Image: Brijesh Patel
January 29 2011
One way or another I seem to be seeing a lot of the Duke of Windsor these days: he seems to be being dragged out in film and on the telly. Take Any Human Heart, William Boyd’s TV adaptation of William Boyd’s brilliant novel (Boyd, by the way, is seriously underrated and is, I would argue, one of the top five novelists writing in the English language today); there was the duke being played as a bit of a pint-sized buffoon. In the recent Upstairs Downstairs David came in for some serious flak, and of course now, with The King’s Speech, Edward VIII is once again portrayed as a selfish hedonistic weakling.
The Duke of Windsor is bound to divide opinion. I remember hearing that he was apparently very popular and had that nebulous and potentially patronising gift of the “common touch”. But, predictably, it is the clothes that stick in my mind. I remember my grandfather who grew up in Berlin telling me how the Prince of Wales made the fashions in inter-war Europe; and I have a photograph of my much missed and superbly dressed grandparent in plus fours and Argyle pullover to prove it.
I still remember Patrick Lichfield telling me about the time he had only a few minutes to photograph HRH and he asked him simply to remove and refasten his tie with the eponymous knot; the resulting image of this elderly man with thin lips, sad empty eyes and sun- and tobacco-fissured face heading in the direction of Wystan Auden is a classic.
I was also fortunate enough to visit the duke’s house in Paris and rummage around in his wardrobe. I am among the smallish group of men who, subsequent to the sale of his effects, instructed their tailors to make them dinner jackets in needlecord after seeing the one worn by the duke. But even I realise that having a taste for slightly noticeable clothes is not always the soundest basis upon which to build a robust constitutional monarchy. And it is probably this that accounts for his portrayal today as a misguided, slightly too well-dressed clown in the sort of plus fours that Eric Morecambe wore to such comic effect.
And of course it is impossible to be unaware of his dubious political leanings and his unsavoury fondness for the Nazi elite. Not to mention the terrible sense of betrayal that the nation must have felt as their king ditched them for an American adventuress – happily, and in a way thanks to that abdication, we are blessed with a monarch today whose devotion to her people and her country is exemplary.
Hence the duke’s stock has waxed and waned over the years. Until his death in 1972 he and the duchess were king and queen of that restless group of the international rich known as Café Society – the bunch of pleasure-seeking, lotus-eating sybarites who filled the gap between the demise of the Bright Young Things and the rise of the jet set.
Shortly after his death I think there was even a tendency to romanticise the couple, to see their lives in terms of a love story; and, in a saccharine Barbara Cartland sort of way, there is something remarkable about a man who gives up not merely a kingdom but an entire empire for a woman. Perhaps the saddest thing was that even though he was prepared to give it all up for her, Mrs Simpson was far from pleased and on hearing of his plans to abdicate apparently said “David! Can’t you at least remain emperor of India, even if you are no longer king of England?”