The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor

The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor

by Hugo Vickers

The story of King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the English throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, "the women I love," an American who was twice divorced, is perhaps the most romantic saga of the twentieth century. While the dramatic events involving this famous couple may be familiar, this fascinating book provides a fresh look at their lives… See more details below


The story of King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the English throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, "the women I love," an American who was twice divorced, is perhaps the most romantic saga of the twentieth century. While the dramatic events involving this famous couple may be familiar, this fascinating book provides a fresh look at their lives through the extraordinary collection of private photographs recently discovered in the Windsor residence in Paris, many of which have never been published before. In 1986 Mohammed Al Fayed, who revitalized two venerable institutions, Harrods in London and the Ritz Hotel in Paris, purchased the Paris mansion that had been the last home of the Duke and Duchess; he also acquired the contents of the house. As the residence was being restored, a few photographs emerged from drawers and chests, together with old scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, and other mementos of the couple's life together. But it was not until 1988 that the mahogany lid covering the bathtub in the Duke's bathroom was lifted to reveal the most exciting find - an additional hoard of some ten thousand photographs. The staff had hidden the pictures in the bathtub to keep them safe from acquisitive visitors during the Duchess's long illness, when many private papers were disappearing from the house. The photographs range from family snapshots to formal portraits by such well-known photographers as Cecil Beaton and Karsh of Ottawa. This remarkable cache of photographs, scrapbooks, and other objects from the house reveal the Windsors' very different backgrounds - the Duke as a royal prince, brought up to be heir to a worldwide empire, the Duchess growing up in an unremarkable family in Baltimore. The photographs show them as young adults, portray their romance, and reveal their thirty-five years of married life in exile following the Abdication.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When the Duchess of Windsor died in 1986, the lease of her Paris villa, near the Bois de Boulogne, and its contents had to be disposed of. Along came Mohamed Al Fayed, the Egyptian-born owner of Harrods, "the international businessman and philanthropist" who had already bought and refurbished the Paris Ritz. This sumptuous selection of photographs from the collections of the ex-king and his duchess, flanked by others of the restored house actually owned by the city of Paris, is a dual biography of the expatriate pair with the harsh edges softened, and a public relations exercise for Mohamed Al Fayed. Voyeurs of English royalty will be transfixed, as many of the photos are unfamiliar and often brilliantly reproduced, although in no sense historically significant. The text, by the author of lives of Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo, retells the familiar tale of the aging playboy king who relinquished his crown for the ambitious, twice-divorced American. Their prewar fling with the Nazis and their lengthy life in exile are handled with loyal tact. Following the social seasons and migrations with Wallis and Edward, punctuated by their brief meetings with such postwar figures as President Nixon and Generalissimo Franco's son-in-law, proves dull viewing, especially when accompanied by lifeless prose. The net effect, emphasized by the 400 illustrations, is one of expensive but uninspired lives. (Oct.)

Product Details

Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
10.18(w) x 12.52(h) x 1.05(d)

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Introduction: The Restoration of the Windsor Residence

When, in 1986, the Duchess of Windsor died in Paris, some fourteen years after the Duke, the future of their house and collection in the Bois de Boulogne seemed uncertain. The house itself had been held by the Windsors on a lease from the City of Paris. The contents, including all the Windsors' personal belongings, had been left by the Duchess to her Trustees to be sold for the benefit of the Institut Pasteur. Within days, interested parties were approaching the City of Paris with a view to obtaining the lease of the mansion.

A unique ensemble of architecture, decoration and artefacts, together with personal papers, photographs, and other documents bearing on the lives of the two leading figures in one of the most remarkable stories of the century was about to be dispersed, and would probably have been lost without record but for the intervention of Mr Mohamed Al Fayed, the International businessman and philanthropist. Mr Al Fayed took on the task of saving, documenting and restoring the house and its contents.

Born in Egypt, Mohamed Al Fayed had made his home in England and France. He had already established a reputation in the field of architectural conservation, masterminding the award-winning refurbishment of the Paris Ritz, as well as an extensive programme designed to restore Harrods, the great London store, to its original Edwardian splendour. However, the restoration of the Windsor Residence was a project of particular complexity, requiring great sensitivity and unusual skill.

The Windsor Residence itself had originally been built around the turn of the century, but the interior was a creation of the 1950s,when the Windsors first moved here. This alone made the project unusual. The restoration of so modern an interior was almost unprecedented, and although Mr. Al Fayed would later initiate a similar project, to refurbish the celebrated Dorchester Hotel suite decorated by Oliver Messel, at the Windsor Residence he was breaking new ground.

