RECALIBRATING THE WINDSORS. Andrew Lownie is an historian and a literary agent. He has contributed to newspapers such as The Times, The Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal, and has written several books, amongst them The Mountbattens Their Lives and Loves, and Stalin’s Englishman, The Lives of Guy Burgess. His most recent book is Traitor King, the Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Andrew Lownie, many books have already been written about the British royal family. Why did you decide to write a new book about the Windsors?
Very little has been written about the Duke of Windsor. There’ve been a lot of books about Wallis Simpson, but there’s never been a joint biography of them, or one which focused on the period after the Abdication. Most books stop in 1936. My book begins with the night of the Abdication broadcast and explains why the royal family froze them out. It talks about his links to the Nazis, which are often covered over in other books, but by looking at archives around the world and doing a lot of primary research I found that there was much more to that story. Rather than being the innocent dupe of the Nazis, he was an active intriguer with them.
Did you have sympathy for the couple when writing the book?
I write with an open mind. I found them a rather pathetic, petulant couple. This myth that they were happily married has continued to the present day. The fact is that she was caught in a marriage she didn’t want. He had threatened to commit suicide if she didn’t marry him. She took out her resentments on him. She humiliated him. She had a number of affairs, but the more he was cuckolded the more devoted he became. He tried to give her the lifestyle she would have had as queen, with huge staffs and very extravagant living and travelling, but they had nothing beyond their social life to keep them going. It is, in the end, a very sad story.
Which were the real reasons for the Abdication?
Ostensibly he wanted to marry her and he couldn’t do that and remain king, but he wasn’t suitable as a king. He didn’t have the sense of public duty. He wanted to interfere too much in politics. He was too close to the Nazis. George V famously said that within a year of his death his son would ruin himself, so there was great concern about him coming to the throne. Wallis provided the opportunity to manoeuvre him off. He was outplayed by Prime Minister Baldwin, the Dominion Prime Ministers and the Church of England, and because he didn’t have great will for this job it was easy to push him aside.
He travelled a lot when he was Prince of Wales and was then a sympathetic figure who people very much liked?
There are parallels with Prince Harry, the same popular and charismatic prince who wants to modernise the monarchy, and then it all goes wrong when he marries an American divorcee. Wallis was manipulative and wasn’t a suitable person for him, but even before the Abdication anyone who knew him well realised that he was a very weak character. He was lazy and not very bright, so there was a lot of spin. In fact, he had no interest in anyone except his own private pleasures.
“It’s taken time, but the recalibration of this view of the Windsors has happened and even those who were previously sceptical have now come around to it.”
He remained friendly with Mosley to the end of his life. They were neighbours in France, and one of the concerns about the Abdication was that Mosley’s BUF (British Union of Fascists) was very closely identified with Windsor and there were huge demonstrations on the night of the Abdication and on the next day. Special Branch reports show a worry that if the Duke was allowed to remain in Britain he would be a focus for these BUF groups. The Churchill relationship is more complicated. Churchill was in charge of the King’s Party at the Abdication and a great believer in monarchy, but when he realised the sort of character he was dealing with his views changed. That began pretty quickly. In the spring of 1937, during the negotiations on the financial settlement for the new Duke of Windsor, Churchill discovered that the Duke had saved quite a lot of money as Prince of Wales, that he didn’t really need his annuity and that he hadn’t been honest about his finances. During the war Churchill threatened him with court martial and sent them off to The Bahamas to keep them away from the Nazis. After the war Churchill refused to go on a cruise on the Onassis’ yacht because Windsor will be there. Captured German documents reveal the extent of Windsor’s treachery with the Germans, and Churchill is central to attempts to destroy those documents, so even though his views do change quite considerably, Churchill protected the Duke.
In your book he seems to be a selfish and spoilt person who is rude to the staff?
He was mean spirited and self-entitled. He assumed people worked for him for the honour. He didn’t pay them properly and sacked people in a very perfunctory way. He never picked up the bills. He sponged off rich Americans who were only too happy to be part of his entourage. He had no inner life. He didn’t read or listen to music. He just liked making money, playing golf and spending the evenings with right wing anti-Semitic American businessmen. It was a pretty empty life.
How did his relatives feel about him and what he did?
It was a bitter family feud. People felt not only had he abandoned his responsibilities, but also he had cheated his family, and The Queen Mother, married to Bertie, felt that her husband had been placed in a very difficult position. It wasn’t a job that he was suited to, and she always blamed the Windsors for his early death from the stress that he’d had. It was clear, reading the correspondence the royal family has in the archives in Windsor, that they felt very betrayed by him. He was bossy and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he no longer had the position he’d been born to. He did come back to visit his mother occasionally. She was torn, but an edict had gone out that no one was to attend his wedding and he was frozen out and put into exile. Wallis only came back once after the Abdication, for the unveiling of a plaque to Queen Mary in the 1960s.
