The morning after her wedding to the man who had proven his devotion to her by giving up the throne, the Duchess of Windsor woke up to find her husband ‘standing beside the bed with this innocent smile, saying, ‘And now what do we do?’
As she later told the American writer Gore Vidal: ‘My heart sank. Here was someone whose every day had been arranged for him all his life and now I was the one who was going to take the place of the entire British government, trying to think up things for him to do.’
The day before, at the Duke and Duchess’s wedding in France in 1937, friends had noticed how cold her behaviour was towards him. So it is perhaps not surprising that she soon began her first post-marital affair.
Unknown to Wallis, her meetings with her lover were being logged by the British Secret Service, who’d been asked by the Government to keep an eye on both her and the Duke of Windsor. Soon, the affair was fuelling high-society gossip.
The diarist Chips Channon was the first to record this latest tidbit, told to him by a rich American in May 1939: ‘Mr [William] Bullitt — the American ambassador in Paris — is madly in love with the Duchess of Windsor.’
Once Edward publicly announced he was abdicating in order to marry ‘the woman I love’, Wallis knew her fate was sealed: she’d be trapped for the rest of her life in a marriage she’d never wanted
The rumours were backed up by Eleanor Tydings Ditzen, the daughter of close friends of the Windsors. ‘The Duke would escort his wife to one of the dress designers for fittings and return for her after an hour or two,’ she recalled. ‘Wallis would slip out the back door for a rendezvous with the ambassador.
‘As the British Secret Service was guarding both Windsors, this affair was reported to their government. The British were afraid that the Prince [Duke of Windsor] might find out, and there would be a great scandal again. So the Secret Service was protecting Wallis’s transgressions from the Duke!’
It is doubtful whether Wallis ever loved Edward at all. She’d wanted to end her relationship with her royal lover when he became King in January 1936, but by then he was so obsessed with her that he threatened to kill himself if she left him.
Wallis stayed, but that didn’t prevent her dallying, in 1938, with a used car salesman called Guy Trundle.
Once Edward publicly announced he was abdicating in order to marry ‘the woman I love’, Wallis knew her fate was sealed: she’d be trapped for the rest of her life in a marriage she’d never wanted.
Having already fled to France, she listened to his abdication speech on the radio. She spent most of the following day in bed, feeling depressed.
Her friend Constance Coolidge, who’d also been listening to the broadcast, later commented: ‘Can you imagine a more terrible fate than to have to live up publicly to the legend of a love you don’t feel? To have to face, morning, noon and night, a middle-aged boy with no other purpose in life than a possessive passion for you?’
With hindsight, it’s all too clear that her affairs, constant shopping, and endless travel and entertaining were an attempt to provide some stimulation in a life that had little meaning, with a man she didn’t love. But it was a marriage that couldn’t afford to fail. The price had been too high.
At Winston Churchill’s insistence, the Windsors spent most of the war years in Nassau, where the Duke was governor of the Bahamas. After the war the Duke, then aged 50, was free to pursue his interests. The problem was that he didn’t really have any.
His life in France and America revolved around golf, gardening, being entertained, discussing his investments and musing about politics with the similarly minded — generally rich American businessmen who were anti-Semitic, racist and anti-Communist.
Unfaithful pair: Top, the Windsors with Fruity Metcalfe on their wedding day in 1937. One of these was his aide Fruity Metcalfe — an ‘active homosexual’, according to Forwood, who’d had ‘a physical affair with the Prince of Wales’. There are many tales about the Duke’s taste for young men, both before and after his marriage
In 1938, the Windsors had taken a ten-year lease on the Chateau de la Croe, on the Cap d’Antibes peninsula, and rented a four-storey house in Paris.
In both homes, royal protocol was insisted upon, with servants instructed never to speak first to the Duchess, but wait until she’d spoken to them.
When leaving the room, they were told to take several paces backwards before turning to leave. Wallis was always ‘Your Royal Highness’ — though Edward’s successor, George VI, had refused to grant her the appellation. Everything, in short, was an attempt to recreate the life the Windsors had lost.
