The Lost World of the Windsors

In one of the sitting rooms of the main building at The Moulin de la Tuilerie, or The Mill, as it is sometimes called, is a mural painted above the fireplace. It was put there by the Duchess of the Windsor and it says “I’m not the miller’s daughter but I’ve been through the mill.”

Over the years since 1734, the best date that can be given for the main building at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, The Mill at Gif Sur Yvette has had many incarnations. The most glamourous being during the 1950s when it was the weekend home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They bought the house in 1952 from the artist Drian and set about making renovations and improvements to both the house and the garden. During the 1950s and 1960s they were entertaining celebrities and the glitterati at weekend parties here just a 30 minute drive from their home in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

The Garden

Here is an interesting introduction  to Le Moulin and some comments by the daughter of one of the gardeners who worked with the Duke of Windsor.

Le Moulin De La Tuilerie

Looking at old pictures of the Mill I really do think that the Duke loved pottering in the garden. Russell Page, in his book, The Education of a Gardener makes several comments about the Duke’s choice of plants and about his keen interest in the garden in general.

Photo from The Windsor Style by Suzy Menkes.

The Garden at The Mill Today

“It was a lucky day for the Duke of Windsor, who loves stones as well as streams, when in his garden near Paris, he found the remains of an old quarry with enough stone to pave all the garden paths. We used them with fairly wide mortared joints in the enclosed garden, and spaced more widely and with grass between, in the wilder parts outside the garden walls.” (Russell Page – The Education of a Gardener)

Both of my visits have been in May so very few flowers have been in bloom and the garden is generally tidier and less fussy than in the Windsor’s day.

The Grounds

When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived here at the weekends and entertained their guests the grounds contained a swimming pool and a tennis court. Today these are overgrown and have all but disappeared. The pool was filled in but standing by it and still topped by a weather vane complete with coronet is a little round changing hut.

Photo from The Windsor Style by Suzy Menkes.

The garden at The Mill today

The tennis court today

The Pugs

Evidence of the Duke and Duchess’s love for their pet pugs can be seen everywhere at The Mill. In the pictures hanging in each property, in the books in each library, on the cushions and by the fact that little individual tombstones were made for each pug that passed away and was buried in the Mill grounds.

The stones have been moved and now lie or stand near one of the garden gates.

 Trooper – 1952-1965 RIP

Pug Headstones

Of course, as our own contribution to try to bring Le Moulin back to its former glory we brought our very own pug Alfie to stay. He found that he had a taste for the Royal life and did not want to get back in the car to come home!

The Literature of the Windsors – a publishing phenomenon

Millions of words and countless books have been written about Him, about Her, about Them, about The Abdication and about Their Stuff.

Lots of it is repetitive – believe me I have now read quite a few.

They published their own memoirs during their lifetimes, namely A King’s Story and The Heart Has Its Reasons. These two I own but have yet to read. The story goes that after the Abdication and the Second World War was over and when they had finally settled in France the former king, feeling rather at a loose end, at Wallis’s suggestion wrote his own biography. This he set about with gusto and with help of Charles J. V. Murphy. Published in 1951 A King’s Story: the memoirs of H.R.H. The Duke of Windsor was a great success. Wallis published her own story The Heart Has Its Reasons: the memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor in 1956.

Copies of both books are on the Library shelves at La Maison Des Amis.

I have (unread, so far) copies of my own as well.

Also on the library shelves at La Maison are other biographical works telling in their own way and with their own biases the stories of the Duke and Duchess. The winner with the most publications to his name on these shelves is Hugo Vickers with a total of 3 works:

The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1995. Published by Mohammed Al Fayed.

Cecil Beaton : the authorized biography; 1985.  (CB was a close friend of theirs and who took many of the best known photographs of the Windsors and who frequently came to stay at Le Moulin de la Tulierie.)

Behind Closed Doors: the tragic untold story of the Duchess of Windsor; 2011.

Other Windsor books at La Maison include Suzy Menkes’ The Windsor Style (1987) which covers their homes, gardens, fashions and objects. The appendices include The Duchess of Windsor’s Cookbook and a list of furnishings and objets d’art donated to The Palace of Versailles and the sale results of The Duchess of Windsor’s Jewel Sale at Sotheby’s in Geneva in April 1987.

