In 1945, the Windsors found themselves awaiting word from the British government that their time in the Bahamas had officially come to an end. The Duke had been appointed Governor of the Bahamas in 1940, the one and only time in his post-abdication life that his family sanctioned any kind of official post for him. There had even been a role for the Duchess to play as President of the Bahamas Red Cross, a post always offered by courtesy to the wife of the Governor. Wallis decided that the position should be far more than an honorary title or a pretty uniform. She established a Red Cross canteen in Nassau working tirelessly to provide good food and entertainment for troops stationed in the Bahamas. The American Consul, John Dye, wrote of the Windsors at this time; “The Duke is accompanied by the Duchess every day and visits some place of Government activity. The Duchess is active in Red Cross work and both are becoming popular with all classes of the population with the exception of a few die-hard English”.
For the Duke’s supporters and friends back in England, they assumed that the Windsors’ effort in Nassau would pay off at the end of the war. The Duke was less hopeful (“It’s the only job we’re ever likely to be offered”) but since his abdication he had longed for a thaw in relations and a kind of rehabilitation that would allow the Windsors to return to England. The Duke envisaged a half royal life in which both he and the Duchess could undertake a limited programme of royal engagements from Fort Belvedere, whilst keeping their distance from the King so as not to make for awkwardness or spark any talk of competition between the two brothers. Winston Churchill favoured this proposal, but the King did not. When the Windsors returned to Paris following the war, the Duchess realised that there would never been any form of reconciliation between the Duke and his family, and certainly no offer of a job.
The Duke of Windsor was not used to an empty diary. In the years after the Abdication he had been content to busy himself putting down roots and enjoying a relative degree of freedom he had never before experienced. But the Second World War had reinforced his upbringing and now he felt lost. His childhood had been an unhappy one, his relationships with his short-tempered father and his emotionally distant mother leaving their mark on his development. From the moment he was born, he was placed into the care of nannies and nursery maids. Then came the governesses and the tutors. In later years, it was the military staff and secretaries, advisors and politicians who set the pace. Every moment of David’s life had been carefully choreographed. He didn’t have to ponder on who to see or where to go, somebody simply provided a schedule for him to follow. This task now fell to his wife.
With their residence at 4 route du Champ d’Entraînement in Paris suitably renovated in palatial style, Wallis had created a home in which a former King could be said to be living in the manner to which he had become accustomed. Those who visited the house were stunned by its lavish elegance and the military precision with which the Duchess oversaw the daily running of the household. Their butler, Georges Sanègre, who knew Wallis’ strive for perfection was important to their public image, became essential to their new life. The Duchess feared headlines appearing that the former monarch may be living in reduced circumstances, but she also knew how important it was for the Duke to be reminded of home. Their footmen were dressed in scarlet and gold livery, the Duke’s valet dressed him each morning and took great care to help him choose his clothes. Meals were served on time and were presented as perfectly as they might be at Buckingham Palace – perhaps even more so. The Duke ate little, he had long displayed symptoms of an eating disorder, and the Duchess spent much of their married life trying to find ways to tempt his appetite.
Before his marriage in 1937, the Duke had become used to regular visits to the countryside and now the Duchess sought to replicate this in France. Wallis disliked outdoor pursuits and always felt more comfortable in the more luxurious surroundings and exciting activities of the big city. When the Count and Countess de Beaumont invited them to a shooting weekend in Alsace in 1951, the Duchess was photographed looking thoroughly bored as David picked pheasants from the air. But she knew that hunting, shooting and fishing was a key part of the royal routine. A country residence was therefore essential to his happiness and in 1952, the Windsors purchased Le Moulin de la Tuilerie in Gif-Sur-Yvette from the artist Drian.
Wallis set about furnishing the interiors whilst David was given the task of landscaping the grounds. A keen gardener, he was particularly proud of the small bridge he built over the stream which he designed himself. The Duke’s possessions and furniture from Fort Belvedere were crowded into his suite of rooms complete with military ephemera and his beloved bagpipes. Portraits of his regal relations crowded the walls and in these rooms (closely modeled on those he had used at the Fort), the Duke could escape to scour old papers and to write letters to friends. He wrote his memoirs there in 1951.
The Windsors also took an apartment at the Waldorf Tower in New York and twice a year took advantage of the free passage they were always given on the SS United States or the Queen Mary, to spend a few weeks in America. There were visits to friends in Palm Beach, holidays in Barcelona, Venice and Portofino. But even this was not enough to keep the Duke occupied. He longed for something official. In 1953 when he visited England to see his ailing mother, Queen Mary, for the last time, he told a journalist; “When I left Britain sixteen years ago I said that I was always available, and I am still available”. No job was forthcoming.
