Many years ago I saw in magazine a photo of an old, crippled woman lying in her bed with tubes up her nose, obviously at a stage where she was beyond living and merely existed. But for the caption it would be impossible to discern that this human wreck was the famous (or infamous) Duchess of Windsor, once known for her elegance and always remembered as the woman for whom King Edward VIII of Britain gave up his throne, thereby plunging the British monarchy into its most serious crisis of modern times.
Today 25 years have passed since the 89-year-old Duchess of Windsor died in her home outside Paris, on 24 April 1986. In time for the anniversary the author Hugo Vickers has written the book Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor, published by Hutchinson of London on 7 April, which primarily concerns itself with the Duchess’s last years.
Vickers has deservedly succeeded in establishing himself as one of Britain’s leading experts on royal history, and for one who has read many mediocre books on this topic it is a relief to read the works of an author who is both familiar with terminology and manages to get his facts right (I think I spotted only two factual mistakes in this book). Vickers’s biography of Princess Alice of Greece, mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, is by many ranked as one of the best biographies there is about a royal subject, a view which is fully shared by me.
However, I do have ambivalent feelings about this new book. It is somewhat oddly composed; the first part deals with the Duchess’s last years (from the death of her husband in 1972 till her own fourteen years later), while the second, much shorter part deals with the 76 preceding years of her life. It is in the author’s own words in many ways a personal quest and Hugo Vickers himself appears prominently in the text, quoting very frequently from his own diaries and relating his own travels and conversations over the years. Not all of it is equally relevant and some of it comes across as little more than gossip, such as when a lady who would have been in no position to know for sure passes on to Vickers her beliefs about the Duke of Windsor’s sexual abilities (or lack thereof).
Other quotes from various sources can on the other hand be revealing, such as the Duchess of Windsor telling the American ambassador following her infamous meeting with Hitler that the latter talked about his interest in architecture, stating: “Our buildings will make more magnificent ruins than the Greeks”. In passing on the remark to President Roosevelt, Ambassador William Bullitt added that this “seemed to me about as revealing psychologically as anything I ever heard”.
And then there is the story, told by the Dean of the American Cathedral in Paris, who was present at the interment of the Duchess of Windsor at Frogmore in 1986 and observed Queen Elizabeth II, not known for wearing her heart on the sleeve, shed a tear and point to the grave of the Duke of Windsor with the words: “That was the one that I loved”. This story brings to life the huge impact the abdication had on the life of the current British monarch, not only in that she might not have been monarch at all if it had not happened, but how it to a certain extent broke up her family by removing a beloved uncle of her childhood from the family circle. This brings the abdication drama quite close, even three quarters of a century after it reached its climax.
Both Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson have been frequently demonised by many writers since 1936. Vickers’s portrayal of them falls into the more sympathetic category although he is not blind to their faults.
In the second part of the book Vickers presents short chapters on for instance Wallis Simpson’s family connections, her first two husbands and his own take on the abdication. It is his view that “Wallis Simpson was fond of Edward VIII but she was not in love with him. Therefore the Abdication is not one of the great romances of the twentieth century, it is one of the great tragedies”. Mrs Simpson did not want the King do abdicate, but she allowed the situation to get out of hand and “always considered the Abdication a terrible mistake that should have been avoided”. In this Vickers places himself quite close to the Duchess of Windsor’s own version.
Vickers also distances himself from the theory which is sometimes advocated that the Mrs Simpson situation was merely a convenient excuse for “the Establishment” to get rid of a troublesome king. According to Vickers, “nobody wanted the King to abdicate, [...] nobody tried to force him to do so and [...] everyone worked hard to prevent the final tragedy”. He concludes that “[t]he Abdication was brought on by the obstinacy of one man and one man alone – King Edward VIII. He was the only person in Britain who wanted Mrs Simpson to be Queen. Not even Mrs Simpson herself entertained the idea”.
About the allegations that the Duke of Windsor sympathised with the Nazis or behaved in such a way that he, in the words of Queen Mother Elena of Romania and Prince Pavle of Yugoslavia “should be shot as a traitor”, Vickers states that he was no Nazi, but “he was naive, and having been brought up with people to advise him all his life until December 1936 he was hardly competent or equipped to deal with men like Hitler”. While “German plots developed around them and plans were devised which could use them to German ends, the Windsors themselves were not a party to these. The Duke behaved in a manner both difficult and foolish, but he was not disloyal”. Some will consider this a fair assessment; others will find it an apologist interpretation.
But the main story of this book is that of Suzanne Blum, the French lawyer who came to exert great control over the Duchess in her twilight years and in Vickers’s words became her “captor, spokeswoman, keeper of the flame and the keys. She would change the Duchess’s will, altering the disposition of it, lodge what I suspect was a forged letter of authorisation with a tame notary, take the Duchess’s name in vain in respect of what she wanted published, and pronounce herself to be the Duchess’s friend and protector. It is one of the most sinister relationships ever formed between lawyer and client”.
At the time of the Duke of Windsor’s death in 1972 the health of his wife was beginning to fail, but she remained active for some years until illness confined her to her home and reduced her almost to the state of a vegetable for a long time preceding her death in 1986. Vickers shows how Blum gained control over the ailing Duchess, how she gradually restricted the number of visitors, sold some of her client’s possessions, dismissed members of the ducal staff etc.
“Failing to abide by the terms of the Duke of Windsor’s will, exploiting the Duchess, reinterpreting her wishes, selling her furniture and porcelain, keeping her in her room so that she did not notice what had gone, preventing her from seeing her friends, taking away her beloved pugs and denying her flowers in her bedroom – this was Blum’s way of ‘defending’ the Duchess”, Vickers concludes.
Indeed Blum does not come across as very likeable, but Vickers overdoes it to the extent where he seems incapable of finding anything positive to say about Blum and thus paints a portrait which is so one-dimensional that it is hard to believe.
There is also the issue of the author Michael Bloch, who Blum commissioned to write several books on the Windsors based on their papers. What seems to rankle most deeply with Vickers is that he does not believe Blum told the truth when she stated that the Windsors had themselves wanted these books published. This “strikes me and many others who knew the Windsors closely as nonsense”, states Vickers (who momentarily seems to have forgotten that he never met nor talked to either of them). On this point he makes a good case for his viewpoint and he obviously disagrees with much of what Bloch wrote, but the manner in which he states his disagreement seems unnecessary vengeful. It almost makes one believe there must have been some personal falling-out between the two authors.
There are also some frightfully snobbish comments about Vickers’s fellow attendees at the 1998 auction of items from the Windsor villa, so condescending that they simply do not reflect very well on the author himself. This is not Hugo Vickers at his best and only serves to weaken the impression of what is a mostly well-written, sometimes too personally biased, account of the horrid end to the life of the Duchess of Windsor, a woman who was herself a far from unflawed character, but who has been vilified beyond what is reasonable and whose tortured final years can hardly fail to instil sympathy even in the many who are not among her admirers.