Palm Beach Confidential: The Windsors and The FBI (1940-1942)

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Palm Beach, April 18-23, 1941. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were welcomed at Palm Beach by Anglophiles who applauded the couple’s arrivals and exits from their Everglades Club maisonette as well as undercover FBI agents secretly transmitting the royal nomads’ every breathless mumble and movement to FBI headquarters in Washington. By then, according to declassified documents, FBI files were thick with confidential letters and telegrams claiming the Windsors were suspected Nazi spies, making for a delicious, if not illusory, chapter of Palm Beach’s social history. [Photo courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Ever since FBI files detailing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as Nazi spies or sympathizers were first declassified more than a decade ago, they have produced a constant flow of headlines, books and films recapping the chatter but providing little reliable intel, especially during the trips the former British king “and the woman he loves” took between 1940 and 1942 to Miami and Palm Beach.

Out and About, August 1940. The FBI’s top enforcer, Clyde Tolson, left, and its supreme director, J. Edgar Hoover, right, the nation’s stellar crimefighting couple, crossed paths with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the world’s iconic lovers, at Palm Beach and Miami during the early 1940s. During that same period, Tolson and Hoover often shared a cabana on Miami Beach. [Photo courtesy Los Angeles Times Negatives Collection, UCLA Library & Digital Public Library of America]

After a review of the FBI’s several hundred-page paper trail during the World War II era, Hoover and Tolson’s dossier on Wallis and Edward Windsor appears to have all the makings of a Mel Brooks production scripted by Hedda Hopper (“My dear Edgar …”). More Hollywood than Quantico … “Elsa Maxwell on line one.” Messages embedded into the clothing of the world’s Best Dressed. Plots to regain the throne. Socialite informants. Elizabeth Arden salons as Nazi outposts. Edgar’s strapped sandals and Clyde’s matching outfits at Miami Beach.

However disparate, the Tolson-Hoover attachment and the Windsors’ romance reflected the era’s reactionary, incongruous, if not extreme, standards Hoover and Tolson’s shared private life was so obviously curtained from their professional personas that the likelihood of an illicit relationship was more apparent. Although the former King of England  was never a paid Nazi spy and the duchess never a paramour of Nazidom’s Joachim von Ribbentrop, they lived under a perpetual cloud of ambiguous speculation, having never overcome the repercussions from their scandalous affair, provocative marriage, and questionable travel and associations, no matter their charities, hospital visits, and ribbon cuttings. Evidently, there were perceptions and judgments that could never be changed no matter how many times Edward and Wallis were named to Best Dressed lists. Especially during World War II when the displaced royals were meticulously tailed by English and American intelligence agencies.

A spy in every … During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hoover’s FBI campaigned against spies and saboteurs as aggressively as they did organized crime bosses.

After King Edward VIII stepped down from “Your Highness” to “Your Grace,” and married American divorcee Wallis Simpson, restyled the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the couple were never able to improve their public image. Thus, when it was announced the duke would become the governor of The Bahamas and the couple would be in residence at Government House in Nassau, most believed it was simply to distance them from England and Europe.

[New York Daily News, July 10, 1940.]

“A Buick, three dogs, and 52 pieces of luggage …”

As war swept through Europe, the duke and duchess began their overland exodus from the south of France. They motored to Biarritz, followed by a stopover in Spain. From there, on to Lisbon where on August 1, 1940, they boarded the Excalibur, a semi-luxurious passenger ship operated by the American Export Line and headed for Bermuda.

Accompanied by Anthony Drexel Biddle, US ambassador to Poland, “Capt. And Mrs. Wood,” as they were registered incognito, were traveling with bare essentials: three dogs, 52 pieces of luggage, a sewing machine, a case each of champagne and gin, two cases of port, a golf bag, and a Buick automobile.  From Bermuda, they transferred to another ship that took them to Nassau. For interior views of the Excalibur, visit American Export Lines

The Excalibur was under the command of Capt. S. Norman Groves. [Chronicling America, Library of Congress]

August 1940. “Appointment of Windsors …”

With the royals-turned-public servants encamped in Nassau, the FBI’s earliest known “Memorandum to the Director” reached Hoover and Tolson on September 13, 1940. Agent E. A. Tamm writes that the duchess is “… exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections … By way of background … The Duke is in such a state of intoxication … virtually non compos mentis.”  Tamm tells Hoover that because the duchess was passing information onto the Germans, the British government moved them to Biarritz. Then later, to Nassau.

September 13, 1940. Memo to the Director. E. A. Tamm, agent. Confidential. “ … established conclusively …”

October 19, 1940. Memorandum for Mr. Tolson. Because the duchess was sending her clothes to New York to be dry cleaned, “The possibility arises that the transferring of messages through the clothes is taking place.”

