Wallis on Film: Royal Wives at War (2016)

Every pantomime needs a Prince, a villain and a fairy godmother. Nobody could ever suggest that the romance between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson was that of fairy tales but following the abdication crisis of 1936, the British establishment seized control of the narrative and decided that it was time for a little recasting. The greatest romance of the 20th century was now a Brothers Grimm myth complete with a wicked witch who swept into the party and stole the heart of a handsome Prince. Naturally there had to be a hero; that was the easy part. The Second World War propaganda machine had already worked its magic on King George VI who was cemented in the hearts of the British people as a slave to his duty. But what of a fairy godmother?

She naturally presented herself in the shape of Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). This frothy matron in her floral prints and pink chiffon seemed to bring happiness back to the Kingdom, charming the people and never once thinking of herself at all. It was a perfect remedy to paper over the cracks that 1936 had inflicted on the British Crown. Nonsense it may be but it was a nonsense that until very recently was told and re-told as if non-negotiable fact. In 2016, a docu-drama decided to challenge the fairy tale; Royal Wives at War proved controversial but for Wallis watchers, it marked a turning point in the way the Duchess of Windsor is portrayed on film.

Left: Emma Davies as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Right: Gina McKee as The Duchess of Windsor

Directed by Tim Dunn and written by Lindsay Shapero, Royal Wives at War plays out it’s story against the backdrop of a royal reunion many thought could never happen. In 1967, a plaque to the memory of Queen Mary was unveiled at Marlborough House (Queen Mary’s home in her widowhood) complete with all the pomp and pageantry of a right royal do. The entire British Royal Family were to be on parade and there were to be no exceptions. Only two of Queen Mary’s children were alive in 1967; the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Windsor. In the opening scenes of Royal Wives, the Queen Mother suggests that “Lilibet wanted [the Duchess of Windsor] there. She said after all these years, it was time to bury the hatchet”.

This is worthy of note because a Guardian review of the docudrama used this to cast doubts on the accuracy of Shapero’s script. The “hatchet” quote is attributed not to Queen Elizabeth II but rather to Lord Snowdon who used this reasoning to arrange a brief meeting between Princess Margaret and her Aunt Wallis in New York in 1974. But this is nitpicking and it would be unfair to suggest it renders the rest of the script fantastical in any way. Indeed, the majority of it comes directly from letters in the public domain (via Michael Bloch’s published collection of Wallis’ letters to David and William Shawcross’ official biography of the Queen Mother) or from the Duchess of Windsor’s memoirs; the Heart Has It’s Reasons.

Departing from the docudrama for just a moment, Wallis’ presence at the unveiling of Queen Mary’s plaque was historic. It marked the first (and last) time she would be seen publicly with the Queen Mother but also, the first time she would be photographed with the British Royal Family en-masse. The second time would be at her husband’s funeral in 1972. It was only natural that the Duke of Windsor be invited to the ceremony and by now, the Palace must have assumed what his response would be; “Not without Wallis”. This is not conjecture, indeed, there had been frequent invitations for the Duke to attend family functions since his departure from England in 1936. All were rejected if the invitation could not be extended to his wife. The Queen would no doubt have realised how bad the optics of such a ceremony would be if the Duke of Windsor was not present and therefore, Wallis’ presence (though hugely significant) was almost certainly accepted as inevitable from the moment the ceremony was proposed. Royal Wives suggests reluctance on the part of the Queen Mother to meet with Wallis and whilst we have no evidence of this, it’s certainly a reasonable assumption.

Wallis (Gina McKee) prepares for her reunion with the Queen Mother in 1967.

When we first meet the Queen Mother (played by Emma Davies), she is resplendent in her own carefully confected iconography which so many of us associate with her. The simple three strands of pearls, the Barbara Cartland pink frock, the ever present gin and dubonnet and of course, the corgis. She sits before a television set dreading the events of the day but remains regal in her palatial surroundings. By stark contrast we are now introduced to Wallis (Gina McKee), a kind of Norma Desmond character complete with turban and kimono, who is totally in control of any nerves she may have. The first bitchy barb is launched; “I wonder what she’s wearing? Probably some kind of flouncy furniture cover”. The Queen Mother is referred to only as Cookie by the Duchess, a nickname she gave her whilst Elizabeth was still Duchess of York. Supposedly it referred to her diminutive plump stature which resembled that of a cook but it has also been suggested it referred to a rumour that Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was in fact the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and his cook.

And so, the battle lines are drawn. Elizabeth dubs Wallis “the lowest of the low” and repeats the mantra which she clung to until her dying day; “That woman killed my husband”. This is a curious smear and one which the British press were happy to adopt as fact following King George VI’s death in 1952. I have my doubts that the Queen Mother could ever truly believe this but perhaps the reality was too hard to bear and this explanation of his death at the age of just 56 provided a focus for her frustrations. It is a ridiculous suggestion of course. King George VI was a chain smoker who died from complications arising from lung cancer and arteriosclerosis. Whilst the stress of his position as King during war time no doubt took it’s toll, the idea that it would not have inflicted the same stresses on others in his position who outlived him by many years, or that his heavy smoking played no part in his premature death, is extremely naïve. Nonetheless, the fact that the drama includes this oft-repeated slur of the Queen Mother’s is important as it sets up a direct challenge to the established hagiography of George VI and his consort.

The drama side of this programme teeters ever so slightly on the verge of being a little too camp. There are lines which would not seem out of place in Ryan Murphy’s Feud with a Crawfordesque Wallis proclaiming; “A friend sent me some face powder from America called Duchess of York pink. You can imagine where I put it”. And yet it is pulled back from the brink by the interjection of panel discussions comprised of authors who have documented the Windsors and/or the Queen Mother. In the first group are the authors Lady Colin Campbell, Andrew Morton and Anne Sebba. In the second are those who have not only written about the Duchess of Windsor but those who knew her personally. These panels discuss the theories and statements raised by Davies and McKee but are kept separate in that the actresses only use words that can be directly attributed to the women they portray. Any conjecture or controversial opinion is solely the domain of the contributors in the panels.

Wallis (Gina McKee) at a party at Fort Belvedere in 1933,

This is important to point out as Royal Wives was the subject of harsh critique before and after it’s broadcast. The most prominent naysayers were two Conservative politicians; Andrew Bridgen and Norman Tebbit. Bridgen told the Daily Mail; “The BBC really has hit a new low by making salacious slurs against the memory of the much-loved Queen Mother” whilst former Margaret Thatcher ally Norman Tebbit said, “It sounds to me as if someone is making up fairytales. It’s not just that it’s hurtful, it’s just that it deposits a story of historical events which was just not so”.

Both of these comments were made before the programme was aired which of course makes them nothing but reactionary twaddle but what is important is that so many decades after the event, there are those in positions of authority who cannot bear the official version of the abdication crisis to be challenged. Moreover, there are even those who have a strange obsession with coating the Queen Mother in icing sugar and preserving her as a sweet and saintly matron who quite possibly walked on water in between days at the races. The reaction to Royal Wives proves it’s importance. It does not present theories. How could it? It uses the words the two protagonists of the tale actually wrote. But it does challenge the established facts.

From 1967, we are taken back a series of recreated meetings between the younger Duchess and Queen Mother. The first of these is in 1933 when the pair have been ice skating with the Duke of York, the Prince of Wales and the Prince of Wales’ then-mistress, Thelma Furness. The stark differences between Wallis and Elizabeth are immediately obvious. Elizabeth is dowdy but comfortable in country tweeds. In later scenes she makes snooty jibes about David’s modern ideas about fashion and fast cards. Her exact opposite, Wallis is glamorous and elegant, witty and slightly brash.

She displays a taste for all things new and exciting and finds the strict etiquette of court life a bore. John Julius Norwich, Kate Auspitz and Hugo Vickers form the second panel who offer some unique insight into these differences. Viscount Norwich suggests that the two were destined to be rivals, Elizabeth representing as she did the “Sunday lunch and walk in the park” world that most Britons aspired to, whilst Wallis was “not that sort”. As he says; “Wallis sharpened people up, she brought out in the best people”. McKee’s Wallis drawls one last dig at Cookie; “She had no sense of humour” with a (slightly inebriated) Queen Mother hitting back; “Poppycock!”

Were this to be the total sum of it’s parts, Royal Wives at War could become a little stale and repetitive but the panels move the narrative forward to cover some fascinating ground. There is a suggestion that the Queen Mother may have been jealous of Wallis; not because of her slender frame or quick wit as Lady Colin Campbell insists but because Elizabeth actually had strong feelings for David. This has never been a secret and again, the Daily Mail’s objection to the programme was focused on this theory which it declared “outrageously insensitive”.

But as Hugo Vickers explains, many people saw the young Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the Prince of Wales together and (not unreasonably) assumed a romance was in the offing. Elizabeth rejected the Duke of York’s marriage proposals twice before finally accepting him. Was she holding out for another Prince? We know that, like many girls of her age, class and social circle, Elizabeth did have a soft spot for the Prince of Wales. And that is where the drama leaves the hypothesis. The only person to absolutely assert this as truth is Lady Colin Campbell. At the risk of being uncharitable, I think that just about covers that particular theme.

Emma Davies in costume as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

One tongue in cheek highlight is the Queen Mother’s assertion that she “never wanted to be in the limelight”. Emma Davies delivers this line perfectly, almost as if she believes it to be true. Davies’ Queen Mother is so rounded, so nuanced, so three dimensional that it doesn’t take long to get the measure of her. She is a curious mixture of sugary and genteel regal martyr and calculating, ambitious, self-righteous dullard. Davies does not shy away from her flaws, neither does she fall into the trap of trying to right old wrongs by tipping the character on its head completely. What results is a very balanced Queen Mother that is very reminiscent of Victoria Hamilton’s Elizabeth in Season 1 and 2 of The Crown. This Queen Mother is real. She is no fairy godmother. As Hugo Vickers says, “There was only one Wallis, what you saw was what you got. But there were many, many Queen Mothers”.

Though naturally we’re more concerned here at World of Wallis with the Duchess, it must be said that without Davies’ pompous and puffy Queen Mother, there could be no tension. McKee’s Wallis does not have the same physical resemblance to the real thing as Davies’ Elizabeth enjoys but McKee more than makes up for this in her performance. The trademark Baltimore drawl is there, the imperious bearing that melts away with the delivery of a punchline, the waspish bitterness but above all, a sense of fun and of a zest for life is ever present. She is a little spiteful perhaps, as unfair to Elizabeth as Elizabeth is to Wallis and yet the two performances are so good that they form a special bond through which a great story can be told. In fact, you become so enchanted by the two performances that Lady Colin Campbell’s interjections are something of a burden to the proceedings. Fortunately, Anne Sebba is on hand to restore order and if I have a complaint about Royal Wives, it’s that we didn’t get nearly enough of a chance to hear more from the author of the definitive Wallis biography. In my humble opinion of course!

The use of archive footage of the major events of 1936 is a great addition. In particular, the footage from the Nahlin Cruise is glorious to see and shows the clear break from tradition David represented as King. Though I can’t claim to find most his work on this subject to be without bias, Andrew Morton offers an important reminder that; “This is a story about two weak men who were very much led by two strong women”. Images of a topless King Edward VIII sunbathing on the Nahlin are contrasted with footage of King George VI in the dark days of the Second World War and whilst context is everything, both Viscount Norwich and Hugo Vickers suggest that David had many faults which are often left out of the official version of events.

I agree with their thoughts. The hereditary system depends on the notion that anybody who may happen to wear the Crown is a) worthy of it or b) is qualified to it. If there is the slightest hint that the hereditary lottery may occasionally produce a weak link, people may wonder at it’s stability for the future. There can be no doubt that there are serious questions relating to the Duke of Windsor’s credentials to be King. But such discussions are dangerous to the institution of monarchy and so would it not be better to find a scapegoat? The failure would then not lay with the institution (or even worse, the individuals who occupy it) but rather with outside sources who intrigued their way into positions of influence. In other words, Wallis took the fall for David’s shortcomings.

The Royal Reunion of 1967: (L-R) The Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, The Duke of Gloucester, The Duchess of Gloucester, The Duke of Windsor and The Duchess of Windsor

This is very much the theme of the remaining dramatic scenes. Elizabeth is insistent that Wallis was totally unsuited to the role of Queen consort whilst Wallis is emphatic in her view that David represented a new modern era for Britain, one it was woefully ill-prepared for and therefore was always going to reject. With respect to our dear Duchess, I have to say that statements like these confirm what the author James Pope-Hennessy believed of the Windsors as a couple; that they were painfully naïve. This immaturity is brought home in the programme with recreations of David and Wallis’ conversations during his accession and reign which seem to be entirely based on Wallis’ memoirs The Heart Has It’s Reasons. The memoirs are now performed verbatim as the programme heads towards the abdication crisis but there’s one vital piece of the puzzle which comes from letters and transcripts of telephone calls which shines a light on a more sinister aspect of the King’s character.

A tearful Wallis explains that having seen the foreign newspaper clippings about their relationship (their affair was kept from the British public via a gentleman’s agreement with the newspapers barons), she attempted to leave the King. He reacted badly, threatening to cut his throat. This was not the first time David had made such a threat. He had employed similar threats and emotional blackmail during his relationships with Freda Dudley-Ward and Thelma Furness. But it was the first time had used this against Wallis.

Whilst not explored in depth in Royal Wives, we do know that David had begun to use his position to control Wallis. When she escaped to Paris for a few weeks following his excessive attentions (including obsessive telephone calls which lasted for hours), he had her followed and demanded reports on those she spent time with. There is no doubt that by the time the news of their romance broke in the British press, Wallis was essentially trapped, her fate decided for her. This is an important moment in Royal Wives as it is the first time this side of the story has been presented to a wider audience. Again, the docu-drama offers a challenge to the established viewpoint which is very welcome.

The plaque which inspired the reunion.

Royal Wives is without doubt a triumph but it has a few weak moments along the way. The first is the rather unnatural sounding long excerpts from Wallis’ memoirs and a letter from Queen Mary. Whilst their place in the script is essential, the quotes selected go on a little too long and even the superb Davies and McKee cannot make them seem new and fresh. There is also a slight inaccuracy regarding Queen Mary when Elizabeth suggests that the redoubtable consort of King George V was “terrified of having to receive Wallis”. I cannot imagine Queen Mary being terrified of an asteroid smashing through Windsor Castle and so I doubt a meeting with her son’s beloved would have raised an eyebrow. And in fact, Queen Mary (whilst admittedly never formally receiving Wallis), had two brief encounters with her future daughter in law before the abdication crisis. The first was at the celebrations for the wedding of Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. The second was during the festivities to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. Queen Mary survived. But this really is small fry and perhaps too much detail (though welcome to royal watchers) may slow the narrative for those with only a fleeting interest.

