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The Woman Before Wallis
Prince Edward, the Parisian Courtesan, and the Perfect Murder
By Andrew Rose
Picador Copyright © 2013 Andrew Rose
All rights reserved.
The French Connection
On April Fools' Day 1912, a cross-Channel ferry put to sea in spite of a fierce north-westerly gale and squally snow showers. The dumpy, two-funnelled vessel (a far cry from the elegant lines of the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert) headed unsteadily out of Dover harbour towards the coast of France.
This workaday craft conveyed someone very much out of the ordinary run of travellers: His Royal Highness Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, and Lord of the Isles, 17-year-old heir apparent to the British Imperial Crown.
The Prince was making his first visit to France, a country in which he would live for more than half his adult life.
As the crowded boat yawed about, many of the passengers became seasick. The young Prince, an experienced sailor, had no intention of remaining below decks with the groaning throng, particularly as about ten or so press photographers had smuggled themselves on board, shadowing his every move. Demanding oilskins, the Prince 'rattled up the swinging ladders as nimbly as a cat', joining the ship's captain on the bridge, where he stayed for the remainder of the voyage, seeming reluctant to come down when the ship docked at Calais, more than half an hour late.
The Prince and his two companions, greeted by the British Consul-General, took a late lunch in a private room at the Hotel Terminus, before boarding a reserved First Class carriage, attached to the head of a train drawn by a steam engine massive by English standards and the pride of the Compagnie du Nord. A few years earlier, the Calais-Paris section has been described as 'the least pleasant line in the country' with engines 'burning common coal which fills the ... eyes with black dust', but no such criticism is recorded of this journey. The driver made up time and the train pulled into the Paris Gare du Nord punctually at 6.45 p.m.
On the platform, in frock coat and silk hat, stood Henri Charles Joseph Tonnelier de Breteuil, 8th Marquis de Breteuil, now 64 and a close friend of the Prince's grandfather, King Edward VII, who had died two years previously in May 1910. Alongside the Marquis stood the remarkable Louis Lépine, Paris Chief of Police since 1900, 'the little man with the big stick', a trenchant reformer who had introduced the study of forensic science and criminology to his metropolitan force way ahead of his London counterparts.
Lépine had also pioneered an attempt to control female prostitution in the city by regulating the enormous number of brothels, introducing a licensing system which created a distinction between maisons closes at the lower end of the market and the grander maisons de rendezvous, some of which were luxuriously appointed, catering for the richest and most demanding of clients, including industrialists, bankers, aristocrats – and princes of the blood.
The rest of the welcoming party at the Gare du Nord was rather less distinguished, consisting of an official of the railway company, a functionary from Normandy, and two representatives of the British Chamber of Trade.
In accordance with protocol, the first to step down from the special carriage was the tall, grey-moustached figure of Henry Hansell, an amiable non-entity, bachelor and former prep school master, generally regarded as an unimaginative and inadequate tutor to his royal charge. After a short pause (just long enough to heighten public expectation), a shy, slight, but noticeably elegant figure emerged, sporting a high-buttoned grey overcoat, grey suede gloves, black bowler hat and cane. The Prince's comparatively quiet outfit emphasised what was supposed to be an incognito visit to France, modestly billed as 'Earl of Chester'. Further back along the platform, the third member of the princely party, the Prince's faithful valet, Frederick Finch, was busy superintending luggage and porters.
At a height of over 6 feet, Hansell towered over the Prince, who stood just 5' 7" tall. Lépine might have mused on whether the Prince qualified for work in the Paris police force. It was Lépine's idiosyncratic rule that no policeman under 5'9" (1.75m) could serve in uniform and no one over the then average height of 5'7" (1.70m) could become a plain clothes officer (in-betweeners had problems). The former had to be built to impress, the latter to be as unobtrusive as possible, and Lépine resolutely excluded anyone of singular appearance from undertaking detective work. On that basis, the Prince's eye-catching good looks, slim figure and blond hair would perhaps have excluded him, although in due course he would demonstrate considerable observational skills, a sharp eye, and a good memory for detail.
When the Prince emerged, a cheer went up from the crowded station concourse, 'press photographers and reporters surged about him ... in a disconcerting glare of magnesium flashlight', while the Marquis escorted the Prince and his tutor briskly through the Customs Hall to a side exit. Here stood a large and expensive motor-car, with enclosed rear compartment, equipped with a speaking tube for communication with the uniformed chauffeur, a footman sitting alongside him. Finch and baggage following by taxi, the Prince, his tutor and his host were driven through a snowbound Paris to the elegant Breteuil town house at 2 rue Rude, in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe.
