My first reaction to this was one of bemusement. How could Lord Snowdon want to photograph the Duchess of Windsor, when the Duchess must surely be dead? "Do we know that the Duchess is in any condition to be photographed?" I asked.
This was a reasonable question. In the final chapter of The Windsor Story, published in 1979, the American journalists J Bryan III and Charles JV Murphy had told the sad story of the Duchess's life since the death of the Duke in 1972. The Duchess, they reported, was in very serious physical condition. She had suffered two severe falls, and in one of them she had fractured her hip. Her mind had become enfeebled and disordered. She failed to recognise old friends. She forgot things. She rambled. She was tactless. She made social gaffes. She ate less and less. She drank silver mugs of vodka. She developed a gastric ulcer which perforated and she was rushed to the American Hospital. She seemed to long for death. She asked her friend Lady Monckton to escort her body to Frogmore, the royal burial ground at Windsor, where she hoped she would soon be buried alongside the Duke. She was released from hospital and she returned to her house on the Bois de Boulogne.
Then, on the last page of The Windsor Story, there was, for the purposes of Lord Snowdon's project, the most ominous passage. "The gates are locked and Matre Blum is the sole keeper of the keys. Recently the poor invalid Duchess's circle has shrunk to include only her doctors and nurses, two or three servants, and - to be sure - Matre Blum."
And that was the case. This ancient female lawyer, much feared and respected in Paris, was in complete control of the Windsor estate. Anyone who wished for information about the 84-year-old Duchess had to contact Matre Blum. This being so, it soon became clear that Lord Snowdon's enterprise was out of the question. Francis Wyndham had spoken to Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, and a close friend of the Duchess... Matre Blum, she said, had not let her visit the Duchess for three years. If the Duchess's friends were not allowed to see her, it was highly unlikely that Matre Blum would dream of allowing her to be photographed. But Francis Wyndham had had another thought. Asking around in his attempts to ascertain the current health of the Duchess, he had noticed a curious thing: whenever anyone made reference to Matre Blum, they spoke of her with an awe that was akin to pure terror. Might it not, he suggested, be interesting to set up an interview with the old lawyer herself?
THE APARTMENT where Matre Blum lived was in the rue de Varenne, the Parisian equivalent of Downing Street. The building was huge and dark and depressing. Flanked by embassies, it was sufficiently grim and morguelike to seem suitable as an embassy from which the dying Duchess of Windsor could talk through her spokesperson to the living.
A very old and miserable-looking maid with a painful limp opened the door. She looked grumpy, underpaid and overworked. She showed me into a large, high-ceilinged room which had an uninviting atmosphere. Nothing in Matre Blum's apartment appeared to have been influenced by the taste of the Duchess; her living room suggested she was a woman devoid of visual sense. She appeared to have a puritanical horror of colour. One shade of dingy brown was superimposed upon some even grimmer shade of lifeless ochre. Everything she owned looked expensive, but no care seemed to have gone into her choice of dcor.
Matre Blum was royally late. I became increasingly nervous. I couldn't think what I wanted to ask her about the Duchess, nor could I tell through which of the six huge doors her living-room contained she was going to arrive. This increased my feeling of unease. She had Chinese ashtrays all over the room; I therefore assumed it was all right to smoke.
Suddenly one of the huge doors swung open and she arrived with such speed she was half running. This was the dreaded "step of the young girl" that I'd been warned about.
She was a small woman. Her bearing was regal. Her face had the cast of an oriental warrior's. The cruel set of her mouth gave a ferocity and a distinction to her expression. Her skin had a waxy texture and it was unlined. She had obviously copied the Duchess and had a face-lift. But unlike Wallis Windsor, Matre Blum had been excessive in her use of cosmetic surgery. She'd allowed, or forced, her surgeons to make everything look far too tight. Her eyes had been sewn into slits and they had been given a Chinese-looking slant. They lacked all mobility and she seemed to find it difficult to blink. Her face did not match her wizened little hands, which were those of a crone, and her age was also betrayed by the discoloration of pigmentation, the brown flowers of death that smudged her arms.
"Don' t smoke," she said angrily.
