THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF WINDSOR AND THE HOUSE OF LOVE
Wednesday September 22,2010 in Express By Simon Edge IT WAS a secret retreat of the exiled Edward and Mrs Simpson, now restored with the help of a woman with her own royal connection Every weekend from the early Fifties onwards the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would leave their 19th-century villa in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris, in a regal Daimler. Close behind came a pale blue Cadillac bearing the Duchess’s luggage, four pug dogs and two maids. Their destination was Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, a converted 18th-century mill house 20 miles to the south-west. Offering a refuge from the public exposure of their house in the Bois where they felt like “animals in a gilded zoo” it was the only house they ever owned and their only real home. It was a distinctly un-French corner of France, where the Duke spoke German to his French, Spanish and Alsatian gardeners and the American-born Duchess nagged her cooks to use more tinned and frozen food. And it has now been preserved as a piece of England-in-exile. Restored, it has been passed to a British charity, the Landmark Trust. Stripped of the Duchess’s eccentric décor – “chi-chi and overdone”, as photographer Cecil Beaton put it – the house has now been refurbished as holiday lets. “Through its association with Edward and Wallis this lovely site has great international resonance for British, French and Americans,” says Peter Pearce, the Trust’s director. By coincidence, it could not have happened without the daughter of another famous exile from the Windsor court, Group Captain Peter Townsend, Princess Margaret’s lover. Once the darling of the British Empire, Edward VIII renounced the British throne in 1936 after reigning for less than 11 months. Senior courtiers had long been worried by his affairs with married women and his private callousness and his pro-Nazi sympathies made him a serious liability when Hitler came to power. His determination to marry a twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson raised a genuine constitutional difficulty but it was a problem only for those who wanted him to remain king. Behind the scenes, it was regarded as something of a godsend. Marrying in 1937, the newly created Duke and Duchess of Windsor paid a high-profile visit to Germany where they were fawned upon by the regime. “It’s a shame he is no longer king,” wrote Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. “With him we could have entered into an alliance.” The Duke spent the war as Governor of the Bahamas – a humiliation designed to put him out of harm’s way – and afterwards the couple accepted an invitation from France to settle tax-free in Paris. They bought the Mill, as they called it, in 1952. Part of the attraction was the gardens straddling the stream where the Duke enjoyed tending his showy beds of flowers. “It is a very tranquil place where one can garden as one should in old clothes, with one’s hands among familiar plants,” he said. The landscape designer Russell Page, who was also responsible for the gardens at Badminton Park and Longleat, was brought in to remodel the natural features. The interior was the Duchess’s preserve. “Most of the mill was tacky but that’s what Wallis had – tacky, southern taste, much too overdone, much too elaborate,” said interior decorator Billy Baldwin, a fellow American. Diana Mosley, wife of the British fascist leader Sir Oswald, who was also exiled in Paris and a frequent visitor to the Mill, recalled: “It was very bright with patterned carpets, lots of apricot and really much more Palm Beach than English or French.” Other visitors referred to rooms draped like circus tents and tartan carpets and fashion writer Suzy Menkes called it “pioneer homestead meets the American Dream”. Despite the unfortunate décor the glitterati of the age were happy to accept invitations. Guests included Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Beaton was given his own separate cottage, dubbed “the bachelor pad”, where he could bring male companions. It was perhaps his presence that prompted the Duchess, when a guest admired the Duke’s pansies, to remark: “In the garden or at my table?” A cookbook the Duchess tried to write gives a glimpse of what her guests could expect to be served. Her Sauce Liberal, to be served with cold lobster mousse, consisted of mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, double cream and a large quantity of gin. Her Avocado Pears Tahiti involved filling the centre of an avocado with rum and brown sugar. “I wonder often if American housewives appreciate their good fortune in having so many excellent frozen foods,” she wrote. “In France, these foods are few and expensive. Inevitably this must change when electric refrigeration becomes more general. In our household I have waged a long fight on behalf of frozen foods.” Her husband, who poked fun at his wife’s pronunciation by referring to himself as “the Dook”, liked to read National Geographic magazine. He also reminisced about his glory days as the glamorous Prince of Wales. He died in 1972 and the Duchess put the Mill on the market a year later. Maria Callas considered buying it but in the end it was sold for $1.3million to a Swiss banker, who died bankrupt and heirless. In 1980 the French state seized his assets and sold the Mill at auction to a Lebanese industrialist. When it last changed hands in 2006 it had been uninhabited for four years, with goats roaming the buildings, garden paths overgrown and box hedges choked with nettles. Renovation was begun by Patrick Deedes and his wife Isabelle, whose father was Group Captain Peter Townsend. He too, as a divorcé, was deemed unsuitable to marry a royal, in his case Princess Margaret. “Dad and Margaret were the biggest story of their day, just as the Windsors were of theirs,” says Isabelle, an ex-model for Ralph Lauren and Hermès. Townsend went on to marry a Belgian, Isabelle’s mother, and he was a regular visitor to the Mill when the Windsors lived there. They even named a pug after him. Isabelle and her family are now tenants of the Mill’s gatehouse. The main house and two adjoining outbuildings are now leased to the Landmark Trust and are available to rent from this month as holiday lets. “While we have not attempted to recreate the Windsors’ bright and eclectic furnishings and décor we have furnished the house, like them, with an echo of Englishness and with much to recall their happy times there,” a spokeswoman says. Sleeping 12, the main house will cost you £2,800 to rent next week. A mural commissioned by the Duchess, who died in 1986, reads: “I’m not the miller’s daughter but I have been through the mill.” It remains on the wall of the large first-floor living room. It’s a self-deprecating memorial to a woman vilified in Britain for keeping a king from his throne but who probably did the country a favour in the long run.