The relatively recent date of the Windsor Residence in turn brought unusual benefits. The accurate restoration of older buildings is often hampered by a lack of documentary and physical evidence. Architectural and decorative elements have been lost, and in the absence of adequate documentation, guesswork comes into play, creating problems of historical authenticity. In the case of the Windsor Residence, the physical and documentary evidence could not have been more complete.

The house was in serious need of attention, as were the contents, since they had suffered from long neglect during the Duchess's final illness. But with the exception of items of furniture bequeathed by the Duchess to Versailles, and a quantity of jewellery sold with spectacular success through Sotheby's, virtually every object from the Windsors' collection was still in place. Any doubts could quickly be settled by reference to the Windsors' remarkable archive of photographs, which provided a detailed record of the appearance of the house throughout their occupancy, and the first-hand testimony of living witnesses. Former guests revisited the house and offered vital clues, as did the remaining, devoted members of the Duke and Duchess's household staff, who had been retained by Mr Al Fayed. By a remarkable coincidence the Duke's former valet, Sydney Johnson, who left the Windsors' service following his master's death, had subsequently joined Mr Al Fayed's personal staff and thus found himself once more in a house which for him held such vivid memories.

Some features of the decoration could be conserved and restored; others had to be recreated. In many cases it was possible to trace and involve the very same craftsmen who had originally worked on the house for the Windsors, drawing on their unrivalled knowledge and expertise. The firm of Hamot, celebrated carpet manufacturers of Paris and Aubusson, restored the carpet they had originally supplied for the Salon, woven in silver with ostrich-feather plumes reminiscent of the Prince of Wales emblem, and at the same time produced an exact replica of the carpet they had made for the Duke of Windsor's bedroom, working from original cards and other documents in their archives. Another company, L.O.R.D., successors to the furniture-making division of Maison Jansen, the Windsors' principal decorators, was entrusted with the task of repairing the furniture which they and their predecessors had originally supplied not only for the house at the Bois de Boulogne but for the Windsors' earlier Paris residence in the Boulevard Suchet. Particularly thrilling was the moment when the original painter and gilder returned to take up his brushes. Now in his seventies, he was accompanied by his son, who had worked with him here before as a teenage apprentice, and who was now joined in turn by his own teenage son, to begin work on the restoration of a scheme of decoration which was among his family's proudest achievements.

The scale and scope of the restoration were impressive. All essential services had to be replaced, a major undertaking requiring complete rewiring, replumbing, and the installation of a conservation-based heating and humidification system. Significant structural works were required, including underpinning, re-roofing, and the creating of a suite of basement galleries for the display of treasures from the collection of the Duke and Duchess. Every item was carefully labelled and removed to the Ritz storehouses for safekeeping. Only when the major construction activity was complete could work begin on the restoration of the interiors and their contents. Their unusual range and diversity called for the involvement of specialist conservators in almost every field and from all parts of Europe.

Most remarkable perhaps is the fact that the restoration was undertaken on the personal initiative of a private individual. All who visited the Windsor Residence in the period following the Duchess's death remember the atmosphere of sadness and decay; it was hard to believe that the house could ever be restored to anything like its original appearance and spirit. Mr Al Fayed, however, saw that with adequate support and proper direction, the Windsor Residence could be revived, and that the remaining contents could and should be properly preserved and recorded. He agreed to take the lease of the house from the City of Paris, and in separate negotiations he moved quickly to acquire the contents from the Duchess's trustees. Having then assembled his expert team of advisors and conservators, he immediately set to work and no expense was spared in realizing his ambitious plans.

Mr Al Fayed, with his love of history, had grasped at once the unique importance of the house. Here after all was the residence of a former king who, although never crowned, had been sovereign of one of the world's most powerful nations and the head of a vast empire spanning the globe; a man who as Prince of Wales had been the object of unprecedented worldwide adulation, whose accession to the throne had been accompanied by great hopes, and whose abdication after less than a year had followed a constitutional crisis which seemed to threaten the very institution of the monarchy.

This was the home of a man who had been admired or reviled for sacrificing the highest honours to love, and who found that in marrying the woman of his choice he had given up not only his throne, but also his country and his family. Here for twenty years he had lived in exile with the Duchess. The couple were seldom apart. The Duchess through her gifts as a wife and hostess, created a magical atmosphere in which the Duke continued to live in regal style, surrounded by distinguished friends old and new.

