Dancing with the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue

Dancing with the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue

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by Christopher Wilson

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The story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is one of the most romantic of all time: Edward VIII abdicated his throne and gave up an empire so that he could marry the woman he loved, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Very few people suspected, and even fewer actually knew, that the Duchess cuckolded him—and almost gave him up—for a gay playboy


The story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is one of the most romantic of all time: Edward VIII abdicated his throne and gave up an empire so that he could marry the woman he loved, American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Very few people suspected, and even fewer actually knew, that the Duchess cuckolded him—and almost gave him up—for a gay playboy twenty years her junior.

Blond and slender, Jimmy Donahue was the archetypal post-war playboy. He could fly a plane, speak several languages, play the piano, and tell marvelous jokes. People loved him for his wit, charm and personality. The grandson of millionaire Frank W. Woolworth, Jimmy knew he would never need to work. Instead, he set about carving for himself a career of mischief. Some said evil.

Gay at a time when the homosexual act was still illegal, Jimmy was notorious within America’s upper class, and loved to shock. Though press agents arranged for him to be seen with female escorts, his pursuits, until he met the Duchess of Windsor, were exclusively homosexual. He was thirty-five when he was befriended by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1950. The Duchess was fifty-four, and despite the difference in age, there was an instant attraction. A burgeoning sexual relationship – a perverse sort of love – was formed between Jimmy and the Duchess. Together with the Duke, they became an inseparable trio, the closest of friends. As Jimmy had planned, the royal couple became obsessed with him.

With information from surviving contemporaries, Dancing with the Devil is the extraordinary tale of three remarkable people and their unique and twisted relationship.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] fabulous sex and scandal tale." - Cindy Adams, the New York Post

“For true romantics, it’s like finding out that the epic love affair of Abelard and Heloise was really just a quickie in a Left Bank nightclub’s men’s room. Or that Rapunzel wore hair extensions and Cinderella had an ingrown toenail . . . Dancing With the Devil certainly makes for a juicy read.” –W magazine

“[This] naughty book dishes the grade-A gossip.” –Jane Magazine

"[Wilson is] imaginative...sensitive...an original stylist...fair-minded." - New York Observer

"A juicy read!" - Indianapolis Star

"Lots of spicy detail." - Newsday

Heir to the Woolworth fortune and confidant of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jimmy Donahue played a catalytic, if shadowed, role in mid-20th-century society circles. A mischievous and wealthy bon vivant, Donahue enjoyed the life of a gay playboy, even at a time when homosexuality was still stigmatized (and often outlawed). With fresh sources (and delightfully fresher conjecture), Christopher Wilson's Dancing with the Devil revives phantom spirits cast adrift in a lost age.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Those interested in the empty but privileged lives of American Wallis Simpson (1896-1986) and her husband, the duke of Windsor (1894-1972), who renounced the British throne for her in 1936, will be absorbed by this gossipy story of a strange love triangle. After the abdication, the royal family refused to accept the duchess, so the Windsors embarked on a life of travel and conspicuous consumption. In 1950, they befriended Jimmy Donahue (1915-1966), a playboy and an heir to the Woolworth fortune. Although Donahue was 19 years younger than the duchess and an active homosexual, the two began an amorous relationship that lasted four years. According to the author, despite the Windsors' epic romance, the duchess was apparently unfulfilled sexually (though she did, according to an unnamed source, indulge her husband's foot fetish and interest in masochism). Donahue's mother, Jessie, controlled his purse strings, because her son had repeatedly demonstrated his recklessness, but she approved of his relationship with the duchess. Jessie and her son paid for the Windsors' extravagances in exchange for using the royal connection for social advancement. Wilson, a London journalist and observer of royal romance (A Greater Love: Prince Charles's Twenty Year Affair with Camilla Parker Bowles), writes in a brisk, entertaining style, but there is little here to justify his description of Donahue--a self-indulgent substance abuser--as charming. Indeed, Donahue took pleasure in scandalizing those in his social circle; for instance, he would strip or display his genitals to waiters and party guests, and he enjoyed cuckolding Edward Windsor. The duke, who not only endured his wife's affair in silence but accepted gifts from her lover, did, however, eventually call a halt to the relationship. Photos not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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6.82(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dancing with the Devil

The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue

By Christopher Wilson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Christopher Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7396-4


PARIS, 1951

Paris in the 1950s was the epicentre of civilisation. The world's poets, painters, writers and film-makers raced, as if to a child who has tripped and fallen, to help revive the City of Light after the cruel dark days of war and privation. Socialites and aristocrats, newly-minted millionaires and ordinary tourists crowded its wide boulevards, injecting life and hope and, just as important, much-needed foreign currency.

