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Style and Illusion Over Substance – The Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

November 1, 2011

Melbourne Cup November 2 2011

Alison in Stephen Jones Hunting Hat and Gigli

Melbourne Cup Day was a quiet and relaxed affair with good friends 25 floors up in a stylish apartment overlooking Marvelous Melbourne. The accent was not so much on the Cup but the company. Having picked the winning French horse pre race the excitement was seeing it win. It seems the French certainly have a knack with fillies and fashion. The millinery on Cup Day went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Duchess of Windsor was a hat lady. Her favourite milliner was Caroline Reboux. The Duchess liked her hats small and neat. “No women looks well dressed unless she wears a hat”

For 25 years I have researched the lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I wanted to find out if they were traitors to Britain and if the rumor that at their meeting with Hitler in 1937 he promised the Duke that he would return him to the throne as King and Wallis his Queen when the Germans had won the war. Many of the secret files pertaining to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from 1936 to 1945 have yet to be opened.

Everyone knows the story of King Edward VIII’s abdication to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. If the younger generation missed it they will soon know all about it as a new film about the famous couple is set for release this year.

The latest book on Wallis is called “That Woman” by Anne Sebba. This book is unusual of the many books written about Wallis Simpson as it’s author Anne Sebba seeks to “humanize not demonise” Wallis.

How did Wallis do it – win the heart of an English King. It was certainly not through beauty or breeding. Illegitimate, from an impoverished genteel Baltimore family, Wallis climbed back into American society.x

When she and her husband first arrived in London she was described by Cecil Beaton in 1930 as “brawny and raw boned in her sapphire blue dress”. Wallis was a quick learner, she observed the fashionable set closely – their dinner parties, their clothes, their repartee. She softened her loud shrill voice and mastered the art of making men shine. What she offered was wit and great repartee. The King was surrounded by sycophants but she refused to “kow tow” to him. She conversed with him “chin to chin.” He regarded this as “substance” that Wallis was indeed “a true individualist”. In 1934 when Beaton re met her “I found her bright and witty improved in looks, and chic”.

This indeed is an intriguing book – we learn that in addition to Wallis’ conversational skills she had other attractions. She gave stunning dinner parties and was good in bed – allegedly using sexual techniques that she learnt in Shanghai. But the relationship was a Faustian pact. When she married the King and they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor she got more than she bargained for. His whole occupation was solely to be Wallis’s husband burdening her with an attentiveness that would test any marriage.

Wallis was a marvelous housekeeper. In her home “dinner began exactly at nine. Napkins were changed twice during the meal. During the day she walked around with a notebook making notes about the imperfections in the running of her household and handed the notes to the servants for correction.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor living in exile in France led a vacuous life. They were not interested in the arts, music or painting. They did not read books. They were not involved with philanthropy. Her idea of exercise was dancing or walking the dogs, his was playing golf.

What Wallis would not have known was that the Duke had been physically abused by his nanny as a child. Fearful of losing her place at the Palace the aging nanny would pinch the Duke every time she handed him to his mother Queen Mary. The baby would scream and then be quickly handed back to Nanny. This and his autocratic parents meant that the Duke was a damaged man – he seemed permanently immature.
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I was appalled to learn from acquaintances of the Windsor’s that the pug dogs were given free rein of their beautiful house in Paris. They were not toilet trained. This seems to be at odds with the fastidiousness of both the Duke and Duchess. It’s embarrassing to read about how much luggage they travelled with in order to accommodate their need for changes of clothes. There only real achievement was to be on the fashionable sets best dressed list for a number of years.
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It’s interesting to note in 1936 that Lady Emerald Cunard hated mother of Nancy Cunard – see my post Mad, Bad and Glad to Know was a good friend of the German Ambassador to London Herr Ribbentrop. Many of the influential members of English society turned their back on the Windsor’s after the Dukes abdication of the throne. Lady Cunard sided with the Windsor’s as did Diana Mosley and her fascist husband Oswald Mosley. It was later rumored that Wallis had an affair with Ribbentrop.

This is a fascinating and complex slice of history and Anne Sebba’s book gives us new information about the couple. Sebba speculates that Wallis may have been a “pseudo hermaphrodite” with her flat chest, big shoulders and big hands.

I suggest the Western World may owe a lot to Wallis Simpson – without her we would have had a weak, immature, pro German, King of England.
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