The Lady Vanishes

Zoë Heller

  • The Last of the Duchess by Caroline Blackwood
    Macmillan, 236 pp, £16.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 333 63062 9

‘As a siren Wallis Windsor had been a figure who had changed historical events more drastically than any other woman in human history.’ If one could only believe that the Duchess of Windsor had changed historical events more drastically than Mary Queen of Scots, or Joan of Arc, or even Margaret Thatcher, then perhaps Caroline Blackwood’s recycled revelations about the Duchess – her expertise at fellatio, her 22 carat gold bath-tub at Cap d’Antibes, the amusing tricks that her homosexual lover, the Woolworth heir Jimmy Donahue, liked to perform with his penis at dinner parties – might seem quite, you know, important. The disappointing alternative is that The Last of the Duchess is just what it appears: a book of snobby royal tittle-tattle on which Blackwood is attempting, rather late in the day, to confer some gravitas. British newspapers do much the same thing, when they affect concern about the ‘constitutional implications’ of the Prince of Wales’s desire to be a tampon.

In 1980, Caroline Blackwood was approached by Francis Wyndham, one of the editors of the Sunday Times magazine, to accompany Lord Snowden on a trip to photograph the 84-year-old Duchess of Windsor, now an invalid recluse, holed up in a house in Paris. Snowden would take pictures and Blackwood would record the historic encounter between the two royal divorcees. As it turned out, Snowden’s request for an audience was refused by the Duchess’s French lawyer, another 84-year-old woman named Maître Blum. So Wyndham proposed that Blackwood interview the lawyer instead.

For several years, Blum had not only held the Duchess’s power of attorney but had acted as her chief spokesperson and protector. Blackwood ended up going three times to see Blum in Paris and these awkward, frightening encounters form the basis of her book. Blum, who appears to have worshipped her client, insisted on upholding a variety of manifest untruths about the Duchess: that she and the Duke had not had sex before they were married, that she rarely drank alcohol, that she was a dedicated intellectual, and so on. Blum also promised to kill Blackwood if she did not reproduce these lies in her article. ‘I suddenly remembered that Maître Blum had tangled with Lord Mountbatten,’ Blackwood writes. ‘With a chill, I remembered what had happened to him. She finally had compounded all the other injuries she had inflicted upon me by making a terrorist threat on my life.’

Interviews are a very specific and bizarre form of interaction. Any temporary discomfort that an interview subject may occasion by being ill-mannered, belligerent – or, as in this case, authentically tonto – tends to be cancelled out for the interviewer by the felicitous prospect of ‘good copy’. In fact, behaviour that would be embarrassing or disastrous in any other form of human encounter is usually a source of secret elation to the journalist. (Blackwood doesn’t own up to this sort of professional delight in Blum’s awfulness, but we get a strong sense of it, in the relish with which she recounts the old lady’s ‘terrorist threat’.) Still, there is a limit to the amusement value of even the most dramatic battiness, and the fact remains that Blum, as Blackwood’s star witness, is next to useless as a source of reliable information. Blackwood responds to this problem in two ways. After her second interview, she decides that in order to write ‘any form of sane article on the Duchess of Windsor’, she will have to seek out more of the Duchess’s contemporaries, to obtain reliable estimations of the Duchess’s personality. Her trawl through the nursing homes and sick-beds of various, ancient, aristocratic ladies yields some fascinating fragments of oral history and some wonderfully sad vignettes of old age.

Her other, more ill-advised response to her lack of hard facts, is to fill in the holes with speculation and gossip. She ‘hears’ that the Duchess is said to have turned black as a prune. It was always ‘said’ that the Duchess picked up her most exciting sexual skills while travelling in the Orient. These snippets she blithely records as if her duty as journalist did not extend beyond reproducing hearsay. About Maître Blum, her surmise grows even wilder. She entertains an extended reverie on how Blum might have felt if she had attended the Duke of Windsor’s funeral. (She didn’t.) She indulges an elaborate flight of fancy about what funeral arrangements Blum might be planning for the Duchess. (She never actually enquires.) She imagines Blum physically attacking her. ‘She was seething with such rage that there seemed a danger she suddenly might be unable to control it, that she might spring at me like an uncontrollable beast and claw me with her yellow nails.’ (She didn’t.) Curious as to how the lawyer fills her days, Blackwood considers the possibility that one of her daily duties is to pick out nightdresses for the invalid Duchess. ‘She must know all about the Duchess’s old passion for exquisite lingerie and would therefore take this duty very seriously. It was not inconceivable that she bought her client some new and perfect nightdress nearly every other day.’ (Well not inconceivable, but pretty unlikely all the same.) ‘If she took hours choosing the Duchess’s bedtime attire,’ she continues, ‘and her brown-speckled hands lovingly, but critically, fingered hundreds of silk and satin and broderie anglaise items of nightwear, this activity would eat into her working day.’ We have entered into an uncomfortable place, here. It is not inconceivable that Blum practises satanic rituals at the Duchess’s bedside, but it seems a little unfair to elaborate on the fantasy without any supporting evidence.

One of Blackwood’s justifications for all this supposing and conceiving is how ‘terrified’ and ‘passive’ the old lawyer makes her feel. ‘There were questions to be asked,’ she writes of her first encounter with Blum, ‘but she had made me too tired to ask them. And because she had worn me down and sapped my courage, I retaliated by allowing my mind to wander off into realms of purest speculation where Maître Blum could neither bring lawsuits nor injunctions for all my queries remained unvoiced.’This is rather like a coal-miner complaining that he doesn’t like working in confined, dark spaces. If Blackwood is so cowed and exhausted by hostile interviews, the reader may be forgiven for asking why she doesn’t find herself another job.