This second Occupation was led by America and Britain, two great allies who, having given France its liberty, now sought their own spoils of war – food, wine, culture, music, frivolity. Paris had them all, and much more besides. The Ritz Hotel in the Place Vendôme was permanently fully booked, the great restaurants such as Maxim's and the Tour d'Argent were full. Theatres, music halls and nightclubs echoed to the sound of joyous alien tongues celebrating the city's release from subjugation.

Paris, in the spring, was the place to be in love. Two figures, clenched tightly on the dancefloor of Jimmy's nightclub in Montmartre, moving in harmony, challenging the dawn to come, exemplified the spirit of the age, this essence of post-war liberation. The man was tall, slim, still carrying some of youth's bloom, dressed languidly in dinner-jacket, black tie, and with a gardenia in his buttonhole. The woman was older, darker, more intense; sheathed beautifully in a Jacques Fath velvet dress, a diamond brooch at the shoulder, a fantastic sapphire ring flashing on her right hand.

A black dance band played and Henri Salvador sang, champagne flowed and assignations were kept. In the crowd of no more than a hundred which surrounded the dancefloor sat the Portuguese Duke de Cadaval, next to him Comtesse Cléclé de Maille. Though Jimmy's was no more than a humble couple of rooms in the rue Huygens, its clientele was far from lowly. One person who was there that night, E. Haring Chandor, describes the scene: 'It was late. I suppose the crowd was beginning to thin out, but they stayed on the dancefloor. And then, suddenly, they kissed ... it went on and on. People were looking, but it made no difference. They didn't care. It was the kiss of two lovers.'

A black Cadillac awaited them in the street. They were driven up the Champs Elysées, across L'Etoile and over the Pont de l'Alma to the Quai Branly in the seventh arrondissement. They stopped outside a building which contained the apartment of Count Jean de Baglion, a well-known and much-loved French aristocrat. It was to be their haven for the night, for the woman's husband was in England.

The date was Tuesday 5 June 1951. The Duke of Windsor, a figure unique in world history for having abandoned power, status, riches, and a throne all for the love of a woman, had left Paris two days earlier to visit his ailing mother, Queen Mary, in London. His wife – who was, it might be argued, the most admired woman in the world at the time – followed the young man into the apartment and together they walked to the window. In the dawn light the grey River Seine beneath them was touched with the first rays of summer sun. It was possible to glimpse over the rooftops the Arc de Triomphe and its great tricolour flapping gently in the warm morning breeze. As Paris began to waken, the couple took off their evening clothes and went to bed.

In the history of love, it was possibly the greatest betrayal of all time.

The Duke knew, and looked the other way. He may not have known everything, but into every single day, ever since the previous summer, there had danced the elegant figure of Jimmy Donahue: at luncheon, at cocktails, at dinner, and in the nightclubs after dinner. Once, there had been two Windsors; now, it seemed, there were always three. Jimmy was with the Duke and Duchess in New York, in Palm Beach, in Paris – laughing, camping, effervescing. Jimmy with his jokes, Jimmy with his money, Jimmy with his stories and rudery – Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy ...

'The Duchess was infatuated by him,' recalls David Metcalfe, the Duke's godson. 'He had control of her. She couldn't do without him.'

For though he was homosexual, Jimmy had discovered the key to unlock the pent-up desires and frustrations of a woman who had spent the previous fifteen years, since the Abdication, in a virtually sexless marriage. She was both suffocated by her husband's love, and unfulfilled; for though Wallis may have found the secrets to the Duke's innermost desires, love her though he might, sexual gratification was not something the Duke was able to reciprocate.