I apologised. I felt her Chinese ashtrays were traps that she deliberately laid to lure her visitors into a situation where she could embarrass them.
"I have been in the country," she said. "My husband, the General, is gravely ill."
"I'm sorry," I said politely.
She shrugged irritably and pursed her lips. "You understand that I do not want to be quoted," she snapped at me. She seemed to be in a foul temper.
I asked her how she expected me to do an interview with someone who refused to be quoted. Whatever she told me about the Duchess would have to be attributed.
"It is not necessary for you to say. It's more interesting if you don't say. When people read your article, they will all be trying to guess who you've been talking to." I saw her give a sly and sour little smile. She apparently liked mystery.
"I understand you are very close to the Duchess," I said.
"We have always had a relation de chaleur," she answered.
"A relationship of heat?"
Matre Blum nodded and closed her slitted lids as if she were offering up some kind of prayer of thanks. Although she had a perfect command of English, I noticed that whenever she was asked questions which referred to her more intimate feelings about the Duchess she only liked to express them in French, as if she felt that English was a language too unworthy to be appropriate for any discussion of Wallis Windsor.
"The last time the Duchess went out in public, she came here to dine in this apartment," she said.
I didn't envy the Duchess. As everyone had always described her as fun- loving, when she attended her last supper, she would surely have preferred to have spent it with someone more sympathetic and amusing than Matre Blum. The most worldly of characters, she must have known that she was saying a permanent farewell to the glittering, worldly world as she'd always known it. After that it would be darkness and silence.
"I quite understand why the Duke fell in love with the Duchess," Matre Blum said. "The Duchess is very interesting and she is very interested in other people."
It was remarkable that the Duchess could still be interested in other people lying there in her isolation with pipes up her nostrils in her house in the Bois de Boulogne.
"How is the Duchess?" I asked her.
Again she shrugged irritably. "She is not well. But she is in no danger. Her doctors are not worried."
"Can she speak?"
"She speaks every three weeks."
"What does she say?"
"She says good morning and good evening."
The intervals at which the Duchess spoke seemed rather curious and so were the things she said.
"Does her doctor visit the Duchess every day?" I asked.
"The Duchess has doctors." Matre Blum seemed to think I had insulted the Duchess by not realising she had more than one.
"Does she still have a staff?"
"She has a butler and she has four servants.She used to have 32." Matre Blum suddenly looked very sad. "She doesn't have the hothouse gardeners any more," she murmured wistfully. "Nor does she employ a chef."
"That would be ridiculous." I visualised the Duchess's chef making some delicious feather-light concoction of a souffl and the Duchess eating it through her nose.
Matre Blum kept glaring at me with the utmost hostility. She answered my questions with ill-mannered abruptness.
"I do not trust you," she hissed. "I have had many betrayals and now I trust no one."
Why was she in such a towering temper? She had agreed to give an interview. Now she was behaving as if she somehow had been forced to do so against her higher principles.
"What was the Duchess like?" I wondered if she would be outraged that I had referred to the Duchess in the past tense.
"The Duchess is very dignified. She is immensely dignified. Her favourite word was dignity... The Duchess is very kind. And the Duke was very kind too. The Duke was the soul of kindness."
"In what way was the Duke kind?"
"The Duke opened car doors to people of no importance."
We had a silence. I wished Matre Blum would offer me some coffee. But with her ungenerous nature I knew it was foolish to hope she would dream of extending any routine courtesies.
"Do you feel the Windsors have been unfairly treated in the books that have come out about them recently?" I asked.
Matre Blum had a sort of seizure. Her body shook. Her eyes swivelled. She started screaming. "It has all been lies! It is dgoutant! Everything that has been written is ordure. It has all been venomous. It has all been ragot de cuisine."
"I understand that it has been suggested that the Duke and Duchess slept together before marriage..."
"That was a dirty falsification! People will write any ordure! You' ve no idea how much the Duchess is still loved by the people of England. You simply can't believe how many hundreds of letters she receives every day."
I felt this was very unlikely. Could there really be so many barmy English people writing to this living cabbage?
"The Duchess never nags. She never thinks of herself. She never complains. She was always very hard-working. She lived for the poor. She has always wanted to do good works." Matre Blum drifted in and out of the past and present tense as she recited her pious litany.