The house itself commanded admiration. Within the walls of this secluded turn-of-the-century villa, the Windsors had created a sequence of interiors whose decoration epitomized the sophistication and glamour for which they were renowned. With the assistance of Stephane Boudin, chief artistic director at Maison Jansen, then the foremost interior decorating company in France, and with advice from friends such as Elsie de Wolfe, another leading figure in interior decoration, they conjured up a world both intimate and grand, in a style uniquely their own.

Boudin's links with the Duke of Windsor went back to 1934. He had decorated two pre-war houses for the Duke and Duchess, one in Paris, the other in the South of France, and had developed an understanding of their way of life, while in their turn they trusted his judgement on questions of colour, materials and furnishings. Sumptuous yet restrained, with fine furniture and pictures, the house was unmistakably royal but free of excessive formality, with a theatrical touch characteristic of the Duchess, matched by an elegant simplicity reflecting the tastes of the Duke.

The interiors of the Windsor Villa were among the finest surviving examples of post-war decoration, a unique blend of French, English and American influences. From the start, their restoration was conceived as important not only for their association with the Windsors but also for the light they shed on a rich and as yet neglected phase in the development of taste.

No less important than the house were the many collected possessions, great and small, still displayed in the principal rooms, as well as those, still more numerous, which had been carefully stored away. The latter came to light only gradually as the project evolved, and included the remarkable cache of photographs discovered in the Duke's bathtub several weeks after work began. The contents of the house were fascinating for the light they shed on the lives of the Windsors. Here were paintings, furniture and objects of great historical interest, some brought to France from England by the Duke, others belonging to the Duchess, others acquired by the couple during their years of marriage.

The furniture at the house united the best of England and the Continent. Furniture of the Louis XV and Louis XVI period was matched by a fine ensemble of eighteenth century English furniture that had been used by the Duke at St James's Palace and Fort Belvedere. Among the highlights was the handsome Chippendale-period writing table on which the Duke had signed the Instrument of Abdication—with a brass plaque recording the event. Other outstanding pieces included a painted commode formerly belonging to the decorator Syrie Maugham, and a rare group of tables and chairs specially designed for the Windsors by Maison Jansen. Reminders of the Duke's long years as Prince of Wales were much in evidence: in the Entrance Hall was a resplendent gilt-bronze chandelier decorated with the Prince of Wales feathers, while from the gallery opposite hung the Prince's Garter Banner, which had formerly hung in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The Duke and Duchess had enjoyed assembling and arranging their diverse collection of paintings. A whole wall of the library was given over to a magnificent portrait by Sir Alfred Munnings of the Duke when Prince of Wales, riding out on 'Forest Witch.' Above the chimney-piece in the same room was Gerald Brockhurst's hypnotic portrait of the Duchess, while in the adjoining Salon another portrait of the Duchess by her friend and protege Etienne Drian hung alongside a formal portrait of the Duke's mother, Queen Mary. Here too was a landscape by Degas, a bathing scene by Dufy, and a screen print by Andy Warhol, testimony to the Windsors' broad interest as patrons and collectors. Dazzling flower pictures by Lorjou hung above the staircase, while in the Duchess's bathroom a mirror above the bath-tub framed a portrait of the Duchess in gouache by Cecil Beaton. The Duke's rooms were decorated with English military prints and topographical views, evidence of his enduring emotional ties to the country of his birth. Chief among these was a watercolour drawing of Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park, the Duke's favourite residence as Prince of Wales and King, signed by the architect Sir Jeffrey Wyatville and identified as a preliminary design for the remodelling of the Fort by King George IV in the early nineteenth century. Not the least of the treasures in the house was an exquisite portrait of a child, signed by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Paulus Moreelse and dated 1634. In the course of Mr Al Fayed's restoration programme the painting was expertly cleaned, and research revealed that the portrait had come from the Royal Collection, having hung at one time at Hampton Court, and that the child was almost certainly Prince Gustavus of Bohemia, youngest son of the Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, sister of King Charles I. Although the painting had occupied an important place in the Windsor Residence, Mr Al Fayed had the pleasant task of returning it to Her Majesty the Queen, and it now hangs once again among the treasures of the Royal Collection. Its place in the Paris house has been taken by a replica.