Jimmy was, for Wallis Windsor, a last throw of the dice. There had been other men before the Duke and Mr Simpson, some of whom found the trigger to her ambiguous sexuality. But the Duchess was moving towards old age, her husband leading the way with his fussy, obsessive habits, and she wanted one last reminder that she was still desirable as a sexual being, not simply an icon, a footnote in history.

That week in June 1951, Jimmy and the Duchess went everywhere together. They lunched, as they had done so often over the past year, at their favourite rendezvous, the Méditerranée; at the time the smartest fish restaurant in Paris, it was said that the chef committed suicide because he lost a Michelin star. At night they would dine at the Relais des Porquerolles, then visit the clubs less associated with the Windsors' habitual trawl of the city's night-spots: the Pam Pam, the Val d'Isère, l'Ascot on the Champs Elysées; and the Vieux Colombier where they bumped into Prince Aly Khan – the man who with his sexual prowess brought an end to Thelma Furness's affair with the then Prince of Wales, thus opening the door for Wallis.

Jimmy took his lover to see how the other side lived: to Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit and Le Carrousel and La Vie en Rose, known as 'la salle viande', the meat market, where an orchestra played and men danced cheek-to-cheek. Lady Diana Cooper, wife of Britain's ambassador to France, recalled: 'A patron, with a face painted an inch thick, hangs about waiting for the moment when his shirt and trousers are exchanged for a sequinned Edwardian gown and hat, à la Boldini. Then, at a beat from the band, out troops a corps de ballet of oldish gentlemen en décolletage and maquillage – delight as best they can, while between numbers the male couples go prancing round with here and there a couple of tweedy women.'

Each night they made their way back to the Quai Branly before Jimmy's chauffeured black Cadillac, by now bearing a single passenger, finally nosed its way back to her home on the Rue de la Faisanderie.

Yet apart from that one night in Montmartre, Jimmy and the Duchess were not observed kissing. Indeed they usually travelled with a chaperone in an attempt to deflect the already burgeoning gossip about their closeness. The Countess of Romanones, who sometimes sat as Jimmy and Wallis's chaperone till five in the morning, says, with decorum, that she never knew for certain the exact nature of their relationship. But the evidence was there. Count Jean de Baglion – gay, plump, wickedly funny and exceptionally clever – had provided the perfect backdrop for the affair with his exquisite apartment in the Quai Branly, with its panoramic views of the Seine and its black satin-lined bedroom. What occurred behind those doors remained secret – until Jimmy, after the affair was over, started to tell tales.

Jimmy's cousin Barbara Hutton housed the couple at her suite at the Paris Ritz. There, they sometimes spent afternoons together, but the lovers were more vulnerable to discovery. 'I knew it was physical, I knew from the maid there was sexual activity,' says Mona Eldridge, then Hutton's secretary. She continued: 'She was in love with him, she was besotted by him, she chased him. She really fell for him.'

Apart from a sexual re-awakening the affair's allure, for the Duchess, was its clandestine nature. She became skittish at the prospect of secret nocturnal forays and Billy Livingston, Jimmy's childhood friend, recalled: 'Jimmy once picked me up in his limousine and I found the Duchess crouched on the floor – she didn't want to be seen. She enjoyed all this wildness and the crazy things they did.'

She enjoyed, too, the fruits of being wooed by a Woolworth heir. The huge sapphire ring she wore that night at Jimmy's was a Christmas present from her lover, made by Van Cleef and Arpels in New York. Its provenance emerged thirty-six years later when the Duchess's jewels were auctioned by Sotheby's and their history researched. The auction house was able to identify several lots which came ostensibly from Jimmy's mother, Jessie. Though the accounts at Van Cleef and at Cartier were in Jessie's name, Jimmy often shopped and ordered for the Duchess through them.

Many more jewels were bought in the name of love. 'Barbara Hutton paid for maybe $500,000 ($3.45 million) of presents Jimmy gave to the Duchess,' recalls her former boyfriend and biographer, Philip van Rensselaer. Charles Amory, a member of one of Palm Beach's oldest families, observed: 'Jessie paid for the affair because it was a feather in her cap.'