"The Duchess was adored by all her servants," Matre Blum continued, always scowling at me. "Even the ones she dismissed always tried to come back." Her words rattled out like bullets from a machine-gun. The speed of her delivery might also be a legal trick, for it made it difficult to follow her and gave her listeners little time to query the truth of what she was saying.
"Did the Duchess find it difficult to tip?" I asked.
I knew that the Duke had shocked people because he found it impossible to tip anyone who worked for him. Eighty-six pieces of luggage would be carried up to his suite in the Waldorf Astoria and the bellboy would wait in vain for the Duke to fish in his pocket for a dollar. I wondered if the Duchess had applauded the parsimonious aspect of her husband' s character or whether it had irritated her .
"Tip!" screamed Matre Blum."Why would the Duchess want to tip? Why would she want to demean herself? Why do you want her to tip? You are a jackal!"
"They were very rich, I understand."
"The Windsors were never rich!" she screamed.
"But they must have been quite rich," I insisted. "Is it not true that the Duchess spent $100,000 a year on her clothes alone, before inflation, and that was not counting what she spent on her jewellery and furs?"
"She had to do that." Matre Blum drew herself up proudly. She obviously approved of the extravagance.
"The medical expenses of the Duchess must be quite heavy."
"Ils sont affreux." Her voice sank to a whisper. She held her white head miserably in her hands.
"Is the Royal Family helping the Duchess to defray the frightful costs of her long illness? Are they aware of her financial plight?"
Matre Blum hesitated. I wondered if she would launch into one of her hysterical tirades. But she was unexpectedly restrained. "The Royal Family inquire about the Duchess's health very often," she said firmly. Whether they were being generous to the unlucky widow of their delinquent relative, Matre Blum refused to say.
"The Duchess is highly intelligent," she told me. She seemed to want to turn to topics which were happier than the Duchess's economic situation. Whenever she was talking about the virtues of her employer, her temper improved, her face relaxed, and she started to speak with the tenderness of a mother boasting about her favourite child.
"Many people feel that the Windsors led a rather empty existence after the abdication," I murmured. " Is this unfair ?"
Matre Blum had another of her explosions. "All this is lies! All that is malicious slander! It's nothing but filthy tittle-tattle."
"The night-club-going, is that completely invented?"
Matre Blum gave a little scream as if I had stabbed her.
"The Duchess never went to night-clubs. She never went, never, never, never!"
"Never?" I insisted.
"The Windsors were a very cultivated couple. Is that how you say it in English?"
"Exactly, they were very cultured. They didn't like to go out in the evening. They liked to stay at home and read good books and listen to classical music. People were astonished when they heard their views on art and literature."
"I've been told that the Duchess drank rather heavily. Is that another irresponsible untruth?" She gave another scream.
"The Duchess never drank."
"Did she never drink at all?"
The look in Matre Blum's surgically adjusted eyes was getting murderous. With her withered finger she made a gesture as if she were holding the tiniest possible medicine glass.
"The Duchess drank maybe this much, once or twice in her life. And she only drank that much because she was offered it. Par politesse, you understand. She was immensely polite and dignified. She had this fantastic dignity. I will tell you who the Duchess was like.The Duchess was exactly like Queen Mary."
I remembered a particular photograph taken of the Duchess when she was quite old and frenetically doing the Twist all alone in the centre of some night-club. She looked extremely drunk, rather sad, and also embarrassing. Nothing in this struck me as especially reminiscent of Queen Mary.
"The Duchess never drank," Matre Blum persisted. "That was never the trouble. The trouble was the Duchess wouldn' t eat. And that was very wrong of the Duchess."
This was the first time she had said anything critical about her employer, the first time she had shown that on occasion she could get quite angry with the Duchess.
"Do you mean the Duchess suffered from anorexia?"
"Yes, she did." Matre Blum sighed bitterly. "It was all this slimming. She was always slimming."
"I believe the Duchess had a wonderful figure."
Matre Blum's face lit up. At last I had pleased her.
"Oh yes," she whispered ecstatically. "The Duchess had the most wonderful body. She still has the most fantastic body. You ought to see it. The skin on her body is perfect. It doesn't have a line. She has the lovely, soft body of a young girl."
