Duke, Duchess and Jimmy D.: Question Time for the Windsors

Dancing with the Devil , by Christopher Wilson. St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

Let’s have a frank exchange about the DukeandDuchessofWindsorand his/her/their gay lover, Jimmy Donahue. My answers to your questions may not be definitive–experts disagree and off-the-record sources can’t be counted on. Still, our knowledge is growing, thanks in part to the latest addition to the Windsor literature, Dancing with the Devil , by Christopher Wilson (whose “authoritative account of the secret relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles was made into a major TV movie”). Mr. Wilson forthrightly declares, “Some may consider it prurient to delve into the mysteries of the bedroom, but in the case of Jimmy and the Duchess there is a vital need.” I second that emotion and I’m sure you do, too, so let’s delve right in after him.

Question: What, actually, was the Duchess’ gender?

Answer: Mr. Wilson quotes Windsor insider Michael Bloch, who in turn quotes Dr. John Randall, “consultant psychiatrist at the Charing Cross Hospital in London and an expert in the differences between men and women.” Randall to Bloch: “The Duchess was a man. There’s no doubt of it, for I’ve heard the details from a colleague who examined her. She was a man.” You may question this fourth-hand opinion, but Mr. Wilson explains that the Duchess might have been suffering from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which not only leaves “women” unable to bear children but “often” unable to experience sexual intercourse. On the other hand, Charles Higham, in The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life, the fullest biography to date, is convincing on the subject of the many men (including her first two husbands) with whom she clearly did experience intercourse, to say nothing of the odd abortion. Which may be why Mr. Wilson, having raised the issue, manfully acknowledges, “There is of course no direct evidence of this syndrome in the Duchess.” Well, we’ll never know, but my hunch is that the Duchess was in fact a woman. It would explain so much.

Question: Was the Prince of Wales/King Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor hetero-, homo- or bisexual?

Answer: further confusion. Various accounts, including Mr. Higham’s, remind us that at Oxford the Prince was linked romantically with his tutor, Henry Peter Hansell (they were known around campus as “Hansel and Gretel”). Again according to Mr. Higham, gossip also linked the Prince romantically with his cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten, although “such gossip cannot be substantiated today.” Lord Louis’ diaries, Mr. Higham tells us, reveal that “on one occasion, [the Prince] sat on the head of the handsome Lord Claud Hamilton of the Grenadier Guards and stripped him naked,” but couldn’t that just have been royal high jinks? Mr. Higham also suggests that it was the Duke, not the Duchess, with whom Jimmy Donahue had his royal fling, although “it is impossible to corroborate this story.” Which is fortunate, since if Mr. Higham was right, we would not now be enjoying Dancing with the Devil , with its scholarly documentation of the oral sex enjoyed by Jimmy and Her Grace.

Far more to the point than the Duke’s possible homo- or bisexuality is the likelihood that his sexuality was infantile and self-abasing. His last pre-Wallis mistress, Lady Thelma Furness, shared with friends tales of their childish games, their teddy bears, their embroidery and their pet names for each other, “Poppa” and “Momma” (“Momma” for the Prince). To do justice to Mr. Wilson’s devotion to historical minutiae, I feel it necessary to add that Thelma also complained of the Prince’s “very small endowment”–the reason he was known in certain circles as “the Little Man.”

Question: Just what were those arcane Chinese techniques the Duchess allegedly employed to give her men such exquisite satisfaction?

Answer: Well, we weren’t there, but according to Charles Higham, she learned certain “perverse practices” in the “singing houses” of Hong Kong, where she was posted with husband No. 1, Earl Winfield Spencer, of the Navy Air Force. The art of Fang Chung, “practiced for centuries,” involves “prolonged and carefully modulated” massage, particularly of the area between the urethra and the anus, and is of special benefit to men who suffer from premature ejaculation. Commander Spencer wasn’t an immediate beneficiary–he was off living with a handsome young painter–but Fang Chung, as practiced by the dexterous Duchess, no doubt did a lot for the sadly dysfunctional Duke.

