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A fate worse than death

Hugo Vickers has already produced a well-documented and balanced biography of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

16 April 2011

12:00 AM

16 April 2011

12:00 AM

Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor Hugo Vickers

Hutchinson, pp.462, 25

Hugo Vickers has already produced a well-documented and balanced biography of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. To follow this with the Duchess of Windsor is as bold a left-and-right as one could ask for; like writing biographies of Shylock and Antonio or Cain and Abel. ‘I will go to my grave,’ wrote the lady-in-waiting Frances Campbell-Preston, ‘trying to convince people that the Queen Mother did not hate the Duchess of Windsor.’ ‘Hate’ is a strong word; but the Duchess certainly hated the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth was as much as anyone responsible for the fact that the Duchess was never fully accepted by the royal family.

The subtitle to Vickers’s new book is at first sight surprising. ‘Untold’ — up to a point — but ‘tragic’? On the whole the Duchess of Windsor had a very jolly time. She enjoyed most of the perks of royalty without any of the responsibilities, lived in luxury with jewellery and expensive clothing lavished on her, travelled from one expensive resort to another, was fawned on by almost everyone. Her life was one which many — including, one suspects, most readers of The Spectator — would find of terrifying sterility: traipsing from Paris to Antibes, from Antibes to New York, from New York to Florida, from Florida back to Paris, and so the weary merry-go-round spun on. But it was the life she craved and, with the Duke trotting behind her like an adoring lapdog, she was happy to follow it so long as her health permitted.

But the Duchess’s active life is not the main theme of Vickers’ book: the tragedy lies in the last ten years after the Duke had died and the Duchess lingered on alone. According to Vickers:

A Satanic figure was waiting and watching, narrow-eyed and dangerous, wearing the mantle of good intentions to disguise her inner malevolence: Maître Suzanne, lodged in her eyrie in the rue de Varenne. Her hour had all but come.

It is by examining her role in the Duchess’s life that Vickers justifies both the ‘untold’ and the ‘tragic’ in his subtitle.

I called once on Suzanne Blum in what was not so much an eyrie as an imposingly grand apartment. I was put at one end of an enfilade of rooms linked — for she was almost blind — by a rope suspended on poles by which she guided herself from one end of the house to another. The first sign I had of her existence was the twitching of the rope as she made her way towards me; then came the tapping of her stick. Hitchcock himself could not have designed a better entry. When she finally appeared she could not have been more courteous; then some recollection of the humiliations which she felt had been heaped upon the Duchess came to her mind and she began fiercely to berate me. Michael Bloch, her favourite historian who had organised the interview and was in attendance, gallantly came to my defence. ‘Mais ce n’était pas lui, Madame,’ he expostulated, ‘Ce n’était pas lui. C’était la famille royale!’ Eventually she conceded that my non-existent role in the ‘feud’ between the Windsors and the British royal family did not deserve condemnation and she became civil again. But she clearly she was not a woman to be trifled with.

But was Maître Blum really as malign a figure as Vickers paints her? She was power-hungry, certainly, and one by one drove from the Duchess’s life anyone who might challenge her absolute authority. She kept the Duchess alive long after any dispassionate observer would have deemed that she would be far better dead — but at that date, even probably today, anybody in her position would have felt bound to do the same. She kept her charge secluded from her friends — but those few who did penetrate usually found that the Duchess had no idea who they were and seemed to derive no pleasure from their presence. She pillaged the Duchess’s possessions; but some of what she misappropriated — like James Gunn’s portrait of the Duke — found its way immediately into museums and, as the sales after the Duchess’s death made evident, an awful lot was left.

But whatever Maître Blum’s merits or demerits, nothing she could have done would have made the Duchess’s declining years acceptable. Vickers paints a haunting picture of the Windsors’ house in the Bois de Boulogne during that last decade. ‘A kind of living tomb,’ he calls it:

Upstairs what remains of the Duchess sits, surrounded by nurses. There were two lights — one on the side which I think is her bedroom and one in the far window of what I think is the upstairs sitting room. In one of those rooms sat the Duchess, unable to move her hands or feet, unable to speak, unable, it seems, to die, poor thing.

Few people find the Duchess an attractive figure, but surely nobody would have wished her so miserable an end.

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