He was still very close to his mother even though she never accepted Wallis?
Yes, there is a human tragedy there. She believed in the divine right of kings. She felt that he had broken the family honour, but he was her eldest son and so they did meet.
Immediately after the marriage to Wallis he went to see the Nazi high command and met the Führer. Pictures show him making the Nazi salute. Wasn’t that very embarrassing?
There was huge embarrassment about that tour of Germany because he visited SS troops and a concentration camp, had tea with Hitler, met all the Nazi leaders, gave Nazi salutes, and this is only a few years before the outbreak of war. He was in regular contact with Hitler. He even made a broadcast on the eve of the Second World War trying to avert the war; and that’s in some ways quite commendable, but by that stage everyone realised they needed to fight Hitler.
The royal family was German and he spoke German in the family, so wasn’t this quite natural?
That’s what the Nazis exploited. He felt that he was German. He was 14/16th German. His mother was a German princess. He spoke fluent German. He spent a lot of time in his youth in Germany on holiday, and was very close to a number of German cousins, including Prince Philipp of Hesse.
You introduce the idea that he and Prince Philipp of Hesse were both bisexual?
There’s a lot of evidence from contemporary diarists and from people who knew him about the bisexuality. The bisexuality of Prince Philipp of Hesse, again, is known. This all came out through an attempt at blackmail in 1937, which was covered up by the police, from a maid who worked in Prince Philipp’s household. The Germans had used the German cousins to target the Prince of Wales. He was already interfering in politics. He tried to change the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, and when he became king in March 1936 he downplayed the re-militarisation of the Rhineland. He was effective for the Germans, and they were delighted because Wallis was close to Ribbentrop, who became the German ambassador in London purely because of her relationship with him. There was a long term plan and they worked on the Duke the whole time before and during the war.
He was always against the war?
When people realised that Hitler couldn’t be appeased and that they would have to fight, all those who’d been sympathetic, including George VI, changed their views. The problem is the Windsors didn’t change their views. Even during the war they were campaigning to keep America out of the war. They were intriguing against Chamberlain in January 1940 after the outbreak, and I reveal in the book that the Duke passed details of the French defences to the Germans, which allowed them to change their war plans and successfully invade France and the Low Countries.
When the war starts he is in the south of France where they have a beautiful house. They go to Madrid, and then to Lisbon, and get involved with a Portuguese banker. Why do you describe this as a shady moment?
When he gets to Lisbon in the summer of 1940 the Germans have their opportunity to persuade him to come back as a puppet king should they invade Britain. There’s a huge operation called Operation Willi to entice him to do this, and they offer him large sums of money. They have long negotiations with him, which instead of him reporting, or indeed rebutting, he engages with. He is in and out of the German embassy, talking to these people, flattered by their attentions, and he delays his return to Britain while he has these negotiations. To suggest that he’s a victim here is a little rich. He was entertaining these approaches and quite open to them. When he leaves to go to The Bahamas he even sends a telegram in code to the German agent he’s been talking to, saying that if the opportunity arises he is happy to come back from The Bahamas and take on the role of king.
When he is in The Bahamas you describe him as desperate and drunk. There is a bizarre story about a murder where he’s somehow involved. Is that Bahamas period also quite troubling?
Yes. People hoped that by going to the Bahamas as Governor they would park him and he would keep quiet, but the problem is The Bahamas is very close to America so he gets involved with isolationists. The Germans send another agent to whom he becomes close. He gets involved in financial shady dealings with businessmen there and covers up a murder of one of his business partners by sending the commissioner of police off to another island and calling in bent coppers to investigate it. It’s revealed that he’s trying to siphon money out of The Bahamas to a bank in Mexico which is run by the Nazis. He’s drunk. He doesn’t do his duties as Governor. He’s basically playing golf and going swimming. No one ever wants to give him another job. Wallis however does a lot of good work in The Bahamas, helping wounded soldiers and getting involved in the Red Cross. She is given a purpose in life from the emptiness of the life she had before. She works in the canteen on the RAF base. She sets up clinics for young black children. She has a pretty good war, but he really can’t apply himself to anything.
Was he a greedy man who was interested in making money?