The stuffiness, the fussiness and the broad gamut of constraints imposed on the young Prince by his parents, King George and Queen Mary, are well known. 'Buckingham Palace ... unchanged. The same routine. A life made up of nothings ... The King obstinate, the Queen unimaginative.' King George had seen the Prince off at Victoria, a separation that may have been something of a relief for the young man. At a dreary farewell tea the previous day at Marlborough House, the Prince had to cope with Queen Alexandra (his extremely deaf grandmother) and her querulous unmarried daughter, Princess Victoria, a woman the Prince would later castigate as 'foul' and an 'old bitch'.
Although the London Times claimed that 'the Prince ... has not yet appeared in society', the Prince had made his formal debut the previous year at the Coronation, followed by the Garter ceremony at Windsor Castle, and – most notorious of all – his investiture as Prince of Wales, absurdly robed in an embarrassingly odd medieval extravaganza choreographed by the exceedingly ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. Official photographs, carefully doctored in an impression of soft focus, transformed the Prince from mere mortal into the company of those young, fair-haired, blue-eyed and very fey saints (so lovingly depicted in Ninian Comper's stained glass windows, fashionable adornments of many contemporary Anglican churches).
Privately tutored, thrust into the uncongenial atmosphere of Osborne and Dartmouth Naval Colleges, it is little wonder that the Prince could seem withdrawn and ill at ease in company. 'A kindly, simple-natured and modest boy, very anxious to do right, never putting himself forward or presuming on his rank,' commented The Times. Yet there were signs, even in these early years, of a mulish obstinacy, even wilfulness of character. On his departure from Dartmouth in 1911, fellow cadets had gathered to give 'the Sardine' what was termed 'a good send-off' in 'a natural and well-meaning demonstration'. The Prince slipped away, allegedly 'in a fit of shyness' – or perhaps because he could not be bothered to attend the jamboree, confident in the knowledge that he would not be returning to an institution where he had been numbered with 'an idle, lazy bunch of warts', and constantly risked humiliating punishments. The 'gong-rope' was particularly dreaded. At night, before going to the wash-house, cadets had to undress, but the time allowed was inadequate. The last cadet through the door risked getting a resounding, painful thwack on the back from the 'gong-rope', a thick rope weighted with a solid glass globe.
In joining the Breteuil household, the Prince discovered a very different world from the philistine atmosphere of George V's court. The Marquis moved in intellectual circles and was a friend of Proust, to the delight of that notorious snob and name-dropper. In Le Côté de Guermantes, Proust would write sympathetically of the 'Marquis Hannibal de Breaute', a man of erudition and wit, who interested himself in the livelier world beyond the French aristocracy. Bearing the same initials (HB) as Proust's creation, Henri de Breteuil, although cultured, was just as at home in the Paris Jockey Club, fishing in Scotland, or shooting on his estates near the Pyrenees.
A young cavalry officer in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1, he had been decorated for bravery, but – disgusted by the slaughter he had witnessed – embraced pacifism and resigned his commission. Serving as parliamentary deputy between 1873 and 1892, Henri believed that a constitutional monarchy on the British model, rather than the flawed constitution of the Third Republic, would bring stability to France. His friendship with the Prince's grandfather began in the 1870s, with a shared passion for Paris, Maxim's Restaurant, and the beauteous poules de luxe, such as Liane de Pougy and Agustina Otero Iglesias ('La Belle Otero'), probably the most notorious courtesan of her time. Her studbook bristled with the intimate details of European royalty.
The Breteuil family had been closely connected with the French state for three centuries, with a pedigree including generals, government ministers, royal counsellors and the remarkable Marquise du Châtelet (1706–49), la sublime Émilie, a scientist whose dissertations on Newtonian theory had drawn the admiration of Voltaire. Henri de Breteuil's maternal grandfather, the banker Achille Fould, had brought the family enormous wealth, enhanced by Henri's advantageous marriage in 1892. 'The American girl is to the fore again,' noted the New York Times, when reporting Henri's engagement to Marcellite ('Lita'), daughter of William Garner, a leading manufacturer of cotton goods, who had died some years before in a yachting accident and whose fortune was estimated at some $20,000,000. In 1912, however, The Times with brutal English snobbery dismissed the beautiful Lita de Breteuil simply as 'a Miss Garner of New York'.
The Breteuils' Paris residence was a recent confection in classical style, its ravissant first floor salon, decorated with the finest eighteenth-century carved boiseries, furniture and paintings, brought in from some of the many other magnificent properties belonging to the family. The Prince and his tutor were shown to their apartment on the ground floor of the building, which the Prince came to love deeply, considering it far superior to his accommodation in England.