Before closing this review, there is one person without whom Royal Wives could not be nearly as successful: the costume designer Joanna Beatty. Beatty’s attention to detail is truly staggering and she went to enormous lengths to produce accurate wardrobe choices for both Wallis and Elizabeth. For the plaque unveiling itself, Beatty not only recreated the dark blue dress coat with white fox fur scarf which Wallis wore for the ceremony but also reproduced the pink coat and typical Queen Mother flower pot hat in painstaking detail. Even the jewellery worn by the two ladies on the day of their meeting was copied with Wallis sporting the diamond and sapphire panther brooch by Cartier. Watching Davies and McKee walk in the footsteps of Elizabeth and Wallis is remarkable enough itself but the costumes truly add a level of accuracy that would be sorely missed otherwise and watching the original footage from 1967, you’d struggle to find many differences.

Peace at Last? The Queen Mother greets the Duke of Windsor with a kiss. She did not extend the same greeting to Wallis, neither did Wallis curtsey to Elizabeth.

We may never know the true feelings Wallis and Elizabeth held for each other but what we do know is that there was a thaw in later years. In 1976 when the Queen Mother was due to visit Paris, it was suggested that she might visit the Duchess of Windsor at her villa in the Bois de Boulogne. Wallis was too ill to receive her sister in law but Elizabeth shocked those closest to her by extending an olive branch. She sent the Duchess of Windsor a bouquet of roses with a card on which she wrote In Friendship, Elizabeth R. For anyone who has ever wanted to be a fly on the wall for historic moments such as these, Royal Wives at War will prove essential viewing.

It’s balanced approach and blend of drama and opinion brings to life a story within a story and finally challenges the official account of what happened and why. Successive dramas have chosen to take up this approach too and with the ability to challenge ingrained perceptions, perhaps now we can enjoy depictions of the Duchess of Windsor (and the Queen Mother) which are no longer conjured from the sycophantic flattery of the men in grey suits but which break the rules and strive to show us the true personalities behind these iconic women who still captivate today.

The Windsor Collection: Portrait of a Duchess

For many, the legacy of the Duchess of Windsor is her status as a style icon, a reputation earned predominantly through her love of French fashions and her exquisite taste in jewellery. But she was also renowned for her flair for interior design and those who visited the Windsors at their Parisian villa at 4 Route du Champ d’Entraînement in the Bois de Boulogne were entranced by it’s luxury. The villa had once been home to General de Gaulle and had been offered to the Windsors by the city of Paris on a fifty-year lease (at a nominal rent) in 1952. In actual fact, the couple did not take up residence there until 1953; the Duchess insisting on a total renovation before their relocation. She enlisted the help of Maison Jansen, the illustrious decoration concern founded in 1880 by the Dutch-born designer, Jean-Henri Jansen. Maison Jansen’s distinguished pedigree of satisfied clients included the King of the Belgians, the Shah of Iran and the King of Serbia. Wallis was also advised by close friend and design expert, Elsie de Wolfe.

4 route du Champ d’Entraînement

Elsie de Wolfe was an American actress and interior decorator who had married an English diplomat, Sir Charles Mendl, in 1926. She made headlines in the summer of 1936 when it was reported in the New Yorker that she had been engaged to “modernise Buckingham Palace for King Edward VIII”. This was untrue but Elsie had been asked by the King to “execute models, which had pleased His Majesty, for the redecoration of three rooms at Fort Belvedere”. When it came to redecorating the villa in the Bois de Boulogne, Elsie recommended Maison Jansen having worked with its president, Stéphane Boudin, for many years on other projects.

Wallis was by now resigned to the fact that there would be no official role for the Duke to play and that their exile in France was permanent. But she was also aware that visitors to the villa would expect it to reflect the status of a former King. Wallis had taken a keen interest in the redesign of the Fort and knew the Duke’s tastes well. Both favoured a Louis XVI style and this was evident in the partial redecoration of Buckingham Palace which David had begun as King, with a belle époque cream and gold colour scheme complete with Directoire and Empire style furniture. By the time Maison Jansen had finished it’s renovation work, the villa was one of the most luxurious residences in the Bois de Boulogne.

With the villa complete, it was now time for the Windsors to add their own, personal touches to it’s rooms. Neither David nor Wallis were avid art lovers. According to Diana Mosley, “James Pope Hennessy says in his biography of Queen Mary that although she spent her life collecting, she never bought a good picture. The same could be said of her daughter in law. The Paris house in particular became more and more royal, with incredible numbers of ornaments and knick-knacks. There was a whole table covered with Meissen pugs of all sizes”.

Despite Lady Mosley’s rather catty take on the Windsors tastes in art, the villa did boast several good portraits, particularly of the Duchess. These paintings would later be sold at auction following her death but during the Windsors tenure at the villa, it was not unusual for these portraits to be seen in the background when the Duke and Duchess were photographed. Like many of his relations, the Duke of Windsor preferred portraiture to landscapes and with his beloved wife as his muse, he commissioned several impressive paintings of the Duchess which are well worth investigating a little further.

The first portrait of Wallis the Windsors acquired was by Etienne Drian. Born in 1885 in Bulgnéville in Lorraine, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and became known to the Windsors shortly after their marriage in 1937. Drian lived at The Moulin de la Tuilerie in Gif-sur-Yvette, just south of Versailles, and had converted the old Mill into a chic country residence which the Windsors greatly enjoyed visiting. It was here that Drian painted his portrait of the Duchess. Most sources say that the portrait was painted in 1940 but in a 1954 interview, the Duchess revealed that the portrait was actually painted in 1937 as a wedding present from Drian. The portrait was presumably on display at the villa but in 1952, it returned to the place it was created when the Duke and Duchess purchased Le Moulin in Gif-sur-Yvette from Drian as a country retreat.

The Drian Portrait on display at the Windsors’ Villa in the Bois.

It’s home there (pictured below) was in the Drawing Room above a banquette in Jacquard textured cotton with satin cushions, flanked by two tree trunk pedestals which were in Drian’s old studio in one of the outbuildings in the grounds of the Mill. The portrait is life sized and depicts Wallis in a blue chiffon gown and pink evening gloves. The Drian portrait seems to have remained at the Mill until at least 1963 when it returned to the villa in the Bois but the portrait it replaced has a fascinating tale all it’s own.

From the day the Windsors took up residence at the villa, an imposing portrait of Queen Mary, the Duke’s mother, hung in the Salon. Painted in 1914, it was a Christmas present for King George V from his wife and eldest son, the Prince of Wales. It was the work of Sir William Llewellyn and set within the Garter Throne Room at Windsor Castle. It depicts the Queen consort in the robes of the Order of the Garter wearing the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara. In her diary, Queen Mary noted on the 1st March 1914; “After Luncheon we went to Mr Llewellyn’s studio to see the picture he has painted of me for George & which David and I are giving him. It is very good”.

The portrait of Queen Mary which was replaced by the Drian portrait of the Duchess.

Following the King’s death in 1936, the new King, Edward VIII, decided to move the portrait from Buckingham Palace to Fort Belvedere. It is from here that it was gathered up with the former King’s other belongings and shipped to France where it was proudly displayed in the Salon at the villa. In the Netflix series, The Crown, it is proposed that the Duke had a small room in the attic of the villa (or possibly Le Moulin) in which he stored a treasure trove of items from his tenure as King Emperor. The most prominent item is, of course, the desk on which he signed the Instrument of Abdication in 1936. However, this is artistic license and the abdication desk was actually on display in the Salon. From the desk therefore, the Duke always had this portrait of his mother in view.

That is until around 1963 when photographs taken in the Salon show the portrait of Queen Mary has disappeared and has been replaced by the Drian. The Llewellyn portrait of Queen Mary was displayed in the Blue Room of the villa where it remained in the Windsors’ possession until the Duchess’ death in 1986 when it came to be owned by none other than Mohammed Al Fayed. The one-time Harrods boss purchased lease on the villa for a grand sum of one million francs a year, subject to the condition that he spend thirty million francs renovating the house. He spent a further $4.5m on items bequeathed to the Pasteur Institute by the Duchess in her will so that they could remain in their original home. In 1998, he put many of these items up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Among the lots was the portrait of Queen Mary.

The sale came just five months after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al-Fayed in Paris. The relationship between the British Royal Family and Mohammed Al-Fayed had yet to erupt into an all out war but neither was Al-Fayed pulling any punches in the press at this early stage. It was just a week before the Windsor auction at Sotheby’s that he first spoke publicly of his conspiracy theory that the death of his son and his son’s girlfriend had been engineered by MI5 and the Duke and Edinburgh. Whilst the press were busy feasting on this rather distasteful row, the British Royal Family might have been tempted to cut Al-Fayed off without trace and never deal with him again. But he had something they wanted.

Though Sotheby’s remains silent as the tomb on private buyers who purchase lots at their auctions, and whilst nobody could know it at the time, it is thanks to the internet that we know the identity of the purchaser of Queen Mary’s portrait. It was none other than Her Majesty the Queen who can’t have been too pleased about handing over almost $100,000 to Mr Al-Fayed for the privilege of taking back ownership of a portrait of her own grandmother. The portrait is now listed as belonging to the Royal Collection and claims that it was acquired by King George V. Any mention of it’s sojourn to Paris or the handing over of thousands of dollars to Mohammed Al-Fayed for it’s return are discretely omitted. The Drian portrait of the Duchess, which replaced the Llewellyn portrait of Queen Mary, was sold at the same auction for $3,500. It was not purchased by Her Majesty.

The next portrait of the Duchess to be prominently displayed at the villa was by Gerald Brockhurst. Painted in 1939, the 40” by 32” oil on canvas was commissioned by the Duke and was painted in the same year as Brockhurst completed a portrait of the German singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich. The cost of the Brockhurst was 1,000 guineas (around £39,000 today) with the Duchess sitting for Brockhurst at his New York studio. It depicts the Duchess in a navy blue silk blouse and chiffon skirt by Mainbocher and includes the fabulous Bouquet of Flowers brooch by Van Cleef and Arpels (catalogued by Van Cleef and Arpels as the Hawaai brooch and purchased for Wallis by the Duke in 1938).

The Brockhurst portrait of the Duchess of Windsor.

The Brockhurst first hung in Government House in Nassau during the Duke of Windsor’s tenure as Governor of the Bahamas. After this time, it travelled back with them to France where it was displayed over the fireplace with it’s mantle of red marble in the library of the villa in the Bois. It was purchased in the Sotheby’s Auction in New York in 1998 by the National Portrait Gallery in London with help from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Brockhurst often appears in photographs of the Duke and Duchess at home but it was not to everyone’s taste. When Cecil Beaton saw the portrait after the war, he commented, “It isn’t a bit like her at all!”. This may have been sour grapes on the part of Beaton whose portraits of the Duchess also found their way into the Windsor villa – albeit in slightly less prominent positions.

One of Beaton’s sketches of the Duchess.

Naturally there were photographs by Beaton on display in most rooms. These ranged from portraits of the couple which they used for their Christmas cards to their wedding photographs which Beaton took at the Château de Candé in 1937. But it was a sketch by Beaton which the Duchess displayed in a very strange location at the villa which stands out most. Produced by Beaton in 1937 as part of his work on the Windsors’ wedding and official portraiture, he produced this halftone sketch of the Duchess which he presented to her with as a wedding gift. It depicts the Duchess in the ruby and diamond Van Cleef and Arpels necklace the Duke (then King) gave her for her fortieth birthday and is interesting for the fact that it shows the piece in it’s original design before the Duchess had it reset as a ruby tassel necklace. The Duchess’ opinion of the sketch is open to interpretation as she chose to hang it not in the library or the Salon…but in her bathroom. It hung above the bathtub for decades until it was purchased by the Head of the Photographs Collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Terence Pepper. Pepper donated the sketch to the gallery in 2014.

The Beaton sketch proudly displayed over Wallis’ bathtub.

The Beaton sketch had a sister which the photographer had produced for Vogue in 1936. The Vogue sketch accompanied an article in which Beaton said of Wallis; “My sitter is at her best in a nondescript black dress that she makes smart by wearing. She is the antithesis of pernicketiness but she is tidy, neat and immaculate”.  The little black dress was hardly nondescript. It was designed by Robert Piquet who employed Christian Dior the following year and of whom Dior said, “He taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come”. The two Beaton sketches remained together in the Windsor collection until 1998. The Vogue sketch sold for $178,500 (the other a little less at $135,000) to an unknown collector.

The Quadras sketch of the Duchess on display in the Dining Room at Le Moulin.

Not every portrait of the Duchess found a home at the villa. Some were on display at the Le Moulin, such as this sketch by Alejo Vidal-Quadras. Quadras specialised in painting European royalty and aristocracy and his subjects included Don Juan Carlos of Spain (later King from 1975 until his abdication in 2014), Queen Anne Marie of Greece, Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duchess of Kent. The sketch of Wallis was commissioned by the Duke in 1967 but Wallis also commissioned portraits (of herself) as birthday gifts for the Duke. An earlier painting on show at Le Moulin was by the Italian-American artist Ricardo Magni. Painted in 1948, it was later sold alongside the works by Quadras for almost $40,000. These works are now in private collections around the world and have not been displayed publicly since their purchase.

The 1948 Magni portrait of the Duchess.

As well as the Villa in Paris and the Mill at Gif-sur-Yvette, the Windsors rented an apartment at the Waldorf Tower in New York. Here the Duchess decided to commission an American artist to provide a portrait of her to hang in the apartment. In 1955, she engaged Aaron Shikler for the purpose. Wallis’ portrait was an early example of Shikler’s work but he later cemented his reputation for fine portraiture when he was commissioned by the White House to paint President and Mrs Kennedy as well as Lady Bird Johnson. His portrait of First Lady Nancy Reagan now hangs in the Vermeil Room of the White House and is perhaps one of the best known images of Mrs Reagan ever produced. He also painted portraits of Queen Noor or Jordan and Gloria Vanderbilt. The Shikler portrait was not included in the Sotheby’s sale of 1998 and seems to have disappeared following the Duchess death in 1986.

Aaron Shikler’s 1955 portrait of the Duchess of Windsor.