Indeed, she paid handsomely, effectively purchasing the Windsors' time for the duration of the affair. Her first present was offered soon after the Duke and Duchess, encouraged by a mutual friend, paid a visit to her Palm Beach mansion during the Second World War. To mark the occasion she commissioned a spectacular gold mesh, ruby, turquoise and diamond evening purse from Van Cleef. There followed many more such items which the Windsors were not too abashed to accept. The Duke, too, became ensnared by the Donahue largesse. Perfectly aware of the closeness between his wife and the man twenty-two years his junior, he nonetheless accepted from Jimmy jewelled cufflinks, tiepins and other male accoutrements. In 1950 Jimmy commissioned through his mother's Van Cleef and Arpels account a gold travelling watch with a slide-action basketweave case which the Duke was more than happy to receive.

For a time it seemed as though the Woolworth women, Jessie Donahue and Barbara Hutton, were pushing Jimmy from behind to take this love-match to the limit. Jessie hired yachts upon which the menage-à-trois holidayed, while Barbara, in recognition of Count Jean de Baglion's unselfishness in allowing his Quai Branly apartment to be used as a love-nest, bought him another in the Rue Washington. When Jimmy, spendthrift from beginning to end, ran short of cash, Billy Livingston recalls, 'She gave him a million dollars ($6.9 million) the next day.'

Such sums need to be seen in context. The one successful enterprise the Duke of Windsor ever undertook – the writing of his memoirs A King's Story, a project which took several years – earned him newspaper headlines around the world when it was revealed he had made $1 million from them. By comparison, all Jimmy had to do to raise the same amount of cash was ask his cousin; so it is unsurprising that the Windsors capitulated in the face of such uncountable wealth. Once they became a threesome, Jimmy paid for everything – dinners, cars, presents, holidays, even the redecoration of the Windsors' house in the Rue de la Faisanderie.

Jimmy's apparent homosexuality shielded the couple from any revelations in the press. The homosexual act was still illegal and references to it, in polite society, were usually circumspect. That is, apart from Jimmy: 'He didn't mind at all that people knew he was gay – he used to make all kinds of jokes about it,' recalls the Countess de Romanones. 'In those days, people were very different and Jimmy was very courageous.' It was the perfect camouflage, and though the rumour-mill in 1950s Paris worked overtime, seasoned correspondents including Sam White from London and Cy Sulzberger and Art Buchwald from New York were unable to grasp what was going on. Furthermore the Duchess sought ways of rationalising it to her friends: 'She told me she could relate very easily to Jimmy because they were both Southerners, even though there was a generation gap,' recalls Mrs Carroll Petrie, the former Marquesa de Port-ago. 'Certainly you could see the attraction – the Duchess with her colossal energy, Jimmy so young and vital. Jimmy had that energy and directed it at her – he must have made her energy even stronger than it already was.' Mona Eldridge adds: 'He played the piano, he could tell jokes, he was so witty. He was very intelligent, very clever, tall, goodlooking, wicked – very charismatic.'

Compare that with two views of the Duke of Windsor at the time: 'His face was wizened, his teeth were yellow and crooked, and his golden hair was parched,' wrote Harold Nicolson. And Cecil Beaton, who went to Paris to photograph him, wrote, 'His face now begins to show the emptiness of life. It is too impertinent to be tragic ... He looks like a mad terrier, haunted one moment, then with a flick of the hand he is laughing fecklessly.' Given these harsh portraits of a man in decline, there is little wonder the Duchess chased after Jimmy so hard.

Her energy and resilience in both matters of the heart and in everyday life remain astounding, even at half a century's distance. In February 1951, the Duchess had been hospitalised in New York and had undergone a hysterectomy, at the age of 54. She remained in hospital for three more weeks and did not resume her social round until the beginning of April, but by then she was determined that her life would return to normal – and that included Jimmy. When she and the Duke set sail on the Queen Mary for France on 24 May, Jimmy went too – just as he had the year before, when the couple consummated their love for the first time.

Within four days, the Duke had left for London. Up until then it had been difficult for Jimmy and the Duchess to resume their previous relations but now, after her operation, the affair increased its physical intensity; she became almost mad with the pleasure Jimmy gave her.

