The Last of the Duchess: The Strange and Sinster Story of the Final Years of Wall Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

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Overview

In 1980, Lady Caroline Blackwood was commissioned by The Sunday Times to write an article on the aging Duchess of Windsor, who was said to be convalescing in her French mansion in the Bois de Boulogne. Yet what began as a curiosity was to become for Blackwood one of the most challenging experiences of her writing career, launching her into a battle of wits with the Duchess's formidable lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum.
 
Maître Blum refused to ...

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The Last of the Duchess: The Strange and Sinister Story of the Final Years of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

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Overview

In 1980, Lady Caroline Blackwood was commissioned by The Sunday Times to write an article on the aging Duchess of Windsor, who was said to be convalescing in her French mansion in the Bois de Boulogne. Yet what began as a curiosity was to become for Blackwood one of the most challenging experiences of her writing career, launching her into a battle of wits with the Duchess's formidable lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum.
 
Maître Blum refused to let Blackwood near the Duchess, spinning elaborate excuses as to why she was unavailable and threatening anyone who dared suggest that she was in anything other than the best of health. Still, while Blum's machinations restricted Blackwood's ability to publish a frank interview, it only served to pique her interest in the bizarre relationship between the infamous Duchess—a woman who once inspired a king to abdicate his crown—and her eccentric, domineering gatekeeper. Sixteen years later, Blackwood turned her experiences into this riveting and excoriating modern classic about the frailties of old age, the foibles of society, and the dual-edged nature of celebrity.

Intriguing, suspenseful, and witty, this is the story of journalist and novelist Caroline Blackwood's search for the late Duchess of Windsor. It is also a provocative exploration of the often bizarre connection between heightened celebrity and approaching death--in Blackwood's words, "the fatal effects of myth."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A sharply observed (and sometimes very funny) portrait of the frivolous world of wealth and luxury inhabited by the Windsors.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times 
  
“Beguiling. . . . Blackwood is witty, understated and perceptive.” —The Washington Post 
  
“The central character in The Last of the Duchess never appears at all but, like Godot in Beckett’s play, becomes more powerful by her absence. . . . Brilliant—and brilliantly entertaining—journalism.” —Chicago Tribune
 
“A fierce, scintillatingly funny report on a dying social circle.” —The Independent (London)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Novelist and journalist Blackwood has pulled off quite a coup here: she has written a biographical portrait of the late Wallis Simpson, duchess of Windsor, without ever having seen more of her than the outside of her magnificent house near Paris and a murky photograph taken through the window by an Italian paparazzo. In 1980, the Sunday Times of London sent Blackwood to interview the 84-year-old duchess for a piece to run with photographs by Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret's husband. The assignment was dynamite, but the pair are stopped dead by Suzanne Blum, an 83-year-old eccentric and vitriolic French lawyer known as Matre Bloom, who identifies so closely with the duchess that her life is a round of suing newspapers, perpetrating both lies and legends of her charge's beauty and good health. Matre Bloom firmly takes over this book. A few derivative chapters cover the well-known details of Wallis Simpson's early life, but Matre Bloom shapes every page with her tantrums and vanities. The portrait is interesting psychologically and one admires this poised effort to salvage an aborted assignment. However, the absence of denouement-neither Blackwood nor Lord Snowden make it past the ferocious protector-makes the reader wonder why she is paying this much attention to a little-known, if complex, eccentric. In the end, one can only feel sorry for both the obsessed and the object of her obsession. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In 1980 when the London Sunday Times commissioned Lord Snowden to photograph the 84-year-old Duchess of Windsor, then living outside of Paris, Blackwood was asked to accompany him as a reporter. Alas, this journalistic scoop was not to be, for blocking all access to the duchess was her lawyer, the fierce and formidable Suzanne Blum. Interviewing such contemporaries of Wallis Simpson as Lady Mosley and Lady Diana Cooper, Blackwood discovered that the octogenarian Maitre Blum, one of France's most powerful attorneys, had complete control over the duchess and her estate. Since Blum kept the ailing duchess isolated in her shuttered mansion, Blackwood could not verify whether Wallis had fallen into a coma, as rumored by her friends, or whether she was still as beautiful and witty as ever, as Blum maintained. And that is this book's problem; offering inconclusive speculations, it reads like the extended Vanity Fair article it should have been. For larger collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/94.]-Wilda Williams, ``Library Journal''
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345802637
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 679,034
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.74 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Caroline Blackwood, who began her writing career as a journalist, is the author of nine books, which include novels, collections of short stories, and a cookbook. She was awarded the David Higham Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Stepdaughter, and her novel Great Granny Webster was recommended for the Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist in 1977. She died in 1996.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction to the Vintage Books Edition

Caroline Blackwood wrote ten books of fiction and nonfiction, one of which, Great Granny Webster, was nominated for the Booker Prize. But the “dark fairy tale” that obsessed her for the longest time—indeed for fifteen years—starred Maître Suzanne Blum, the wily, confrontational, “necrophiliac” lawyer who presided over the last decade of the almost lifeless Duchess of Windsor, locked away, bedridden behind the shutters of her villa in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, under the Maître’s jealous and sinister control.