The Duchess of Windsor had a particular love of ceramics, and the collection was correspondingly strong in this area, with fine examples of Oriental and Western manufacture, including Meissen, Derby, Chelsea and Saint-Cloud. A personal note was struck by the large group of porcelain pug-dogs; pugs were the favourite pets of the Duke and Duchess in their later years. As a leading hostess, the Duchess had naturally assembled several fine dinner services, including a particularly elegant service bearing the Windsor cypher, produced by the Limoges factory shortly after the Second World War. Another important service was that brought to France from England by the Duke, a collection of over two hundred pieces bearing the mark of the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory. In addition there was an extensive group of commemorative china ranging from souvenirs of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 to cups, jugs, plates and other objects produced in anticipation of the Duke's own coronation as Edward VIII.

Accompanying these ceramics was a superb ensemble of glassware, including dishes, finger bowls, wine glasses, and other articles formerly used at the Windsors' legendary dinner parties, as well as a documented service of wine glasses produced around 1946 by the famous Lalique factory and engraved with the Windsor cypher. Another interesting item was a pair of claret jugs used by Edward VII when Prince of Wales at Oxford and given by Queen Alexandra to her grandson. Significant, and especially revealing of the Duke's feelings towards the past, was a large group of objects in glass bearing his cypher as King, together with others proclaiming his Coronation, all displayed in a cabinet on the first-floor landing. They included a remarkable engraved triangular decanter, its three sides commemorating the Jubilee of George V, the Abdication of Edward VIII and the Coronation of George VI.

The Windsors had likewise formed an extensive collection of silver and silver-gilt, most of which was stored in a two-storey strongroom in the basement. Here again were royal mementoes: a set of ashtrays from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert; a matchbox that had belonged to King Edward VII; the silver mug which Queen Victoria gave to her great-grandson for his first birthday present; a travelling clock that had belonged to the Duke's father; a set of four eighteenth-century dishes bearing the crowned royal cypher of King George III. There were souvenirs also of the Duke's years as Prince of Wales: gifts from his foreign tours; the sword he had worn at his father's Coronation; a cigarette case engraved with the Prince of Wales feathers. There were items bearing the cypher of King Edward VIII, made during his brief reign, including a rare set of silver-gilt match cases and a splendid gold memorandum case.

The Duchess had a more modest, but interesting, collection of her own, dating from the days before her marriage to the Duke and ranging from family heirlooms handed down from her grandmother, to gifts she had received on her marriage to Winfield Spencer. There were also wedding presents, such as the silver basket given by Winston Churchill, and mementoes assembled by the Windsors in the early years of their marriage, as well as the gifts they had exchanged on birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. Particularly eloquent was a service of flatware engraved with the cypher of the Prince of Wales, with the combined cypher of the Duke and Duchess ('WE') added later.

The Duchess was a leader of fashion on both sides of the Atlantic, a patron and friend of many of the great couturiers of the day, among them Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Grès, Valentino and Givenchy. Her wardrobe kept pace with changing fashions. Some items dated back to the period before her marriage to the Duke, but most came from the colourful sixties and seventies, the last period when the Duchess was able to keep abreast of fashion. One of the most extraordinary experiences in visiting the Windsor Residence was to stand before the open wardrobes in the Duchess's Dressing Room, filled to overflowing with garments and accessories of every description.

The Duke too had been an influential figure in the history of fashion. He himself was fascinated by, and very knowledgeable about, the development of dress, and despite his reputation as an innovator, he had a conservative streak which grew stronger with the years. He seems seldom to have disposed of any item of dress, with the result that his wardrobe was quite outstandingly complete, extending back to the earliest years of his youth. Here were the midnight blue dinner suits; the buttons inscribed with the Duke's monogram; the ties specially lined to produce the famous 'Windsor knot'; the suits with coats made in London and trousers in New York. All had survived, untouched since the day the Duke had died. Alongside the items of civilian dress were others recalling the Duke's connection with the British Army: badges, buttons, and other accessories representing all those regiments with which he had been associated as Prince of Wales, including his beloved Welsh Guards. Here too were the clothes he had worn while shooting, playing golf, and riding to hounds. A more varied and idiosyncratic wardrobe can hardly have been formed by any man this century.

Livery worn by the household staff had also survived. There was the black livery for day-wear in Paris, the grey livery used at the Moulin de la Tuilerie, and a third set of livery in scarlet worn on evenings when the Windsors entertained. All these uniforms were still hanging neatly in cupboards, accompanied by corresponding buttons in black, silver and gilt, each embossed with Duke of Windsor's arms.

