Life with Wallis Simpson: ‘I saw her pain and sacrifice every day’
The Windsors’ former private secretary, Johanna Schutz, shares her memories of working for the exiled couple for the first time
By Anna Pasternak 1 February 2020 • 7:00am
CREDIT: Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
As the Duke and Duchess of Sussex settle into their new life in Canada, comparisons with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, exiled in France after the 1936 abdication, are inevitable. The difference is that while Wallis Simpson was roundly reviled for her part in the crisis, she never wanted Edward VIII to renounce the throne – and desperately wanted him to stay in the Royal family – while Meghan appears to want Prince Harry out.
Probably the last person alive who knew the Windsors intimately was their private secretary for eight years, Johanna Schutz. When researching my biography of Wallis Simpson, I tried to contact Swiss Ms Schutz, to no avail. Deeply private, she has
never given a press interview, keeping this iconic couple’s secrets close. You can imagine my delight, when, after reading my book, she contacted me because I had “captured the Duchess perfectly.” She wanted to give me some exclusive historical facts for my paperback.
Now in her late seventies, Schutz has the zeal of a woman decades younger. The minute I met her at Gibraltar airport – she has a holiday home in southern Spain – I liked her. Bright, kind and gloriously eccentric, she told me that the first time that she met the Windsors, as a 26 year-old in 1969, she went to Gallery Lafayette in Paris and bought a “black wig,” to hide her mane of brown hair. Why? “Because I knew that they were so stylish and thought that if I looked awful, they would not want to employ me.”
Johanna Schutz , the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s personal secretary CREDIT: Heathcliff O’Malley
The couple had met Schutz’s sister, secretary to Bolivian tin king, Antenor Patino, who suggested Johanna as the Windsor’s secretary. Multilingual, well-bred and fun, the Schutz sisters brought pastel-coloured Courrège mini dresses and turned up to the Windsor’s Parisian mansion for tea. “Look, darling,” Wallis called out to Edward, “spring has come.”
It was Wallis who won a sceptical Schutz over. “She had this hypnotic charm. She wasn’t beautiful but she had the most mesmerising blue eyes. The Duke was polite and gracious but it was the Duchess who was brilliant. Everyone always said that the Duchess infatuated the Duke but why would he have stayed with her if she wasn’t exceptional?”
Schutz became the daughter the Windsors never had. After the Duke died in 1972, Johanna ate every meal with Wallis, regularly accompanying her by boat to America.
“I couldn’t replace the Duke but I could support the Duchess, which was a pleasure,” she recalls. “The Duchess had the best chef in Paris, the best food and wine. She was the most perfect and interesting hostess. I had a wonderful time.”
Schutz observed a couple steadfastly united. “When I arrived, the Duke was 76. His hip was bad, so he always took the elevator downstairs. Every time the Duchess went out, I had to call his valet, Sydney, beforehand. He was always waiting for her when she descended the stairs. He walked her to the front door, to tell her how much he would miss her. When she returned, he would be waiting to say: ‘Darling, I’m so happy to have you back.’ His love for her really impressed me until his last breath.”
Johanna Schutz with the Duchess of Windsor, 1974
But wasn’t this choking adoration too much? “She never humiliated him in public or put him down at home as people said. But sometimes she pushed him away as she was suffocated by him. I could understand why she [had] not want[ed] to marry him. He trapped her, no question.”
Schutz witnessed Wallis’s sacrifice: “She kept her pain inside. She tried every day to appease the Duke, who was always negative about the Royal family. Until the Queen came.”
That she describes to the Windsors’ Bois de Boulogne home, ten days before the Duke died on 28th May, 1972, was fictionally portrayed in The Crown, with the Duke seen showing the Queen letters from Prince Charles about Camilla.
In fact, she says the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles came together, after a day racing at Longchamps, because they knew that the Duke was dying, and to thank him for recently establishing a Prince of Wales Foundation. No official records are believed to exist of a Prince of Wales Foundation that has any link
to the Duke of Windsor, nor of the Queen’s meeting with her uncle in Paris shortly before his death.
“That visit was historic and healing,” she insists. “It was very important because the Duke always said that he loved the Queen.”
Indeed, Schutz, says the Duke had bequeathed everything, once the Duchess died, back to the Royal family. “I had a copy of the will. The Windsors wanted all their money, jewellery, paintings, artefacts to be returned to Britain.”