Question: Were the Windsors really Nazis, or neo-Nazis, or Fascists, or were they mere dupes?

Answer: Hard to say. But there was that trip to Berchtesgaden in 1937 (in one photo, the Duchess is smiling lovingly at the Führer as he bends over her hand). And the close friendship with the British Fascists Sir Oswald and Lady Diana (Mitford) Mosley. (Lady Diana actually wrote a fawning biography of her almost-royal friend, whereas her novelist sister, Nancy, ungraciously remarked, “I do hate that Duchess.”) There was the friendship with Pierre Laval, whom the French executed for treason after the war, and there was the affair in China with Count Ciano (which led to an abortion), but that, of course, was before Ciano married Mussolini’s daughter and became his foreign minister. Then there’s the 1941 American intelligence report that begins: “During conference in German legation [in Havana] Duke of Windsor was labeled as no enemy of Germany. [He was] considered to be the only Englishman with whom Hitler would negotiate any peace terms, the logical director of England’s destiny after the war.” What to believe?

Question: Who exactly was Jimmy Donahue?

Answer: The grandson of Frank Woolworth, founder of the five-and-dime chain. Jimmy’s mother, Jessie, inherited a vast fortune which she spent on building Cielito Lindo, the second-largest spread in Palm Beach, gambling away millions and millions, and controlling her two sons by doling out money to them if they obeyed her. Jimmy’s father, James Paul Donahue, was a bisexual from a less prominent family than Jessie’s (his father ran the Retail Butchers’ Fat Rendering Company), and who, among other things, stole some of her jewels, also gambled away millions (Jessie had thoughtfully given him $5,000,000 as a wedding present) and, one day in 1931, killed himself with poison while his two sons were in the house; Jimmy was 13. And then there was first cousin and best friend Barbara Hutton–when Jimmy was strapped for cash, Babs would just give him a million or so, and when they weren’t on shopping sprees together (“retail therapy,” Mr. Wilson calls it), he was accompanying her on her honeymoons. His education had been a disaster–Momma kept hauling him out of school and down to Palm Beach in her private railroad car–and he never made it to college. He wanted to be in the theater, but Momma disapproved, so despite a few abortive projects and friendships with such as Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Libby Holman, Lupe Velez and Ethel Merman, he gave it up, just as he gave up piloting after a notoriously undistinguished war.

Question: Was Jimmy really a very naughty boy?

Answer: That depends on your definition of “naughty.” Yes, he was campy, promiscuous, exhibitionistic, even vicious, but lots of people were charmed by his “pranks.” For instance, the time he buzzed an aircraft carrier (“The admiral got very mad”). And the time he dressed up as a nun, pulled up his habit and squatted in the middle of the road, defecating (“several cars collided with each other”). And the time he stood on a hotel balcony in Rome and, after loudly imitating Mussolini, urinated on the crowd below (he was expelled from Italy). And the time he rigged up a microphone in a lavatory when the Windsors were dining so that he could “regale guests afterwards with the sound of the ‘Royal wee.’” And all those times at grand dinner parties when, according to Aileen Plunket, the Guinness heiress, he’d liven things up by unbuttoning his trousers and laying his private parts on his plate among the potatoes and gravy and sauces, “looking like some pink sausage.” Surely all these japes can be ascribed to boyish high spirits?