November 12, 1940. Handwritten letter to the Espionage Department, Confidential. This “credible information” was vouched for by a White House brigadier general, describing the source as knowing “the goings-on at the French Riviera” who writes “everyone in Washington and other parts of the country knew …”

With the duchess ailing for months with a tooth infection, the Windsors’ plan for a two-day trip to Miami that became a five-day endeavor. This lead intelligence organizations to launch more intensive reconnaissance of the couple’s activities.

November 29, 1940. The Duchess of Windsor’s trip to the dentist in Miami was announced two weeks before they arrived. [Miami News]

The Windsors at Miami
December 10, 1940 – December 15, 1940

December 1940. “Welcome Duke and Duchess, Miami’s Beloved Visitors.” “Beloved,” yet most shadowy visitors. [The Miami News]

December 10, 1940. “… presumably for her dental care … known to be Hitler’s friends”

December 1940. Say ah … “Duchess Prepares for Surgery Today,” headlines as 8,000 applaud the couple. [The Miami News]

December 1940. “Members of Duke of Windsor’s party …” Including the whispered Nazi agent, though never proven, Axel Wenner-Gren who lived in The Bahamas and was a close friend of the Windsors. [The Miami News]

Wallis and Edward at play. Government House, Nassau. [Life magazine]

The Nassau-Miami-Havana triangle was a popular social vortex from the 1930s until the late 1950s. Havana, and later Nassau, became major gambling destinations, as was Miami with its race tracks and slot machines. The nation’s organized crime families established venues in Miami, attracting the interest of the FBI.  What may have been a weekend visit to Miami, became a carefree loll for Edgar and Clyde where they could rub elbows with the underworld in nightclubs and racetracks.

The FBI at Miami

On January 19, 1937, having closed its Jacksonville bureau, the FBI opened a Miami office at 1300 Biscayne Boulevard. Staffed by ten agents and connected to Washington with teletype machines and secure telephones, Hoover was quoted as saying Miami “seemed the logical place …” Edgar and Clyde made several trips a year to the Florida outpost, staying for weeks at several Miami Beach resorts.

“FBI To Probe Miami Crime, Politics.” [Miami Daily News. 1937]

Miami Beach, c. 1937. Roney Plaza Hotel. “Rolling the dice …” Fashion-forward Edgar, check those on-trend strapped sandals, and Clyde, at play, surveilled by FBI special agent Guy Hottel. Fittingly, the G-men’s backgammon match overlooks what became known as Miami Beach’s historic 21st Street Gay Beach. [Miami News]

Miami Beach. December 1938. Roney Plaza Hotel. After folding their pajamas, Edgar and Clyde made their way to the hotel’s dining room for breakfast. [Miami News]

Miami Beach. 1939. Carrousel nightclub. Edgar and Clyde are joined by two other gents for a night out at one of Miami Beach’s classiest nightclubs. That same year, Al Capone was released from prison and could be found at his Palm Island, Miami Beach estate. [Miami News]

Miami Beach. 1940. Flamingo Hotel. G-Men Stuff. “.… a lounging outfit of wine-colored trousers and polo shirt with sox to match …” “These attractive men …” a secluded cottage, a swim, then tennis, and a secret initialed “… ring of yellow gold.” [Miami News]

With the Windsors planning a jaunt to Palm Beach in April 1941, the FBI and the State Department began preparations for surveillance and monitoring.

April 16, 1941. Numerous memos later, finally agreeing to place an undercover FBI agent to surveil the Windsors at Palm Beach.

The Windsors dock at Miami.

April 18, 1941. Although first press reports stated many social dates were cancelled, apparently none of them were …

The Windsors at Palm Beach
April 18, 1941-April 23, 1941

“They came, they saw, he golfed-she shopped, they mingled …”

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor cruised from Nassau to Miami aboard the SS Berkshire before motoring by car from Miami to Palm Beach under the guidance of the duke’s wing man, Capt. Alastair Mackintosh. They checked-in to the Everglades Club with only twenty pieces of luggage, prepped for a five-day marathon of luncheons, receptions and dinners.

The Palm Beach Police Department stated “… the Duke and Duchess will be just another couple from Nassau come a-visitin’.” The FBI and M16, however, believed the Windsors might attempt to contact Joachin Von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs.

April 19, 1941. “… Capture Palm Beach …” [Palm Beach Post]

April 20, 1941. Springtime at the Everglades Club. [Miami News]

April 19, 1941. Royalty at Palm Beach.

