In 1972, Britain was about to embark on a course that continues to dominate it’s political landscape. The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Edward Heath, was about to pass the European Communities Act which would make legal provision for the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community. The ‘Special Relationship’ between the USA and Britain had significantly soured with Heath (and his predecessor, Harold Wilson) preferring to look to Europe rather than Washington. Many European politicians doubted the sincerity or longevity of this new approach in foreign policy and leaders such as President Georges Pompidou required a little more convincing. Heath knew exactly what to do. He dispatched the UK’s secret weapon; the Queen. The Queen would pay a state visit to France in May 1972 to mark the start of a new chapter. But for the Queen personally, the visit brought to a close quite another story.
By 1972, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had lived at their sumptous villa in the Bois de Boulogne, since 1952. For 20 years, Le Bois had served as the official residence of a former King Emperor who lived in such great style that many remarked Le Bois made Clarence House look like a youth hostel by comparison. The Duchess had been determined that nobody should look down on her husband and had sworn a promise that no journalist would ever be able to write that he had “fallen from grace”. As a result, Le Bois was one of the finest private homes in Paris. Filled with antique furniture and expensive silks and draperies, everything the Windsors owned was chosen to make a statement. When European nobility or American politicians came to visit Le Bois, they were left in no doubt that here lived a couple of great taste and style.
But it was not a cold house. Indeed, the parties the Windsors gave at Le Bois were often raucous by the standards of the day. Carpets would be rolled back to allow the guests to dance well into the small hours of the morning and even the most formal of dinner parties had it’s moments of warmth and humour set against a backdrop of sheer luxury. Diana Mosley once recalled being served Southern Fried Chicken on Meissen dinner plates. Seeing her surprise, the Duchess remarked; “It’s the Duke’s favourite”. It was accompanied by ice cold champagne. Another frequent visitor to Le Bois was Aline, Countess of Romanones. Born Aline Griffith in New York in 1923, she married Luis, Count of Quintanilla in 1947. The following year, Aline and Luis were invited to a party at the Waldorf Astoria in New York hosted by Elsa Maxwell. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were also in attendance and so a friendship that would span almost 40 years began.
In 1986 following the Duchess of Windsor’s death, Aline de Romanones carried out one final request for her friend. She wrote an article comprised of memories Wallis had shared with her for Vanity Fair magazine and which, Aline insisted, Wallis had wished to be published to “help set the record straight”. The article is a fascinating insight into Aline’s friendship with the Duchess of Windsor but it also gives a rare glimpse into the final days of the Duke. By 1972, he had been unwell for almost 15 years. First there was a detached retina which failed to improve despite frequent surgeries and left him partially blind. Secondly, he suffered an aortic aneurysm which nearly killed him. The Duchess had long fought a daily battle to persuade her husband to eat enough but now, he couldn’t eat at all. He complained of constant sore throats and chest pains but despite visiting various doctors the world over, a diagnosis of throat cancer came all too late for the Duke to stand any real chance of recovery. He was in his final days.
The Duke’s illness was not kept secret from the Royal Family, nor from the press. Initially, the Palace had simply sent “get well soon” messages to the Duke in the name of the Queen but now the press began to ask a very obvious question: if the Queen was to be in Paris, why could she not afford her uncle one hour of her time in the last weeks of his life? Whether prompted by this narrative or whether she had planned to do so all along, the Duchess of Windsor received word from the Queen’s Private Secretary that Her Majesty hoped to visit Le Bois for an hour following a visit to the races at Longchamps on the 18th May 1972. The Duchess immediately informed the Duke who brightened significantly at the prospect. As Wallis told Aline;
“He had no strength at all. But when he heard his niece was in Paris and she was coming to visit him, he was very pleased. He wanted to receive her in the large salon downstairs but the doctor said, ‘Your Royal Highness must remain in bed’.
‘I will certainly not receive Her Majesty that way – no, no, no'”
The Windsors prepared to stage their most important performance. The Duchess flew in her hairdresser, Alexandre, who had been staying in New York whilst Givenchy was summoned to provide a new dress for the great occasion. With “the grudge-book” firmly in hand (a small gold notebook Wallis used to make notes on the performance of her staff), the Duchess examined every room in Le Bois making copious lists of what was to be done before the royal party arrived. As was the custom in grand English country houses in the 1930s, the staff would line up on the gravel drive outside Le Bois to meet the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. They would be served tea in the Salon by the Duchess before being taken upstairs to see the Duke. The Duke’s valet helped him select a suit and tie and the atmosphere at Le Bois was one of great excitement, even though it was tinged at the edges with sadness.
