Voices from the Wallis collection

THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS Caroline Blackwood Macmillan £16.99 Lucy Hughes-Hallett enjoys a wicked, scurrilous but scintillating account of the Duchess of Windsor's later life

This book, written 15 years ago but for unassailably good reasons hitherto unpublished, is wilfully malicious, and packed with scurrilous and entirely unfounded speculation. It is carelessly written and apparently unedited. Its tone is frivolous, cynical and louche. The author never meets her ostensible subject: indeed she is so resoundingly unsuccessful in all attempts to find out anything verifiable about the Duchess of Windsor that she wonders (incorrectly) whether the Duchess might be already dead at the time of writing. The book is a self-avowedly botched construction made up of journalistic assignments which don't come off and interviews which reveal nothing. It is also a fierce, scintillatingly funny report on a dying social circle, and, more soberly, on dying.

Caroline Blackwood never laid eyes on the Duchess because Matre Blum forbade it. Matre Blum, who emerges from Blackwood's flagrantly biased account as a gerontophiliac sadist, a vain, snobbish toady, a potential homicide and a stranger to the truth, was the Duchess's lawyer and, during her last years, her guardian in both senses of the word, being both her protector and her jailer. According to Matre Blum, visits from old friends were detrimental to the state of the Duchess's blood pressure, so for ten years before she died at the age of 90 she saw and was seen by no- one but her doctors, her servants and Matre Blum. Gruesome rumours circulated. A South American baron who had known Wallis Simpson in her glory days claimed to have penetrated Matre Blum's defences and glimpsed the Duchess lying paralysed, as wizened and blackened as a prune, before he was bundled off the premises by the butler. Meanwhile Matre Blum told the world, via press conferences, that the Duchess was getting better. When Caroline Blackwood interviewed her, she further claimed that her employer-cum-prisoner was radiantly lovely still; her octogenarian body unlined, she talked a lot and listened to Cole Porter.

None of this obstructiveness and obfuscation presents much of a problem to Blackwood, who is anyway not particularly interested in the Duchess of Windsor. One of the most acidulous passages in a corrosive book is where Blackwood consults the writer Peter Coats ("self-important, silly old character"), who directs her to read a story about one of the Duchess's brooches in his book Of Generals and Gardens ("absurd title") while lamenting that it had not received much public attention. Mercilessly, Blackwood quotes the inane anecdote in its entirety, concluding: "I was relieved to learn that people were not discussing it with the fervour Peter Coats demanded". This is not the book of a reverent royalist. Blackwood's attitude is closer to the aristocratic indifference of Lady Diana Cooper who, irritated by someone's repeatedly referring to the former Mrs Simpson as "our Duchess", remarked tartly that her own particular duchess was her mother.

Unable to interview her subject, Blackwood interviews her subject's friends. The book is full of old ladies or rather Ladies - formidable, batty, pathetic or all three at once. The first person Blackwood telephones has no memory left, the next is stone deaf, another refers to the Duke of Windsor in the present tense, apparently imagining him to be still alive. The ordeal of aging is this book's real but covert theme, the sombre, chill undertow beneath all its froth and glitter.

Blackwood's own prose is often shockingly lazy (she describes a house as "comfortable and pleasant") but her ear for other people's good lines is sure. Her interviewees all talk like duchesses in pre-war drawing-room comedies. Their voices combine with their reminiscences and Blackwood's account of the life and loves of Wallis Warfield to create an impression of a social world where one man might be extravagantly praised for his "kindness" because he "opened the doors of cars to people of no importance" and another tolerated albeit he had "inadvertently killed a waiter''. It is a picture all the more fascinating for the corruption and silliness it reveals. Laura, Duchess of Marlborough, tells Caroline Blackwood she intends to go to Paris and see if she can rescue her old friend Wallis. She really means it. She books her flight. But in the end she doesn't go. "She had to restring her pearls."

The interviews with Matre Blum are more bizarre. All Blackwood's wildest fantasies and most impudently hilarious juxtapositions are grouped round the figure of this old woman, whom she obviously found as fascinating as obnoxious. Blum informs her that the Duchess mixed only with "the highest and the best". Blackwood recalls how the Duchess's lover, Woolworth's heir Jimmy Donahue, once purchased a cow's udder and walked up Fifth Avenue with one of the teats protruding from his fly. Blum asserts that the Duchess was just like her mother-in-law. Blackwood tries and fails to picture Queen Mary drunk, "quite old and frenetically doing the Twist all alone in the centre of some nightclub" as the Duchess was once photographed doing.

Stalled by Blum's determination to reveal nothing but her own fictions, Blackwood begins to indulge in some of her own. She imagines Blum tiptoeing up to the Duchess's room, lifting the bedclothes and gloating over her supposedly still lovely (or prune-like) body. She imagines the Duchess howling all night like a wounded animal because Blum, who has an exaggerated veneration for physical courage, has denied her analgesics. She persuades herself that Blum's husband, a former general, has been made miserable because Blum has refused him sex. None of these speculations has a smidgen of basis in fact.

Blackwood has broken every rule governing responsible journalism or honourable biography. She has indulged her own prejudices and given rein to her most spiteful imaginings. But the candour with which she acknowledges what she's up to redeems her from any allegations of dishonesty, and any further doubts about her book's value are stilled by her brilliance as a raconteur. Her last interviewee, Marchesa Casa Maury, sums up the story, which she finds wildly funny: "a horrible old lady being locked up by another horrible old lady". This is pretty close to Caroline Blackwood's reading of the situation, but out of this unpromising material she has managed to make a wonderfully entertaining book.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there