Frances Donaldson, who wrote an [official] biography of the Duke also published in 1974 Edward VIII : the road to abdication. Rather more of a photographic album with informed commentary than the aforementioned biography. Shown below are my own copies.

The selection at Gif also includes La Veritable Duchesse de Windsor by Bertrand Meyer-Stabley, Editions Pygmalion, 2002, for all the French guests staying at Le Moulin. Well, I have yet to see any French commenters in the Landmark Logbook but maybe they haven’t caught on to the British Visitor’s Book signing tradition.

The People’s King [another] true story of the Abdication; by Susan Williams [2003]

Queen Victoria’s Family: a century of photographs, 1840-1940; by Charlotte Zeepvat. [2003]

The Education of a Gardener, by Russell Page. [1962] who spent time helping the former king to establish his own garden at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie.

But I think the most interesting and intriguing books on the library shelves at La Maison are the 3 volumes of the New York Sotheby’s Catalogue of the Sale in 1997 of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s property. They are fully illustrated and contain price estimates. On our return home last year we bought the final sale price list with which to compare.

At Home With the Windsors – La Maison des Amis

I am off to France shortly. It’s another Landmarking holiday but with the added difference that I shall be in France and staying at the former weekend home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

This will be my second visit. Last year the day of departure coincided with the Royal Wedding. I had my own Royal Weekend in France which made up, somewhat, for missing the live broadcasts of Kate and William’s happy day.

Le Moulin

La Maison des Amis is situated within the small estate that comprises The Moulin de la Tuilerie on the edge of the village of Gif sur Yvette in the Essonne department of France. We didn’t use it last year but there’s an RER train link with the centre of Paris and the journey takes about  40 minutes. We’re hoping to have a little trip to town this time. We don’t have too many plans but we have reserved at a restaurant in Versailles for lunch on the Sunday.

La Maison Des Amis (rear)

There are three rental properties on the site. Le Moulin  itself (which sleeps 12 in total) and which the Duke and Duchess themselves occupied for their weekends away from Paris and La Maison de Amis (sleeps 4) and Le Celibataire (sleeps 2) where their guests – people like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (I sleep in their room!), Cecil Beeton, Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas – were accommodated very comfortably.

Le Moulin de la Tuilerie from ‘Cardiac Hill’ as the Duke of Windsor called it!

Those Windsors they recognised a great location when they saw it. In addition to being 40 minutes from the centre of Paris (or rather 35 minutes by Buick from their home in the Bois de Boulogne) the lovely old town of Versailles and its OTT palace and  grounds are about 20 minutes away and as Landmark puts it :

“Just as for Edward and Wallis, still today this is a place for contrasts: a wonderful setting to play host, or enjoy deep tranquillity; an easy day trip by direct train to the bustle and culture of central Paris or the delights of Versailles, and yet a place where the city finally yields to deep countryside.”

Sunday evening strollers in the park at Versailles

There is plenty of good reading matter in the Landmark Library, as usual. We spent a lot of time looking through the Sothebys New York 1997 Sale Catalogue of the Windsors’ stuff.

Not The Last of the Duchess

My interest in the Windsors dates back to earlier this year when I stayed at their weekend retreat near Paris, now handily converted for self-catering holidays by the Landmark Trust. Back in the spring I read this book and the biography by Michael Bloch “The Duchess of Windsor”, and the one by Hugo Vickers “Behind Closed Doors: the Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor” and then most recently Anne Sebba’s new biography “That Woman”. The authors of each book, it seemed to me, had an agenda and I still feel I am nowhere nearer knowing what the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were really like. Of course we can never ever know for sure!

Reading the last sentences I realise that all my reading has concentrated on Wallis and not so much on Edward. I need to address that. I’m currently reading James Pope-Hennessy’s life of Queen Mary which will go a little way to adjust the balance. I think perhaps the library can help too!

Last evening the Duchess was the main subject of the play I went to see at the Hampstead Theatre. This was a performance of the world premiere of “The Last of the Duchess” adapted by Nicholas Wright but based closely on Blackwood’s book.