Two other portraits which were displayed at the New York apartment include a 1964 painting now owned by the Maryland Historical Society. It was painted by the Windsors’ neighbour in Paris, Trafford Klots who had an interesting connection to the Duchess in that his mother had been born in Baltimore. The informal portrait is a particular favourite of mine and seems to have been a gift from the artist rather than a commission.

Oil on Canvas, c. 1964 By Trafford Klots (1913-1976), now owned by the Maryland Historical Society.

In addition to the Klots painting, there was also a portrait of the Duchess by French artist Eugène Louis Martin. He had painted the Duke of Windsor as King in the spring of 1936 and invited Wallis to sit for him in 1957. The painting was displayed at the Windsors’ New York apartment before it found a permanent home at Le Moulin. It was sold in 1998 to a private buyer before coming up for sale once more in Artcurial’s June 2017 Fashion Arts sale.

The 1957 Martin portrait.

Remarkably, it was purchased by none other than the fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu who has created gowns for a future generation of Queen consorts including the Duchess of Cambridge, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and Crown Princess Mette Marit of Norway. I feel the Duchess would have approved of that. When he purchased the portrait, Erdem also bought porcelain and china from the Duchess’ collection. Whilst the British Royal Family did not add any of the portraits of Wallis we’ve explored to their gallery (quelle surprise), it is astonishing to think that almost 85 years since the crisis of the abdication and 33 years since the Duchess’ death, images of “the woman he loved” still have the power to entrance.

Wallis on Film: Edward and Mrs Simpson, 1978

The story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor has been told time and time again in newspaper articles and movies but there is one telling of the tale which remains the best known and is perhaps the most definitive. Edward and Mrs Simpson, first broadcast in 1978, is based on a somewhat controversial biography of the Windsors and yet it remains the most detailed and most accurate portrayal of their relationship. The seven part mini-series was made by Thames Television for ITV in 1978 and was produced by Andrew Brown. Brown had brought another American-born socialite’s story to the small screen four years earlier with Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, which starred Thorley Walters and Joanna David as Edward VII and Queen Alexandra (as Prince and Princess of Wales). The production was overseen by Verity Lambert who had worked with Brown on the musical drama Rock Follies in 1976.

The series was scripted by Simon Raven (the man behind the popular 1974 adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers) and was adapted from a 1974 biography of the Duke of Windsor written by Frances Donaldson. Donaldson’s book, Edward VIII, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, won the Wolfson History Prize for it’s “insightful and measured account of the former King-Emperor, a man now immortalised as history’s greatest romantic – or biggest fool”. Donaldson’s book proved a best seller but it was not received well at the Windsor’s villa in the Bois de Boulogne. Wallis had hoped that James Pope Hennessy, Queen Mary’s official biographer, might write the Duke of Windsor’s official biography. When this failed to materialise, Donaldson was asked by the Duke’s solicitor if she would take the job. According to Hugo Vickers in his wonderful account of the Duchess’ last years, Behind Closed Doors, Lady Donaldson wished to write “an objective account without veto” and therefore declined the offer.  

By the time Lady Donaldson published her unofficial biography of the Duke, the Duchess of Windsor had engaged the infamous Maître Blum as her legal representative and general factotum. Blum advised the Duchess to sue Donaldson but the Duchess (who had not read the book) felt that doing so would give the work additional publicity. Blum later spoke to the press (and subsequent biographers) condemning Donaldson’s work as “largely fictitious” and “deeply unkind”. By the time the adaptation reached British television screens in 1978, the Duchess was seriously unwell and according to Blum, semi-paralysed and vague. But Blum later told journalists that Wallis had seen the TV series and had remarked, “I should have thought they’d have forgotten about that old, old story” . Vickers believes this to be a fabrication. Due to her ill health at the time of broadcast, it is unlikely that Wallis ever actually saw an episode of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

Harris and Fox
Cynthia Harris as Wallis with Edward Fox as David in this 1978 publicity still which featured in the November edition of the TV Times.

In casting the TV series, Thames approached an actor well known to Lady Donaldson to portray the Duke; her nephew, Edward Fox (Fox’s mother Angela was Frances Donaldson’s sister). Fox had just won a BAFTA for his role as Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks in A Bridge Too Far and his physical resemblance to the Duke of Windsor was striking, making him the perfect choice to play the Prince. Because of his close connection to Lady Donaldson, Fox was able to meet directly with friends of the Duke and Duchess who had contributed to Donaldson’s book. But interestingly, Fox had another unique connection to the Windsors. His first wife, Tracy Reed, was the granddaughter of Freda Dudley Ward, the Duke’s one-time mistress. Speaking to the TV Times shortly before broadcast, Fox said of the Duke, “He strikes me as a flawed man but also a considerate and sensitive one. I try to bring both sides of his character to the piece; the modernising reformer full of energy and enthusiasm and the lackadaisical, somewhat aimless young man looking for desperately for someone to love”.

To play Wallis, Thames insisted on casting an American actress amid concerns that a British actress would be unable to sustain a believable Baltimore accent. Their shortlist for the role included Michael Learned, best known for her role as Olivia in the long running series The Waltons, but eventually the part went to Cynthia Harris. Harris had worked with Edward Fox’s brother James in the 1968 biopic Isadora which tells the story of celebrated American dancer Isadora Duncan. Her most recent TV credit before joining the cast of Edward and Mrs Simpson was in the hit ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley. “I see the Duchess of Windsor as a complex woman”, Harris said at the time of her casting, “I see her as an American in a strange land not particularly familiar with English customs or the ways of royalty at the time of this story, I see her as a strong lady, a lady of spirit, humour and sadness”.

Harris became something of a defender of the Duchess in TV interviews publicising the series, taking journalists to task when they predictably blamed Wallis for the abdication crisis of 1936. “She offered to step away right until the last”, Harris corrected one interviewer, “She always, always, insisted that he not give up the throne. Isn’t that a surprise to you?”. Harris’s research was clearly extensive in her preparation for the role and though she never met the Duchess, she manages to perfectly capture Wallis’ distinctive voice as well as her mannerisms. As with Edward Fox, the lookalike factor is hard to ignore and Harris herself was welcoming of the comparisons; “We have the same bone structure and so when you put me in a dark wig and block out the freckles, there is an uncanny resemblance”.

King and Queen
Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Marius Goring as King George V and Queen Mary.

With the two main roles cast, it was time to introduce the supporting players. These included legendary names from the world of stage and screen. Jessie Matthews, a musical performer from the 1920s and 30s dubbed “the dancing divinity” was chosen to portray Aunt Bessie whilst the role of Queen Mary went to that deity of the British stage, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Cheryl Lunghi was to play Lady Thelma Furness, Patrick Troughton (the second incarnation of Dr Who no less) played Clement Attlee whilst the role of King George V was taken by Marius Goring, perhaps best known to royal period drama watchers for his role as Paul von Hindenburg in the 1974 drama series, Fall of Eagles. Other cast members included Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Walter Monckton, Andrew Ray as the Duke of York and Patricia Hodge as Lady Diana Cooper. With the players now assembled and the script written, Thames invested a staggering £1m into the production, the equivalent of £7.6m today.

It is not hard to see where the money was spent. The sets are lavish and faithful reproductions of the settings “the greatest romance in history” were played out in. Safari scenes featuring the Prince of Wales and Thelma Furness were shot on location in Kenya, whilst the famous “Something Must Be Done” visit to South Wales in 1936 was recreated at the abandoned colliery where the Prince (then King) had actually made his controversial remarks. Uniforms and jewels were perfectly copied, special artwork was produced to feature portraits of Fox as the King and Ashcroft as Queen Mary and the production team even got permission to shoot exteriors at Fort Belvedere, the former private residence given to the Prince of Wales by King George V in 1929.  

Jessie Matthews
Jessie Matthews as Aunt Bessie.

The series begins with an in depth look at the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Freda Dudley Ward (played by Kika Markham) set against the Prince’s working life as a member of the Royal Family. There is a family atmosphere to these scenes that is touching, Freda and her daughter Angie (Caroline Embling) taking the Prince’s presence for granted and very much regarding him as a husband and father figure. David’s relationship with Freda isn’t often explored and there is genuine sadness when Freda later realises that she has been replaced in his affections. Cheryl Lunghi is deliciously camp as Thelma Furness with an exuberant charm but fierce temper.

Kenya provides a stunning backdrop for the African safari David and Thelma Furness embarked upon in the summer of 1930 and this provides a stark contrast with the drizzly Scottish moors where King George V and Queen Mary (Goring and Ashcroft) are first seen, doubting their son’s dedication to his work and questioning his playboy attitude. In this first episode (The Little Prince), there are two inaccuracies, one subtle but the other more structural. Wallis is shown smoking a cigarette, a habit she deplored but tolerated. But the more important discrepancy is the first meeting between the Prince and Mrs Simpson.

This meeting is depicted as taking place at Thelma Furness’ London residence in the Autumn of 1930 and this would fit with Wallis’ timescale of their relationship according to her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has It’s Reasons. However, the Duke (both in print and in interviews) insisted that their first meeting didn’t take place until the 10th January 1931 at Burrough Court near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Wallis had a terrible cold and reflecting on this introduction, David said their conversation was “banal” and was mostly focused on the lack of central heating in English country houses. Burrough was the country home of Lord and Lady Furness (which may explain the confusion), however the important plot point remains that it was Thelma (then the Prince’s mistress) who introduced the pair.

The next two episodes (Venus at the Prow and The New King) are well paced and show the increasing dependency the Prince of Wales developed for Wallis. The well-known “club sandwich” debacle provides humour but also a reminder of how her growing importance in David’s life was being taken by those closest to him. He is shown berating the staff at the Fort for failing to treat Wallis as the mistress of the house, a role she has now usurped from Thelma and which the Duke and Duchess of York (Andrew Ray and Amanda Reiss) note with concern. The Nahlin cruise is a high point and Patricia Hodge’s performance as Lady Diana Cooper is witty and enthusiastic with all the glamour and sophistication one would expect. Simon Cadell is a welcome addition, providing the voice of caution as Major John Aird, the Prince’s equerry.

Harris & Cadell.
Wallis (Cynthia Harris) and Major Aird (Simon Cadell) aboard the Nahlin.

Whilst the characterisation of Wallis is for the most part wholly accurate, there are some notable omissions of traits of her personality that were important to the story of her developing romance. In one scene, Wallis is shown to argue with Ernest over the increased presence of the Prince of Wales in their life. From the Bloch letters however, we know that the Prince and Wallis had argued when Wallis told David to stay away and give her some time alone with Ernest to ease the pressure on the trio. She truly believed marriage to the King impossible and remained determined that if he gave her up, she would not be left alone. The Wallis in this series is more doe eyed, more gentle and subservient whereas in reality, Wallis was perhaps the only person able to discipline the Prince (supposedly part of her appeal to him). In other words, she put up a fight not just at the last.

There is a curious flash of tension in the Nahlin cruise scenes when the royal party have returned from a meeting with King George II of Greece and his mistress, Joyce Brittain-Jones. Diana and John make flippant remarks that George II can never hope to marry Joyce and remain King as she was a divorcee. David and Wallis have already intimated that they plan to marry and react badly to this judgement. And so the stage is set for the abdication crisis to play out. It does so over four episodes which are more political thriller than romantic period drama.

From this point on, the series has a tendency to lapse into legalese and officious to-ing and fro-ing. Some viewers may find this a little dull but for those interested in the constitutional crisis the Windsor romance caused, these episodes will prove essential viewing and go a long way to explain just why the King’s decision to abdicate was so monumental. One scene of note is a poignant moment at a dinner party when the departing King is giving his views on the welfare of the working classes. The Duke of York turns to Churchill (Wensley Pithey) and says tearfully, “And this is the man we’re going to lose”.

There are two performances which merit special mention. The first comes from David Waller as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (a role Waller would reprise in the 1988 tv film The Woman He Loved). Whilst this series is fairly kind to Baldwin and doesn’t explore his true feelings about the King in terms of political differences, there is much to this incarnation of Baldwin for viewers to enjoy. He is shown as a paternal figure, desperately trying (with great patience) to see the crisis through to a resolution which doesn’t destroy the monarchy in the process. However, we know that Baldwin was a critic of the King long before his relationship with Wallis became a political issue and perhaps the drama would benefit from a more rounded portrayal.

The other stand out star is Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Walter Monckton, Attorney General of the Duchy of Cornwall and legal advisor to King Edward VIII. Hawthorne has to deal with some incredibly complex legal points in very quick succession that could prove a little tedious in the hands of another actor. He has few emotional or dramatic scenes and instead serves as a kind of constitutional narrator, for example, exploring and explaining the finer points of what a morganatic marriage is for the benefit of the viewer who may be unfamiliar with the term. His scenes with Wallis are particularly good, especially that in which Wallis promises that her divorce from Ernest could not, would not, lead to any talk of marriage with the King. Monckton clearly knows this to be false and uses this to keep the tension building as the crunch of the decision approaches.

But it would be impossible to review this series without crediting Cynthia Harris for her complex and multi-faceted performance. Wallis is shown to be witty and smart but naive, easily impressed and materialistic but never greedy, trapped and scared but resigned to her fate. In the scene in the final episode (The Abdication) in which Wallis listens to the King’s wireless address, there is a tender and heartbreaking moment in which she softly lays down cradling a pillow with tears streaming down her face. She knows what is to come and that she will forever be hated for something people will always claim she was solely responsible for. The weight of that moment is brought to life by Harris in a way that conveys it’s historic importance whilst still remaining tear-jerkingly human. It is truly wonderful to watch.

Edward and Mrs Simpson is a masterpiece of British television from an era when period drama was unrushed and without gimmick. The script is tight but the story is allowed to develop slowly to allow the finer details and personalities of each character to contribute to the overall impressiveness of the piece. It is no great surprise therefore to find that it was incredibly well received by audiences with Fox winning a BAFTA award for his performance as the Duke. Cynthia Harris was also nominated for her role as the Duchess but sadly lost out to Francesca Annis for her portrayal of Lillie Langtry in LWT’s Lillie. Dame Peggy Ashcroft was also nominated for Best Actress, a joint nomination for both her role as Queen Mary and as Lady Gee in the Merchant Ivory motion picture, Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures.

The Wedding Scene
The Wedding, 1937, as depicted in the TV series.

