6 Apr 2011
avatar Author: Nicky Haslam

Princess Kate is clearly, radiantly, the apple of William’s eye, but Wallis Windsor was the king’s peach….when I worked for American Vogue in New York I came across them from time to time.  Once, most memorably, as I describe in my memoir ‘Redeeming Features’, the duchess and I were both early for a cocktail party at the Waldorf Towers so she insisted we hid for 20 minutes, laughing, in a corridor broom closet until some other guests arrived. 

This was typical of the woman as I knew her…full of vim and vigor and completely unstuffy…an example is this Philippe Halsman ‘jump’ photograph of the couple, though as a detractor sourly remarked, ‘it looks more like they’ve been dropped by somebody’.

The duchess also had a very tender side. I have a letter she wrote to her friend and mentor, the decorating genius Elsie Mendl, from La Cröe, the Windsors house on Cap d’Antibes (and now Roman Abramovitch’s), in the late 1930s … “nothing could make me happier than to be alone with you at the Villa Trianon… to look at you, and all the things you have created”….and she adds… “tonight I go to play cards with Winston Churchill who is stopping with Max Beaverbrook”…so much for her being shunned by ‘society’. 

Wallis’s style and chic are legendary, to say nothing of the famous jewels. Some of these were sold recently at Sotheby’s and Chairman Henry Wyndham asked me to co-host a lunch there before the sale. The idea was our guests would try on those huge historic rocks, but maddeningly they had all been sent to some Hong Kong potentate for a private viewing. So the nearest I’ve got to clamping on that vast ruby and emerald flamingo is one of the copies made by Butler and Wilson….and which my friend Hugo Vickers snapped up in readiness for his forthcoming book, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, a  chronicle the duchess’s last tragic years  after the duke died.

It makes harrowing reading, the poor woman bedridden and bullied…..tortured would not be too strong….by the ogreish female attorney Maitre Blum. I prefer to remember her as the epitome of elegance.

And fun…the first time we met, I mentioned a new group. “The Beatles!” she said. “don’t you just love ‘em?”

12 Responses to “The Epitome of Elegance: The Duchess of Windsor”

  1. avatar quintessence says:

    I LOVE that last line. So nice to hear about the fun exuberant side of her. I think too often we only hear about the rigidly tailored aspects. I did a little piece about the Sotheby’s sale just before the auction – would have loved to have seen the pieces in person!!

  2. avatar Helen Mc Nally says:

    Thanks, i love all things royal from Queen Victoria, to today’s Queen –Diana, Prince William and Kate, also Prince Harry, and also an interest in Tsar Nicholas and his family—though don’t know an awful lot about them, lol xx

  3. avatar Helen Mc Nally says:

    Wallis was a very interesting person, such a shame it turned out the way it did for herself and the Duke, the Queen Mother really did not like her, but tolerated her—she blamed Wallis —for amongst other things—the kings untimely death, in that he should never have been King, and the strain was intolerable for him. She NEVER forgave her!!!!, or indeed The Duke, for both giving up the Throne, AND marrying Wallis.

  4. avatar Gabrielle Grant says:

    Having studied in Baltimore, I too have always been slightly more than curious about W3. The last photograph is very lovely. While looking at these photos, I am reminded of the portraits R. Avedon took of them in Paris & the story about the cab and the their love for their dogs. Their expressions are unforgettable. I really can’t imagine being an American in their world, but reading this short story gives me a bit of hope that the Duchess remained true to herself.

  5. avatar Gaye Tapp says:

    Nicky I’m so glad you shared your personal take on Wallis- I have admired her style-and irregardless of what others think -he Pluck. She did have the KingDuke turn her into an honest woman. Don’t you think it all turned out for the best. Quite a lady-and if she didn’t instinctively know -she asked-the best of the best- like Elsie.-pgt

  6. avatar Tish Willis says:

    I can’t imagine anything more fun than a gossipy luncheon with NH and Hugo Vickers. Thanks for the heads-up on his new book.

  7. avatar Barbara says:

    What a great story about hiding in a broom closet with the duchess. I love the daily details that a look back at letters can provide. It’s sad to think of such an exuberant life being so tortured at the end.

  8. avatar Karena says:

    Nicki what wonderful memories to cheiesh. I have always admired her for …love comquered all.

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

  9. avatar Entre Nous says:

    Wallace Simpson was the Nancy Reagan of her time. The initial Sotheby’s auction was horrific in only a way one sympathetic to W.S. could understand. Hers was the most astounding, understated and underplayed Love Story of the century, yet when the auction catalog with it’s inherently deadly descritions was issued, one could see through the items described, the depth of her love of of the Duke. She kept all his things in pristine condition, yet when one read of the ‘paste’ ruby set in 10K gold, it was heartbreaking. To think that although she did commission KJL to replicate a lot of the jewelry items given to her out of love by the Duke, she was reduced to selling them (along with the setimental value) to survive in the home they shared. Which, might I add, must have ripped out pieces of her heart as each peice had to be sold. Such a sad story, yet one that gives hope.

    On a lighter note, she would be aghast at occurances such as this popping up in the national press…..

    http://hand-made-rescue.blogspot.com/2011/04/novel-idea-for-hat.html

  10. avatar Entre Nous says:

    Just as a curious aside, did you know Bill Shortway?

  11. avatar Philip Webb says:

    I agree with Tish. Luncheon with NH and Hugo Vickers would be great fun, with lots of gossip about royalty and society – I hope. lol

  12. She was the best company, great fun and her wit was wonderful. In looking back she was quite possibly the most important woman of the 20th century.

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