Fame and the famous

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Dining al fresco is still the thing. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020. After a very cool night which brought out the heat in the building briefly. Otherwise the first full day of Autumn was bright and sunny, 71 degrees and feeling a little cooler.

Fame and the famous as well. In this still quiet and not so boisterous back-in-town, I was looking through our archives for some history of those types who’ve traveled hither and through, and even stayed in the Big Town. I’m referring to the fated and fabled couple from the British monarchy, almost a century before Meghan and Harry hit the limelight and the tabloids. A little history of that Prince Wales who gave up His Throne to marry a sorta-Southern belle divorcee; followed by one of the New World’s royalty, Madonna Herself …

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Immortal romance. On Monday, there was an official “premiere” screening by the Cinema Society of Madonna’s new film W.E., about the Windsors — Wallis and Davidthe Duke and Duchess of Windsor — and their now immortal romance. I haven’t seen it and at this rate I may never see it because having read as much as I have about them, and heard as much as I’ve been told by many who knew them intimately (spent a lot of time in their company), they remain an enigma whose mystery has dissolved to myth.

The uncrowned Edward VIII with his inamorata Mrs. Simpson during a Mediterranean yachting trip that brought to public attention the king’s affair with a married American divorcee — three strikes against her.

From the many incidents recounted to me by those who were part of their social circle, as a couple, they were most interesting in almost every way because of Who they Were, and not because it was some great love affair. The real life eyewitness version of their love affair actually sounds kind of vapid and even a crashing bore. But then that’s not unusual with people who have an inordinate amount of time on their hands, with little to do other than visit their friends or shop.

The big story that captured international sentiment in their heyday was the King giving up the Throne of the very last of the imperial monarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries in the world. Most of us find it unimaginable to want to “give up” the Throne of England with Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle as town and country. But we feel that way, simply because almost none of us humanoids will ever experience that otherworldly world of absolute beyond luxury. In other words, a fantastic distortion of material reality.

For poor David, then Edward VIII, it was obviously something he was always dying to get away from. And “die” he did when it came to his royal life, ending up as a sad cypher to this woman who at times barely seemed to tolerate his presence.

In his life leading up to Wallis, as the bachelor Prince of Wales, now in his forties, the women were all married and/or had been around, so to speak. His interest in matters monarchical often didn’t take priority over a night out on the town, smoking and drinking and dancing to American music. He had been as famous a celebrity in the world as Princess Diana, in his day. He was as famous Madonna is today. Maybe even moreso. The goodlooking, blonde, blue-eyed heir to the throne of an imperial empire. The boy with everything.

The newly married couple, after the King’s abdication.

Wallis Simpson was also approaching middle-age (forty was considered middle-age in those days). She’d been married twice. She possessed an enormous certain charm accompanied by the stylish ability to adapt. The sexual aspect of at least one of her marriages was vague, but much speculated upon. It might have been a mariage blanc, as the French would say. There were later rumors that she was not entirely female – or a hermaphrodite. It has since been reported that physiologically she had androgen insensitivity syndrome which is a rare congenital condition but not uncommon.

Nevertheless, the Windsors’ sex life was widely discussed partly because she always appeared to have decisive power over him throughout their life.  Many among their social peers believed that she had some exotic sexual techniques (learned in China) that he just had to have, throne or no throne. Paradoxically it has often been said among the set who knew them that he was homosexual.

True or false, these stories refer to a special arrangement, the kind of which are not uncommon in marriages where power and money is involved. Sometimes they make the greatest marriages, lasting and strong.  Other times they make great divorce cases full of delicious gossip of little or no veracity. The lure to this kind of prize – landing the King of England — is so great as to turn one’s own mind around into believing what reads well. In other words, kidding oneself.

The Lexington Avenue side of the Waldorf Astoria on October 20, 1941, lined with police security when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived in New York for their very first visit to the US.

It’s quite possible and believable that Wallis Warfield Simpson couldn’t resist the resistible, terminal ennui and all; that is it’s quite possible she fantasized about being Queen of England (don’t think he didn’t tell her one day she would because he believed that – after all, he’d be King). When the affair took wing, she probably never gave a thought to what might come of going along with him. Not in the beginning anyway. Who does think ahead under the circumstances? Who even has those circumstances?