Producer Andrew Brown said of the series, “By the end, you will be able to decide whether you should admire the man for giving up everything for the woman he loved or whether what he did was an abject dereliction of duty”. The opposition to the series expressed by Maître Blum caught the attention of the press and led many reviewers to suggest that it “was strongly opposed by the Royal Family” but this was not quite true. Edward Fox later revealed, “I think they liked it. I sat next to the Queen Mother twice at dinner and she was charming. She didn’t really mention it much, which I took to mean she didn’t think it was too bad”. And his opinion on the Duchess? “I spoke to a lot of people who knew her. They told me she was fun, hospitable and welcoming, and clearly made the Duke happy. But nevertheless, she found herself in a pretty impossible position. Sadly we live in harsher times today than when we made that series. Even when we don’t know the full facts, we tend to see the worst in people. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for figures that we can hate”.

Cynthia Harris has reflected on her performance since the series was broadcast and said that she found the opportunity to play Wallis “thrilling, exciting and strangely humbling”. “I don’t really know from her that she wasn’t keen to have it happen (the series), I’ve only heard that third hand but I would like she would be happy about it and I think if she knew how I really felt about her, she would be terrible happy because I admire her very much”. Regardless of Maître Blum’s staunch opposition to Edward and Mrs Simpson (she ensured it was banned from broadcast in France), there is little to object to. The series is a landmark in British television, beautifully produced, richly detailed and though there are minor flaws and a few inaccuracies, for anybody with an interest in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor this is essential viewing.

Cynthia Harris as Wallis listening to the Abdication speech of 1936.

Edward and Mrs Simpson is available on DVD (Region Two) from Amazon and is currently priced at £8.99.

The Wallis Archive: Elsa vs Wallis, a Right Royal Feud

Some people collect coins. Others collect stamps or baseball cards. But one woman is legendary in American history for collecting people: Elsa Maxwell. Maxwell’s name will be familiar to fans of Irving Berlin who may remember her being namechecked in the song ‘The Hostess with the Mostess’ as performed by Ethel Merman in the 1953 musical Call Me Madam. “They would go Elsa Maxwell when they had an axe to grind”, she sings, “They could always grind their axe well, at the parties she designed”.  Though the redoubtable ‘Queen of the Party’ had many rivalries during her long tenure as the chosen party giver of New York high society, there was one unlikely figure who most certainly had an axe to grind with Elsa during the 1950s, their feud making headlines for almost seven years; the Duchess of Windsor.

Elsa Maxwell was a Vaudeville performer, songwriter and theatre pianist from Keokuk, Iowa who had risen from humble beginnings to become a tour-de-force in the cutthroat world of 1950s New York high society. Credited with inventing the scavenger hunt (an apparently revolutionary addition to the parties held by the bright young things of the Roaring Twenties), Elsa’s parties were legendary not only for their style but for their impressive guest lists. As a journalist, Ms Maxwell found herself in high demand to share her secrets to planning a perfect party just as much as she was courted by gossip columnists hoping she may spill the beans on some of her favourite “collectables”. This she did so with relish. When Elsa liked you, so too did the readers of American Weekly. When Elsa did not….

Elsa "en fete"
Elsa en fête at one of her many costume balls.

It is unclear as to when Elsa and the Duchess of Windsor first met but it should be no great shock to find the Windsors among Elsa’s treasure trove of high-profiled party pals. Never one to drop a celebrity name when a dozen royal titles would do, Elsa boasted about her royal connections long before the Windsors arrived state side looking for a new ‘set’. In 1948, she proudly proclaimed her role in introducing the movie star Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan (the couple married the following year but divorced in 1953) and in her “Most Amusing Guests” column printed in 1938 in the Victoria Advocate, she was sure to include the latest addition to her collection; Prince Christopher of Greece. She took Grand Dmitri Pavlovich’s morganatic wife Audrey Emery under her wing (quickly dropping her after their divorce) and was sued by ex-King (and ex-friend) Farouk of Egypt.

The Duke of Windsor was apparently fond of Elsa, though completely unimpressed by her snobbery. He called her “that old-battering ram” but gave credit to her skills as a party hostess; “They simply are the best gatherings anywhere in the world”. The Duchess’ relationship with Ms Maxwell was far more complicated however and it kept American housewives in regal tittle-tattle for years as their friendship turned sour and erupted into open rivalry. The climax was a bizarre clash over a ball held in 1957 which featured (even more bizarrely) the actress Marilyn Monroe but in fact, Elsa and Wallis had begun hostilities much earlier.

The firing shots in the first battle came in 1953 when Wallis hosted a ball at the Waldorf Astoria to raise money for the Hospitalised Veterans Music Service. The New York times reported:

“The Duchess of Windsor headed the committee for the fete and serving with her as co-chairman were Mrs Lytle Hull, Mrs William C Breed, Miss Elsa Maxwell and Mrs Gardner Cowles. Coral pink ornaments covering the ceiling of the ballroom provided a colourful décor for the fete which began with a dinner. Suspended from the middle of the ceiling was a three tiered perch on which were birds of paradise in glowing hues.

Guests were seated at small tables covered with pink cloths embellished with pink satin bows, silver candelabra with coral pink candles and centrepieces of pink carnations. A feature of the entertainment was an elaborate fashion tableau in which the Duchess of Windsor participated, wearing a gown especially designed in Paris for the occasion fashioned of white taffeta embellished with coral panels and coral beading”.

Elsa served as narrator for the tableau, reading out the name of each of the ladies present and describing the gowns on parade as the models sashayed along a catwalk. The gowns could then be purchased by those present in order to raise money for the Duchess’ worthy cause. But when Wallis stepped out in her Parisian finery, Maxwell said nothing. Wallis wandered tentatively along the catwalk to a stunned silence. She looked back at Maxwell who remained silent as the proverbial tomb. Wallis was furious and severed ties with Maxwell. Or rather, this was the version of the story Wallis told. According to Elsa, Wallis had covered the microphone with her hand shortly before stepping onto the catwalk and told Elsa, “Please don’t mention my name”, an order which Elsa simply obeyed,

The Rivals
The Rivals at Luncheon: (from left to right) Elsa Maxwell, the Duke of Windsor, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the Duchess of Windsor.

In her 1955 memoirs, “I Married the World”, Elsa insisted that the fashion show had passed without incident and that it was a party in Palm Beach a few weeks later which caused the Duchess to cut short her friendship with Ms Maxwell. Millicent Hearst, a mutual friend to Elsa and Wallis, was a vaudeville performer who married media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in 1903. They remained married until his death in 1951 but had long lived separate lives, Millicent unable to accept his long-term love affair with the actress Marion Davies. According to Maxwell, Hearst liked to offer a fortune teller as an attraction at her parties and shortly before the Palm Beach soiree began, the teller she had engaged cried off. Eager to please, Maxwell (a former Vaudevillian herself), decided to don a disguise and pose as a mystic.

When Wallis approached her for a reading, Elsa panicked and decided to play it for laughs.  

“You have been married one…two…three times!”, Elsa crowed, “Your husband is a sailor, soldier, admiral, general, Prince – King!”

Wallis stiffened in her chair. Elsa continued.

“You have great responsibilities lady”

“Never mind that”, Wallis said, “Tell me the worst, I can take it”.

Elsa was sure to shower Wallis with praise for this remark. “I felt that here was the sure key to this extraordinary woman’s character. She could take it, no matter what it was, she could face up to whatever crisis might befall her”

And so the reading went on. When it was over, Elsa claims that Wallis told the other guests; “That gypsy is marvelous!” and when the joke was revealed, Wallis laughed. So impressed was she by Elsa’s ‘turn’, that Wallis begged her to repeat the performance in Paris at the Windsors’ next party. Elsa insisted that the Duchess hadn’t taken any offence to the routine but Wallis saw things differently. She had been the butt of other people’s jokes long enough and her patience had worn thin. The feud between Elsa and Wallis had officially begun.

The two women now filtered bitchy barbs through the gossip columnists. Elsa said of Wallis; “She is bony and brittle, a distinctly cold woman with no sense of humour at all” whilst Wallis snapped back at Elsa, “She is the old oaken bucket in a well of loneliness”. Elsa claimed that the reason Wallis had insisted she keep her name hidden at the Waldorf earlier that year was because of a tax dodge the Duchess had worked out with the Paris fashion houses. Wallis retorted with unkind remarks about Elsa’s poor background and bemoaned the “young fashionable types” who had now been included in Elsa’s social set who, in the Duchess’ opinion, “were sloppy and insolent”. The American press were enraptured by the feud and begged for more.

Temporary Truce
A Temporary Truce: The Duke and Duchess attend one of Elsa’s parties in 1953 with Elsa (centre) holding Wallis’ hand.

Elsa was more than prepared to give the press what they were demanding. In 1954, word reached Wallis in Paris that Elsa was to reveal more details of their rivalry in a book called RSVP and Wallis jumped into self-preservation mode. She invited Elsa to Paris so that they could bury the hatchet. Following their peace talks, Elsa headed to Venice where, by an extraordinary coincidence, Wallis and David were about to spend a long weekend. Elsa invited the Duke and Duchess to a party she just happened to be hosting at the Hotel Danieli. Wallis accepted the invitation. But then failed to appear.

This marked the beginning of a period of radio silence. Or rather, the two women ceased communication (“quite a childish thing for us to engage in”, Elsa later admitted) between themselves. They now turned to print rather than press to lay their cards on the table. In 1955, Elsa published her memoirs ‘I Married the World’ in which she praised Wallis much to the Duchess’ surprise;

She has perfect taste in food as well as furniture and in those little details of forethought and care that mark the imaginative hostess. For instance, the last time I lunched with them I noticed she had found the most enchanting little round porcelain pots with covers to contain butter and at the bottom of each there was ice to keep it firm

But just as she gave with one hand, Elsa took with the other. Recounting another temporary truce at a dinner party at which neither knew the other would be present, she wrote;

After our now celebrated, if accidental, diner de rapprochement we sat down and had a frank, heart-to-heart talk. “If only you’ll listen,” I said, “when interesting people are talking to you, you will learn. If you don’t listen, people won’t like you and you’ll have nothing to say in return

At my seventy-first birthday party given in Paris by my old friend, the Countess de Contades, the Duchess sat between the Spanish Ambassador to France and the President of the French Senate. Afterwards she suddenly turned to me and said, “You say I never listen, Elsa, but tonight I did. Did you see?” 

“Yes, Duchess,” I replied, “but did you learn?”  

“I’ll let you know,” she answered.

At the same time as Elsa was going into print, so too was Wallis. Her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has its Reasons, was an attempt by the Duchess to silence her critics and to set the record straight. The book chronicled Wallis’ childhood, marriages, the crisis of 1936 and the aftermath, as well as the Duke and Duchess’ time in the Bahamas during the Second World War. The Duchess paid glowing tributes to her fervent supporters and even gave readers her advice on what made the perfect hostess. But one name was curiously absent; Elsa Maxwell. Wallis had simply erased her.

Elsa responded viciously. She reviewed Wallis’ memoirs to friends and left them in no doubt that the Duchess had gone too far this time;

“When you see the Duchess today it is difficult to picture her as the heroine of one of the greatest love stories of all time. She’s so brittle, hard and determined. Her hands, which were always large, never compliant or feminine, are less attractive than ever…one incident that stands out unpleasantly in my memory is the Duchess’ reaction to the death of Iles Brody shortly after he published his unflattering book ‘Gone with the Windsors’. ‘See’, Wallis said snapping her fingers, ‘See what happens when they go against me?’”

Despite this, by the end of 1956 the two had apparently conquered their differences and once again patched things up; the result of a dramatic and emotional rapprochement aboard the S.S United States in May. To celebrate this monumental peace, Elsa invited Wallis to the Waldorf Astoria for a ball. She told every journalist in town that this would be the picture of the night; Wallis and Elsa, arm in arm, past skirmishes forgotten and all smiles. Wallis arrived at the ball and greeted Elsa with a kiss.

But Elsa seemed distracted. Whilst Wallis may have expected to be the front page story, she was about to be very rudely dislodged. Elsa had one final surprise up her sleeve. She had invited Marilyn Monroe to her ball and sailed away from Wallis arm-in-arm with one of the most famous women in the world. The blonde looked back at Wallis who shot her a glare and then left the Waldorf. The newspapers had a field day.

Toast of the Town
Toast of the Town: Elsa welcomes Marilyn Monroe to her ball at the Waldorf Astoria in 1957. Unpictured, Wallis.

But Elsa was no longer thrilled by the chase and the following morning, she appeared full of remorse. She wrote a grovelling apology to the Duchess and then met with journalists to explain that Marilyn had played no part in the apparent snub and that Elsa had in no way meant to offend Wallis. Wallis softened and invited Elsa to Paris where Ms Maxwell was served dish after dish of humble pie. When she returned to America, Elsa spoke fondly of “the dear Duchess”. “I’m a violent woman”, Elsa confessed, “Perhaps it was all my fault. Now I can only speak of her in friendship. I’m going to do everything in my power to make amends. I’m an older and wiser woman”.

This time, the peace was permanent. The feud had come to an end and the American press looked elsewhere for a rivalry between two strong women they could use to sell their newspapers. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait long and within a few years, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford began shooting on ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’. As for Elsa, she found new foes and spent the last few years of her life battling against the ex-King of Egypt, among others. When she spoke of the Duchess, she did so devotedly and with nothing but kindness. Elsa died in 1963 at the age of 80.

Glowing tributes came from every corner of high society. Princes and pop stars, Dukes and designers, Barons and bankers; all bade a fond farewell to the “hostess with the mostess”. Wallis said nothing publicly. But many years later, she was reminded of her former sparring partner when she saw Elsa’s photograph in a magazine. Turning to the Duke, Wallis held it up and remarked wistfully, “Oh! Wasn’t life more fun when Elsa was around?”

Opinion: Two Very Different Duchesses

A Prince with strong opinions and a firm conviction to do things differently. An American divorcee with a naive understanding of the ruthlessness of the Firm. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? It was inevitable that when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced their intention to step down from royal duties last night, comparisons would be made with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Harry and Meghan’s story is now being told alongside that of David and Wallis. But can the two couples really be compared? How alike are their circumstances and motivations and will the Sussexes face the same future as the Windsors?

There are similarities; Both Meghan and Wallis share American nationality, both had private school educations and both had been married before they met their Prince. More relevant to today’s front page news however is that they both faced unfair prejudices and were vilified by the press for the role they apparently played in creating major rifts in the Royal Family. From the moment her engagement to Prince Harry was announced, Meghan faced a divided press. The Guardian championed Meghan as a reformer, a royal spouse free from the chains of British snobbery who had not been raised within the confining clutches of the class system. Conversely, The Daily Mail condemned her as a social climber, a ruthless adventuress, a bad fit for the institution that has always preferred the male, pale and stale.

