History Catches Up With the Windsors

Thomas Fleming’s most recent book was a 50th anniversary edition of his bestselling account of the battle of Bunker Hill, "Now We Are Enemies."

Amid the avalanche of commentary on The King’s Speech winning almost every Academy Award worth mentioning, no one seems to have noticed one of the more prominent losers:  Edward, the Duke of Windsor, and his beloved bride, Wallis Simpson.  It was Edward’s abdication as King Edward VIII to marry “the woman I love” that gave his younger brother George the crown.  In the movie, Edward is portrayed as a bully who made George’s stutter worse every time he encountered him.

That portrayal is mild compared to the Windsor and Wallis in the just-completed Masterpiece Theater drama, Any Human Heart. In this story of the life of Logan Montstuart, a would-be great writer who is endlessly distracted by falling in love with too many women, he encounters the Duke and Duchess while he is an intelligence officer in World War II.  By this time they are presiding over the Bahamas as Governor and Mrs. Governor General.

When Mountstuart attempts to investigate the murder of one of the Duke’s friends, the Windsors turn on him like a pair of Furies out of some ancient Greek drama, screaming insults and vowing revenge. It was apparently not an accident that Mountstuart’s next assignment was a mission to Switzerland, where he was arrested and spent a year in solitary confinement while the Duke’s secret allies inside the British establishment did nothing to win his release.

This imputation of duplicity, and something much darker, was not a surprise to me.  By a strange sort of serendipity, stories of the Windsors have crossed my journalistic path several times.  The first was told to me in the early 1950s by Fulton Oursler, the bestselling writer for whom I was working. In the 1930s,  Oursler had been editor in chief of Liberty magazine, the third-largest weekly in the nation.  He had met the Windsors and run a number of articles on them.

In late 1940, after France had fallen to Germany’s blitzkrieg and England teetered on collapse, Oursler received a cable from the Duke, asking him to come to the Bahamas immediately.  He did so and was soon having the most alarming interview of his life.  Windsor, with Wallis at his side, told Fulton he had been contacted by German agents who wanted to know if he were willing to become King of England after London surrendered.

Windsor’s answer was yes—and he wanted Oursler to have an article ready to publish that would help the American public understand that he was going to do his best to persuade the conquerors to be as lenient as possible to their new subjects.  The appalled Oursler flew back to Washington D.C., where he demanded an immediate meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Oursler was an old friend, who had given FDR considerable help in his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1932.

In an hour or so, Oursler was being ushered into the Oval Office.  Before he could say a word, FDR said:  “Calm down, Fulton. I know all about it.  I’ve got a transcript of your chat with His Royal Highness here on my desk.  We’ve got the SOB’s office thoroughly bugged.”

Later in the 1950s, I was executive editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.  In those days Cosmo published articles that intelligent people wanted to read.  I asked my brother, Eugene D. Fleming, a talented magazine journalist, to write an article on the Windsors, summing up their current status and state of mind.

Gene’s portrayal of the royal pair was devastating. He described how they wandered from Paris to Biarritz to New York to Palm Beach, guests of various members of high society.  Everywhere they were bored and touchy, ready to resent the slightest hint of a lack of respect for Edward’s royalty.  They ate at all the best restaurants and shopped at all the best stores—and never paid for anything.

The article’s climax told of the Windsors’ lunch at one of Paris’s four-star restaurants.  The headwaiter bowed low before his royal highness and wondered if he would like to see a pencil that the eatery had distributed to all its English customers to celebrate Edward’s coronation in 1936.  By all means, the Duke said, with what passed for a royal smile.

The head waiter produced the pencil.  Unfortunately, it was now only about two inches long.  But on top was still Edward’s crowned head.  The Duke stared at it and whined:  “Oh look, Wallis. I’m all whittled away!”     

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

vaughn davis bornet - 3/25/2011

That's my understanding.

One sentence: "having been required to give up the throne."

He knew perfectly well, and we all knew, that it was his passion for the Baltimore woman that caused that requirement. Having lived through that era and, maybe, having read their communications back and forth from and to Nassau (while not really remembering any), I feel I should observe that the whole World was astonished at such misplaced passion displayed recklessly in public by one who commanded little or no respect at the time from Anybody. Does that get it about right?

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Dale R Streeter - 3/23/2011

There are many stories to suggest that the duke was a cad and a bounder, as the expression goes. He apparently claimed poverty on his abdication and drove a hard bargain for the sale of Sandringham to his brother, which he inherited from his father, George V. Yet he seemed to have a lot of money, in spite of his freeloading ways.
His friendship with top Nazis, while reprehensible and unpatriotic, was common among his social circle, the Cliveden Set and the Mosleys and their supporters. He didn't seem to display very good judgement on this and was at odds with Churchill on the German threat. It seemed he enjoyed undermining the authority of his brother, the king, in a spiteful sense of revenge for having been required to give up the throne. It's common knowledge that Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, hated both him and Wallace, claiming that their antics shortened her husbands life. George VI did die in 1952, while David lived on into the 1970s. It's ironic that as the young Prince of Wales in the 1920s he helped the crown become "modern," yet when the fun was over and he was called upon to do his duty, he shirked it and set off on his travels.
Not a very admirable man, actually.

vaughn davis bornet - 3/21/2011

At one point I seized the opportunity to buy for the So. Ore. Col. library a microfilm collection about the Cable and Radio Censorship units in WWII. It was administrative stuff, organization, procedures. I did nothing with it. I have to assume it is still there.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

vaughn davis bornet - 3/21/2011

I really don't know much about this, but what I know is correct.

The Windsors were followed closely by US intelligence services in several ways.

I signed up for Cable and Radio Censorship, Miami, one of maybe six such places, and went on duty in September 1941 in civilian clothes.

After the war started, an ensign and I (a Yeoman First Class) closed down communications with Africa and Latin America at Western Union on Flagler Street. Soon the unit had watch lists and was reading private cables. I was assigned for six months to Postal Censorship (Army) as liaison.

In both places it was an open secret that the Windsors were being censored. I read many of their dull communications, and frankly can remember absolutely nothing they said. But they and Axil Wennergren were two I remember much idle talk about at the time in our circles.

I should think copies of intercepts exist somewhere.... If anybody cares at this late date. I do not.

After a year or so I was glad to get a reassignment and then a commission.
End of a not particularly interesting anecdote, I fear.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

History News Network