Had this loyal gesture taken place, might it have helped turn the negative press that the Windsors have endured for the last 40 years? It would certainly have been immensely restorative to the royals’ frosty relations with Wallis, once she was widowed.
‘The Duchess had the best chef in Paris, the best food and wine,’ says Schutz, pictured here in 1975
Tragically, however, the Duke’s wishes were obliterated by the darkest force to enter the Duchess’s life. A year after he died, the Windsors’ Parisian lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum, whose husband had been their French lawyer since 1946 until his death in 1965, persuaded Wallis to let her take over all their legal affairs.
This Machiavellian woman fuelled Wallis’s worst fears of penury and had a despotic hold over the Duchess, “utterly grief-stricken” after the Duke’s death.
According to Schutz, Blum loathed the British and wanted everything in Wallis’s will to go to the French. “Blum really threatened the Duchess,” she recalls. “She told her that the French government would make her leave the house (where the Windsors
lived rent- and tax-free) unless she bequeathed everything to the Louis Pasteur Institute. She was totally menacing.”
Schutz did her best to fulfil the Duke’s desires – “I had a huge box of diamond insignias from the Emperor of India, which we gave back to the royal household” – and it was thanks to her that the entire correspondence between Edward and Wallis was saved.
This haunting collection of love letters that documented the turbulent times they endured was presented to Schutz by the Windsors’ butler, George. “He came to me in 1976 with this large box filled with all their letters. He said that the Duchess wanted me to burn them. I said, ‘We can’t burn this. This is history.’ [But] Blum got hold of the letters and as soon as the Duchess was dead, had them published. The Duchess never wanted that.”
The Windsors’ Parisian lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum (right) took over all the Duchess’s affairs CREDIT: Bridgeman Images
Despite her ostracisation from the Royal family, Wallis still “wanted all her jewellery to go back to Britain,” insists Schutz. Poignantly, Edward stated in his will that he never wanted any piece of jewellery that he had made for the Duchess to be sold or worn by another woman. “They were for her and her alone,” said Schutz. Many pieces had personal inscriptions such as “Hold Tight” or “We are ours now”, as in her engagement ring.
Yet Blum defied the Duke’s wishes. A year after Wallis died in 1986, the entire collection was sold at Sotheby’s for £31 million; the proceeds going to the Pasteur Institute. If the Duchess’s precious jewels had returned to the royal fold, again, British antipathy might have softened.
Schutz, who had long witnessed the torment Blum inflicted on Wallis, did try to intervene. In 1975, she had planned to take Wallis to live in New York, in the Waldorf Towers. “We were all set to go, then the Duchess suffered a perforated ulcer because Blum had worried her so much. That’s when all her troubles started. After that, she was too ill to travel or impose her wishes.”
Maître Blum imprisoned Wallis; her friends were banned from seeing her and her health swiftly deteriorated under her lawyer’s perverse control. “I informed Sir Martin Charteris and asked him to send a doctor and a lawyer to do a new will,” says Schutz. “The Queen’s lawyer came to Paris with a doctor and Blum wouldn’t let them through the door.”
The Duke stated in his will that he never wanted the Duchess’s jewellery to be sold or worn by another woman CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images
According to Schutz, the nurses hired by Blum started “drugging the Duchess.” Meanwhile, Blum stripped the Parisian mansion, selling off its beautiful treasures. “The Duchess would say, ‘Why don’t we go down and have dinner in the library?’ I had to say, ‘You are too frail. It’s not heated.’ Any excuse so she didn’t see the truth.’”
It was reported that Schutz was dismissed by Blum in 1978 on the grounds that she was “unstable”; in fact, she says, she was offered a new contract, which she refused to sign, as she would only work for the Duchess, not Blum. She finally left when Wallis, senile and emaciated, no longer recognised her. The Duchess died, pitiful and alone, eight years later.
“She suffered so much. It was heart-breaking for me,” says Schutz. “The only way I coped was to close that part of my life down.” She dismisses current comparisons
between Meghan and Wallis: “Meghan doesn’t come close to the Duchess in terms of style or sophistication,” she sniffs.
Schutz, who, like Wallis, has no children, but an adoring life-long French partner called Jean, concludes: “It’s all a pity. If only the Royal family had known her. The Duchess was a wonderful woman.”
The American Duchess by Anna Pasternak is published by William Collins on Thursday 6 February.