Yet for the most part, the press has been kind to Meghan Markle in a way they were not to Wallis Simpson. In the latter’s case, the press was bitterly one sided and united in it’s condemnation. Wallis did not have the opportunity before her royal marriage to document her life publicly in the way that Meghan had. The fact that the press had access to so much more information about Meghan before her marriage meant that she had a much fairer crack of the whip in terms of presenting a positive image of herself before her wedding. And for the most part, the information they had came directly from Meghan herself. In Wallis’ case, the press simply invented what they could not source.

The lurid and wild fabrications attributed to Wallis’ character were based entirely on the prejudice of the ruling class of 1930s Britain. These wealthy men imbued with hypocritical Victorian morality saw nothing but an ambitious intriguer. For divorce, they read ‘sexually promiscuous’ and they used this to create a Wallis Simpson the public would immediately reject. The stories they concocted were often without any foundation in truth and ranged from the blatantly false to the downright bizarre. It was said that Wallis had served as a prostitute in the Sing Song houses of Shanghai where she had learned special sexual techniques to snare wealthy men. Other allegations included witchcraft, fascist politics, lesbian love affairs and even gender reassignment surgery.

Wallis herself found the press treatment she received a constant source of pain. In her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has It’s Reasons, she wrote;

“The enormity of the hatred I had aroused and the distorted image of me that seemed to be forming in minds everywhere went far beyond anything I had anticipated even in my most depressed moments. To be accused of things one has never done; to be judged and condemned on many sides by people ignorant of controlling circumstances, to have one’s supposed character day after day laid bare, dissected and flayed by mischievous and merciless hands; such are the most corrosive human experiences”

This is certainly a statement Meghan could relate to. Whilst her divorce was never an issue for the British public, her skin tone was a step too far for some. There are unfortunately still those within the press and public as a whole who refused to accept Meghan because she is mixed race. It is a shameful indictment of so-called modern Britain that her race became an issue for so many but it is far from the only reason that the press seem to have taken against the couple in recent months. It cannot be denied that the Sussexes have chosen to attempt to control the press in a way they see as justified because of the rogue element who have treated the Duchess cruelly. But in doing so, they have unwittingly cut themselves off from the British public, alienated friendly journalists and raised questions about the role of the Royal Family in relation to the free press.

The Duchess of Windsor, as she became after her marriage in 1937, never once sued a publication for the falsehoods they printed about her. She considered it a waste of time, knowing as she did that a free press came with an unfortunate by-product of un-named sources selling fantastical rumour as fact. Like Meghan, her husband became her defender. The Duke of Windsor was fanatical in his desire to protect his wife’s reputation and he too brought legal proceedings against publications for printing distortions and untruths, just as Prince Harry has done. What the Windsors did not do however, is seek to punish the press as a whole, neither did they put up barriers to those who may have been able to help present a more positive impression to the wider public.

As King, David often urged the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to allow the public to learn more about the real Wallis. If they could get to know her, he reasoned, they would see her as he did. The British government firmly rejected any such proposals. It was made clear to the King that if he wished to marry Wallis, he must lay down his Crown and go into exile. The Royal Family not only supported this approach but saw the judgement was upheld to the bitter end. Until the end of his life in 1972, the Duke of Windsor would always have to beg the permission of the monarch to pay private visits to the country of his birth. On just one occasion during in their 35 year marriage was Wallis acknowledged publicly as his wife by the Crown. This came by way of a brief appearance alongside the Queen and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for the plaque unveiling in memory of Queen Mary in 1967.

The British establishment was firmly set against Wallis from the start. The Monarchy, the Cabinet, Parliament; all froze her out and refused her a chance to prove her worth. This could not be further from Meghan’s experience. Her divorced status simply did not register. Privately confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow her a church wedding, invited to join the Royal Family for Christmas at Sandringham before her marriage, Meghan could not have had a better start to her royal career. Her diary was hers to determine, her patronages and projects receiving the full backing of the Palace press machine. Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex was as much a part of the Firm as the Princess Royal or the Duchess of Cornwall. Her Grace the Duchess of Windsor, was not.

By leaving that life behind because of personal unhappiness, rather than constitutional necessity, Harry and Meghan may be taking similar steps to their Windsor forebears but unlike David and Wallis, they will not be exiles. They will not be forced from their homeland. They are said to be considering living in the United Kingdom for six months of the year and suggest they will carry out some public engagements within that time. Ironically, this is precisely what the Duke of Windsor proposed to his brother, King George VI during their talks on what form post-abdication life might take. The King refused. David was denied the chance to play a role and to serve the Crown he once held. That was his punishment.

He had compensations of course. A generous financial settlement was made, just as it appears to have been made for the Sussexes (according to their website). But in stepping down from royal duties, in voluntarily relinquishing their roles as “senior royals”, Harry and Meghan are taking a step which David in particular never wished to take. He was forced to accept abdication and exile. Harry and Meghan have reached this decision themselves, a free choice they have made without any outside pressure. Had King George VI (and subsequently, Queen Elizabeth II) been agreeable, the Windsors proposed to live at Fort Belvedere and to carry out a limited programme of public engagements. Their intention was to do their duty. The establishment refused to let them do so.

There is one more major difference however between the two Duchesses which must be taken into consideration. Both her first and second marriage were made of Meghan’s own free will. She was not forced into a relationship she did not wish to be in, neither was she trapped in one she could not withdraw herself from. She knew what her marriage to a British prince would mean. Had she decided not to accept Harry’s proposal, Meghan could have continued to live her life on her own terms, with her own career prospects, her own finances and her own ambitions. Wallis could not.

From Wallis’ earliest years, she learned that a woman’s role in turn of the century Baltimore was strictly limited. Her father had died when she was just a few months old and she and her mother, Alice Montagu, found themselves dependent on Wallis’ paternal Uncle Sol. When Alice rejected Sol’s advances, he cut Alice off without a penny and forced her to leave the comfort of the Warfield family mansion. Alice went to live in a boarding house, taking in washing and working as a waitress to afford the rent on one room. Wallis learned a valuable lesson from this; men provided security. Better to bend to their will and be comfortable than oppose them and struggle on alone.

This undoubtedly was the motivation for her first marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr in 1916. It was her divorce from Win in 1927 that immediately made her unsuitable to marry the Prince of Wales but did the British government ever look at the “controlling circumstances”, as Wallis put it. For ten years, Wallis was subjected to physical abuse at the hands of a violent alcoholic. On one occasion, Win locked her in a bathroom and refused to let her out despite her screams. When he sobered up, she was finally released and determined to leave him. It was this escape from domestic violence that ultimately earned her the reputation of a “woman of loose morals” by the British government. Could anything be more shameful?

And then there is her relationship with her Prince. She undoubtedly loved him but was she ever truly prepared for what the romance brought her? Whilst Wallis was “in fairyland” in the early stages of her relationship with the Prince of Wales, whilst it cannot be denied that she enjoyed the importance and influence of her position as the King’s mistress, there was also a lot she could not possibly enjoy. Letters poured in from the Prince, some of them touching and sweet but others deeply troubling, even threatening, in tone. When she told him not to visit her, he came anyway and outstayed his welcome causing bitter rows between Wallis and Ernest. When she tried to escape for a few days to Paris with friends, the new King called her endlessly on the telephone and asked for hourly reports on her whereabouts. Threats of suicide were frequent. Wallis was trapped.

And so she remained trapped until the Duke’s death in 1972. She could never leave him. She had no option but to accept her fate and make the best of a bad situation. She did so with only minor complaint. “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance”, she quipped to friends. It was sadly prophetic. When David died in 1972, Wallis went into quick decline as dementia took hold. As she lay dying, confused and alone, the Royal Family sent Lord Mountbatten to Paris to see her. He was not there to offer comfort. Rather, he was charged with making lists of items the Royal Family wanted for their own collection. She died in 1986, totally alone.  

It will never be that way for Meghan. There will be no special instructions dispatched by the British government to treat her as damaged goods. The post-royal life they envisage for themselves will still allow Meghan to remain a part of a family. Royal birthdays, wedding anniversaries, jubilees; there will still be balcony appearances and Christmas holidays at Sandringham. For as long as she retains royal rank, Meghan will remain a part of the Royal Family. For Wallis, this was never an option.

For the crime of daring to leave an abusive husband, for the sin of failing to repel the advances of a psychologically damaged Prince with a manic, obsessive compulsion to own her, Wallis was forbidden all decency. She was even robbed of her own name. In articles published today, she is still known only as “that woman”. The decision made by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex is historic. It is controversial. But it bears no relation whatsoever to the decision made by a King in 1936 to give up his throne for the woman he loved, neither does one Duchess’s part in that decision in any way resemble the other. It has taken 80 years for us to see another side to Wallis Warfield Windsor. Let’s not reverse our understanding by making lazy and inaccurate comparisons with modern cast members of the royal pantomime.

The Wallis Archive: Cooking with the Duchess

At the height of the Edwardian era a troubling rumour was sweeping through the dusty drawing rooms of Belgravia, a rumour which shocked and delighted in equal measure. It was said that just a few days earlier at Buckingham Palace, Queen Alexandra had taken an unprecedented move which ruffled the feathers of many an ancient dowager. Her Majesty had actually gone through the green baize door, had descended a flight of stairs and had….gasp!.…visited the kitchens. She had even spoken to the junior servants, seemingly to understand what life in domestic service was really like and with a view to improve the lot of those in her employ. London was agog.

As ridiculous as this may sound today, for those who could afford domestic help, the kitchen and servant’s hall was strictly off limits to employers. Short of a crisis, a lady was expected to do nothing more than meet her cook once a week to plan the menus for the days ahead. Very few of these upper middle class grand dames could make tea, let alone boil an egg. In the class conscious Upstairs, Downstairs world of pre-war London, everybody knew their place and for titled ladies with servants, that place was certainly not the kitchen. Enter stage left, Mrs Ernest Simpson.

The Young Bride
Wallis as a sullen young bride following her marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr.

Wallis was by no means the first society hostess with a reputation for being able to cook. Following the Great War, many aristocratic families found themselves at home to “the American invasion” as their impoverished heirs tried to keep the family pile standing with the help of Yankee money a la Downton Abbey. It didn’t take long for these American peeresses to make a splash in London and by the 1930s, the idea of the lady of the house actually being able to cook was no longer shocking -neither was the “buffet style” dining they favoured. Naturally there were some among the old order of things who sneered at this. They regarded the mistress of the house concerning herself with “domestic duties” to be a hallmark of the nouveau riche. It is said that when the Duchess of York, the future Queen Elizabeth, was told that Wallis could cook, she smiled and said, “What a funny little hobby”

By Abdication year, Wallis had cemented her reputation for throwing some of the best parties in London. Those who attended were full of praise for her elegant table settings, her well trained eye for picking out the perfect decor and furnishings but everybody agreed that it was her food which truly set her apart. It had been an education borne of necessity. During her first marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, when there had been no money to employ a cook, she found herself face to face with the prospect of catering for her first dinner party without help. She remembered this event in her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has It’s Reasons:

“The menu, I confess, was one that will surprise no young bride – Campbell’s cream of tomato soup, roast beef and gravy, roast potatoes, artichokes with Hollandaise sauce, and ice cream with chocolate sauce”

As simple a menu as this sounds, it appears that Wallis became overwhelmed with the stress of cooking. Husband Win proposed some Dutch courage.

“I had never had a cocktail. And I was dubious of the wisdom of trying my first. But, as I appraised the simmering pots, I concluded that desperate measures were called for. I do not know to this day what Win gave me – later acquaintanceship suggests that it was a double martini. I do know that I finished the glass, and before long my apprehensions concerning the dinner miraculously dissolved. The need for hurry, or indeed for spending too much time over the kitchen range, pleasantly evaporated. The Hollandaise took on a creamy consistency under my masterful stirring and I was not the least concerned to see flecks of it flying off my spoon and dotting the walls. Perhaps to everyone else’s surprise, but not my own, the beef was done to a beautiful shade, there were no lumps in the gravy and even the Hollandaise was without a trace of curdling”

Wallis was keen to point out that the real secret behind her success lay not in a double martini but in the assistance of Fannie Farmer, the American Mrs Beeton who’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was first published in the year of Wallis’ birth, 1896. This book was handed to young American brides with the aim of allowing them to provide hearty but affordable meals to their husbands. “Whatever reputation I may since have acquired as a hostess began with her”, Wallis said proudly. And indeed, her guests agreed. One remarked, “Wallis’ parties have such pep that nobody ever wants to leave”.

Dining Room
The Dining Room at the Duke and Duchess’ Paris home.

This education in all things culinary stood her in great stead not only for entertaining at Bryanston Court, the London home she shared with Ernest, but also for helping the bachelor Prince of Wales impress his own guests. Whilst previous love interests such as Freda Dudley-Ward had always stepped in at Fort Belvedere to help him plan his menus for the busy round of entertaining expected of him, Wallis took to this task like a duck to water and made sure to include American specialties which she knew the Prince liked. This was not always well-received by the Prince’s staff. When Wallis attempted to have club sandwiches served at the Fort, the chef refused to make them. The Prince of Wales was furious that Wallis’ orders had been ignored and had club sandwiches served every day for a fortnight.

Wallis went further. When the Prince celebrated his 40th birthday, she gave her cook at Bryanston Court the day off so that she could bake a chocolate cake for him. The American press were enthralled by this display of skill and even asked Wallis to comment on the importance of being able to cook. She obliged, telling the New York Times; “Cooking is an art. I would not be so ridiculous as to say cooking is an element of happiness but it is a great art”. The news that she had actually baked the royal birthday cake personally made the gossip columns world wide and Wallis even supplied the recipe so that others could replicate her domestic achievement. As amusing as all this was, one clipping ended sourly; “One cannot imagine Queen Mary donning an apron to bake confectionary for His Majesty”.

Throughout her life, Wallis kept her favourite recipes in neatly arranged pink folders tied with ribbon and often sent copies to friends, especially those just starting out in their new homes. She always engaged a personal chef but noted wisely, “You don’t get any original food unless you work with a cook”. She recalled with mischievous glee the incident at the Fort many years later when showing one of these folders to a visiting journalist. Holding “Salads:1934” to her chest, she grinned as she revealed; “This recipe I had fixed for the Duke at Sunningdale. The cook was none too pleased at a woman’s interference but I can still remember David’s smile”

Nassau, 1943.
Wallis on duty in Nassau as President of the Red Cross of the Bahamas.

