End of An Era
Theirs was not a common love story, and their world not a common world. When the Duchess of Windsor died last April at 89, an era of entertaining that allowed for fastidious elegance and glorious, if often childish, excess probably died with her. After King Edward VIII abdicated to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American whom the Church of England rejected, the newly titled Duke and Duchess became social royalty without peer from Paris to Palm Beach. They were a glamorous and capricious team, dedicated to beauty, fun and each other. The following glimpses into the couple’s rarified existence are taken from the forthcoming book, The Truth About the Duchess: As Told by Her Staff, compiled by Charlene Bry. “It was a fairy-tale life,” says Jean Pierre Augé, the couple’s chef from 1958 to 1960, “but they lived it very well.”
•The couple employed 29 full-time staff, including two chauffeurs, seven kitchen servants, seven footmen and assorted maids and gardeners. Even the cooks had a maid.
•The Duchess ordered the well-trained help to call her “Your Royal Highness,” a title denied her by her husband’s brother, King George VI.
•The Duchess’ money had to be crisp—either new from the bank or ironed by a servant. Money, of course, was never discussed. “The Duke and Duchess never asked how much anything cost,” recalls Augé. “We just spent it.”
•Elaborate dinner parties, preferably for not more than 30 guests, were thrown by the Duke and Duchess on Tuesday through Thursday evenings. “An invitation from the Duchess was like a gift from God,” says one insider.
•Guests were expected to arrive promptly at 8:30. Rather than risk being late, even royalty might pace outside the door until the proper time to ring.
•Before entertaining, the Duke fortified himself with a glass of scotch especially blended for him and kept in a locked bottle.
•As the butler received people at the door, David, as the Duke was called by friends, would descend the long staircase to greet them with his four pugs on gold Cartier leashes, two on each side of him.
•When the last guest arrived, the butler notified the Duchess in her room. She then appeared at the top of the stairs, like a queen, always exquisitely dressed. The staircase was lined with hundreds of orchids, which the gardener returned to the greenhouse after guests departed.
•Guests were well provided for. A visitor’s choice of cigarettes, cigars and even pills—be they saccharin or digitalis for a heart problem—were known in advance and provided in appropriate containers.
•Cocktails lasted for precisely one hour, during which guests nibbled on five pounds of caviar. Invitees would not get drunk. “They wanted to be asked back,” Augé says.
•At each dinner party the Duchess kept a tiny gold pencil beside her plate and a discreet notepad. She might write a word or two during the course of the meal, such as “try truffles with this dish next time” or “salt in soup?” The servants shuddered when she jotted such a reminder, fearing the next day would bring a reprimand.
•The Duchess frequently changed her mind several times about where she wanted to dine. Servants were constantly resetting the tables until she was satisfied. The Duchess’ favorite object in the formal dining room was Marie Antoinette’s bidet, filled with flowers grown by the Duke.
•If there was no hired entertainer, the Duke and Duchess would sometimes take out their then-stylish Hula Hoops, with which they were both adept.
•Even the dogs received royal treatment. On occasions when the couple entertained, the help’s day began with grooming the pugs, which were clipped, trimmed, sprayed with Christian Dior perfume and adorned with mink collars trimmed with diamonds. Each week the Duchess made out a doggie menu that might include capon breast, ground steak or calves’ liver bought fresh daily. The entrée was grilled to perfection moments before the canines’ mealtime. The chef also baked fresh dog cookies daily.
For the royal pugs—and even more so for their masters—it was not a dog’s life.