The day before the Queen’s arrival however, the Duke suffered another hemorrhage. The Duchess, by now already displaying symptoms of the dementia that would plague her later years, was thrown into confusion and dread. The doctors demanded the Duke cancel the visit and go into hospital. The Duke refused. Pumped full of steroids and placed on a drip, the Duke dressed in his best and resolved that he would receive his niece, even if it meant dying in his armchair. He was heavily made up and instructed not to move by his doctors. The Duchess lined up the servants outside Le Bois and waited for the royal party to arrive. As the Queen’s car drew up to Le Bois, the Duchess did her best to fix a smile and curtsied to her guests. The headlines that morning had been full of old dramas. Speculation had begun that the Queen was about to bestow the HRH on Wallis as a final gesture of forgiveness, a particularly sore point for the Duke. The Palace denied this outright and issued a statement that no such title would ever be given to the Duchess of Windsor.
When the Queen entered Le Bois, she must have been struck by it’s palatial decor. Stepping into the Salon where the Duchess was to serve tea, she was seated on a silver settee above which hung an imposing portrait of the woman she had been encouraged to despise. That woman now sat before her, older, frailer and clearly struggling with the situation. The Duchess locked the Queen, the Duke and the Prince of Wales in conversation but nobody dared mention the former King who remained upstairs. The Queen was uncomfortable and the meeting made all the more awkward by the Windsors’ small army of pugs who yapped and jumped up at the royal guests. “Aunt Wallis” continued to talk until the Queen asked if her uncle was ready to receive her. Wallis led the Queen upstairs to the Duke’s room.
Wallis later said that she found the Queen to be distracted and without warmth. As she told Aline; “I shouldn’t complain. She was just as cold to him. I escorted her upstairs. Her expression was so hard when she entered the room”. The Queen found the Duke dressed in a grey, blue and beige check suit with a bright pink tie with a smile on his face. “As she entered, he began struggling to get to his feet, trying to stand in her presence. I don’t know how he managed to do it but he got himself up, though only for a second. His legs would not support him and he fell. The Queen’s face showed no compassion, no appreciation for his efforts, his respect”. Wallis maintained that the Queen had never wished to visit Le Bois, rather she had done so to save face when the press began to ask inconvenient questions. Whatever Her Majesty’s motivation, the rest of the meeting remains private. The Duchess of Windsor left and asked the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales if they might like to walk in the grounds of the villa. But 15 minutes later, the Duke’s valet was at Wallis’ side. The Queen was ready to leave.
The final meeting between the Queen and the Duke of Windsor has been the subject of speculation for many years. Most recently, it was re-imagined for the Netflix series The Crown. Some suggest that the Duke asked the Queen for forgiveness. Others suggest that the Queen promised him she would ensure the Duchess was well cared for. Whatever the truth, it is clear that the Duke and Duchess were left disappointed. “When [the Queen] had gone, David was left deflated”, she told Aline, “Not at all as he had been before she arrived. He understood then that not even death would change anything”. The lasting image of the Queen’s only visit to Le Bois is of the Duchess curtsying to the Queen as she climbs into her car to leave. The reporters lingered just a few moments longer, the Duchess waving goodbye until the car disappeared out of sight.
Just ten days later, the Duke of Windsor died at the age of 77. Wallis telephoned Aline and assured her that she was well and that the Palace had stepped in to help her prepare for the funeral. The Queen invited the Duchess to stay at Buckingham Palace and stood beside her as the Duke’s coffin was lowered into his grave at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore. Diana Mosley suggests that the Queen broke down. The next day, Wallis returned to Paris. The only communication between the two women thereafter was conducted through letters, mostly concerning arrangements for the Duchess’ funeral and the deposit of certain papers which the Duke had directed should be held by the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. The Duchess of Windsor’s health declined and she saw fewer friends as the grip of her laywer, Suzanne Blum, grew ever more vice-like.
But she did continue to see Aline. At one of their last meetings, Wallis’ health had seriously declined and she no longer recognised her friend. Her hair grey, her nails unpolished, her Givenchy replaced by a simple dressing gown, she sat by the window looking out into the grounds of Le Bois. “Look at the way the sun is lighting the trees”, she said, “You can see so many different colours. Tell David to come in. He wouldn’t want to miss this”. How aware the Queen was of the Duchess’ condition remains open to debate but when she died in 1986, Wallis’ body was flown to England so that she could be buried next to the Duke. She was not mentioned by name during the funeral service at St George’s Chapel and, as with the Duke of Windsor in 1972, the Queen Mother remained behind leaving the Queen to attend the burial. We may never know what really happened in May 1972 when the Queen came to Le Bois but though many of us still remain fascinated by the Windsors, it seems fair to say that for Her Majesty the Queen, that chapter in British history was closed that day.
Note: With sincere thanks to Janie for sending me Aline de Romanones’ Vanity Fair article from which the quotes in this blog post are taken.