Well darling, they’re not posting the black bordered announcement outside Buckingham Palace quite yet announcing my imminent demise but I have to tell you this flu is less the bug than an absolute bugger. Still, silver linings and all that, it’s given me time to catch up on the new biographies such as Anne Sebba’s That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson and spend a marathon day in the yellow satin peignoir watching the entire 1978 Edward Fox TV biography Edward & Mrs Simpson.
Rather like Marilyn, Mrs Simpson is hovering in the ether again thanks to Madonna’s upcoming hagiography W.E. and a slew of new books including Hugo Vickers’ heartbreaking chronicle of the Duchess of Windsor’s last decade. I would agree with Madonna’s point of view that the Duchess of Windsor had what our American cousins would call ‘a bum rap’. She was essentially the fall girl who removed a Prince of Wales – and briefly a King – who the British monarchy considered most unsuitable as a King Emperor.
Perhaps there are far too many witnesses to the Prince of Wales’s faults for them to be entirely based in fiction. He did seem to be a feckless Peter Pan with a penchant for mother figure married women. But lest we forget he was also the first international royal superstar beloved by the entire Empire and a beacon of hope that as successor of his father George V would modernise the monarchy and bring it into the 20th century. Given half a chance perhaps he would have given a sensible, suitable consort.
There are game-changing moments in recent British royal history that simply seem too convenient for the perfect story line. One thinks of Edward VIIs eldest son Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale rather conveniently dying in his twenties four years after the infamous Cleveland Street male brothel scandal that he will be forever linked to. One also thinks of George V saying that he sincerely hoped his eldest son would die a bachelor and leave the throne free for the future King George VI and his daughter our present Queen. As if by magic within a year King Edward VIII threw in his chips for the love of twice divorced American Wally Simpson and all was right with King and country.
Conspiracy theories are by and large a bore. Games of ‘if only’ are I think amusing especially when you haven’t seen a friendly face for days due to flu. The new biography That Woman was on the whole prurient. There were many veiled references as to why the Prince of Wales was known by his mistresses as ‘the little man’ and even a ludicrous supposition that the Prince’s inscription on a piece of jewellery given to Wallis reading ‘Hold tight’ might refer to amorous techniques Mrs Simpson had picked up in Shanghai. I believe what Anne Sebba was referring to was what English society coyly called ‘the Baltimore Grip’.
I would usually agree that sex is the leveller. It makes people behave in the most peculiar fashion that defies character. However, I don’t for a second believe the love Edward had for Mrs Simpson was entirely sexual. Neither was it inconvenient when an ailing George V wished for his second son to succeed. It is quite the most marvellous conspiracy theory that Mrs Simpson was the smoking gun fired by the Windsors to ensure Edward VIII abdicated and left the path clear for the dynasty to flourish.
We will perhaps never know until a secret diary penned by the Duke of Windsor is found. Sounds like a cue for a novel. What fascinates me about Edward and Mrs Simpson is the love story told in gemstones. I wasn’t at large in London when the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1987 and realised £50 million. Today that sum would have been quadrupled.
There were many malicious rumours that the Duke of Windsor made off with a cache of emeralds bequeathed to him by grandmother Queen Alexandra. There is of course a possibility that the reason Edward commissioned so many original pieces set by Cartier and Van Cleef for Mrs Simpson was a masquerade to hide royal jewels. This I don’t think is entirely right or true.
‘That Woman’ I believe got what Marilyn’s character, Sugar Cane, called in Some Like it Hot the fuzzy end of the lollypop. She got the jewels, she got half a title – Duchess but not HRH – and she was lumbered with a bitterly disappointed ex-King who was bored, frustrated, melancholy and affronted by his family’s rejection. She outlived the Duke by more than a decade and ended her days lonely, infirm and bitter under practical house arrest in a Paris mansion now in the possession of Mohammed Al Fayed.
To add insult to injury, her lifelong enemy Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother lived to see her buried at Frogmore on the Windsor estate mourned by no one but people she considered enemies. I have handled many of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels including a pearl necklace bought in 1987 by Calvin Klein and subsequently sold on by Sotheby’s. In recent months, I returned to Sotheby’s to view the Cartier bejewelled flamingo, the charm bracelet of gem-set crosses that Madonna bought and the Cartier diamond, onyx and emerald panther bracelet that I think was the symbol of their relationship. The world perhaps saw her as predatory. She perhaps knew she was the hunted rather than the hunter.