The Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s home in the Bois de Boulogne is set to become a tourist attraction – and we’re told the King has been invited to visit it during his postponed state visit to Paris next month.
There are many reasons for you or me to visit the house, but none for the king. I have no doubt that his private secretary will refuse with a polite message about the king’s busy itinerary when the visit begins on September 20.
After all, the house has a number of uncomfortable echoes.
The Windsors lived there because the Duke had ruined the fate of his life by abdicating, an act seen as a complete dereliction of duty by his ruthless family.
The restored Paris residence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their home in the Bois de Boulogne for a BBC interview filmed in 1969 and first broadcast on radio in 1970
The Duchess outside the house with Prince Philip, the Queen and the Prince of Wales, who came during their state visit to France in 1972.
It was here that the Duke and his wife spent their years in exile with a full retinue of liveried servants and plenty of royal paraphernalia, while staying away from the royal family themselves.
The house offers extraordinary evidence of the relationship between Wallis Simpson and the Duke – and, also, more positive insight than has been popular over the years.
In this miniature palace, the Duchess created an alternative “court in exile” in which the Duke was treated like a king, despite the evidence of reality.
I have been fortunate enough to see Villa Windsor (as it is now tediously called) in several incarnations.
The first was in May 1972, as the house prepared to welcome its most important visitor ever. The queen came to visit her sick uncle.
Elizabeth was in Paris on a state visit to President Pompidou, so the house was at its best.
I saw it several times during the Duchess’ solitary widowhood, and again in a dilapidated state just after her death as all the furniture was labeled and about to be removed.
But Mohamed Fayed then took out a lease for the house. He has restored it lavishly – to 95 per cent of what it was in Windsor’s heyday. It is this restoration that the general public will see.
I worked there for several days myself and am sure it will be fascinating for other visitors to visit this perfect gem of a home – and better understand the reality the Windsors lived in after the clash. of abdication.
When they married in 1937, Walter Monckton warned the Duchess that the world would never forgive her if she did not take good care of the Duke.
This is what she did, from 1953, in the luxurious setting of their Villa.
The Duke had made her one of the most hated women in the world, but now she had a man on her hands who had absolutely nothing to do for – ultimately – the next 35 years.
She made sure he was well entertained. He ate delicious food in a beautiful setting adorned by Stéphane Boudin de Jansen, one of the leading interior designers of the time.
It couldn’t have been easy though.
The Duchess and the Duke at the door of their Bois de Boulogne residence in 1966
A bedroom in the Windsor home after five years of restoration
A rare view of the exterior of the villa in the Bois de Boulogne
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor interviewed at their Paris home in 1966
The duke knew he had let him down. It was etched on his face.
The Duchess’s secretary told me how wonderful it was that every time Wallis went to the hairdresser she walked down the stairs while the Duke came down in the lift and saw her get in the car.
And wasn’t it just as wonderful that when she returned, the duke was on the steps to welcome her back?
I know what she meant. But that feels claustrophobic to me.
Lady Diana Cooper, the beauty and society hostess (whose parents had once hoped she would marry Edward) told me that if she had taken the Duke she would have brought him to live in Wyoming and become a cowboy.
It could have attracted him more.
Instead, the Duchess of Windsor created a miniature court in exile. The house was filled with royal cyphers, servants in royal livery and many images of Queen Mary.
(It was tricky of the Duchess to understand that she would miss her mother, a woman who had refused to receive her).
If Wallis made a mistake, perhaps it was in transforming herself into the epitome of a royal duchess, but more elegant than all the extremely elegant royal duchesses we had here in Britain.
King Charles doesn’t need to see this house. He was taken there one evening in 1970 to visit the Duke and Duchess as they partied in full swing, noticing the figure of the Prince of Wales, prominently displayed.
He accompanied his parents on their visit in 1972 and had tea with the Duchess, although I don’t think he saw the sick Duke upstairs (only the Queen went upstairs). I believe he also visited the house later when Fayed had the idea that Charles might like to recover some royal possessions.
The Duke and Duchess at home in 1966
Fayed still has the lease on the house, and it will be remembered that on the day of her death in 1997, Diana had visited Dodi on an ill-conceived mission to see if they would like to live there.
When Fayed took over the lease in 1986, his spokesperson released a statement on his behalf, describing Edward’s situation in these terms:
“It was the novel of the century. Here is a great king of a great empire, saying goodbye to his beloved wife.
“And I was lucky enough to preserve the house where he lived and all these objects. They are part of the heritage of Great Britain, which is my second home.
It seems innocuous. But Fayed had worse to say about the royal family in the years that have passed. The king would do well to stay away.
- Hugo Vickers is the author of numerous biographies, including The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. His most recent book is A Royal Life with HRH The Duke of Kent.