I booked tickets when I came upon a link to it by chance via Google. At the time I was searching for more information about Lady Caroline Blackwood, the author of the book I had just read, back in May or June this year. At the time there was no inkling as to the cast but I knew that I wanted to see it. And anyway the theatre is just steps away from my elder son’s flat.

The casting was inspired. Sheila Hancock played, as if she were a Frenchwoman herself, the role of Maitre Blum, the Duchess’s Parisian lawyer. Her accent, her French, her dress and demeanor all had that je ne sais quoi of Parisian style that is so hard for Englishwomen to replicate. Of course, that meant that Caroline Blackwood , played so wonderfully by Anna Chancellor, would be the antithesis of the smart, immaculate, maybe teetotal, Blum. There were touches of humour throughout but the major protagonist of act two was Lady Diana Mosley who was played magnificently by Angela Thorne (great buddy of Penelope Keith in TV’s To The Manor Born). Mosley was a Mitford sister and close friend of the Duchess. At this period in her life she was profoundly deaf and forbidden by butler Georges, on instructions from Blum, to see her dear friend.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1367933/Wallis-Simpson-Robbed-abused-Duchess-Windsors-days.html

Photo from Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1367933/Wallis-Simpson-Robbed-abused-Duchess-Windsors-days.html)

The setting is the house in the Bois de Boulogne leased to the Duke and Duchess by the City of Paris. The Duke has died some time before and the Duchess appears briefly at the beginning of the first act, in a kind of dream of Blackwood’s. That is the Last we see of her. From then on she is upstairs helpless in her bed as the arguments and contretemps continue below. Lady Caroline, thrice married  journalist, has come to Paris to interview the Duchess but Blum will have none of it. There’s a suggestion that Lord Snowdon has been appointed to take her photograph. This Blum forbids but somehow as a kind of bribe she manages to arrange her own photo shoot with Snowdon. This takes place offstage during the second act. In the final act Blum coolly responds to every accusation of Blackwood’s as she herself becomes more and more intoxicated. I came away from the play with the same feeling of uncertainty as after reading the book. Was Blum a consummate liar and villain or was she, in some strange way honestly  protecting the Duchess from exploitation?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-reviews/8851278/The-Last-of-the-Duchess-Hampstead-Theatre-review.html

As it turns out, in the end, it is almost the last of Lady Blackwood. She died only months after the publication of her book whereas the Duchess of Windsor was to live for a further 12 years.

Queen Mary, 1867-1953, by James Pope-Hennessy

This library book (published in 1959) has been sitting on my table waiting for me to read it for probably two years! It was recommended to me by a dear friend as the perfect biography and so it seems to be. Upon request it was brought up from the depths of the library stacks (by a librarian in overalls and a mask), fumigated  and then issued to me a week later. Upon collection I realised that I would have to choose carefully the appropriate time to read this book. It is just too heavy to carry with me each day to work or when travelling, so when I knew we’d be going down to Devon by car  a couple of weeks ago I decided to take it with me and to give it a go.

There is something else I should explain; earlier this year I began to take a special interest in Edward, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor and I will be writing much more about them in future posts. This year really had to be the year to read Queen Mary.

The 685 page volume is divided into 4 books of which Book One: Princess May is by far the longest. I’ve just finished this part. Princess May was born into a family with a great many hyphenated German names – if you can manage to wade through the first couple of chapters then the story becomes much easier to follow. The biggest surprise to me was that she had been engaged in the first place to George’s elder brother Albert Victor and it was only following his death not long after their engagement that she became betrothed to the then future king.

James Pope-Hennessy was approached in 1955 and invited to undertake the writing of Queen Mary’s biography. He was given access to the whole Royal Archive by Her Majesty the Queen. His notes are meticulous but do not impede the flow of the text. Carefully selected photographs are dispersed throughout the book rather than all bunched together in the middle. When you are just reading about someone or some place you turn the page and there is the relevant photograph.

I’m looking forward to reading more about this woman whose son was the only modern monarch to abdicate the British throne.