The Duchess of Windsor Always Puts on a Great Show
Since the death of the Duke of Windsor just over two years ago, his widowed duchess, now 78, has granted few interviews and is rarely photographed. Recently, on assignment from PEOPLE, photojournalist R.T. Kahn visited the duchess in her home in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, and brought back these impressions.
The Paris florist knew her favorite flower: “For the duchess, there is only one kind of bouquet, that of the very best lilies.” The taxi driver was awed and sheepish as we approached the gates: “Monsieur, if I had known I was coming here, I would have given my car a special wash and polish.”
For strange as it may seem, the Duchess of Windsor has become a sort of Parisian cultural monument, and her mansion, attended by 17 servants and once occupied by President de Gaulle, is the center of a small court.
“Her Royal Highness loves having guests for dinner,” explains her secretary John Utter, using the title still withheld by British royalty. “It is a great moment for her, and she puts on a great show in the best possible taste, like the star of the evening—which of course she is. She takes such an interest in everything—although she gets more tired these days.”
Then suddenly she is in the room, frail but regally elegant, as she pauses to gaze out the half-opened French window at the perfect English lawn. “You know,” she muses, “the duke used to play golf out there for hours.”
You soon realize how often her sentences begin, “The duke used to…” And indeed, the rooms are still full of the duke’s presence. All his mementos are in place: his standard as Prince of Wales hangs in the hallway, his freshly pressed clothes hang in the wardrobe, his favorite photographs are spread out in silver frames. On the Steinway are well-thumbed scores of the duke’s old favorites: Love and Marriage, Mr. Wonderful, The Impatient Years.
Still, it is an emotional shock to come face to face with a living legend. For a moment, she seems older, more fragile than expected, as a hand stretches forth to steady her (she still suffers from the aftereffects of a broken hip). Then suddenly the vivaciousness of her blazing violet-blue eyes transfixes you, making you feel the most intelligent, fascinating person on earth.
Soon the two affectionate black pug dogs are leaping into her Louis XV chair. “This one is called Black Diamond,” she explains. “He was the duke’s dog, and nearly died of grief at the loss of his master. Gin-Seng is my pug. The two of them insist on sleeping with me, and it is flattering to know that there are creatures who still want to share my bed!” The two dogs always travel with her. “They have all the necessary medical certificates,” she says, and then with a flash of wit, adds, “As a matter of fact, they have American passports!”
The duchess is saddened that old friends are passing away and new ones are hard to find. “The French are not really friends,” she says, “even when you may have known them for 20 years. If and when you need them, they think about it for a week.” But her visit to New York this June still thrills her. “I went out night after night,” she says gaily. “It was really wonderful. I felt really at home this time. I just can’t wait to get back.”
America brings another thought to mind: “I try to follow the news. But Watergate leaves me bewildered.” Then, with a helpless laugh, she confesses, “The thing is that impeachment makes me think of a ripe, beautiful peach in my hand, and it is difficult to be serious after that!”
As the visit ends the duchess grows nostalgic. “The trouble today,” she sighs, “is that everybody and everything looks exactly the same. The people wear the same clothes; the buildings all look alike. The newspapers are full of gloom. I think people have quite forgotten how to laugh, and to judge by what I see, women are much unhappier as they try to be equal with men. All they succeed in doing is making themselves miserable and discontented with life.”