April 19, 1941. “Windsors Tend To Business …” Despite repeated statements that the five-day trip was “strictly business,” the meet-up with Sir Edward Peacock only lasted maybe two hours. [UPI]

Except for the meeting with Peacock and several half-hour visits to Britain-related wartime charities, there was a Luncheon at Cielito Lindo’s beach house hosted by Jessie Woolworth Donahue; Dinner with Winifred Dodge Seyburn at Casa Giraventa; Dinner at Southwood with Claude and Edna Boettcher; Luncheon with Margaret Emerson McKim Vanderbilt Baker at her Banyan Road villa; Luncheon hosted by Barclay Warburton; Dinner at Herb Pulitzer’s Middle Road house; Cocktail party at Wolcott & Ellen Blair’s; Reception for 300 at Playa Riente (“guests of such local prominence no need to investigate them”) hosted by Hugh Dillman and Anna Dodge Dillman; Dinner at Carrie and Lawrence Waterbury’s; Reception at Amado hosted by Charles Munn; A photo-op with Wiley Reynolds on the First National Bank patio; a private tour of the Bath & Tennis Club. For the duchess, there was also a stop to pick up a few frocks at Hattie Carnegie’s on Worth Avenue and “chintzes and antiques” from Lanfranchi’s and Worrell’s.

April 1941. “My dear Mr. Attorney General … wider and less obvious coverage …”

Everglades Club telephone calls, April 18, 1941-April 23, 1941.

April 18, 1940-April 23, 1940. Everglades Club telephone calls.

April 16-21,1941. Edward & Wallis at Palm Beach, press reports.

April 18, 1941. “Cocktail party at Mrs. Wolcott Blair’s.”

April 19-21, 1941. FBI Palm Beach Report. Guest identifications for golf and lunch at the Everglades Club.

April 1941. FBI Palm Beach Report. Guest identifications, page 16.

April 1941. Wallis speaks of … “bringing only my refugee rags from France …” A Congressman disparages “American socialites.”

April 21, 1941. Memo for the Director. William Rhinelander Stewart “… felt he might be in a position to help us if we were interested in knowing what was going on as far as the Duke was concerned” … “forever making remarks like that which were out of place” … “which indicated to everyone present that they thought the piper was some kind of spy for England.” Hoover wrote, “Utilize him on this.”

April 21, 1941. Memo, P. E. Foxworth to J. Edgar Hoover. William Rhinelander Stewart. “…in the event we wanted him to do anything in particular regarding the Duke, he would be very glad to do so …”

April 1921, 1941. Memo Foxworth to Hoover. William Rhinelander Stewart with handwritten note by J Edgar Hoover. Hoover wrote, “He ought to maintain his contact even to extent of visiting Nassau from time to time” JEH. Foxworth wrote back to JEH, “Being handled.”

April 24, 1941. Personal and Confidential. Alastair Mackintosh.

April 30, 1941. JEH responds to investigation of guests. Described as “grossly unsatisfactory …”

April 1941, Memo for the Director. “… she told me that Robert Huntington had once told me … no doubt whatever that the Duchess had had an affair with Ribbentrop …”

April 23, 1941. Morrison Field, West Palm Beach. April 23 at 10:30 am the Windsors departed on Harold S. Mike” Vanderbilt’s Lockheed Lode Star, his private plane piloted by Russell Thaw. The couple were accompanied by their entourage except for the Scotland Yard bodyguard who returned with the three cairn terriers (Pookie, Presso, and Detto) aboard a boat from Miami.

As to the matter of Elizabeth Arden (aka Florence Nightingale Graham)

“I have turned over your interesting letter to John Edgar Hoover at the FBI.…”

March 8, 1941.

Resulting in FBI memorandums …

October 6, 1941, Meanwhile, the following winter at Elizabeth Arden on Via Parigi, a clearinghouse for a “three-way hair-do.”

April 1942. Elizabeth Arden. “ … opening branch establishments throughout the American republics …”

The Windsors at Palm Beach
December 10, 1942 – December 16, 1942

In late 1942 Herb Pulitzer invited the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to visit Palm Beach for golf and shopping, as the duchess needed to buy Christmas gifts.

December 10,1942 – December 16,1942. [Palm Beach Post] [Photo Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

December 1942. Royal Shoppers. [Miami News]

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor would return to Palm Beach nearly every season for the next three decades, enjoying the company of longtime friends, many of them formerly associated with the OSS, CIA and the diplomatic corps.

July 1956. “Windsor Disputes Story of 1940 Nazi Intrigue.”

1970. The Duke of Windsor’s final season at Palm Beach. [Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection]

And as for Clyde and Edgar … After the war, they swapped Miami Beach and Hialeah escapades for La Jolla’s Hotel del Charro (“a discreet resort hotel for deal-making politicians, wealthy industrialists, and …”) and Del Mar racetrack. Their many decades long relationship, still today, reported with uncertainty. Their ultimate undercover caper.

March 26, 1950. J. Edgar Hoover testifies at Congressional probe to remove as many as 400 “Sex Misfits” (“known homosexuals”) from the government’s payroll, ending their public service careers.

In October 1972, the FBI’s Washington headquarters was named the J. Edgar Hoover Building, officially dedicated in September 1975.

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