French home of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson to become a museum
Published 23rd March 2023
The Villa Windsor in the Bois de Boulogne near Paris is expected to open to the public in the summer of 2024.
Credit: Wolfgang Kuhn/United Archives/Getty Images
Lianne Kolirin, CNN
The French villa where the former British King, Edward VIII, lived with his American wife Wallis Simpson will open to the public for the first time.
The run-down Villa Windsor in the Boulogne woods of western Paris will open as a museum next year to coincide with the Paris Olympics, following a multi-million euro renovation.
Only days before King Charles III and the Queen Consort are due to make their first state visit to France, Paris city council signed the villa over to a charitable foundation committed to preserving and promoting French heritage.
Set in gardens stretching to 1.5 hectares, the 14-room mansion was where the former king, who scandalized British society after abdicating in 1936, lived out his later life with his wife.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the lounge of the Paris mansion.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the lounge of the Paris mansion. Credit: Robert Siegler/INA/Getty Images
Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Aristotle Onassis were among the many rich and famous who partied and socialized at 4 route du Champ d'Entraînement, after the then Duke and Duchess of Windsor occupied it in 1953.
The couple lived there until they died -- the duke in 1972 and the duchess in 1986. In the days before his death, the duke was visited by his niece, Queen Elizabeth II. Her son, then Prince Charles, had also previously visited -- an encounter dramatized in series three of "The Crown."
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Albéric de Montgolfier, president of the charitable organization Fondation Mansart, told CNN Wednesday that the city council leased the run-down mansion to his organization for 32 years.
"This house has never been open to the public before," he said, as he outlined plans to update the property in time for the Olympics in the summer of 2024.
Viewers of "The Crown" will have seen a recreation of the villa in the blockbuster Netflix show, but none of the episodes were filmed at the Paris location.
The house was built in 1928 and has always been owned by the city of Paris, according to de Montgolfier.
In 1944, it opened its doors to the exiled General Charles de Gaulle, who moved in with family following the liberation of Paris for two years.
De Montgolfier said: "It was a very interesting period because lots of France's laws were signed there, including the one giving French women the right to vote."
Members of the public will be able to visit the house for free from next summer, following an extensive renovation project.
Members of the public will be able to visit the house for free from next summer, following an extensive renovation project. Credit: Manuel Litran/Paris Match/Getty Images
Following the death of the Duchess of Windsor, the lease was taken over by Mohamed Al Fayed, the Egyptian billionaire businessman.
De Montgolfier said: "Al Fayed originally intended it as a home for his son Dodi and had planned an engagement lunch there for Dodi and Diana."
But tragically the lunch never took place, said de Montgolfier, as it had been scheduled for the day after the couple were killed in the city in August 1997.
"Four years ago Mohamed Al Fayed decided to give it [the villa] back to the city of Paris," said de Montgolfier.
Episodes of "The Crown" -- including this one from season three -- have been set inside the house, but were filmed elsewhere.
Episodes of "The Crown" -- including this one from season three -- have been set inside the house, but were filmed elsewhere. Credit: Des Willie/Netflix
Part of why the foundation was entrusted with the house is because it has successfully restored the Château de Bagatelle, just meters from Villa Windsor in the Boulogne woods.
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Work on the villa, expected to take more than a year, will include installing a new heating system as well as measures to ensure it meets 21st century health and safety standards. There will be a cafe and small restaurant on site and admission will be free.
As well as a museum with a permanent exhibition detailing its history, the newly renovated villa will also be used to stage events.
"It is a luxury house with a big, big dining room, a beautiful hall, a library and one and a half hectares of gardens," de Montgolfier said. "It is just 10 minutes from the Place de l'Étoile in a really great location."
WINDSOR'S PARIS HOME TO BECOME MUSEUM
By Alice Furlaud
Dec. 25, 1986
December 25, 1986, Section 1, Page 37
This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.
MOHAMMED al-Fayed, an Egyptian businessman who owns the Ritz Hotel in Paris and Harrods department store in London, has taken a 50-year lease on the former home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Le Bois, in the Bois de Boulogne.
The house, a graceful 19th-century villa of 14 rooms surrounded by a large tree-filled garden, belongs to the City of Paris. Although he refuses to say how much he is paying, Mr. Fayed calls it ''a peppercorn rent.''
The City of Paris is equally taciturn. Bernard Niquet, a city official, said, ''The city rented the house to Mr. Fayed because it was absolutely neccessary that it remain a private residence and be well kept up.''
Not everyone acquiring such a residence would want to live there with the personal possessions of the former occupants, right down to the last pair of socks. But Mr. Fayed, who says he will spend about $2 million to rehabilitate the house, plans to keep about two-thirds of it intact as a private museum of Windsor memorabilia, to be visited only by ''historians, members of the British royal family, personalities, friends and important guests of the Ritz.''
When not in his town house in London, his castle in Scotland or his country house in Surrey, Mr. Fayed will occupy the seven-room top floor of the Paris house, ''two or three times a month,'' he said. His wife and three youngest children will join him during the school holidays.
In an interview in London, Mr. Fayed said his interest in the house and the Windsors was part of a lifelong fascination with history and romance. ''I come from Alexandria - that's where Antony fell in love with Cleopatra.'' he said, ''It's the most romantic city in the world.'' The Duke and Duchess moved into Le Bois in 1953 after Jansen, the Paris decorating concern, redid the home under the supervision of the Duchess.