He was always greedy, and they didn’t pay the going rate for anything. They often borrowed dresses and jewels and didn’t return them. They operated a lot on credit. He had tax free status.
Was this one of the reasons why he never went back to England?
Yes, and why he didn’t permanently settle in America. The great thing was the French did give them tax free status, and they provided a rather nice house in the Bois de Boulogne that had been used by Charles de Gaulle. He was treated very well. He had duty free privileges as a Major General, which continued after the war, and was always abusing these to get petrol to make motor trips around the country and to get cheap booze. This was one of the reasons he was so unpopular during the war. Everyone else was suffering and he was living a gilded life, extravagantly travelling with numerous pieces of luggage at a time when people were trying to cut their cloth according to what was happening.
“He just liked making money, playing golf and spending the evenings with right wing anti-Semitic American businessmen.”
Andrew Lownie, after the war Winston Churchill wants to find and burn documents to try to avoid scandals and you say in your book that later he even asked Eisenhower personally to not open certain files. They send Anthony Blunt, an art historian and much later discovered to be a Russian spy, to Germany on this particular mission.
Blunt made several missions to Germany at the end of the war as an MI5 intelligence officer. He went on fishing expeditions to discover if there was any embarrassing correspondence between members of the British royal family, particularly the Duke, and some of the German cousins like Prince Philipp of Hesse, which is why he went to Kronberg Castle. The story is given that he was only recovering letters from Queen Victoria to her daughter, but that didn’t require an MI5 officer. I found evidence of his correspondence at Kronberg in a diary of a British officer who was based at Kronberg in 1945. Absolutely, there was this huge operation after the war to gather up any embarrassing evidence of the Duke’s treachery, and remove it for safekeeping.
It’s awkward that they chose a traitor to cover the treachery of another traitor?
Blunt was highly respected, and very close to the royal librarian, Owen Morshead, who sent him on this mission. It was their bad luck that Blunt was a double agent, but this mission was part of the reason that people think Blunt was later given immunity. If he’d revealed this it would have been very embarrassing to the royal family. If Blunt hadn’t been named by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 no one would have known about his treachery, which he confessed to in 1963.
You say that Wallis has an affair?
She had an affair with a young playboy called Jimmy Donahue, 35 years old, a Woolworth heir and bisexual. It’s clear from French Secret Service reports that they did spend nights together, but she was getting attention and flattery and this wasn’t the only affair she had. Shortly after that, she probably had an affair with an actor called Russell Nype, and it’s known that she had an affair with the American ambassador in Paris in the 1930s called William Bullitt. She had given up on this marriage pretty early on. Her affair with Bullitt starts almost immediately after she gets married, and she was having an affair even before they got married with a man called Guy Trundle, a used car salesman in Britain. Only one of the Special Branch files covering the surveillance of the couple in the 1930s has been released. The rest were destroyed, so there may be other episodes we don’t know about.
Jimmy Donahue was always picking up their bills?
It was expected of almost everyone they socialised with that they would pick up the bills and Jimmy Donohue was generous. There’s also a suggestion that the Duke was attracted to Jimmy Donahue himself, sexually, whether anything ever happened. That was part of the whole complicated affair. Jimmy Donohue cuckolded him. Though he’d been head of the Church of England, Jimmy made them get involved with the Catholic Church. He’d photograph them being crowned king and queen at nightclubs. They put up with a lot of humiliating situations in order to sponge off him. They were constantly humiliated – and it seems that in some way the Duke liked that, that there was a sadomasochistic element to him.
There is a touch of sympathy in your book in his country house in France when he’s very keen on his garden and the couple finds happiness in that?
Yes. The Mill is the only house they ever own, they go there every weekend. It is their sanctuary. They entertain people like Maria Callas and recreate the world that they’ve left behind. Their extravagant living replicates Buckingham Palace, and gardening becomes a therapy for him. He works with well-known landscape gardeners to create his legacy. Without children, they devote their attentions to the garden and to their pugs.
Are they more accepted by the royal family in their last years?
Prince Charles goes to see him a few times. He sees Mountbatten, who used to be an old friend of his, and the Queen, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles pay him visits just before he dies. The royal family realise it is not a very good image to be seen to be freezing the Windsors out, so for PR reasons they do try and bring them onside. They’re also aware the Duke is dying and they’re very keen to recover correspondence and artefacts and bring them back. Wallis only meets the royal family once, with the unveiling of the plaque to Queen Mary, and even then they’re not invited back to lunch at Buckingham Palace. She never stays in Buckingham Palace until the Duke is dead and she’s brought there for the funeral.
Did the couple become closer in their old age?