This treasure trove of recipes was surprisingly useful in another way. In August 1940, the Duke of Windsor began his term as Governor of the Bahamas and the Duchess found herself responsible for entertaining at Government House in Nassau. As well as acting as hostess to important visitors, Wallis also found herself automatically appointed as President of the Bahamas Red Cross. She decided to create a canteen for servicemen stationed on the island, personally planning the menus with recipes provided from her own collection and even serving the troops their afternoon meal. Her friend, Katherine Rogers, suggested that Wallis was continually exhausted, the intense heat and the long hours she insisted on spending at the canteen conspiring to make Wallis a little bad tempered and snappy.

Nonetheless, her devotion to the canteen impressed many and when it began to struggle for funds in 1942, Wallis hit on an idea. She decided to publish some of her favourite recipes in a cookery book which could be sold to raise money for the canteen. She aimed high for a patron, asking if First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt might consider providing a foreword. Mrs Roosevelt obliged. Some Favourite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor was published in 1942 and stressed the Duchess’ Maryland roots. Those expecting fancy French dishes designed to titillate the palate of European princes and playboys were disappointed. Instead, the Duchess provided recipes for Southern Fried Chicken, Spiced Grape Jelly, Gumbo Soup and Black Walnut Sponge Cake.

In her introduction to the book, Wallis wrote;

“The markets of Baltimore have long been known for their great variety of foods and the city has always been famous for it’s cooking. I have been very happy to help carry some of the well-known dishes of my native land to other countries, and especially to have served on my table Southern dishes which appeal to the Duke. My own collection of cookbooks, which I have been assembling for many years, of course contains many elaborate Southern recipes long familiar in a section of the country always known for it’s fine foods; but it is the simple dishes of my homeland which are most popular with me, and which are the ones most frequently served at my table”

With Eleanor Roosevelt
Meeting Mrs Roosevelt, who wrote the foreword for the Duchess’ cookbook in 1942.

Whilst Wallis remained a keen cook, she was no culinary snob and embraced modern innovations in food. In the early 1960s, she championed Sara Lee frozen cakes and bemoaned the fact that they were unobtainable in Paris. She laughed that she had to force her cook to utilize the new freezer who was wary of it’s usefulness and boasted of a new American toaster which she “liked very much but which seems to refuse to pop French bread”. Was every meal still being served in the grand style of her society hey day? Not a bit of it. “I have my evening meal on a tray in front of the television”, Wallis explained, “I like quiz shows but of course everything is in French. Westerns, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra. It’s an absolute scream!”

She continued to entertain until the Duke’s death in 1972 after which, the doors of their lavish mansion in the Bois de Boulogne slowly closed to the outside world. But in 1993, Sotheby’s offered an interesting glimpse into a side of the Duchess never before explored. They offered a manuscript from the Windsor collection which sold for $8,000. It was a bound compilation of Wallis’ recipes; “My Own Personal Cookbook”, which had apparently been due for publication but never made it to the shelves. On the first page, the Duchess gave a typical menu for one of her sumptuous dinner parties at her Paris mansion; Cold Lobster Mousse with Sauce Liberal, Hot Curried Eggs, Salade Russe and Gâteau égyptien. Sauce Liberal was to be finished with “copious amounts of gin”. For a woman widely quoted as saying “one can never be too rich or too thin”, who could possibly have guessed that Wallis, Duchess of Windsor was one of the greatest gourmets in France?

Wallis' Cookery Book

The Recipes

This recipe for Wallis’ chocolate cake was not included in her cookery book but was printed in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1937.

Wallis’ Chocolate Cake

  • Two and a quarter cups of plain flour
  • 2 and a quarter teaspoons of baking powder
  • A three quarter teaspoon of salt
  • Half a cup of unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs, well beaten
  • Three quarters of a cup of whole milk
  • One teaspoon of vanilla extract

Sift the flour with the baking power and salt. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs a little at a time, beating well. Add flour alternately with the milk until smooth. Add vanilla. Bake in two greased 8 inch layer pans in a moderate oven (375 degrees farenheit) for 25 minutes. Spread chocolate frosting between layers and over cake.

For the frosting:

  • Four tablespoons of softened butter
  • 3 cups of icing sugar
  • A three quarter teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • A quarter teaspoon of salt
  • 3 Squares of unsweetened melted chocolate
  • 4 tablespoons of hot milk

Cream butter well and add half of the sugar slowly until smooth. Add vanilla, salt and melted chocolate and mix well. Then add the remaining sugar and the milk until of the right constituency to spread, beating after each addition.

The following recipes were included in the Southern Favourites cookery book released in 1942 and sold to raise funds for the Red Cross Canteen in Nassau.

Charleston Crab Soup

  • 15 crabs or 1 and a half cups of fresh or canned crab meat
  • 1 quart of stock or 1 quart of water
  • 2 cups top milk (whole milk)
  • 2 egg yolks beaten
  • salt, cayenne

Prepare the crabs and cook. Remove meat and flake into small pieces. If canned or fresh crab meat is used, be sure to remove all tendons or cartilage. Add crab meat to stock or water. Warm milk and add to the egg yolks, mix well and add this to the crab mixture. Bring almost to the boil, stirring constantly. Season to taste and serve at once. Approximate yield: 6 Portions

Maryland Fried Chicken

  • 1 young chicken, about 3 pounds in weight
  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 3 tablespoons of fat
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 cup of broth, made from giblets
  • salt and pepper
  • Half a cup of heavy cream

Have chicken disjointed at market with wings, breast (cut in half), back, second joints and drumsticks separately. Rub salt generously into raw meat and roll the pieces in flour. Put in iron skillet the hot fat – not deep – and add butter. Place chicken into skillet and cover for an hour, turning chicken pieces frequently and letting them brown on all sides. When browned, add water and put covered skillet into hot oven (around 300 degrees farenheit) for 30 minutes or until tender. Pour off all but two teaspoons of dripping from the cooked chicken. Stir in two tablespoons of flour. Add cream, salt and pepper and the broth from the giblets. Stir constantly over low heat until thickened. Add chopped giblets if required. Serve immediately. Approximate yield; 4 Portions.

Blackberry Flummery

  • 1 quart blackberries
  • Half a cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 1 sponge cake cut into strips

Wash blackberries and pick them over. Add sugar and water. Let come to a boil and thicken with cornstarch made into a paste with 2 tablespoons of cold water. Add lemon juice and chill. Serve in sherbert glasses lined with thin strips of sponge cake. Approximate yield: 6 – 8 portions.

The Windsor Collection: The Mystery of Queen Alexandra’s Emeralds

Of the many loves attributed to the Duchess of Windsor during her lifetime, one is beyond doubt the most obvious. Whilst she clearly adored both her Prince and her pugs, jewels were a huge part of the Windsor story. When Wallis died in 1986, ravenous collectors could hardly contain their excitement as it was confirmed that the Duchess’ treasure trove was to come up for public auction at Sotheby’s. It had been her intention (with the full agreement of the Duke before his death in 1972), that her jewels should only be sold once broken up. She disliked the notion of another woman wearing pieces that had been designed especially for her, but she also believed that jewels should constantly be reset (where possible) so as to remain permanently fashionable. Wallis did not get her way and the pieces were sold exactly as they had been set for her by Cartier, Garrard’s and Van Cleef and Arpels among others.

But Wallis’ jewellery collection proved to be a fascination for the British public in a more sinister way in the immediate aftermath of the abdication in 1936. Whilst society gossips such as Sybil Colefax and Emerald Cunard had admired Wallis’ newly acquired gems (simultaneously expressing alarm at the King’s generosity behind Wallis’ back), others were less complimentary. There was a rumour that in addition to the plethora of bracelets, brooches, necklaces, earrings and hair clips which David had lavished upon her since the start of their romance, a right royal theft had taken place which had greatly angered Queen Mary and her daughter-in-law, the new Queen Elizabeth.

It was alleged that just before the abdication on the 10th December 1936, the Duke had stolen down to the royal vaults and purloined a collection of emeralds belonging to his grandmother, the late Queen Alexandra. These emeralds had been dropped in a hessian bag, placed in his pocket and were about to be set into a new piece to be presented to Wallis on their day of their wedding. A second version of the story suggests that Wallis had already received the emeralds (loose stones, for her to do with as she saw fit) by the time of the abdication, whilst a third version (and the most fanciful), suggested that Wallis had physically stolen them herself from Queen Mary’s safe at Marlborough House.

Queen Alexandra
A bejeweled Queen Alexandra, the consort of King Edward VII.

One of the most ardent supporters of the rumour was none other than Mary Raffray (née Kirk), a childhood friend of Wallis who had served as bridesmaid at Wallis’ first wedding to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr in 1927. Mary also played another important role in Wallis’s life. She was “the other woman” cited by Wallis in her divorce case against Ernest Simpson (Wallis’ second husband) and would later marry Ernest (Mary’s third husband) in 1937. The abdication broke Wallis and Mary’s friendship and in the immediate months that followed, Mary seems to have told anybody who would listen that the rumour that Wallis had taken possession of jewels belonging to Queen Alexandra was absolutely true. Word got back to a furious Wallis awaiting her reunion with David at the Château de Candé who tried to scotch the rumour in her pre-wedding interview with the journalist and feminist pioneer, Helena Normanton.

But this interview did little to halt the rumour mill. For decades, Wallis was chased by the accusation and it seemed that (with people being prepared to think the worst of her) there was nothing she could do to bring the matter to a close. Her protestations that “Queen Alexandra’s collection of jewels was – for a queen – none too remarkable” were heard in vain and even members of the British Royal Family who knew better were happy to push the story of the missing gemstones.  In 1946 during a rare visit to England, disaster struck and gave those determined to prove the emeralds rumour to be true a useful (and somewhat believable) conclusion to the tale.

The Duke and Duchess at Ednam Lodge, 1946.
David and Wallis greet the press upon their arrival at Ednam Lodge, Sunningdale in 1946.

A year after the end of the Second World War, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were given permission to visit England. David had hoped to be allowed to stay at his beloved Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park but King George VI refused permission. The Earl and Countess of Dudley came to the couple’s rescue, taking a temporary suite at Claridges Hotel and allowing David and Wallis the full use of their Sunningdale home, Ednam Lodge. One night, a cat burglar broke into the Lodge and helped themselves to Wallis’ jewels. The story was shocking, coming as it did during a spate of particularly greedy robberies which seemed to target wealthy women and their jewellery collections. But the story also came whilst Britain was still gripped by post-war austerity and very few had any sympathy for those now weeping in the dailies over their lost treasures.

The value of the stolen jewels was said to be £250,000, a figure the Duke quickly corrected; “There is absolutely no truth in the published statement that the value of the jewellery was £250,000”, he said, “Its value was not more than £20,000 and you can say that I said so. I can understand that the quarter of a million figure makes better reading than £20,000 but £20,000 was the value”. A full list of the stolen jewels was published in the newspapers in an attempt to recover them. The list was as follows:-

  • One diamond bird clip
  • One diamond and aquamarine brooch
  • one platinum and diamond bracelet with six large aquamarines
  • one aquamarine ring with solitaire aquamarine, stone-weight 58.2 carats
  • One gold ring with golden sapphire, stone weight 41.4 carats
  • One solitaire square cut emerald ring, stone weight, 7.8 carats
  • One pair of diamond and sapphire earrings
  • One pair of diamond ball earrings
  • One pair of shell shaped earrings with blue and yellow sapphires
  • One double gold chain necklace with blue and yellow sapphires

Whilst none of these jewels were ever seen again, those eager to uphold the allegation that either the Duke or Duchess had helped themselves to Queen Alexandra’s emeralds seized upon the opportunity to add them to the “missing list”. Suddenly, the original items on the list were joined by emerald brooches, emerald rings, emerald bangles – anything to give credence to a rumour that Wallis had spent nearly a decade trying to refute. So what exactly were Queen Alexandra’s emeralds and who really received them after her death in 1925?

Alexandra's Collier
Queen Alexandra’s Collier Résille necklace.

Queen Alexandra was the Danish born consort of King Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She married Bertie (as Edward VII was known within the Royal Family) in 1863 and quickly became the most popular and beloved Princess of Wales the country had ever known. Everything from her fashions to her mannerisms were slavishly copied by admirers. Women even affected a limp, Alexandra having been left with one following a bout of rheumatic fever, or deafness, a hereditary condition which grew worse as Alexandra grew older. But there were very few women who could afford to imitate Alexandra’s taste in jewels.

Grand diamond tiaras, ropes of pearl necklaces, ruby brooches and sapphire stomachers worn three or four at a time; Alexandra was a walking Christmas tree, constantly glittering and unabashed in her extravagant tastes. Wallis was incorrect in suggesting that Queen Alexandra’s collection of jewels was “none too remarkable”. For her Silver Wedding anniversary in 1888, Alexandra received a cross of rubies and diamonds from her husband (the Prince of Wales), a silver orange blossom brooch from her mother in law (Queen Victoria), a sapphire and diamond necklace from her brother-in-law (Tsar Alexander III) and a sapphire and diamond brooch from her brother and sister in law (the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh).

But what about emeralds? It is true that Queen Alexandra had some substantial emerald pieces in her collection, including an Indian necklace gifted to her by the Viceroy and his wife, Lady Curzon, in 1901. This necklace was composed of rubies, emeralds and pearls and was made by Cartier. She also possessed emeralds in the form of a brooch given to her on her wedding day by the Duchess of Cambridge (Augusta of Hesse-Kassel) and a similar gift which came from the “Ladies of North Wales” and depicted the Prince of Wales feathers in diamonds and emeralds – 36 emeralds to be precise. A second brooch gifted by the ladies depicted a leek (yes, a leek) in diamonds and emeralds and came with matching earrings.

The Duchess of Cornwall
The Duchess of Cornwall wearing the Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch with emerald drop.

When Queen Alexandra died in 1925, she left no will and no instructions on how her jewels should be dispersed between the members of her family. By far the worst possible person she could have left in charge of this royal free for all was her daughter in law, Queen Mary. Queen Mary was a well-known jewel-a-holic and alleged kleptomaniac. She often insisted on being given pieces of furniture or objets d’art from the homes of friends she visited simply because she felt they should be added to her collection. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Queen Mary wasted no time in acquiring jewels put up for sale by her struggling Romanov relations and in 1910, she fought tooth and nail (parting with a large financial sum) to recover emeralds belonging to the Teck family left by her brother Prince Francis to his mistress.

