Many myths and rumours surround that supposedly perfect and intense romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Perhaps the most extreme of them is the claim that Mrs Simpson was not a woman at all, but a man. Apparently, in a 1980 conversation with the Duchess’s biographer and apologist Michael Bloch, John Randall, a consultant psychiatrist at the Charing Cross Hospital in London, said: ‘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’. Whether one believes the infinitesimally remote evidence of such hearsay depends on the acuteness of one’s credulity. It might help, of course, if it were known that the Duke were homosexual. Truman Capote said he was. Or rather—in another series of Chinese whispers—Capote said that Noël Coward said that the Duke of Windsor hated him, ‘Because I’m queer and he’s queer but, unlike him, I don’t pretend not to be’.
More credible is what we know of the gilded couple’s relationship with the rich layabout Jimmy Donahue. His biographer puts the essence of the story as follows: ‘For four years and three months, the Duke of Windsor was cuckolded by, and remained in danger of being rejected for, a homosexual’. Or, more over-excitedly: ‘In the history of love, it was possibly the greatest betrayal of all time’. The truth—if that is what it is—is a little more mundane, unless one is totally dazzled by royalty and wealth, and a lot more sordid. Born in 1915, Donahue was a cousin of Barbara Hutton, and a Woolworth heir himself. He attended the same school, at the same time, as John F. Kennedy. In his teens he used to join Hutton in New York to mingle with showbusiness types. He already had a way with a paradoxical gesture. When Prohibition was repealed he threw a celebration at which only soft drinks were served. Although extreme wealth tended to insulate him from any offence caused by his increasingly ostentatious misbehaviour, there were times when his high jinks seemed positively dangerous. While he was staying at the Grand Hotel in Rome in September 1935 as part of Hutton’s honeymoon entourage, a crowd in the piazza outside was celebrating the news of the invasion of Ethiopia. Going out on to the balcony, Donahue performed a parody of Il Duce—but roaring ‘Viva Ethiopia! Viva Haile Selassie!’—and then pissed on the crowd. Not surprisingly, he was deported. Later in the year, in Germany, he publicly shouted ‘Down with Hitler!’ and was deported again. Ned Rorem, who would spend time with him in Paris in 1952, having first met him in Le Boeuf sur le toît, wrote in his diary, ‘The dirtiest words I know are J— D—’. He had soon tired of Donahue’s bad behaviour.
It was in April 1941, four and a half years after Edward VIII’s abdication, that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, bored with the Bahamas, to which they had been exiled by the British government (the Duchess used to refer to Nassau as Elba), descended on the Palm Beach palace of Jimmy Donahue’s mother, Jessie, for lunch. Jimmy met and amused them both. In the autumn they were Jessie’s guests again, this time in New York; and then, in Nassau, they returned her hospitality. Jimmy went along for the kudos. Jessie Donahue’s generosity was such that the Windsors reciprocated with what they knew of friendship. By the early 1950s she would, in effect, be bankrolling them. There were also social contacts to be gained via this upstart, of a sort which an ex-King of Britain could not manage. Through his friendship with Cardinal ‘Fanny’ Spellman, Donahue wangled the Windsors an audience with Pope Pius XII.
On 24 May 1950, the Queen Mary left New York with the Windsors on board. Also travelling was Jimmy Donahue. By the time they reached Cherbourg, the Duchess was in love with him. She was fifty-four years old, he two decades younger. The Windsors were the guests of honour when he celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday, on 11 June, at Maxim’s in Paris. His affair with the Duchess was just getting into its stride. For both, fellatio was the main attraction. Donahue once said, on leaving a restaurant with the Duchess, ‘I am now going to have the best blowjob in all America’. The other attraction for her, of course, was that he was witty. No one who ever met the Duke thought he was anything but dim: he just passively relied on the adoration of strangers, as if he were still a king. Some who saw Donahue so often with the Windsors assumed it was the Duke who was involved with him, with the Duchess merely operating as their smokescreen. And it is true that when he was at Oxford as a young man, the Prince of Wales had been subjected to speculative gossip about his relationship with his tutor, Henry Hansell. (Hansell and Gretel, the wits had called them.) He was similarly connected with his cousin, Louis Mountbatten. But he was too passive and masochistic, possibly also too under-endowed, for the Duchess's tastes. Although she once said, during a row with Donahue, ‘And to think I gave up a king for a queen’, she knew she could rely on him (and, indeed, his mother) for the things she enjoyed. However, both Duke and Duchess both eventually tired of his boorishness, and when that happened they cut both him and his mother. The end came in Baden-Baden in the autumn of 1954. The Duke said ‘We’ve had enough of you, Jimmy. Get out!’ And that was that.