The Windsors and pugs in their Paris sitting room, in 1964. Photo by Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images

There was a recent book of Wallis’ letters to her previous husband Ernest Simpson written around the time of the Windsor marriage. In them she expresses her wish that she could be with him (Simpson) instead of the guy she was marrying (the King). The letters also leave the impression that Simpson was gay, as was Jimmy Donahue, the Woolworth heir whom the Duchess later had an “affair” with.

It looks as if Wallis’ relationship with David (Edward) was more of a rut she found herself stuck in, golden though it may have appeared to the world outside, but a rut like any other. Her letters to Simpson give the impression that she felt stuck in a bad situation and what could she do. After all he had given up the throne of England and everything, for her …

I somehow have the feeling that Madonna’s film, which I haven’t seen will miss some – if not all – of this. Furthermore the manner and style of that generation and that class of people – so separated from the hoi polloi by their privilege – is lost forever. The Second World War finished what the First World War started.

Reading Sally Bedell Smith’s “Elizabeth The Queen,” as I am right now, I was reminded that had Wallis not captured his heart, or whatever it was that she captured, Elizabeth might not have been Queen, or at least not until after 1972 when the Duke died – then almost 20 years into her present reign. Having been given the opportunity to see how it “worked out” for the abdicated King, and the kind of man he turned out to be, it was fortuitous that he left. Although from the looks of it, it was also very sad for him, for their life was one of glittering international nomads, no more, no less.

The Duchess of Windsor, sitting in the window of Buckingham Palace at the time of the funeral of the Duke who would be buried at Frogmore, the country house that his great-grandmother and grandfather, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, had built near Windsor Castle.

Madonna. I was a “neighbor” of Madonna’s when I lived in Los Angeles. Or rather, we both lived in the same area of what is known out there as the Bird Streets. For example, she lived on Oriole Place. I lived around the corner, a little farther up the hill, on Doheny. There were a lot of celebrities in the area. Madonna’s immediate neighbors were Cheryl Ladd on one side and Dolly Parton on the other. Ricardo Montalban lived just around the corner and either Lieber or Stoller, the hit songwriters for Elvis et al, lived two doors down.

This was in the 80s. Madonna was a big big star on the music and concert charts and therefore in Hollywood. The rage. She was what the local kids called “rad.” I didn’t get her but a lot of others, especially a generation younger than I, did.

I did see her once in a live performance at the Wiltern Theater, a rendition of her “Vogue” in costumes that looked like the Court of Versailles in the 18th century. She had a big chorus and they danced and sang. She was totally sensational. I got Madonna then and there. Then I saw her in a movie. No. Madonna is not an actress. She’s a phenomenon, but not a thespian. She was The Moment and since then she has demonstrated the natural shrewdness or genius of being able to self-perpetuate as a performance. Because that’s what she does. She’s now a Star, our Madge. Ya gotta love her.

Madonna at the official “premiere” screening of W.E.
With her guiding hand of many years, Liz Rosenberg. Photographs by PatrickMcMullan.com.

Looking at the pictures of the The Weinstein Company and Cinema Society Screening and the after-party, it’s not about the movie or David and Wallis Windsor. Who do we want to look at? Madge herself. She’s now about the age that Wallis was, when she and David began their nomadic lives as the “must haves” of international society.  But Madonna’s much younger-looking. In those after-party pictures, I was reminded of Dietrich. The face has “matured” into that. She’d be perfect for a Dietrich role. Maybe “Shanghai Express?” Or even “The Blue Angel” (or did she do that already).

Buff and puffed.

Back when we were “neighbors,” although I didn’t know her, I saw her frequently because she often jogged. She had a route that I was told was five miles. Sometimes she did this daily. She wore black and she was tan-less and buffed. Buffed.

She began her jogging routine at her gate on Oriole Place, run down Oriole Lane, up over Thrasher, down Rising Glen to Sunset Plaza, and then west to Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills Hotel. There she would turn around and run back to Doheny Drive and Sunset, at which point she would turn herself around and run backwards up Doheny to Oriole. Backwards up very steep hills maybe a mile or so. You can see the route on a Google map. It remains awesome in retrospect.

I’ve never met Madonna (did I say that already?), nor does the idea interest me particularly. But I do admire her as a professional artist, her natural ambition and her claim on her life. It’s the best story of all and she keeps telling it and moving it along. She’s a working girl and that’s her nature.

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