Queen Mary had a keen eye for design as well as acquisition and over the years she had several pieces remodelled, reset or destroyed entirely to accommodate new stones she had been gifted or had purchased. This is key to the story of Queen Alexandra’s emeralds. Whilst it is possible that Queen Mary may have set aside pieces from Alexandra’s collection she wished to gift to the Prince of Wales’ future fiancé, Queen Mary would undoubtedly have placed these pieces in reserve when Queen Alexandra died in 1925. As the Prince did not marry Wallis until 1937, there was simply no opportunity for David (even as King) to acquire any jewels from his grandmother’s collection. And there was certainly no way Queen Mary would have parted with any gem destined to be worn by the daughter in law she refused to mention by her Christian name.

The idea that Wallis acquired the emeralds and had them reset might be believable when one considers that she firmly believed that jewels should evolve with their wearer. Mary Raffray was among those who believed that Wallis had the emeralds reset thereby obscuring their royal provenance. However, it appears that only two items from Queen Alexandra’s jewellery case containing emeralds went missing following her death. These were the Indian Necklace and a necklace commissioned by Queen Alexandra from Cartier in 1904. This Collier Résille with detachable emerald and ruby pendants was formed of gems taken from existing jewels belonging to the Queen (said to be yet more gifts from India).

Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester
Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester wearing emeralds formerly belonging to Queen Alexandra.

In the case of the Indian Necklace, this was inherited by Queen Mary and broken up to create a staggering emerald and pearl demi-parure for her daughter in law, Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas Scott, who married Mary’s son Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester in 1935. In the case of the Collier, once again, the necklace was inherited by Queen Mary who had it altered in 1926. According to Hugh Roberts’ book “The Queen’s Diamonds”, the piece is now in the collection of Alexandra’s great-granddaughter, the present Queen Elizabeth II. The Ladies of the North Wales items (the feathers and that famous leek) made their way to David’s successor as Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, and have been worn by both his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales and his second wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.

The mystery of Queen Alexandra’s emeralds kept the tongues of the chattering classes of London society clacking for decades. They even suggested that the Windsors had staged the Sunningdale cat burglary to cover up their heist. They were wrong. The Duchess of Windsor possessed some truly remarkable gems which were admired and desired by millions. These included a 48.95-carat emerald pendant once owned by King Alfonso XIII of Spain as well as an emerald and diamond necklace said to have been made from stones re-purposed from a pair of anklets worn by the Maharani of Baroda. What her collection never included however, were Queen Alexandra’s emeralds.

The Wallis Archive: The Day the Emperor came to tea

In October 1971, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were still reeling from the surprise of one royal visit when they immediately began to prepare for another. The first had come from the Prince of Wales, then a young man of 24, who’s contact with his Uncle David and Aunt Wallis had been severely restricted since Charles’ birth in 1948. David was Charles’ immediate predecessor and had been the most popular Prince of Wales in living memory. In 1911, David had been the first Prince of Wales in centuries to have an investiture ceremony in Wales, a ceremony later used as a model for a similar ceremony held for Prince Charles in 1969. It was only natural therefore, that the young Charles had become intrigued by the way his uncle had approached the role of heir apparent during his tenure as Prince of Wales.

Charles’ visit was not a resounding success. Arranged by Lord Mountbatten, the young Prince wrote of the meeting in his diary; “The whole thing seemed so tragic—the existence, the people and the atmosphere—that I was relieved to escape it after 45 minutes”. For his part, the Duke was said to be enormously touched that his nephew had taken the trouble to visit him. David knew that he was terminally ill by this time having recently been diagnosed with cancer of the throat. Wallis was, according to Charles, “absolutely incredible for her age” (though he followed this with a rather ungallant comment on her use of cosmetic surgery) and certainly she was in her element as the “hostess with the mostess”, expecting as she was another royal visitor the following day.

The Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito, was on a European tour, a monumental moment in Japanese history. Accompanied by his wife, Empress Nagako, the tour would mark the first time a reigning Emperor had left Japan and the proposed tour was an extensive one with stops scheduled in almost every European capital. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy and Denmark were all to play host to the Imperial couple in a whirlwind tour which would last just 18 days. The Emperor himself was positive about his upcoming trip; “I shall do my best to obtain a harvest of international friendship”, he was quoted as saying. The Empress joked, “I am overjoyed not to have to keep telling state guests from abroad that I have never visited any country outside Japan”.

George V and the Crown Prince
King George V, David’s father, welcomes Crown Prince Hirohito to London, 1921.

The official leg of the tour was to begin in Belgium where the Emperor and Empress were the guests of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola. Greeted by a 51 gun salute and a special medieval themed welcome parade at the Grand Place in Brussels, thousands lined the route to welcome a man who had represented Europe’s enemy just 30 years earlier. The official and state visits were only one thread of the complex good will mission and unofficial “friendship calls” were made too. Before arriving in Brussels for example, the Emperor and Empress and had been received by King Frederick IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark. And before going onto his state visit in London from Belgium, the Emperor had requested another private, informal meeting. This time, with an old friend who just happened to be living in Paris.

The Emperor and the Duke of Windsor had first met in 1921 when, as Crown Prince, Hirohito had conducted a tour of England with the then Prince of Wales serving as an official guide. Hirohito arrived in England in March 1921 in yet another first. No Crown Prince had traveled outside of Japan before and the fact that England was to be the first stop on his tour saw the British government go to expensive extremes to ensure that the visit was a success. Shortly after he celebrated his 21st birthday in Gibraltar, the Crown Prince arrived in London where he was treated to “a very informal breakfast” by King George V, who was said to have worn a dressing gown and carpet slippers throughout.

David and Hirohito
The Prince of Wales and the Crown Prince of Japan play golf in Tokyo, 1922.

As much as it was a fact finding mission for the Crown Prince (George V gave him “lessons” on constitutional monarchy as opposed to the Japanese absolute system), there was time amid the endless official engagements of a packed programme for a little play. For a prince who’s life had been ruled by rigid protocol, daily religious ceremonies and unbending etiquette, the experience of playing a round of golf with the Prince of Wales was an eye opening experience and one he never forgot. Indeed, so happy was the Crown Prince in the company of the Prince of Wales that the overall success of the visit, as judged by Japanese officials, was deemed “moderate” as it had unfortunately introduced Hirohito to the idea of “freedom”.

In his 2016 book, Emperor Hirohito and the Pacific War, author Noriko Kawamura says; “Comparing himself to a bird in a cage, Hirohito was delighted to be able to read entire newspapers instead of only clippings. He was so thrilled to be able to ride the Paris subway that he brought back the subway ticket to Japan, where he saved it as a memento in his study’s desk drawer in the imperial palace”. The Crown Prince also seems to have taken to the Prince of Wales and considered him a close friend after only a few days of interaction. Perhaps regarding the Prince as a symbol of a life he wished he could enjoy permanently rather than just visit, Hirohito was delighted when just a year after his own visit to Europe, the Prince of Wales accepted an invitation to visit Japan.

David in Japanese costume.
The Prince of Wales wears the traditional “Happi” during his 1922 visit to Japan.

Though the visit to Tokyo was slightly marred by an unfortunate fire at the Imperial Hotel, the Crown Prince (now regent for his ailing father) took every opportunity to incorporate fun activities for his guest just as the Prince of Wales had organised for the Crown Prince in England. The pair played golf again and were photographed together, the Crown Prince wearing Western clothes clearly modeled on fashion plates of the Prince of Wales’ wardrobe which Hirohito admired. Naturally there were official engagements for David too but the contemporaries genuinely appeared to enjoy their time together and within just two years, both men considered themselves to have a bond of friendship that many at the time saw as an extremely positive step forward.

By 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated his throne in order to marry the woman he loved. By 1941 following Japanese attacks in Malaya, Singapore and Hong King (authorised by Emperor Hirohito himself), Britain declared war on Japan. The relationship between the United Kingdom and Japan was broken and bruised and many blamed Hirohito personally and wished to see him executed for war crimes. Stripped of his divinity and forced to accept a new constitutional role, Hirohito spent the remaining years of his life dedicating himself to proving Japan’s new peaceful approach to international relations. His European tour of 1971 was one step in a long and painful process of healing.

Friends, Reunited.
The Emperor and Empress meet the Duke and Duchess, Paris, 1971.

It is therefore not surprising that during that tour, the Emperor wished to revisit old memories of a happier time when his personal relations with European governments, leaders and their families was untainted by the horrors of war. When he asked if he might visit the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Paris, the request was not made as a command from a visiting Emperor to a former King living in the shadow of his own imperial past. It was made as one old friend who wished to be reunited with another. Whether Hirohito knew that David was terminally ill at this time or not may have encouraged him to seek a meeting but regardless of his motivation, the Windsors accepted without hesitation.

At the time, many British journalists (and indeed, those in Whitehall) expressed concern at the meeting. The Emperor was due to begin his state visit to London just days later and many in the UK were still furious at the notion that Hirohito should be welcomed to Buckingham Palace at all. The hurt of the war years was still raw for many and former Japanese Prisoners of War protested his visit along the Mall and in Trafalgar Square. David and Wallis were still the villains of a great royal pantomime and so of course, the press were predictable in their outrage at the idea that Hirohito would meet the Duke and Duchess before meeting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

But the visit went ahead, the Duke and Duchess welcoming their Imperial guests at their home in the Bois de Boulogne where they took tea and reminisced about old times. The Duchess showed the Empress photographs of the Duke in traditional Japanese clothing which he had modeled during his 1922 visit to Japan. The Emperor invited David and Wallis to visit the imperial couple in Tokyo the following year. Both seemed taken aback by the frailty of the other. Time had passed and the two young men full of promise who had played golf together in a by-gone age of great Empires were now worn down by the baggage of their life choices. The meeting was brief but significant. For David, it was a reminder of a role he had one played. For Hirohito, it was a reminder of a life he might have had. And for Wallis and Nagako?

It is worth remembering that Hirohito cast aside centuries of Japanese tradition when he chose his own bride. Refusing to accept the traditional role of concubines and determining that he would be faithful to just one woman, Hirohito had done something remarkable and shocking to many in Japan. Nagako had been swept up in a dramatic reign, a painful journey of bloodshed and brutality hastily followed by recriminations and regret. She had not been allowed to refuse the Emperor.

Wallis too had been “chosen”. Despite her protestations, David’s obsession with Wallis had led to a royal scandal that had shaken the British Empire to it’s core. Perhaps as the couples stood before the Windsors’ home in Paris on that October day in 1971, the bond that tied them together was not so much an old pre-war friendship between two fresh-faced princes but rather, an understanding between two weary women of what it was to have been married to headstrong and controlling men.

The Wallis Archive: The Duchess and the Suffragette

In April 1937, Wallis was residing at the Château de Candé in the Loire Valley as a guest of Herman and Katherine Rogers. Until her divorce from Ernest Simpson was made final with a decree absolute, her communication with the former King (at this time staying at Schloss Enzesfeld in Austria with friends Eugen and Kitty de Rothschild) had to be strictly limited. The separation from David and the intense anxiety of the dramatic events of the previous six months had made her somewhat defiant. According to Anne Sebba’s wonderful biography That Woman, Wallis had intended to give interviews to the British press to put her side of the story across to the public who were being fed daily doses of anti-Wallis propaganda to stamp out any sympathy that might remain for the Prince and his intended.

Wallis with Herman and David.
The Windsors on their wedding day at the Château de Candé, with Herman Rogers (left).

Whilst she did not carry out these threats, she did agree to speak to a journalist when the date of her decree absolute and subsequent marriage to David could be confirmed. The journalist in question was Helena Normanton. Normanton was a key figure in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and a founder member of the Women’s Freedom League. She was the first woman to practice as a barrister in England and only the second to be called to the bar. Helena had gained a reputation not only as a ferocious campaigner for women’s rights but also as a keen supporter of divorce reform. She was therefore naturally sympathetic to Wallis, believing as she did that a woman should have the right to leave a marriage if she was unhappy and not just if she was the victim of cruel treatment on the part of her husband.

Her outspoken views made Helena a pariah in the male-dominated legal profession and in order to make a living, she took on work as a freelance journalist. It should come as no surprise therefore that she was one of the first to have articles published on the fall out of the Abdication which were sympathetic in tone. These were published in American newspapers, the British establishment insisting as it was that the press toe the Palace line when it came to any coverage of the recently abdicated monarch and his fiance. Wallis would have been well aware of Helena’s reputation and so when Helena contacted Herman Rogers at the Château and asked if he might act as an intermediary to arrange an interview, she was confident that Wallis would agree.

Wallis began corresponding with Helena in April 1937 and was only too keen to take the one opportunity she felt she had to correct vicious rumours that had been allowed to take root in the aftermath of the abdication. She intended to use her interview with Helena to silence the gossips. On the 16th April 1937, she gave Helena an interview at the Chateau for publication in the New York Times. Wallis had one stipulation. Though her deed poll to change her name to Wallis Warfield (her maiden name) had yet to be approved, she wished to be known as Mrs Warfield in Helena’s articles and not Mrs Simpson.

On the 17th April 1937, Wallis wrote to Helena about the draft copy of the interview she had just given which would appear in the New York Times in two installments:

“I have [read] this article through and am very pleased with it – therefore I hope no alteration will [be] made”

The relationship between the two women was a friendly one built on mutual understanding. Helena told Wallis that she planned to write a book on her proposals for changes to the British constitution using the Windsors as an example of how such a dramatic turn of events could be avoided in the future. She sought Wallis’ help in securing an interview with the Duke of Windsor which Wallis appears to have promised to do when the pair were reunited.

Following their marriage on 3rd June 1937, the Duke of Windsor and his new Duchess traveled from France to Austria where they would honeymoon for four months at Schloss Wasserleonburg in Nötsch im Gailtal. It was from here that Wallis wrote to Helena on the 9th August;

Thank you so much for your letter of July thirteenth, which I regret not having been able to answer before. You will no doubt have noticed that proceedings have been taken in regard to ‘Coronation Commentary’, and the Duke has been advised that, while these proceedings are pending, he should not comment upon, nor authorise comments upon statements contained in that book. The book covers so wide a field, that I am afraid that at the present, I am unable to write anything useful in answer to your letter.

‘Coronation Commentary’ was written by Geoffrey Dennis in 1937, published before Helena Normanton had a chance to put her own manuscript to a publisher. The Duke of Windsor had given an interview to Dennis who had assured him of a friendly press but things quickly turned sour. Whilst the book was promoted as “a survey of the power of the throne and the crown in England”, Dennis believed his cordial co-operation with the Duke whilst writing afforded him the right to make flippant remarks about David and even included a few unveiled insults towards Wallis. David had therefore contacted his lawyers and intended to sue Dennis.