Somewhat less japish was the time Jimmy and some pals picked up a serviceman, brought him home to a party and, when he passed out, took off his pants and started to shave off his pubic hair. Then, according to Truman Capote, “He came to in the middle of it and someone accidentally cut off his prick.” They put him in Jimmy’s car, the story goes, and dumped him near the 59th Street bridge, where the police found him and managed to save his life. All typical Capote exaggeration, Mr. Wilson reassures us: The victim was a salesman, not a serviceman, and it was part of his ear that got bitten off, nothing further down, and he wasn’t dumped at the bridge but in Long Island City (“at the junction of 43rd Avenue and 23rd Street”). Yes, it was freezing out, and he was found semi-conscious and concussed, but the story had a happy ending: Momma paid him off with $200,000. And, says an anonymous source, “he didn’t at all mind the fact that people thought he’d been castrated. That, and the money everyone knew he’d been paid by Jessie, gave him a certain cachet. Without it, he was a nobody.” You could say that Jimmy had done him a favor! So let’s not get too prissy about the waiter at the Waldorf whom Jimmy and a friend tried to rape and who either was or wasn’t castrated, depending on whom you believe. Or about the male prostitute who “was made to eat an excrement sandwich.” Not exactly pranks, perhaps, but nobody died .

Question: What actually happened between Jimmy and the Duchess?

Answer: They fell in love, Mr. Wilson is certain. Or at least she did. He was amusing, attractive, sexually adept, and she was starved for sex after so many years with the dysfunctional Duke (all those ridiculous nanny-child scenes, he wearing diapers, she the master). Wallis was 54, Jimmy was 34. For four years they hung out together–in Paris, in New York, in Palm Beach, on cruises–often with the humiliated and grieving Duke in tow. Some people said they didn’t have sex, but the most distinguished sources make it clear that they did: “The staff in Barbara Hutton’s suite [at the Ritz in Paris], observing with fascination the state of the bed linen, took note of what was described as ‘activity’ in Jimmy’s room.” There’s also Jimmy’s own delicate testimony: “On one occasion an English aristocrat, lunching with Jimmy at Le Pavillon, noticed the Duchess sitting at a table on the other side of the room. ‘Towards the end of luncheon she was making her face up, with a particularly ugly way of putting lipstick on her lips, moving her mouth around the whole time,’ he recalled. ‘Jimmy turned to look at her, then turned back and in a stage-whisper said, “Look at her, she’s doing her exercises. I’m seeing her after lunch.”‘ And for conclusive proof: Leaving El Morocco one night, Jimmy declared loudly, “I am now going to have the best blowjob in all America.” The defense rests.

But even more than sex, what held the Windsors and the Donahues together was money. To capture the world’s most famous couple socially was Jessie Donahue’s dream, and she spent millions to achieve it–the jewels, the furs, the accouterments, the furnishings, the dinners, the travel expenses she paid for to acquire their “friendship” were accepted by the avaricious Windsors without hesitation, compunction or gratitude. She was also happy to pay the Duchess with her son, and he was happy to be the coin of the realm. The Windsors made appearances in her various homes for years, until finally Jimmy’s behavior grew too louche even for them, and they dismissed him peremptorily and permanently–the Duchess doesn’t even mention him in her memoir , The Heart Has Its Reasons . Jimmy died at the age of 51 leaving no book behind, but at the time of his death he had 13 framed photographs of the Duchess in his bedroom. The heart has its reasons.

Question: Does Mr. Wilson do justice to these three ghastly and pathetic people, the weak and none-too-bright ex-king, the steely adventuress/consort and the poor little rich prankster?

Answer: You might say that they’ve met their perfect chronicler in him. He’s imaginative: The Duchess “followed the young man into the apartment and together they walked to the window. In the dawn light the grey River Seine beneath them was touched with the first rays of summer sun…. As Paris began to waken, the couple took off their evening clothes and went to bed.” (But maybe this wasn’t imagined? Maybe Mr. Wilson was there with them?) He’s hyperbolic: “In the history of love, it was possibly the greatest betrayal of all time.” He’s sensitive: “St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a great cruising ground, particularly late Mass on a Sunday, and the cardinal [Spellman] was rumoured to have deflowered many young men.” He’s an original stylist, coining words like “rudery” and phrases like “occluded the fact” and “ineffably rich.” He’s fair-minded: one moment sympathetic to his characters, the next happily quoting their detractors. And if he’s more interested in and convincing about money than romance, that’s only appropriate–the Duchess of Windsor was, too.

Robert Gottlieb is dance critic for The Observer.