate?
A. The Duke’s death scene in The Crown is, I believe, perfectly accurate and gut-wrenchingly sad. This in contrast to the Abdication scene, which is amusingly inaccurate, given that the Duchess was in the South of France, while in The Crown she sits behind the Duke when he gives the Abdication Speech. Also, even though I am a fan of The Crown over all, I regret the producers decided to present the Duchess as a superficial “party-girl”.
As you know, much of what has been written about her is rubbish and The Crown tends to reinforce the idea that the Duchess was a conniving “air-head”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Q. What do you think it is that continues to draw us to Wallis? Why are we still intrigued by her and do you think she would be happy to know that we’re revisiting her story and perhaps seeing her in a more truthful and balanced way?
A. I think the Duchess would be ecstatic with the way she is becoming increasingly described by Hugo, a few others and me. The historical regrettable and overly harsh criticism of the Duchess is understandable in the context that the scurrilous stories sold books and boosted ratings. Also, remember, the Duchess never took to the airways to defend herself. If there is no “push back,” unethical “historians” grant themselves license to embellish and exaggerate the Duchess’ perceived flaws.
Currently, the resurgence of the intrigue surrounding the Duchess is fueled by the popularity of The Crown and all the comparisons being made between “our” Duchess and the Duchess of Sussex. I am happy about both, because a more realistic and favorable view of the Duchess of Windsor is bound to be the result.
Q. Finally, could you tell us a little about your book ‘Noblesse Oblige’?
My motto is “Know thy self”. Therefore, I know that I am not a great author. I took up writing, and more importantly, lecturing on the subjects of my works, as a retirement hobby. I surprised myself with the level of success both avocations have enjoyed.
After I wrote my first book, I Survived Swiss Boarding Schools, friends urged me to write the stories I told them about the American Hospital of Paris and the Duchess of Windsor. This gave rise to Noblesse Oblige, my next attempt of what Oscar Wilde called “putting your derrière in a chair” i.e. writing.
As a result, the book is one-part stories about the hospital, one-part stories about my interaction with the Duchess, and one-part a summary overview about the Windsors. It is meant to be a fun, easy read, not a history lesson.
An interesting aside, since we are both admirers of Hugo Vickers, when I was considering writing Noblesse Oblige some friends urged me not to, because the “great Hugo Vickers” was writing a book about the Duchess’ last years. My little Work would go nowhere. I phoned Mr. Vickers and asked him if we could lunch together if I made a special trip to London. What was initially planned as a brief encounter over a sandwich, turned onto a three hour-long fascinating and delicious meal in Mr. Vickers’ charming flat. A deep and long lasting relationship evolved, as well as a mutual promise.
Given that we both had nurses notes and I had been sent some pictures of the Duchess when she was ailing, we decided none of the details which stripped the Duchess of her dignity would see the light of day in either book. I feel very proud of my friendship with Hugo and especially with the pact that we made and continue to respect.
*The American Hospital of Paris was the only official charitable cause the Duchess of Windsor had at this time.
Noblesse Oblige: The Duchess of Windsor As I Knew Her
All “British Royal watchers” and Windsor aficionados know about the only voluntary abdication in British history when, on December 10, 1936, the handsome, young, beloved King Edward Vlll handed over his three hundred twenty-five day reign to his brother; who, on that foggy night, became King George VI.
The famous abdication speech, delivered in a radio address to the nation, contained the memorable words “I cannot undertake the heavy burden of state without the love and support of the woman I love” and became one of the era’s most repeated phrases. The historic act catapulted the relatively obscure, twice-divorced Wallis Simpson to international fame as she became both demonized and intriguing. Within weeks and in an unprecedented act, Time Magazine named Mrs. Simpson the first “Woman of the Year.” Now, twenty-five years after the Duchess of Windsor’s death, the first personal description of the legendary lady is available.
Readers of Noblesse Oblige, the Duchess of Windsor As I Knew Her by Richard René Silvin will learn intimate details of the Duchess as Silvin refutes most of the defamatory and scurrilous rumors which surrounded the legendary lady and which, she herself, abhorred but never discussed. The Duchess of Windsor Silvin describes is anything but the detached, cold ruthless, superficial lady history has heretofore portrayed. Instead, readers will “meet” a clever, funny, profound and loving woman.
Noblesse Oblige begins in 1973, when the-then twenty-five year old author was appointed by US AID, a branch of the State Department, to restructure a famous Parisian hospital, which was the lonely, recently widowed Duchess’ only charity and reputed to be the sole beneficiary of her estate. In keeping with her largely unrecognized tradition of charity work, the Duchess took it upon herself to study the inner workings – and intrigues – of a modern hospital. She took a keen interest in Silvin who would become her protégée and certainly the object of her final, well thought out public battle. Noblesse Oblige‘s readers are also exposed to a researched history of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor beginning with their early lives and which follows them to their deaths.
The book contains newly revealed details of the Duke’s peaceful demise, in May of 1972, when he serenely passed away in his Paris home, surrounded by his completely devoted Duchess, competent nurses, favorite Pug, Black Diamond, and treasured items. Sadly, and in stark contrast, Silvin describes the Duchess’ decade-long illness during which, in an undiagnosed form of dementia, she gradually lost control of her arms and legs, was inhumanely kept alive for six years, slowly isolated from friends, stripped of her dignity and even her nurturing child-substitutes – her dogs.
The book both begins and ends with vivid and detailed descriptions of the hospital Board of Governor’s meetings where a still keen-minded Duchess brilliantly strategizes to save the author from being terminated. In her own words, quoted in the book’s first chapter (“God knows I can appreciate being the victim of a plot!”) she embarks on her last quest for what she thought was justice. As the story reaches its climax and wearing her chalcedony sapphire jewelry, which she claimed “has mystical powers to assist us” she uses the tragic death of Aristotle Onassis to further her agenda while quoting the motto of the highly revered British “Most Noble Order of the Garter” Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on those with evil thoughts.)
Noblesse Oblige (another one of the Duchess’ favorite expressions) contains amusing accounts of famous Parisian physicians, high-level French politicians, international socialites and even a vulgar and notorious American Congressman. Because of the book’s famous characters and venues, some names and facts have been altered.
Noblesse Oblige is the author’s third book following I Survived Swiss Boarding Schools and Walking the Rainbow, an Arc to Triumph.
I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks to Mr Silvin for his time in graciously giving this fascinating interview to the World of Wallis. If you’d like to learn more about his other works, please visit his website at www.rrsilvin.com
You can purchase a copy of Mr Silvin’s wonderful book on the Duchess of Windsor directly through his website or by clicking here which will take you directly to Amazon. Alternatively, you can click on the front cover image above.