Socialising was the only occupation that gave structure to their lives and Wallis took it very seriously. At her dinner parties she kept a golden notepad at her side — the servants called it her ‘grumble book’ — to note the successes and mistakes.
Despite her social triumphs, however, she was feeling unfulfilled. After the war, according to one friend: ‘Her boredom in her own marriage had become acute and she was no longer as discreet as before when it came to hiding her feelings.’
In August 1950, they were invited to the second wedding of Herman Rogers, a businessman and long-time friend of Wallis. His first wife had died and his new bride was a widow, Lucy Wann. Wallis had long been in love with Rogers and had been hoping to lure him away — but she’d missed her chance.
‘There is no question that these women were rivals in love,’ remembered Lucy’s daughter-in-law, Kitty Blair. ‘Both wanted Herman. Wallis would have grabbed him and told the Duke to go.’
Certainly Wallis made her feelings clear to Rogers’s bride, telling her: ‘I’ll hold you responsible if anything happens to Herman. He’s the only man I’ve ever loved.’
‘How nice for the Duke,’ Lucy replied, icily.
The Windsors’ relationship intrigued everyone who met them. ‘When they are together, they are like two automata. They have no intimacy — they seldom talk of anything at all serious. They drift,’ noted Cecil Beaton in his diary. ‘He depends on her utterly… she is nearly driven mad trying to find ways of amusing him.’
By her mid-50s, Wallis was taking stock of her life. The remarriage of Herman Rogers had affected her deeply, so she was feeling vulnerable when Jimmy Donahue ramped up his attentions.
After 13 years of marriage to a man with precious few resources, she found Donahue irresistible.
For several years, the 35-year-old heir to the Woolworth fortune had been a friend of both the Duke and Duchess, but at some time between the late 1940s and 1950, his relationship with Wallis had become physical. This was despite the fact that he’d always been assumed to be flamboyantly gay.
How do we know it was a sexual affair? Well, as we shall see, there’s quite a bit of testimony from people who knew them both. There are also damning reports, I can reveal, from the French secret service, who’d continued to keep the Nazi-sympathising Windsors under surveillance after the war.
In September 1951, for instance, they tracked Wallis’s movements after the Duke left Paris to visit his brother King George VI, who’d recently had a lung removed.
The French surveillance report states: ‘James Donahue — said to have had an affair with her for four years… takes her to the Paprika restaurant and then to the Monseigneur nightclub, where there’s a cabaret. Donahue returns to the Duchess’s home at 85, Rue de la Faisanderie in the 16th with her at 2.20am, and then he’s seen leaving alone at 5am.’
They are pictured above with Jimmy Donahue in 1954. By her mid-50s, Wallis was taking stock of her life. The remarriage of Herman Rogers had affected her deeply, so she was feeling vulnerable when Jimmy Donahue ramped up his attentions. After 13 years of marriage to a man with precious few resources, she found Donahue irresistible
To the deep humiliation of her husband, the affair would continue for several years — in America, in France and aboard various luxurious yachts.
Wallis could hardly have chosen a more outrageous lover. Stories circulated of orgies at his mother’s Palm Beach estate, the castration of a lover and police investigations into callboys and drug use.
Reputedly, his family kept a lawyer on 24-hour call to buy him out of his most dangerous scrapes.
The Duchess, however, was intrigued by his unpredictable behaviour, so different from her husband’s. Where Donahue was carefree and impulsive, the Duke was organised and precise. Where Donahue was generous, the Duke was penny-pinching. Where Jimmy was exciting and cheerful, the Duke was dull and depressed. Where her husband reminded her of her age, her lover made her feel young again.
In November 1950, the Duke remained in Paris to complete his memoirs with a ghost-writer while Wallis returned to New York alone. Designer Billy Baldwin noticed that the lovers began to frequent a restaurant he often used, off Park Avenue, and then ‘after lunch they would just quietly go to Jimmy’s apartment’.
For two weeks, the Duke rang Wallis twice a day, but whenever he called, her maid was unable to say where she was. When he did reach his wife, she cut the conversation short. Three weeks of this evasiveness brought him to the edge of a breakdown.