There’s nothing else, the two of them against the world, but it is revealing that when he is dying and he calls out for her every night, even though her bedroom is two doors away she never once visits him in the two weeks before his death. She’s a pretty cold fish.
But they had never left each other, whatever happened, and she became completely alone without him?
Yes, the sad thing is that she didn’t have many friends and no relations. She fell into the grips of a French lawyer called Maitre Blum who took over and controlled her life, and a lot of the friends she did have were prevented from visiting her. She wasn’t well. She spent the last 14 years of her life after the Duke’s death as an invalid, in one corner of the house while the furniture and various things were sold off around her to pay the medical bills. It was a very sad life at the end, but in some ways she reaped what she sowed.
“No one ever wants to give him another job.”
Andrew Lownie, when they both had died was there no money left?
There was quite a lot of money left. There were huge sales of their artefacts, furniture, pictures, jewels, and it raised millions of pounds for charities. Money went to the Pasteur Institute and was used for AIDS research. They’d never been poor. They pretended they were, but there was a huge amount of money there.
What was the reaction of the royal family to your book?
There’s always been no comment. When it came out, there was no reaction at all. It wasn’t even reviewed by any of the leading newspapers that normally review my books. I discovered the word had been put out that there was nothing new in it, and that it couldn’t be couldn’t be relied on – even though every statement I make is sourced to primary material from archives around the world. When there was a television programme I began to get good reviews, and the Times Literary Supplement reviewer said that he was convinced by my arguments. It’s taken time, but the recalibration of this view of the Windsors has happened and even those who were previously sceptical have now come around to it.
Wasn’t all this already very well known?
It wasn’t. I’ve nailed the links to the Nazis. The line has always been that he was a victim of an approach rather than someone who actively engaged with it, so that’s completely new. The extent of her affairs, for example, the affair with William Bullitt, wasn’t known, that with Russell Nype is completely new, and the detail from people who work with them and knew them is all new. I’m the first person to have seen the files in the Royal Archives showing the depths of the family feud. A lot of new material comes from freedom of information requests. I used French Secret Service reports which people never realised were there to document the affair with Jimmy Donahue. Much of the material on the treachery in the war comes from the National Archives in the States, papers and private diaries that have never been used before. What I’ve done shows that it was much worse than people thought and provides the hard evidence to prove it.
The Duke didn’t do anything really damaging. He saved the crown – because his brother was a very good King, and the Queen has been a great queen.
But he did betray the French defences to the Germans. That’s quite serious. Because he was sent off to the Bahamas, there was the potential danger of him being brought back to Britain as a puppet king. It wouldn’t have happened because, of course, the Germans didn’t invade, so events, in a sense, overtook him, but who knows what other mischief he got up to during the war. Things didn’t in the end turn out as badly as they might have done, but it doesn’t stop us looking at all the scandal around him. We don’t really know our history. So much of it is censored, and so many of the papers are destroyed that we have a curated narrative, particularly on royal matters, which isn’t necessarily the truth.
This great love story has ended up not being a love story. Yet they never left each other, because they couldn’t exist one without the other?
He was obsessed with her, he needed her. That was a very strong bond, but it was an irritation to her. She felt trapped with this boy child, but she had no alternative. She had divorced two husbands, the last one to marry this one. She had no money or position. She was pretty reviled, and therefore she was stuck with this man. The best she could do was to stick with him, and she enjoyed the benefits of being with him. She had a very good lifestyle and met lots of interesting people. That was the price that she was prepared to pay.
What is next for you as a royal biographer?
A book on the Duke and Duchess of York. There’s never a serious book on the two together, the Duke and the Duchess of York. There are important questions about his role as UK trade envoy, and the way that they use their charitable activities as cover for their moneymaking activities. There’s an interesting story there, but after that I’ll go back to other subjects, I am not really a royal biographer.
Do you like your subjects or not?
My first biography was of a writer called John Buchan, to whom I was very admiring, and even my book on Guy Burgess the spy was sympathetic, to try and understand what made him tick. The Mountbatten biography is more pro Mountbatten than other books. I’m not hostile to the royal family.
You like couples who betray themselves?
Readers like it. This book is going to sell better than a book about a happily married couple I’m afraid. These people are complicated. People are always intrigued by other people’s marriages and why they work or don’t work. What I have tried to do in this trilogy of books on the royals is always through the prism of the partnership. But, of course, scandal and hypocrisy, cover ups, all these things make much better copy than people who are, like George VI, very law abiding and dutiful. That’s not what people buy books about.
Thank you very much for this interview.
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