The Duchess’ daily life was now becoming increasingly claustrophobic. Georges Sanègre, the Windsors’ butler, once recalled that when the Duchess visited Alexandre of Paris to have her hair styled, the Duke would wait on a chair by the lift longing for her to be ready. When she was, he escorted her to the car. Dress fittings followed a similar pattern. Her friends were his friends, her lunch parties were his lunch parties, her shopping trips were his shopping trips. Diana Mosley recalled the Duchess turning to her once at a lunch and saying mournfully, “You see what they’ve done to him?”. In an interview with the New York Times in 1964, Wallis was quoted as saying; “For 27 years my husband has been punished, like a small boy who gets a spanking every day of his life for a small transgression”
But she also gave an insight into the life she might have lived had the Duke been kept busy with some kind of official post. She preferred dinner on a tray in front of the television (ideally watching Bob Hope, a particular favourite), she liked to spend time raising orchids in her greenhouse and hunting for antiques in flea markets. Her perfect afternoon was an intimate lunch with friends before a visit to the Louvre (“There’s always something going on there”) or flicking through fashion magazines for inspiration after a swim. Her close friend and confidante the Countess of Romanones once recalled how the Duchess had bickered with the Duke when he sulked that she had spent more time talking to the Countess at lunch than to him. “You see Aline?”, Wallis snapped, “I married a spaniel”
Of course, here we must mention the pugs. Not only did they provide an outlet for the couple’s affections but Wallis took a keen interest in the breeding and showing of dogs. In the early 1950s, the Windsors made a name for themselves in the field but dropped the hobby when the Duchess began to acquire too many puppies (much to the Duke’s annoyance). The pugs were given birthday parties in addition to the regular round of social gatherings the Windsors hosted at Le Bois and Le Moulin. As always, the Duchess invited a blend of unconventional guests taken from the fringes of the French aristocracy and bold American personalities such as Elsa Maxwell.
Maxwell wrote in 1954; “I have had my difficulties with the Duchess but she is devoted to her Duke and all she does is to keep him happy. She comes up with the most wonderful ideas for him”. Wallis also tried to introduce younger people to their social circle to keep the Duke from being bored by their older friends who often only wanted to discuss world politics or past events which the Duke found painful or embarrassing. According to the Duchess of Marlborough; “The Duke might be getting a little morose or melancholy and the Duchess would see that and spring into action. She’d say, ‘Come on now darlings, let’s roll the carpets back and dance’ which immediately cheered him up”.
Many of the Windsors’ friends considered that the Duke had been put in an unfair position. Not only was he not allowed to have any official post in England (or abroad) with the blessing of both Crown and government but he was also forbidden from taking offers from the private sector. He could not be seen to profit from his royal connections but neither could he ever justify his allowance from the Crown when the Crown refused to allow him to serve. Finding things to do outside of Paris was becoming increasingly challenging but Wallis persevered. When invitations came, she accepted immediately; “I always say yes, always. I like to meet people and it’s important for the Duke. After all, that’s what he was trained to do”.
In 1951, the Windsors attended the Kentucky Derby. The Duke was in his element shaking hands and asking that all important question; “And what do you do?”. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the Windsors step into a kind of semi-royal life with private visits made to hospitals, schools, museums, art galleries and factories. To the untrained eye, they had the appearance of official royal engagements and though relatively few in number, the Duchess delighted in the boost they gave to the Duke. The Windsors took on few charitable obligations but they were happy to host galas or benefits to raise money for the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York or for UNICEF. In this way, the Duke could almost believe himself to be a working member of the Royal Family. And the Duchess was only too happy to support him on those occasions as well as arrange them in the first place.
In a 1956 interview with Edward R Murrow, the Windsors were asked what their plans were for the future. “For me, I want to make my husband happy, that’s my greatest desire”, Wallis said. Certainly it had proved no easy task and it was about to get much harder. By the late 1960s, the Duke was in extremely poor health. There were operations for a detached retina as well as a serious operation for an aneurysm which almost killed him. His insistence on eating as little as possible had left him thin and frail and medical treatment began to take it’s toll. Wallis was also suffering from health problems but devoted herself full time to the Duke’s medical care. Now she spent her days arranging hospital appointments, private ambulances and small intimate lunches for close friends to keep him amused. She knew the end was near. In 1972, the Duke lost his battle against throat cancer and died aged 77. Wallis was now alone.
The Prime Minister of the day, Edward Heath, led the tributes to the Duke of Windsor in the House of Commons. Publicly, he recalled “with great admiration” the service the Duke had given the United Kingdom as Prince of Wales, as King but also as Governor of the Bahamas. Privately, he is said to have remarked; “Surely they could have found him something to do?”. Harold Wilson went one step further. In his tribute, he specifically thanked the Duchess who was unkindly found unworthy of a mention in Heath’s address. Wilson said; “We all welcome the fact that the Duchess of Windsor has felt able to be in Britain and hear and sense the feelings of our people, and we are all appreciative of the dignity she has shown, not only in these tragic days but over all the years. We hope that she will feel free at any time to come among and freely communicate with the people whom her husband, Prince of Wales, King, and Duke, lived to serve”. Wilson was the only politician to specifically name the Duchess in his tribute or to recognise the great task she had undertaken.
Many former working members of the Firm have tried to find a place in the world after hanging up their coronets. The most recent of course, is the Duke of Sussex. His decision to leave royal duties continues to be headline news even in a time of global crisis. As I have discussed before here at the World of Wallis, it is only natural that comparisons between the Windsors and the Sussexes will be made. I see the two situations as vastly different and any similarities are often overblown to make for quick copy among journalists but the Duke of Sussex will, like the Duke of Windsor, find the transition from old life to new strange and somewhat disappointing.
But if Harry does need an example of how to make the best of things, he could do worse than to look to his Great-Great-Aunt Wallis for inspiration. When the Firm pulled rank and closed it’s doors, it might have been much easier for the Windsors to slip into obscurity and prove the world right when they predicted ruin. Life for the Duke was not easy. Life for the Duchess was even more of a trial at times. But to afford a former King his dignity whilst also giving him a sense of purpose proved to be a challenge she faced with irrepressible style and unyielding determination. It was also, perhaps, her greatest achievement.