This is perhaps why Helena Normanton never finished her proposed book on the British constitution. Whilst the Windsors had every reason to trust Normanton, their lawyers were advising them not to speak to any more authors until the Dennis matter was resolved. Nonetheless, as a sign of good faith, Wallis invited Helena to visit the Windsors when they returned to Monts in September. From the letter that followed this visit, it appears that the Duchess considered Helena’s book a project she could now assist with. Indeed, she was quite eager to do so;

Helena Normanton.
Helena Normanton KC, (1882 – 1957).

I did so enjoy your too short visit to Cande – as usual I thought of all the things I wanted to say after you had gone. I am enclosing you some data which someone sent me from America today. Perhaps it will be of some use for your book – which I pray will have a speedy appearance as the unkind and inaccurate pens seem very busy. Will you be so kind as to return my little histories to me when you have finished with them? Yours sincerely, Wallis

Helena appears to have given up hope of producing her book by the end of 1937 but her association with Wallis was not altogether wasted. Two articles written by Normanton were published in May and June 1937 by the New York Times from their original interview at the Chateau. These articles are revealing in that they are the first time Wallis tackles the rumours being peddled by the British press which would remain attached to her name for the rest of her life. Whilst the British establishment felt secure in having robbed Wallis of a voice (the British press under strict orders not to print anything too complimentary to her), she found a way to speak her own mind to a woman she knew understood the importance of a woman’s right to be heard.

Mrs Warfied Denies Rumours!
Published article by Helena Normanton, New York Times, May 31, 1937.


“I cannot recall ever being in Herr von Ribbentrop’s company more than twice. Once at a party of Lady Cunard’s before he became Ambassador and once at a big reception. I was never alone in his company and I never had more than a few words of conversation with him – simply the usual small talk. That is all. I took no interest at all in politics”

On rumours that she had been romantically involved with the German Ambassador.

In the first place, Queen Alexandra’s collection of jewellery was – for a Queen – none too remarkable. In the second, the Duke of Windsor never at any time in his life inherited any jewellery from any member of the Royal Family. Third, by no sort of route, through him or otherwise, has Wallis Warfield ever been in possession of any jewels ever owned by the late Queen Alexandra!

Helena on the rumours that Wallis had been gifted priceless emeralds from Queen Alexandra’s collection.

“As to coronet-embroidered pyjamas! I have never ordered or had any. I even dislike seeing women walk about at seaside resorts in them, and as far as coronets go, I’ve never even seen one!”

Wallis on rumours that she was incorporating a coronet design into her Spring wardrobe.
Intrigue is denied!
Article by Helena Normanton, New York Times, June 1st, 1937.


“I do so hope the new King will have a really great reign”

Wallis on her brother-in-law, King George VI.

“Whatever you may write about me, will you promise not to forget to say how deep is the gratitude I feel toward Mr and Mrs Herman Rogers, for their magnificent hospitality which has sheltered me during this terrible time?”

Wallis thanks Herman and Katherine for taking her in.

What of the future of the Duke of Windsor and the woman he will marry on June 3rd? Must their short romance – for remember, neither is young; both are now in their early forties-be floodlit and deprived of every chance of quiet serenity? Shall they ever have peace?

Helena pleads the Windsors case to the British establishment.

Author’s Note: Quotes from these interviews were taken directly from the New York Times archives. The letters from Wallis to Helena Normanton were obtained from the Papers of Helena Normanton which are now kept by the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

The Windsor Collection: Wallis’ Cartier Charm Bracelet

For many, the Duchess of Windsor has become synonymous with exquisite jewels. Long before Dame Elizabeth Taylor was amassing her treasure trove, Wallis was busy building a collection that would enchant the world for decades. Whilst it is true that many of her jewels came to her in the form of romantic gifts from the Prince of Wales, Wallis had been an avid collector of jewellery long before she began her liaison with him. She was not opposed to paste (simulated gemstones) provided that the setting was tasteful and she had a special fondness for pieces in the shape of animals, birds, flowers or even fruits.

But the most famous items from her collection are naturally those given to her by her future husband. The Prince of Wales enjoyed giving Wallis gifts of jewellery just as much as she enjoyed receiving them. For this first glimpse into her jewel case, I’ve chosen the Cartier Nine Cross Charm Bracelet which is perhaps the most important piece Wallis owned but also, her favourite.

The Cartier Nine Cross Charm Bracelet

Throughout his life, David (as the Prince, King and later Duke was called by his family) had a keen eye for designing jewellery and was adept at incorporating intimate sentiments into the pieces he commissioned. In 1934, his relationship with Wallis now a serious one, David gifted her a bracelet that would come to serve as a means of private communication between the couple. Crafted by Cartier, the concept behind the charm bracelet took it’s inspiration from a pendant the Prince himself wore of a simple gold latin cross hanging from a gold chain.

Lady Diana Cooper, the actress, writer and close friend of the Prince of Wales, joined David and Wallis on their cruise of the Adriatic Sea aboard Lady Yule’s yacht, the Nahlin, in 1936. She made special reference to the matching pieces in a letter to Conrad Russell, the British historian and politician, after Wallis was photographed wearing the bracelet for the first time by paparazzi following them during the Nahlin’s tour of the Dalmatian Coast. Cooper felt that the jewels were an outward sign of strong bond that could never be broken.

Wallis’ bracelet is a platinum chain bracelet with 22 circular- and brilliant-cut diamonds with a navette-shaped clasp. Though not uniform in their spacing, the bracelet has nine Latin crosses suspended from it. The first is cast in platinum and is engraved (in David’s handwriting); WE are too, 25-XI-34. WE refers to the discrete abbreviation of their names which the couple adopted at a time when they could not be public in their affections, even among their closest friends or family. “Are too” is believed to refer to the impending marriage of David’s brother George to Princess Marina of Greece of Denmark. The message can be deciphered as, “Wallis and Edward are in love too from this date in 1934”.

The next charm came from the Prince of Wales on his 41st birthday. It is set with calibré-cut sapphires with an inscription that reads; Wallis – David, 23-6-35. Wallis now took up the idea of giving charms as gifts herself and asked Cartier to make a similar cross (set with rubies) with the inscription; David – Wallis, 23-6-35. He added the charm to his gold pendant and, clearly pleased that Wallis was enjoying this intimate exchange of charms, commissioned another from Cartier almost immediately. This time, he intended to give Wallis the gift during their summer holiday. The two month vacation took in Cannes, Paris, Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg with a special stop off at a small town in the Salzkammergut of Upper Austria called St Wolfgang.

Bracelet Inscriptions.
Some of the inscriptions on the reverse of the charms. (Image from Sotheby’s, 2010)

It was here that David presented Wallis with the next charm. Set with calibré-cut rubies, it is unclear as to why St Wolfgang was so special a place to the Prince who had clearly intended to gift the cross there from the outset of their trip. But having visited St Wolfgang myself, I can see the romantic appeal for a Prince in love. Located on the northern shore of the Wolfgangsee, tucked into the foot of the Shafberg mountain, it is a beautiful town with picturesque views but also has a distinct feel of seclusion and privacy to it when compared to Salzburg itself. Authors of the Windsor romance have proposed that it was here in St Wolfgang that the Prince first determined his intention to marry Wallis and perhaps this is why David chose such a stunning location to give his gift.

The cryptic inscription on the next charm has two possible origin stories. Set with baguette diamonds, it marks the first charm given after David had become King (though it was not the first piece of jewellery she received following his accession). One theory is that David was by now so-obsessed with Wallis that she took a private trip to Paris with friends so as to allow herself some respite from the anxiety of her situation. Her marriage to Ernest was now in tatters and the King was calling her almost four times a day to check on her progress abroad. Wallis is said to have slammed the telephone down and refused to take any further calls. Another story goes that when Wallis refused to return at his request, the King slammed the telephone down on Wallis. The diamond cross charm is therefore inscribed; The Kings Cross God bless WE 1-3-36.

However, there is another origin story to the ‘Kings Cross’ charm which comes from the politician and diarist, Chips Channon. Channon was a friend to both the King and Wallis, indeed, Wallis often spoke openly about the difficulties of her situation to Channon in a way she couldn’t to others. According to Chips, so well known had Wallis become in London that when she hailed a taxi and said “Kings Cross” (referring to the train station), the taxi driver replied, “I’m sorry lady”. When she relayed the story to the King at Balmoral, he is said to have roared with laughter and immortalised the joke in a gift from Cartier. Whatever it’s symbolism, the diamond cross marked the first of three charms Wallis would receive in 1936.

The following two charms had strange inspirations. The first came on the 10th July 1936 and is called the X Ray Cross. Set with calibré-cut emeralds, it appears to be an attempt on the part of the King to cheer Wallis after weeks of ill health. She had been subjected to head to toe x-rays to try and find the source of her digestive problems which were said to relate to ulcers from which she had long suffered. No doubt exacerbated by the stress of her situation, the King also became deeply concerned that Wallis may be facing serious health problems and chose to express his relief that she was not in the form of a charm.

Just six days later, Wallis received another charm with bizarre connotations. George McMahon, also known as Jerome Bannigan, was a dangerous fantasist who had spent many months making allegations of various plots and conspiracies to the police. He even claimed to have knowledge of an assassination attempt that was being planned against the life of the King. Following the Trooping of the Colour ceremony on the 16th July 1936 to celebrate his birthday, David was riding through Hyde Park on his way back to Buckingham Palace when McMahon produced a revolver. The weapon was wrestled from him before he could take a shot.

The King decided to commemorate this bizarre incident in glitter. Cartier produced another cross, this time set with calibré-cut aquamarines with the inscription; God Save the King for Wallis. 16. VII .36. This date is also interesting as, by now, the King and Ernest Simpson had come to an agreement that Ernest would allow Wallis to divorce him in order for the King to take Wallis as his bride. 5 days later, Ernest would check in the Hotel de Paris in Bray with another woman in order to give Wallis grounds for legal separation. 7 days later, following the advice of her lawyers, Wallis wrote the letter informing Ernest that she would be filing for divorce. The God Save the King for Wallis inscription is therefore a clear indication that within 6 months of his accession, the King had already made up his mind to make Wallis his Queen.

Wallis on her wedding day, 1937.
Wallis wears the bracelet on her wedding day.

His plan failed. His abdication on the 10th December 1936 sealed the Windsors’ fate as exiles but at least the pair could now look forward to their marriage. For this, the most important date in David’s life, he commissioned a very special cross charm from Cartier. Following the same pattern of six calibré-cut stones to the charm, this was comprised of sapphires and emeralds with a ruby just below the central stone; a baguette diamond. It is inscribed; Our marriage Cross Wallis. 3.VI.37. David. On their wedding day, David also wore his latin cross pendant which now held three almost identical charms to those featured on Wallis’ bracelet; the original gold, the ruby (given in 1935) and the sapphire (given in St Wolfgang in the same year).

Though Wallis had taken to wearing the bracelet every day, photographs of her wearing the item are rare before her marriage – possibly not wishing to risk too many questions about the sentiment of each charm. On her wedding day however, the bracelet takes pride of place on her right wrist and after this time, the piece was never hidden from public view again. Though the Duke of Windsor (as he now was) continued to commission various jewelers to make important pieces for Wallis following his abdication, the Cartier charm remained in it’s seven cross form for the next eight years.

Wallis by John Rawlings.
Wallis wearing the completed bracelet in this 1944 portrait taken by John Rawlings for Vogue.

It is possible that the expenditure required following his abdication made such lavish gifts impossible for a time. Whilst he had been given a financial settlement as part of the agreement made during the planning of his abdication, David had kept his true wealth a secret from everybody involved – including Wallis. Wallis was petrified of poverty and throughout her life fought for financial security in case she found herself alone. But both she and the Duke had expensive taste and in setting up their new home together in Paris, the couple had also decided to rent the Château de la Croë on the Cap d’Antibes peninsula of the Côte d’Azur. All this came at an enormous cost and possibly left little remaining for extravagant gifts of jewellery.

In 1944 however, the Duke added two final charms to the bracelet in quick succession. The first came in August and was inscribed Appendectomy Cross, 31.VIII.44, the Duchess having undergone surgery at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York City during her husband’s tenure as Governor of the Bahamas. The Appendectomy Cross, set with six calibré-cut amethysts, appears to have been a twin with a Get Well Soon cross following a week later. The Get Well Soon cross is dated Sept.44 and is set with yellow sapphires. These final additions brought the grand total of charms to nine and though the Windsors marriage would last until the Duke’s death in 1972, no further additions were made to the piece.

Following the Duchess’ death in 1986, the Cartier charm bracelet was sold at Sotheby’s in 1987 and purchased by the Syrian-Saudi financier, Wafic Said. He is said to have purchased a further 19 pieces from the sale of the Duchess’ jewellery. By 2010 however, the bracelet returned to Sotheby’s to be sold once again. This time, it sold for £600,000 to an unknown collector. Almost immediately, journalists began hunting for the new owner and settled on an interesting theory. They believed the new owner was none other than singer and actress Madonna.

Madonna was working on the 2011 motion picture W.E, her personal fascination with the Windsor romance having been well publicized. So determined was she to ensure the film was accurate in every detail, she commissioned Cartier to make reproductions of some of Wallis’ most iconic jewels – including the Nine Cross charm bracelet. The replicas were worn by Andrea Riseborough who portrayed the Duchess in the film but Madonna’s intention was to keep the pieces for herself after shooting had concluded. Cartier refused, insisting that the pieces be returned and dismantled after the filming was complete. One of Madonna’s favourite pieces was the Nine Cross charm bracelet but during scenes shot in the Mediterranean, the replica was lost in the sea and another had to be created for future scenes.

Madonna's bracelet.
Madonna wearing her own version of the bracelet at the premiere of W.E.

During the promotion of W.E, Madonna was pictured several times wearing what appeared to be the Nine Cross Charm bracelet. Cartier later confirmed that it had dismantled the second replica and made a new bracelet based on the original design for Madonna to add to her own jewellery collection but made clear that the piece worn by Madonna in public was neither the original bracelet owned by the Duchess or either of the two replicas Cartier made for the movie. The press accepted that Madonna had not been the lucky buyer at the 2010 Sotheby’s auction and the identity of Wallis’ favourite piece remains a mystery. Whilst other replicas have been offered by high street stores for years, none can ever be invested with the sentiment of the roller-coaster romance which cost a King his crown.