With the Duchess lying with pipes through her nose in her house in the Bois de Boulogne, it seemed inappropriate that Matre Blum should be raving about her body's loveliness in such an unmeasured fashion. Yet I realised at that moment that Matre Blum really did love the Duchess, that Wallis Windsor was much more to her than merely a useful world-famous client.
"And the Duchess's face still looks so beautiful. Elle est belle comme tout. Her face has no lines. Her hair and her skin are perfect." Matre Blum continued in the same breathless, adulatory tones. "The Duchess has this youthfulness, this radiance. The beauty of her soul is shining through her face. It's an inner beauty," she added quickly. " It has nothing to do with face-lifts."
"Did the Duchess used to have many face-lifts?"
The question brought Matre Blum out of her dreamy, ecstatic state. Her angry, suspicious expression returned. She seemed to sense what I was wondering. Was it possible that in the wildness of her desire to exalt the Duchess, Matre Blum was still arranging for this poor wreck of a woman to have face-lifts?
"How should I know?" she snapped. "I am only the Duchess's lawyer."
Matre Blum had screwed up her eyes and this increased rather than ameliorated the intensity of her malevolent gaze. "There is something I want to say to you." Her deep, manlike voice had acquired a new, menacing rasp. "If you do not write a favourable article about the Duchess - I will not sue you..." She paused for the ultimate dramatic effect. "...I will kill you."
I gave a nervous reflex laugh. I hoped she would laugh too. But no smile softened the hard, cruel line of Matre Blum's lips. Her eyes examined me. She was eager to see my reaction.
I felt there was now only one question that I really wanted to ask her about the Duchess. Originally I had not intended to put it to her, because I assumed that she would find it agonisingly painful. But now she had gone too far. "Matre Blum," I said. "When the Duchess eventually dies..."
I had suspected she would find this sentence traumatic, but had underrated the fury with which she would react to it. She had exploded before, but all her previous explosions had been damp fireworks. This was a nuclear blast.
" Don't you dare write anything about that," she yelled at me. She made threatening gestures with her arms.
" But Matre Blum..." I didn't feel this menacing old lawyer deserved any mercy. "When the Duchess eventually dies, I must know if she will go to England and be buried beside the Duke in the royal burial ground at Frogmore."
Matre Blum looked as if she were about to cry. "Please don't write anything about that," she pleaded in a sad whisper. "Please, please, please."
She had lost all her poise and her bombast. She was a white-haired little old lady who was close to the grave and terrified to face it. When the Duchess was laid to rest in the royal burial grounds of Windsor, the tragedy for Matre Blum would be inestimable. Not only would she lose her adored Duchess for eternity, but she would lose her for ever to the Duke.
MAITRE BLUM was looking utterly exhausted. I thanked her for talking to me and got up to go.
Matre Blum also rose, though the effort was obviously painful. She was clearly worried that she had been too disagreeable. At the very last moment she made an attempt to be a little more pleasant. She said she had enjoyed meeting me. She became sickly polite with the cynical, super-gushing politeness of the French vendeuse.
"If you will send me your article so that I can amend it... I will be delighted to give you any help you want, Madame..." There was a sly, evil look in her slanted eyes. "If you will allow me to amend your article, I will help you to write something brilliant. I will help you write something new about the Duchess!" She seemed suddenly servile, her tactics crude. If she couldn't get what she wanted by intimidation, she resorted to bribery.
She went and got my coat and started to help me on with it. I disliked her being so physically close. She conveyed a sense that although she felt this menial gesture should rightly be performed by some footman, she was doing it because she was " kind" - kind in exactly the same way as the late Duke.
I asked her one last question.
"Matre Blum, do you think that the Duchess would have made a good queen?"
The rapturous swooning look came back into her face. Her whole expression once again became sentimental and disturbingly erotic. "Oh, yes!" She drew in her breath so that the words came out like a long-drawn and wistful sigh. " Oh yes!" she repeated passionately. "The Duchess would have made the most marvellous queen!"
! "The Last of The Duchess" by Caroline Blackwood will be published on 7 April (Macmillan, £15.99)Reuse content