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He wanted only what every journalist of the time did: an exclusive interview with the Duke of Windsor. What he got was an astonishing proposition that sent him on an urgent top-secret visit to the White House and a once-in-a-lifetime story that was too hot to print—until now.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
In recent years revisionist historians have variously described Wenner-Gren as a self-important opportunist, or merely a naive idealist who believed in a negotiated peace between Britain and Germany. But in 1940 he was regarded with deep distrust in the corridors of Western power.
In fact, three months after the Southern Cross came into view that morning, Churchill sent a cable to the duke admonishing him not to sail aboard the yacht again. Referring to Wenner-Gren, the prime minister declared, “This gentleman is, according to reports I have received, regarded as a pro-German international financier, with strong leanings toward appeasement and suspected of being in communications with the enemy.”
The day after the duke landed, the Nassau Guardian ran a story about his return from the United States to his duties as governor of the Bahamas. To my father’s undoubted delight, this article was overshadowed by a frontpage picture of himself, my mother and sister and a banner headline:
In view of what was to transpire, it is tempting to wonder if the duke read the article. That December my father was an isolationist; he favored giving economic aid to Britain but he was not yet convinced that the United States must join her in war against Hitler. His views were soon to change. In the following year he wrote a remarkable column in Liberty , perhaps unique in American journalism, that typified the tensions and tumult of the national mood. He called public attention to a fundamental disagreement he was having with his employer, Bernarr Macfadden. “In this issue,” he wrote, “there is an editorial in which Mr. Macfadden states his belief that if England is faced with the certainty of invasion, peace at this time would be the logical step and would preserve the democracy of England intact. I never like to disagree with Mr. Macfadden because he is not only my publisher but my friend. Today, however, more than ever before, men must remain inflexibly true to their convictions.”
Then, throwing isolationism to the winds, he wrote, “There is only one way democracy can be retained in England or the United States and that is by the defeat of Hitler and what he represents—the totalitarian idea.”
Undoubtedly his astonishing interview with the Duke of Windsor contributed to this change of mind. Following is the memo that describes the preparations for the meeting, the interview, and its aftermath. The few changes I have made concern punctuation, the deletion of extraneous material, and the addition of explanatory notes in brackets.
December 26, 1940
At two o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 17th, G. P. O. [my mother, Grace Perkins Oursler], April, and myself left La Guardia Field in the Everglades Flyer. We arrived in Miami at 8:45 where we were met by Bernarr Macfadden and Mrs. Boles, the manager of the Macfadden Deauville Hotel. We drove to the hotel and spent the night there. We were awakened at six the next morning and at 7:30 arrived at the terminal of the Pan American Airways, where we checked in for the plane to Nassau.
As I was checking in my tickets I was accosted by a man who introduced himself as Captain McGrath of the Nassau Development Board. He told me that he knew of my engagement with the Duke of Windsor. He had accompanied the Duke and Duchess on their visit to Miami for her tooth and jaw operation and in Miami had acted as press liaison officer. He had remained over to accompany my party to Nassau. While I was talking to McGrath, who is not an especially prepossessing man, I saw in the crowd of travelers Charles W. Taussig, his wife and daughter. … He was chairman of a presidential commission to study the natives in the Caribbean Islands and had with him a Commander from the United States Navy. They had been cruising the Caribbean in a warship for a month.
We flew to Nassau in one hour and fifty minutes. During this trip, Taussig, McGrath and I talked desultorily. In my mind there were certain grave anxieties about Taussig. These anxieties were later to be proved without foundation. They arose out of certain difficulties that I encountered before making the arrangements to see the Duke.