The story touched some nerves in Caroline. She was old enough to have witnessed the tail end of the Abdication Crisis of 1936. The English loathing of Wallis Simpson for “stealing” King Edward VIII was particularly strong, for largely snobbish reasons, among the upper class into which Caroline was born as daughter of the 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and Maureen Guinness, the brewing heiress. Maureen was a close friend of the Queen Mother.  “[The abdication] was . . . something so obscene and shocking that it had to be hidden from the children,” Caroline writes here. Only its denouement forty-four years later was properly shocking to Caroline and also compulsively fascinating. “Too awful, even for us” was one of her frequent phrases. She had a fearful view of real or impending disaster or horror—all irresistibly funny in the telling, including the telling of the dramas of her own life. Her daughter Ivana recalls in her memoir her mother walking  the night, “catastrophising,” rehearsing aloud her “worst nightmares.” “When you see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she warned, “it could be a train coming towards you.” Here was a story that therefore greatly appealed to her—the macabre image of the Duchess as a shriveled, desiccated  “prune” that rumors and paparazzi shots suggested—imprisoned and kept alive through feeding tubes for the vanity of venal Maître Blum who was not only selling her jewels but had taken away her vodka. And there was nothing, apparently, the Duchess’s friends could do.

As a writer Caroline was gifted with a charged, ironic, often savagely observant prose. Her writing was close to her style of speech—passionate, brilliantly comic, obsessed, outlandish, and inventive in her speculations. Describing Maître Blum and her attempt at rejuvenating plastic surgery she wrote, “Her face did not match her wizened little hands which were those of a crone, and her age was also betrayed by the discoloration of pigment, the brown flowers of death that discolored her arms . . . her slanting, blinking eyes had a snake-like malevolence.” Her reporting was less roman-­reportage—a genre invented by a famous French journalist-philosopher to elevate a shortness on reliable facts—than a more literary Gonzo journalism, a gothic treatment of the events, enhanced with outlandish speculation, which unloosed a very rich flow of comic narrative. She was skeptical and perceptive. Most of her darkest speculations about Maître Blum turned out to be correct. 

It was first Lord Snowdon, himself a marginalized royal and divorcé, who wanted to photograph the Duchess for the London Sunday Times Magazine. When that was vetoed by Blum, the writer Francis Wyndham, then its senior editor, who had commissioned Blackwood to write the piece, switched the focus to Maître Blum herself. As a Hollywood fan Wyndham saw her as a figure of interest. She’d netted the record divorce settlement—for Rita Hayworth from Ali Khan—when she was lawyer to the stars in Hollywood. Snowdon photographed a flattered Maître Blum; Blackwood wrote—in the face of libel threats—a piece so anodyne she felt ashamed and disappointed. She got to work in her own right, to expand her interviews and write the unexpurgated account of her bruising time with the Maître; of the Maître as a human monster and kidnapper. Its publication would have to wait until Blum’s death, fifteen years later.

Caroline had known a few monsters and included her mother, Maureen, in their company, but none like Maître Blum. The writer David Pryce Jones called Blum one of the rudest and most snobbish women he had ever met. Both Caroline and Maître Blum had their own mutually unrecognizable versions of the situation, Caroline’s containing Blum’s “blatant, joyful lies.”  “She lived for the poor,” Blum averred of the jewel-hoarding Wallis. She crossed out Caroline’s description of the gloomy villa in the Bois and inserted “she lives in a house that resembles Buckingham Palace.”

Caroline rebelled against her background though she still moved in its world. She had an acute ear for its nuances. She also had an ear for domineering women. The names of her former husbands, including Lucian Freud and Robert ­Lowell—the latter who had put her on the path of writing—wouldn’t have impressed Maître Blum. They hadn’t impressed Maureen either. “Freud? What kind of a name is that?” said Maureen, when Caroline ran off with him. “Who are his family? I’ve never heard of them.” Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford, “Poor Maureen’s daughter made a runaway match with a terrible Yid.”  Describing  Diana Mosley, friend of the Duchess and widow of the British fascist leader,  Caroline wrote “her huge ice blue eyes had a childish, yearning expression”;  “and she was so beguiling that she made one forget that she had spent her life yearning for a Europe united by a repressive fascist leadership.”  Central to Caroline’s story, as she would impart in a conspiratorial voice, was the irony of the Duchess, the other old anti-Semite, being controlled and imprisoned by an old Jewish lawyer. (Blum ended her life in the same vegetative state as her client, in Blum’s case, for three years.)

In the highly praised, eponymous play written by Nicholas Wright, performed at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2011, Caroline, played by Anna Chancellor, is depicted visiting Blum with a half bottle of vodka in her handbag. In real life she carried an unapologetic full one; at home she would bin the cap after opening it. On stage she is given a tape recorder. In life she never used one, hence the roman in the reportage. The vodka never seemed to dim Caroline’s verbal wit or her prose. I knew her from the period she interviewed Maître Blum, around 1980, through friends and because our sons went to the same school. We once sat together to hear the headmaster’s cliché ridden exhortations in his term address—and I got Caroline’s hilarious parody of it afterwards. We both smoked Gitanes—the black French tobacco without a filter. She would endlessly hunt for them—since we’d always run out—or search fruitlessly for ashtrays, stooped slightly forward, her sentence suspended. Her flat in Redcliffe Square, London, was disorganized. She was a chaotic mix of fiercely maternal and frequently unreliable. Her lovely house in Sag Harbor, where I last remember her, was more serene. There lunch went into the afternoon and nothing was more enjoyable. She was funny, fearless, original, and supremely gifted. All of these qualities—and the voice itself—are in these pages.

James Fox
2012

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2013

    Don't bother reading this

    Terrible book. Terrible writing. Insipid, shallow, no attempt by the author to disguise this as an exercise of her own sophomoric imagination and speculation. Disgraceful to even advertise this as any sort of biography. A fifteen year old journalism student could do better than this author who would have received a failing grade for trying to pass off this flimsy story as anything but a joke. There are excellent well researched books on the Duchess of Windsor. Pass this one up. You won't be missing anything.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 27, 2014

    Not recommended

    There wasn't much information or history in this book.
    I expected more.

    The author frequently rehashed a few points,but I was expecting learning something about this part of the duchess' life.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews

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