Abandoning Paris, he boarded an ocean liner for New York. So concerned was the ghost-writer about the Duke’s mental health that he always accompanied him on deck — for fear he’d jump over the side.
In New York, Wallis was there to greet her husband on arrival, yet she continued to spend her days lunching and shopping with Donahue, and insisted on including him in evening events.
Night after night, the Duke accompanied his wife and her lover to El Morocco nightclub, then left alone at midnight. ‘Buzz off, mosquito,’ Wallis was heard telling the former king.
According to witnesses, the lovers would party on till the early hours. The following morning, when the Duke checked on Wallis, he’d find notes taped to her bedroom door saying ‘Keep Out’, ‘Stay Out’, or ‘Don’t Come In Here’. Abjectly, the Duke accepted that Donahue was now a non-negotiable part of their lives.
The young man accompanied them everywhere — from a charity ball in Paris and a house party in Florida to a yachting tour of the Mediterranean.
By the summer of 1951, the affair was blatantly obvious. During a lunch with Lady Kenmare at her villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in France, Wallis suddenly announced she wanted to show Donahue the view from the first-floor guest room. They disappeared upstairs.
The Duke remained at the lunch table, reminiscing about his time as monarch. Meanwhile, according to Lady Kenmare’s daughter, the embarrassed guests were all too aware that ‘the Duchess was having it off with Jimmy in one of the upstairs guest rooms’.
The same year, 55-year-old Wallis had her eye on another man: Russell Nype, a 30-year-old actor and singer, then starring with Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam. Wallis called him each night and was seen with him so often that the Press scented an affair.
Journalist Alice Moats, researching the story, reported: ‘It seems to be common gossip that she has a crush on a fellow called Nype. The Duke goes home at night because he theoretically has to write his book and she plays about in nightclubs with Mr Nype.
‘However, things don’t seem to be quite as simple as all that; Jimmy Donahue has just written to his boyfriend to tell him that their liaison is over — he has at last fallen in love with a woman (the Duchess) and he is going to marry her! The person who told me had it from Jimmy’s boyfriend who confided the story to her in his anguish.’
Rumours began circulating that the Windsor marriage was on the rocks. The nature of the physical relationship between Wallis and Donahue intrigued New York society. According to Billy Baldwin, Donahue had once tried to circumcise himself with a penknife while drunk, which made intercourse painful. Hence, he said, the couple relied on oral sex.
Others claim their sex life was more conventional. ‘Oh, they did have sex,’ said the art historian John Richardson. ‘I asked Jimmy Donahue when he was drunk: ‘What was it like going to bed with the Duchess of Windsor?’ And he said: ‘It was like going to bed with a very old sailor.’
Why did the Duke put up with her shenanigans with Donahue, let alone her obsession with Nype? A simple answer is that he truly loved and needed Wallis — though it was rather more complicated than that.
‘The Duchess was cold, mean-spirited, a bully and a sadist,’ said Dr Gaea Leinhardt, stepdaughter of the man who ghost-wrote Wallis’s own autobiography. ‘My parents found the Duke not very bright — a wimp.’
Over the years, numerous friends and acquaintances had observed that Wallis was domineering, treating her husband like an infant and frequently reducing him to tears.
‘Paradoxically,’ said their friend Mona Eldridge, ‘this only caused him to cling more tightly to her.’
Weak and below average intelligence, the Duke enjoyed being dominated. And whenever Wallis was away, recalled the Duke’s confidant Kenneth de Courcy, he was restless and unhappy.
‘Did she love the Duke of Windsor?’ he reflected. ‘I am afraid the sad answer is that she did not… I think he knew it and it was that which induced him to concede his very innermost person to her authority in the hope that love would come.’
The nature of their sex life was much debated. Some insisted he had a problem with finishing too quickly or performing at all. Others said whips were involved.
At a country house party before his marriage, his private detective had shared some worrying discoveries with the Keeper of the Privy Purse.
‘He produced a small whip that he found in Mrs Simpson’s underwear drawer,’ recalled the Keeper’s daughter.