On two separate occasions, Blackwood mentions the ‘ominous’ way that Blum pronounces ‘hate’ without an ‘h’. Her references to the brown freckles of old age on Blum’s hands and arms are countless. All this is done with the apparent intention of making us share her vehement dislike of Blum, but the exuberant animosity has the perverse effect of encouraging rather protective feelings towards the beleaguered old lady. The Freudian irony at the heart of this book is that Blackwood commits exactly those crimes of which she accuses her subject – recklessly projecting the lurid stuff of her own fantasies, and showing herself, time and again, indifferent to the evidence of a more mundane reality. Before Blackwood meets Blum, she phones her to make an appointment and Blum picks up the phone herself. ‘I was appalled,’ Blackwood writes. ‘When Stalin in his last years was sealed away, dangerous and brooding in the Kremlin, no stranger could have put through a call and reached him personally. It therefore shocked me that the fierce and despotic Maître Blum, whom I’d begun to see as equally unapproachable, should turn out to be so unbecomingly accessible.’ It may strike the reader that Blackwood has got a lot of mileage out of a negative here. Her first contact with Blum suggests that she is not, after all, like the dangerous and brooding Stalin, but Blackwood, having grown attached to her imagining, contrives to make the melodramatic point anyway.

One of Blackwood’s primary contentions is that Blum’s passionate possessiveness of the Duchess is born of some sinister, erotic attachment. She bases this belief on the fact that at one point, Blum tells her she has a relationship ‘de chaleur’ with the Duchess (Blackwood translates the phrase literally, as a relationship ‘of heat’) and that on another occasion, Blum’s assistant, a young Anglo-Irishman called Michael Bloch, describes the connection between the two women as being ‘of a romantic nature’. Blum is married to an ailing old French general, but Blackwood is not convinced of her heterosexual credentials. ‘It was impossible to visualise her lying throbbing with unabashed passion and pleasure in the arms of her husband, the general. Her whole personality was too essentially unyielding. It seemed almost obscene to try to picture her in the nude let alone in some subjugated erotic position ... it was always feasible that she ... had insisted on maintaining a nun-like sexual abstinence in all the years that had followed her own marriage to General Spillman ... It was conceivable that the pains of his constant frustration had slowly sapped all his joie de vivre and been instrumental in his current decline.’ At this juncture, a reader may also consider it possible/feasible/conceivable that Blackwood’s vulgar speculations about the sexual proclivities of 84-year-old Blum denote a quite irrational enmity.

Rather late on in the book, we come across this: ‘The Duchess created by Maître Blum was a Jewish Duchess in the sense that, despite her unenviable current condition, she’d been made the very embodiment of her lawyer’s superego. It was unlikely there had ever been a Duchess like her.’ I don’t wish to sound paranoid here, so let me just say, these strike me as a puzzling couple of sentences. Blackwood makes explicit reference to Maître Blum’s Jewishness on only one other occasion, when she mentions how ‘ironic’ it is that Diana Mosley, who ‘bravely’ endured war-time imprisonment for her Nazi sympathies, should, in old age, be so intimidated by an old Jewish lawyer. Blum’s Jewishness clearly has a significance for Blackwood, but the manners or qualities that it is supposed to stand for are never explained. One longs to know what aspects of Blum’s projected superego are recognisably semitic and how a Jewish Duchess is so vividly and amusingly unlike any other Duchess. Does she exclaim ‘Oy vey!’ when agitated? Are there gefilte fish stains on her twin-set? We receive a clue, a little later on, when Blackwood describes Blum ransoming off the rights to a photograph of the Duchess for £400. ‘The style with which the Duchess of Windsor had lived her strange life might not have always been commendable,’ Blackwood writes, ‘but at least it always had largesse ... Now at the end of her life it seemed humiliating for the helpless Duchess that Maître Blum with her petit bourgeois greed should be trying to extort piddling little sums like £400 on her behalf.’

In other words, though Wallis Windsor may have had humble, American origins, though she may have been ugly and whoreish and had a rather prole tendency to show off her wealth – parading through war-ravaged Europe with 222 suitcases was not nice – at least, damn it, she had style. European royalty has had a long tradition of absorbing courtesans and colonials and all sorts of ambitious riff-raff into the regal mix, but that flexibility stops short of tolerating petit bourgeois Jews. Looking through Maître Blum’s scrapbook, Blackwood comes across a newspaper photograph of the jumped-up lawyer standing next to Queen Elizabeth at a public function. She can hardly contain her outrage and repulsion. ‘Maître Blum must have tenaciously elbowed through hundreds of guests at the soirée in order to get as close to the Queen of England as she had managed. She had got herself so close that she had made herself almost invisible for her body had blended into the Queen’s fur. And Queen Elizabeth seemed totally unaware that Maître Blum was so near to her, that the Duchess of Windsor’s lawyer was gazing up at her with slobbering love and wonder.’

Blackwood, who, lest we forget, has her own title – she is Lady Caroline Blackwood – does not need to creep and elbow to gain access to the monarch. When she wants to put a word in to Queenie – warning her, like the good, loyal subject that she is, that Blum is selling off the royal Sèvres snuffboxes – she simply telephones Lord Mountbatten’s daughter with whom she is on chummy terms, and the message is passed on. Meanwhile, the article that she ends up writing for the Sunday Times contains none of the nastiness that she will later spill out in this book, once Blum is safely dead. By her own admission, the piece she composes about the Duchess and her lawyer in 1980 is ‘bland and praising to the point of sycophancy’. Petty minds may wish to think of this as cowardice, or even bad journalism, but Blackwood seems to know better: judicious grovelling is, after all, a Lady’s prerogative.