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Issue #1646      July, 9, 2014

Culture & Life

Royal parasites

A friend loaned us an interesting book the other day. I say “book”, but in fact it was in three volumes in a special case. Printed on glossy art paper, they weighed what felt like a ton. And the subject of this tome? It was the 1997 catalogue from Sotheby’s for the sale of the possessions of the then recently deceased Duchess of Windsor.

Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII at their wedding in 1937. (Photo: Hulton Getty)

The catalogue, in two large volumes and a separate index, originally cost US$90 if bought at the gallery, plus substantial postage if bought by someone outside the US.

The Duke of Windsor was the former British monarch Edward VIII. Prior to becoming King, as the Prince of Wales, he had enjoyed the life of the idle rich (the very idle and very rich). Soaking up the Mediterranean sun on a luxury yacht, visiting the casino, going to Scotland to shoot, all the usual pursuits of the wealthy class in Britain. After his coronation, his life continued in the same vein. (This was the period of the Great Depression for most people, but not for the likes of Edward and his friends.)

In the course of his social jaunts he met an American woman, Mrs Wallis Simpson, and they began an affair. Simpson was her second husband (she’d divorced the first one) and they lived in Europe as wealthy social butterflies. Petite, with a slim figure, she was frequently photographed by the likes of Man Ray wearing the latest fashions in Harper’s Bazaar. Edward wanted to marry her and Simpson was willing to give her a divorce, but the British Establishment was outraged. She was not only a commoner, but an already once-divorced, American commoner. As Queen of England?

Under tremendous pressure, Edward decided to abdicate. He naively thought that his brothers would all stand up with him at his wedding and that his wife would be given royal honours commensurate with his own Royal status. Instead, he was bundled out of the country and his wife was never more than a Duchess. They were however well provided with the ready and although they had fewer servants than he would have had at Buckingham Palace, they still managed to live in luxury.

Of course he lived in luxury – look who he was: “My twelve godparents, all related to me in varying degrees, included Queen Victoria [my great grand-mother], my grandparents the Prince and Princess of Wales [later Edward VII and his Queen], my great-uncle the Duke of Cambridge, the Czarevich, soon to become Czar [Nicholas II], my maternal grandparents the Duke and Duchess of Teck, and, by proxy, my great-grandparents the King and Queen of Denmark, the Queen of the Hellenes, King William of Württemberg, and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.”

Later in life, the Duke of Windsor (as he had become) remarked that “there is no occasion that rivals the solemn magnificence of a Coronation, when Church and State unite in the glorification of the majesty of Kingship.” That’s certainly how they want the common people to see it, at any rate. In truth, the imposition on to the backs of the mass of the people of a parasitic “Royal Family” and all their hangers-on is simply an expensive but very effective means of ensuring the continuing privileged position of the ruling class.

Once in exile as the disappointed and presumably disgruntled Duke of Windsor, Edward was pursued by the Nazis, to whom he – like so many other members of the British ruling class – had been sympathetic for years. They hoped to get him to agree to be Head of State for a Nazi-controlled Britain after a successful German invasion, putting him into the same position as Marshall Petain in Vichy-France and Quisling in Norway.

Churchill and British Intelligence being on to this manoeuvre, they shipped the Windsors off to the Bahamas as Governor (and wife), to keep them isolated for the duration.

After the War, the Windsors continued a meaningless life of idleness, pursuing every fad that came society’s way, attending balls and garden parties, and trying not to be bored. As the catalogue shows, the Duchess filled in some of her time buying clothes, such as item 2393: “A fine and important Christian Dior Lahore evening gown. French, Autumn-Winter, 1948-49.

“The Duchess was at all times aware of the exalted position in society into which she had been catapulted by her marriage and was always at pains to ensure that she dressed the part. Her mania for neatness and her immaculate presentation were a reflection of this.”

The auctioneer’s guide price for this particular gown was US$10,000 – 15,000.

There are pages and pages of nothing but gloves: “A group of thirteen fine pairs of gloves and gauntlets for evening and daywear” (guide price US$700-1,000); “A group of eleven pairs of gloves, mostly for evening wear”; a group of five pairs of gloves; a group of six pairs of gloves; a group of eleven pairs of gloves; a group of thirteen pairs of gloves. And that’s just one page. What could one woman do with so many gloves?

There are also pages and still more pages of jewellery, much of it “costume” jewellery but expensive costume jewellery by name designers.

Regardless of what her three husbands did, Wallis’ life seems to have always been devoted to pleasure. Of her first marriage (to Navy Pilot Winfield Spencer Jr) she recalled: “Win and I received many invitations – polo at Del Monte, beach parties at La Jolla; weekends at Santa Barbara.”

It was a way of life that she (and her husbands) continued for the rest of her life. This huge catalogue is a glossy, sometimes mouth-watering record of a life spent in the earnest pursuit of baubles and diversion, its protagonists desperate to stay in the public eye, to seek validation of their empty lives in the reproduction of their escapades in the daily press.

And this sorry bunch hold themselves up to be our social superiors? Give me a break!

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