The Duke’s former equerry Dudley Forwood, who remained loyal to the Windsors, was doubtful whether they ever had sexual intercourse in the normal sense.
‘However, she did manage to give him relief,’ he said. ‘He had always been a repressed foot fetishist and she discovered this and indulged the perversity completely. They also, at his request, became involved in elaborate erotic games. These included nanny-child scenes: he wore diapers; she was the master. She was dominant, he happily submissive.’
The British interior designer Nicky Haslam, who socialised with the Windsors, agrees about the infantilism. ‘I mean nappies…’ he says. ‘They were all sexually screwed up by Queen Mary. Potty Gloucester [the Duke’s brother] liked wearing Queen Mary’s clothes, though he wasn’t gay. The Duke was certainly gay. I know that for a fact.’
There had long been rumours of the Duke’s bisexuality, though he never appeared to be comfortable in the company of gay men.
‘I have always thought that Edward VIII suffers from sexual repression of another nature,’ wrote Chips Channon in his diary in 1936. ‘His horror of anything even savouring of homosexuality was exaggerated, especially in a world where it is far from unknown; and at the same time there are tales (I have heard them all my life, and some I believe to be half true) which reveal him in quite another light.
‘Certainly, too, he has always surrounded himself with extremely attractive men.’
One of these was his aide Fruity Metcalfe — an ‘active homosexual’, according to Forwood, who’d had ‘a physical affair with the Prince of Wales’.
There are many tales about the Duke’s taste for young men, both before and after his marriage.
Among the most lurid are those of Hollywood barman Scotty Bowers, who claimed in a 2012 memoir that he’d procured men and women for numerous clients, including Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward and the Windsors.
Beaton had apparently introduced the couple to Bowers in the late 1940s, saying the Duke was ‘a classic example of a bisexual man’ and that ‘Wallis shared similar bisexual urges’.
According to Bowers, ‘[the Duke] and I slipped into the guesthouse at the bottom end of the large garden, stripped off and began making out’.
Over the next few days, Bowers supplied ‘a nice young guy for [the Duke] and a pretty dark-haired girl for Wally. Each time I sent somebody different. The royal couple enjoyed variety.
‘Wally was not in any way inhibited. She was very fond of dark-haired women… Wally really knew what she was doing. She did it in style and with intense passion.’
Among those who’ve insisted that Bowers was telling the truth are Gore Vidal, who spoke at Bowers’s book launch; film director John Schlesinger; and the novelist Dominick Dunne.
If Wallis was also bisexual, no other evidence has emerged. It’s beyond doubt, however, that she was mad about Jimmy Donahue. ‘I like Jimmy,’ Noel Coward told Truman Capote. ‘He’s an insane camp, but fun. And I like the Duchess.
‘The Duke, however… he pretends not to hate me. He does, though. Because I’m queer and he’s queer but, unlike him, I don’t pretend not to be. Anyway, the f**-hag must be enjoying it. Here she’s got a royal queen to sleep with and a rich one to hump.’
The Donahue affair continued during the Duke’s trip to England in 1952 for his brother’s funeral. And it was still going on when he returned there for his mother’s funeral in 1953.
For the rest of that year, he trailed in the lovers’ wake — to Biarritz, to a yacht Donahue had chartered for a month, and on to New York. In the summer of 1954, there was another yachting holiday that ended with a few days in Germany.
But fractures were appearing in the uneasy menage-a-trois. Donahue was growing bored — not least by having to play gin rummy with the Duke every afternoon — and annoyed at their sponging.
Tensions came to a head during a dinner in Baden-Baden, when Donahue took exception to a disparaging remark by Wallis about his breath. He kicked her under the table, tearing her stocking and drawing blood.
It was the final straw for the cuckolded Duke, who told Donahue: ‘We’ve had enough of you, Jimmy. Get out!’
Afterwards, Donahue was airbrushed out of the Windsors’ lives. Twelve years later he died of an overdose, suspected to be deliberate.
In his bedroom were found 13 framed photographs of Wallis.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by Andrew Lownie, published by Blink at £10.99. ©
Andrew Lownie 2022. To order a copy for £9.34 (offer valid to 25/06/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.