Although not a bookish man, the Duke had assembled a fine library, with a bias to history, biography and politics. Housed in the Duke's bedroom and study, as well as in the Library on the ground floor, his books included many with handsome leather bindings bearing the Windsor cypher. There were also presentation volumes gathered on the Duke's tours as Prince of Wales and gifts from friends and admirers with dedications and inscriptions from leading figures in the world of politics, diplomacy and the arts, as well as members of the Duke's own family. Also represented were the books written by the Duke and Duchess, including the very first copy of the Duchess's memoirs, The Heart Has Its Reasons, inscribed with love to the Duke, and a complete collection of all the various editions of the Duke's autobiography, A King's Story, translated into more than a dozen languages.

Most of the Duke's papers had been deposited in the Royal Archives at Windsor after his death, while other, more personal, letters and documents had been removed by the Duchess's lawyers, but certain of the Windsors' personal papers still remained. They included some love letters dating from their courtship, and an equally revealing group of Christmas and New Year Cards from various members of the British Royal Family. The collection ranged from the Letters Patent by which the former King was created Duke of Windsor, to driving licences, certificates and other personal documents, as well as scribbled notes and typescripts. A group of handwritten recipes had survived, together with menu cards recalling the exquisite dinners given by the Duchess. More poignantly, there was also a Buckingham Palace menu card from 1914 on which Queen Mary had jotted down the list of the Prince's brother officers in the Grenadier Guards who had lost their lives in the first bloody battles on the Western Front.

No less evocative were the programmes from concerts, plays, gala dinners and other entertainments, and a remarkable collection of newspaper cuttings from the British and American press dating back to the early part of the century, with extensive coverage of the foreign tours the Duke had made as Prince of Wales, as well as the dramatic events surrounding the Abdication.

The archive also contained a quantity of stationery which the Windsors had used at various times from houses in Paris and other residences, with the Duke and Duchess's various monograms, together with luggage tags, inventory labels, score sheets, playing cards, invitations and greeting cards, all in the unmistakable Windsor style.

Among these papers was a selection of rare recordings of speeches and interviews given at various times by the Duke, beginning with the broadcast he made on his Accession and including his famous farewell speech to the empire. Musical recordings were a reminder of the sort of light-hearted numbers which provided a characteristic background to the Windsors' celebrated parties.

Most remarkable of all was the collection of photographs, containing more than twelve thousand images, many of which had never before been published or seen outside the immediate circle of family and friends. These photographs, a selection of which is presented here for the first time, ranged in date from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s and 1970s, and covered virtually the whole of the Windsors' lives. Formal portraits were accompanied by intimate snapshots, many of them with personal inscriptions. The highlights include a unique group of photographs taken by the Duke himself during the First World War when he was serving in France, Italy and the Middle East, and a number of revealing photographs documenting the period the Duchess spent in China in the 1920s, as well as her early childhood in America. There was a sequence of snapshots taken on the notorious Nahlin cruise of 1936, and the couple's peregrinations in the aftermath of the Abdication. The collection also contained outstanding examples of the work of leading photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Dorothy Wilding, Horst and other major figures in the history of photography.

Under the direction of Mohamed Al Fayed, all these treasures were documented and restored. Through this book, and through television and video, the Windsor Residence and its riches have been given the broader public attention they deserve.

Mr Al Fayed also brought back to the house items that had been removed from the collection. When the Duchess's jewels were auctioned in Geneva, Mr Al Fayed was among the principal bidders and acquired a large number of pieces, subsequently reunited with the collection in Paris. They included a fascinating group of royal seals, some with the cypher of Edward VIII, and others that had belonged to Princes of Wales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Other items were acquired from former members of the Windsors' staff, and these too were reinstated.

The effect of all these riches can be overwhelming, yet the Windsor Residence is memorable above all for the modest yet illuminating tokens which seem to speak most eloquently of the Windsors' lives: a white satin box containing a piece of their wedding cake; a row of cushions in the Duchess's Bedroom modelled after her favourite pug-dogs; a rag doll by the Duke's bedside which he received as a child from his mother and which he took with him wherever he travelled. By taking care to preserve these objects of sentimental value, as well as the more spectacular treasures of the collection, Mr. Al Fayed has made it possible to gain a deeper understanding of the personalities at the centre of a momentous love story.

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