At first, the young prince seemed gauche to his sophisticated hosts, surprised when asked to take Lita's arm when going in to dinner, and he spoke French awkwardly, though declaring firmly that English must not be spoken during his stay. The Marquis's sons, François and Jacques de Breteuil, did their best to make the Prince feel at ease in this unfamiliar atmosphere. François, known as the 'Comte de Breteuil', was two years older than the Prince, and an aspiring composer, a leaning that his father strongly disapproved of, regarding it as an unsuitable occupation for a young aristocrat. The Prince, whose interest in the arts would always be limited, magnanimously overlooked so glaring a fault: 'Even the eldest who likes music is very nice,' he wrote in his diary. Just five years later, François de Breteuil was to play a very significant role in the Prince's love life by introducing him to Marguerite Alibert, who would become his mistress, but in 1912 the Prince was probably closer to Jacques, the younger brother, who was the same age, fun to be with, and who liked to ride and play tennis and golf.
Despite a rough-house naval education, including considerable periods at sea that should have been character-forming experiences, the Prince was physically and emotionally a late developer. Today he would be thought of as something of a 'nerd'. Although he was taken to the theatre, to the opera, and to variety shows in Paris, he took only a lukewarm interest and liked to be in bed by 10.30 p.m., rising distressingly early the following morning. The Prince was capable of exhibiting a shy charm in company, but his social skills were still comparatively weak. To the Breteuil family, he must have seemed an idiosyncratic, even prudish, young man. He took little interest in food, almost a capital offence in his host country, and failed to sparkle at the family's weekly lunch parties in Paris, attended by 'statesmen, artists, writers and financiers'. Although the Prince was evidently keen on sports and the racecourse, with a developing taste for adventure, he was unenthusiastic about more formal social life, took little interest in the opposite sex, and – all in all – seems to have resembled a young Mr Pooter in Paris.
In the countryside some 30 miles south-west of Paris stood the mighty Château de Breteuil, dating from the early 1600s. Here, the Prince was accommodated in a pretty, freestanding pavilion, whimsically named 'Chester Cottage' in his honour. The Marquis improved access to the first floor bedroom by installing a fine spiral staircase in mahogany and his guest could reach the main body of the house, in wet weather or simply to avoid observation, by a tunnel, lined with white glazed tiles, appropriately dubbed the 'Metro'.
The Prince's visit was described as having 'no political implication', but both England and France, fearful of the growing power of Imperial Germany, were eager to underline the 1904 entente cordiale. The 1912 visit, private though it was supposed to be, served to emphasise the newly forged relationship between the two countries. Le Figaro heartily welcomed the young Prince, who 'had recently established himself in Paris at the wish of his august father, King George V'. As The Times reported casually, it seemed 'only natural if he were to call on the President'. A supposedly impromptu visit to Monsieur and Madame Fallières at the Élysée Palace took place within a day of the Prince's arrival, the young visitor carefully shepherded by the British Ambassador, Sir Francis Bertie (pronounced 'Bar-Tee').
Although the Prince's general education had been patchy, the King was very keen that his eldest son should learn to speak fluently both French and German. Early attempts to interest the Prince in French had not been successful. His French governess insisted on the language being spoken at mealtimes, but the boy had decided that French was 'effeminate' and would deliberately mispronounce items when presented with a menu. According to his official biographer, the Prince's dislike of the language and reluctance to speak it 'persisted even after he had lived in France for many years'. He showed a greater aptitude for learning German, the language of large numbers of close relatives in the Kaiserreich.
But now in France, his new French tutor was well qualified for the task in hand. Maurice Escoffier (no relation of the famous chef), a tall, heavily built man with a full beard, widely regarded as having a brilliant mind, was librarian and lecturer at the École des Sciences Politiques in Paris. Escoffier took his young charge on an extensive sightseeing tour of Paris, drily commenting, after the Prince had been awarded the Legion d'Honneur, that – along with death – the medal was the only thing a Frenchman could never hope to avoid.
The diminutive Prince, resembling Gulliver in Brobdingnag in the company of his two far bigger and taller companions, clambered around castles and explored churches all over la France profonde. Despite the 'unofficial' label of the visit, the Prince spent an enjoyable few days with the French fleet, cruising in the Mediterranean. In contrast to his almost old-maidish attitude to late nights, romance, strong drink and rich food, a latent sense of adventure took him on a descent in a French submarine, a risky venture at a time of primitive undersea technology. Two French submarines had been lost, with all hands, earlier that year.
Excerpted from The Woman Before Wallis by Andrew Rose. Copyright © 2013 Andrew Rose. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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