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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

From Literary Review

Behind Clothes, Hors d'oeuvres

By Jane Ridley

Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor
By Hugo Vickers (Hutchinson 462pp £25)

The English love to hate Wallis Simpson. She is vilified as the gold-digging sex goddess who stole our film-star king, Edward VIII. Hugo Vickers has spent a lifetime following Wallis. At the age of twelve, when most children his age were in thrall to the Beatles, Hugo was a fan of the Duchess of Windsor. His researches have convinced him that Wallis has been unfairly treated, and that she was not a villain but a victim. This was true throughout her life, but never more so than at the end.

Wallis, the widowed Duchess of Windsor, spent her last years incarcerated in a living grave in her villa in the Bois de Boulogne. Barely able to speak, mentally confused and paralysed by rheumatism and strokes, she had almost ceased to exist as a person. She lay all day in bed in a vegetative state, fed through a tube in her nose and attached to a life-support machine. Her lawyer, the sinister Maître Suzanne Blum, kept her under close surveillance. Blum could be charming, but (according to Vickers) she was a ruthless, wicked crook. Claiming to act as the Duchess's devoted friend and protector, she fired her respectable English lawyer, sacked the Duchess's loyal servants and banished her old friends, such as Diana Mosley. The royal family was kept away. The big question concerned what was to happen to the Windsor loot. Lord Mountbatten tried to wheedle his way in as an executor, but Blum saw him off. There were tales of bonfires of papers. While the Duchess lay unconscious upstairs, the dishonest butler filched her love letters, which he found stored in a shoebox, and handed them over to Blum (at a price) for safekeeping. Jewels and furniture mysteriously disappeared.

The writer Michael Bloch appeared on the scene, acting as Blum's assistant. It was his job to write the story of the Windsors, using the letters that Blum had removed from the villa. Blum claimed that the Duchess had signed a document giving her authority to publish her papers. This was dated 1975, when the Duchess was still in possession of her mind - but it only appeared ten years later. Vickers is convinced that the document is a fake, and Blum did not own the copyright on the Duchess's letters. Under French law she didn't have power of attorney over Wallis, but no one intervened from England to challenge her iron grip over the Duchess.

Wallis died in 1986, aged eighty-nine. Bloch's edition of Wallis and Edward's letters was serialised in the Daily Mail to coincide with Wallis's funeral, and Bloch and Blum netted a seven-figure sum. Two more books by Bloch followed, each more far-fetched than the last. The final volume claimed that the Duchess was really a man. No one ever saw the Duchess's will. Blum sold her jewels through Sotheby's for a staggering £31 million, which she gave to the Institut Pasteur: a generous gift, but there's no telling whether this was what the Duchess had intended.

Vickers's account of the Duchess's long, horrific death and Blum's machinations is a page-turner, piling on detail after grisly detail. Since he first visited the Windsors at the age of twenty as a researcher for Burke's Peerage, Vickers made it his business to keep a watchful eye on the villa in the Bois de Boulogne, occasionally stopping outside to observe the light burning in the upstairs window; he got to know the Duchess's secretary and the Duke's private secretary, two of the more decent characters in the story. He had the foresight to keep a diary, and this allows him to tell the story in the first person, a device that gives the book a gripping sense of urgency.

The story of her death, which forms the greater part of the book, Wallis's life comes as something of an anticlimax. Vickers insists throughout that Wallis was someone to whom things happened - she was no adventuress, merely a drifter. She was born Bessie Wallis Warfield near Baltimore. It's a surprise to learn that the Warfields were a posh Maryland family descended twice over from Henry III and that Wallis came from a higher stratum of American society than Jackie Kennedy or Princess Grace. But she was a poor relation, and a difficult childhood had left her financially insecure and with a need to dominate. After the collapse of her first, brief marriage to an alcoholic airman, she spent a year in China. Vickers dismisses the theory that it was here that Wallis learned exotic sexual techniques - though he does quote Lady Gladwyn, the wife of the British ambassador to France, who told him that the Duke of Windsor was unable to perform and that the Duchess knew how to cope with the problem. 'There was nothing Chinese about it. It was what they call oral sex,' she said.

Husband No. 2, Ernest Simpson, was an Anglo-American businessman. The couple lived in a flat in Bryanston Court, and she socialised with the American colony in London. Simpson's sister was a friend of the American Thelma Furness, then mistress of the Prince of Wales, which was how the meeting that changed Wallis's life was arranged. Few could explain the attraction Wallis exerted on the Prince. She had a raucous voice and an overlarge chin, and she was uneducated, with no interest in music or art.

It is well attested that Wallis tried to stop Edward from abdicating. She wasn't in love with him, didn't want to be queen and was horrified when she realised how much he was giving up. Although she allowed herself to be persuaded to divorce Simpson, she apparently failed to see what was coming. Vickers argues that Edward alone brought about the abdication, and there was no Establishment plot to get rid of him. Marriage condemned Wallis to a lifetime dedicated to entertaining the spoiled and childlike Duke. By all accounts he remained devoted to her. She dominated him, and she was fortunate that an empty life of socialising, fashion and jet-setting suited her far more than it did him. It was the Duke, not Wallis, who cared that she wasn't styled HRH - this meant that women were not expected to curtsey to her - and who nursed her in-laws' petty slights.

The Queen allegedly once remarked: 'The two people who have caused me most trouble in my life are Wallis Simpson and Hitler.' Hugo Vickers's compelling account makes one feel that Wallis did the Queen a favour. She made a success of a marriage she had never really wanted, and kept the restless Duke of Windsor safely anchored for thirty-five years. She certainly didn't deserve the ghastly death so hauntingly described here.

Jane Ridley's biography of Edward VII will be published by Chatto & Windus next year.

(@philabooks|booksellers carries all books by and about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, or at least endeavours to do so. Unfortunately, this title is not yet in its catalog via http://www.philabooks.webs.com/).