On a later occasion there was an incident in Paris which, as much as that passionate kiss on the dance floor at Jimmy's, was to give the game away. Lady Diana Cooper recalled the night the Duchess, wearing blue wig and red dress, attended a fancy dress party in a private house with Jimmy and the Duke. The band from the Duke's favourite nightclub, the Monseigneur, had been engaged and played tirelessly all night, but by four in the morning the Duchess wanted a change of scene and, not entirely sober, suggested a move to the Monseigneur. Someone gently pointed that there would be no band there, since it was here, in the house. Arrangements were made and the party, plus musicians, made their way to the Monseigneur as the Duchess required.

'In those days,' Lady Diana told Caroline Blackwood, 'they sold flowers and bottles of scent outside nightclubs. Once we got to the club, Jimmy Donahue really showed off and he went to town. He bought all the ladies flowers and expensive bottles of scent. But we all got very tiny bottles and rather measly little bunches of roses. But I can't tell you the size of the bunch of roses that Donahue bought for the Duchess. She also got a huge flagon, a sort of jeroboam of scent.'

Lady Diana continued that the Duchess instructed the band to play her favourite tunes, 'C'est Si Bon' and 'La Vie en Rose', and danced endlessly with Jimmy while the Duke looked on, becoming increasingly distraught. Finally she returned to her husband's table and, summoning a waiter, asked for a vase. Then, taking her trademark fan of ostrich-feathers fashioned in a Prince of Wales plume and Jimmy's roses together, she plunged them into the water. 'Look everybody!' she cried. 'The Prince of Wales's feathers and Jimmy Donahue's roses!'

The Duke burst into tears.

'It was ghastly,' Lady Diana said. 'The whole evening was ghastly. And once it was over, I ended up alone with Donahue. I had to drop him home in a car. I couldn't bear him, he was so pleased with himself.'

It was easier all round to blame Jimmy. The Duke's official biographer Philip Ziegler described him as an 'epicene gigolo', but whatever Jimmy's sexuality, the transactions in the relationship were the other way round – Jimmy gave, Wallis took.

The apportionment of blame over the Jimmy-Wallis affair came later, however. For now, in the precious week they had together, they dined at the Ritz and went to see Josephine Baker sing, they danced at Scheherazade and watched the dawn come up over Les Halles, sharing a bowl of onion soup. Each night they made their way back to the Quai Branly before Jimmy's chauffeured black Cadillac, by now bearing a single passenger, finally nosed its way back to the Rue de la Faisanderie.

The Duke, having visited his mother, returned to Paris on 9 June. Jimmy and Wallis had had six nights together. There were to be longer periods in each other's exclusive company, but the week they had together in June 1951 marked the deepest, most intense time of the four years and three months in which they were lovers.


Excerpted from Dancing with the Devil by Christopher Wilson. Copyright © 2000 Christopher Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Christopher Wilson is an English journalist, broadcaster and author. His authoritative account of the secret relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was made into a major TV movie. He has also been a columnist for several major newspapers in Great Britain.

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Dancing with the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was staggered by level of revelation in this book. On the surface, it is the story of a homosexual playboy and his affair with the bored broad from Baltimore (Wilson is fascinating, if a little coy, as to how they got it together). But as you peel back the layers all sorts of things spring out - the wierd sex in the Windsors' life, the way the Duke was prepared to put up with Jimmy in return for the occasional bauble and trinket. The way that Woolworth money bankrolled the Windsors in the years 1950 to 1954, and how they thank Jimmy's mother for her gifts of priceless jewellery by slamming the door in her face. The book shows how the Woolworths never quite made it into polite society, despite rubbing up close to the Windsors, and how Jimmy's relationship with his mother permanently damaged his life. I'd guess the author is straight, but he delves quite a bit (maybe not enough) into Jimmy's homosexual life, including the accusation that he castrated a salesman, then shut him up by paying him off, and how he murdered his boyfriend (the sublimely named Lucky Morra) in a hotel room in Hawaii. This book is high-octane gossip, very well told. I'm just amazed the facts have never come out before. Highly recommended.
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