It was the Paris home of the peripatetic couple for the rest of their lives.
The Duke died in 1972 and the Duchess last April.
Mr. Fayed met the Windsors only once, when he attended a party at Le Bois about 20 years ago. He says he remembers ''the way they danced and their sense of fun.''
''It was the romance of the century,'' he said. ''Here was a great king of a great empire, saying goodbye to it all for a beloved woman. And I had the chance to preserve the house where he lived and all these objects. They're the heritage of Britain, which is my second home.''
According to Mr. Fayed, the Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, approached him as a possible tenant for the house even before the Duchess died. But it was Mr. Fayed's idea to buy the entire contents of the house, which were to be sold by the Duchess's executors.
''They'd started to make a catalogue - most of the things still have numbers on them,'' said Mr. Fayed, who declined to say what he paid for the contents. ''But you'll find the place exactly as if the Duke and Duchess had just gone out to dinner.''
Indeed, the house has an almost eerily personal atmosphere, with photographs of royal relations signed with nicknames, a pastel portrait of the Duke's last pug, Black Diamond, in the Duchess's bathroom, and the Duke's hats in the hall closet.
Sidney Johnson, 63 years old, who was the Duke's valet for 32 years, was the person who restored these possessions to their places. Mr. Johnson may be the most important treasure of all the Windsoriana. He has been installed at Le Bois as valet for Mr. Fayed and as a kind of house curator, moving over from the Ritz, where he had been a waiter.
''Sidney is a dictionary,'' Mr. Fayed said. ''He's a very cultured man. He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history.''
Mr. Johnson, a Bahamian, began working for the Duke in 1940 when he was 16 and the former King was Governor of the Bahamas.
On a tour with Mr. Johnson through the elegant rooms, full of the glitter and gold of mirrors, chandeliers and ormulu, he recalled the house's past.
''This is where they always had their big, tall Christmas tree,'' Mr. Johnson said, standing in the two-story front hall under the trompe l'oeil ceiling of a painted blue sky and balconies in the Venetian style. ''On Christmas Day they'd always be alone, just with us, the staff and our families. The dogs would be running around getting presents, too.''
Pug dogs are a main theme of the decor at Le Bois. There are photographs and sketches of the Windsors' dogs, as well as small china pugs and pug-patterned cushions.
The formal parts of the house seem in good shape. Missing are the 18th-century French furniture, bibelots and china that the Duke and Duchess gave to Versailles and other French museums 20 years ago, retaining their use during their lifetimes.
The furnishings at Le Bois appear sparse in contrast to Mr. Johnson's recollections of the many antiquing trips the Duchess took with a friend, Lady Mendl (the decorator Elsie de Wolfe). ''If she hesitated,'' Mr. Johnson said, ''Lady Mendl would say:
'Go on! Buy it! It might come in useful someday.' ''
In the main drawing room, the pale blue 18th-century paneling that the Duchess bought from an old chateau is more striking than the remaining furniture - except for the almost theatrically simple leather-topped desk on which the Duke, when he was Edward VIII, signed his abdication in 1936. Mr. Fayed has offered the desk to the British Government, which has not yet accepted the offer.
Below stairs, in the huge, primitive kitchen, tiles are missing and paint is peeling. According to Mr. Fayed, much of the money for repairs will be spent in the kitchen and on new heating and air-conditioning systems, plumbing and roofs, all of which slid into disrepair during the Duchess's 10-year illness.
Most evocative of the couple's presence is the second floor, where their bedrooms are separated by the cosy boudoir that they used as a dining room when alone. The Duchess's bathroom is spacious, but has a small, shabby porcelain tub under a regal trompe l'oeil canopy. In the Duke's bedroom is his favorite possession, a chimney sweep doll. It sits next to a pincushion on which, according to Mr. Johnson, the Duke's mother, Queen Mary, had cross-stitched the motto ''What Is Home Without Pleasure?''
Behind the bed in which the Duke died is an ornate velvet hanging embroidered with the royal coat of arms and the motto of the Order of the Garter. Another strikingly personal note is the host of kilts, plaid suits, dinner jackets and shoes, some of which date from the 1920's, in the Duke's dressing-room closets. Glass-fronted drawers are full of neatly laundered shirts made for him by the London haberdashers Turnbull & Asser -now owned, incidentally, by Mr. Fayed.
In the Duchess's closet hang carefully tended dresses, including the navy linen coat dress by Dior that she wore when Queen Elizabeth came to tea just before the death of the Duke, her uncle, in 1972. In a linens room are a dozen red footman's livery jackets edged with tarnished gold braid that the Duke brought with him from Buckingham Palace. ''I always used to wear one of these when I served at one of our big dinners,'' Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said his favorite garment was a long beaver-lined overcoat with an astrakhan collar that belonged to the Duke's father, George V. ''He wore that every winter I knew him,'' Mr. Johnson said. ''Her royal highness used to say, 'David, the fashion is short this year; you must cut that coat off.' But he'd say: 'No, this was my father's. I'm not going to shorten it.'
''I looked everywhere for this coat,'' Mr. Johnson said. ''I finally found it in the Duchess's closet. She kept it with her all that time.''