December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
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.
It was, said one of the few people who knew about it, “the greatest news story on earth.” It belonged exclusively to my father, a prolific writer, but he knew it could not be published. The story presented an appalling picture of the former King of England, the Duke of Windsor. It contained dreadful secrets, including an urgent proposal for President Franklin Roosevelt, a message so damning and dangerous that my father actually feared for his life after he had delivered it. In fact, the entire story was so explosive that an aide to Windsor warned that if what the duke had said, on that December evening in 1940, became known, “the lid would be blown off the British Empire.”
The story never appeared, but it was written. A few days after he interviewed the duke and made his report to the President, my father dictated a seventeen-page memo describing what he had seen and heard. After his death, in 1952, I found it in a notebook, tucked, like the “Purloined Letter,” among the thousands of volumes in his library. Some years later I was tempted to include it in my father’s posthumous autobiography, but others convinced me that he would not have released the memo while the duke and duchess were still living. Now that both are dead, and fifty years have passed since the interview, I believe the story should be told.
My father was an incandescent man, a Roman candle that burned in the fireworks of his time. Born in poverty, unable to finish grammar school before he took his first job as a water boy, he lived the American dream more completely and in more forms than any other person I have known.
He was a reporter, novelist, playwright, biographer, and journalist; he was an editor of magazines and newspapers; he was a screenwriter, radio scenarist, newscaster, and lecturer; he was a ventriloquist, critic, and columnist; he was a detective-story writer, psychic investigator, and criminologist. He became the confidant of politicians, Presidents (particularly FDR), and a former king.
Far too early the energy and ambition that sustained his gifts consumed him; he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine. He was then perhaps the most popular religious writer of his time.
I was nineteen when he died, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about him. It seemed impossible that a person so driven by achievement and acclaim, who was so manifestly onstage, privately and publicly, could have led a secret life. My father had also been a magician, and he loved to say that a magician never revealed his secrets. A decade after his death I discovered that for four years during World War Il he had run an undercover operation for the FBI, serving as liaison between the Bureau and a score of its agents who sabotaged Nazi networks in Latin America. No one among his family or friends knew anything about it.
I was equally astonished when I first read about his meeting with Windsor. In 1940 my father was supervising editor of the Macfadden publishing empire and editor in chief of Liberty, a popular weekly magazine. For some time he had been trying to obtain an interview with the duke for Liberty, without success. Then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, he learned that Windsor would be happy to see him. A week before Christmas he flew to Nassau with my mother and my sister, April, who was fourteen.
According to his diary, on the morning of December 19, 1940, he rose early and watched the duke and duchess step off a landing barge sent from the yacht Southern Cross. The former monarch and the woman for whom he had given up his kingdom were returning from a visit to the United States, their first since Windsor’s abdication in 1936. Tanned and smiling as they drove off to Government House, they must have offered, to anyone who thought of England that day, a startling contrast to the duke’s beleaguered countrymen.
England had barely survived the Battle of Britain that summer, and now the devastating blitz bombardments had begun. On December 13 the duke had flown from Miami on a Navy seaplane to meet with President Roosevelt, who was cruising the Caribbean aboard the USS Tuscaloosa. Aboard that ship, a few days earlier, the President had received Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s long and eloquent letter requesting aid from America. It was the plea that led to the Lend-Lease Act.
As my father watched him that morning, His Royal Highness was among the most admired men on earth. The general public remained enthralled by the story of his romance, abdication, and marriage to the former Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, now the Duchess of Windsor. But there was a huge dichotomy between the public’s perception and what many British and American officials thought about Windsor.
The Southern Cross itself was a silent symbol of suspicions that would not become a matter of broad commentary until decades after the war. The yacht belonged to Axel Wenner-Gren, a Swedish multimillionaire industrialist and entrepreneur, the founder of Electrolux. He owned a munitions company, Bofors, that sold arms to Germany, and he was the subject of numerous intelligence reports that crossed the desks of government officials in Washington and Whitehall.
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.
Originally, a request for an interview for me had been made by Harry Gray [a newspaper editor] through a man named Thompson Rich [a freelance writer and poet], a friend of Nanine Joseph [a literary agent who represented both Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR]. Rich had represented himself as a good friend of the Duke and had offered us an interview. He countered [sic] by suggesting that perhaps he could arrange an interview for me. This he tried to do but it did not materialize. Then I wrote a letter to Marguerite LeHand, personal secretary to the President, asking if the President could arrange this interview for me as he had done for me with Mussolini. She replied that she would try and suggested that I write a letter to the British Embassy. This I did. I received a letter saying that the matter would be taken up. The next thing I heard was a letter from Missy [Marguerite LeHand’s nickname] enclosing a letter to her from the British Embassy in which they said the Duke had decided not to give any more interviews. This seemed to dispose of the matter. If the Duke would not see me at the request of the President of the United States, the matter seemed hopeless.
It was only a few days later that Rich reappeared on the scene with the statement that he could arrange for me to see the Duke. I was thoroughly incredulous but told him to see what he could do. He showed me subsequently an original letter signed by Captain Vyvyan Drury, the Duke’s aide-de-camp, stating that the Duke would be glad to see me at any time. By cable I specified any time between the 17th and the 22nd of December and a cable came back saying that any of these dates would be agreeable to His Royal Highness. Now, obviously there was something mysterious about all this. However, I decided to go through with it.
Now, beholding Taussig, an old acquaintance, knowing Taussig’s relation to the President, I began to wonder if the White House itself indicated—for what reason I could not guess—that such an interview was undesirable and that on finding out that I had, nevertheless, arranged for an interview through another source, the administration, for whatever reasons it might have, was sending Taussig over as an agent to prevent the interview at the last minute. Obviously Taussig as a presidential representative—he was literally the President’s personal representative—would out-rank me in protocol. The Duke, by protocol would be expected to receive Taussig before he saw me. His presence on the plane was, therefore, disquieting, good friends though we had always been.
When we arrived in Nassau and were going through the Customs barrier, McGrath spoke to me. He explained that the Duke and Duchess had not yet returned to Nassau and that the Acting Governor representing the Duke in absentia was the Colonial Secretary, and he suggested that on our way to the hotel we stop at the office of the Colonial Secretary and be welcomed by him. We agreed. This conversation was held before McGrath could talk with any of his assistants. Once through the Customs, we went outside and posed for photographs for the Nassau Guardian, the world’s worst newspaper. While this was being done, McGrath talked with one of his assistants. Now he came back and suggested that we not call on the Colonial Secretary.
We drove to the hotel—the British Colonial—in our own taxi and found McGrath waiting for us. He introduced us to Manager O’Brien and Taussig introduced us to Mr. Die [John Dye], the American Consul. Then we went to our rooms with the expectation that we would hear from Mr. McGrath about the Colonial Secretary soon thereafter. We did not hear from him at all and soon we gave up waiting for him, had our lunch, and went sight-seeing with Sammy, the singing taxi driver. What we did not know was that the Colonial Secretary had, for reasons of his own, declined to welcome us, that he was giving a large cocktail party for the Taussigs and did not invite us. This we did not know until later. Had we known it then, we would not have guessed the real truth. In fact, now that I do know it, I find myself feeling as if I had lived through a fairy tale.
The next morning we were awakened by the sound of a ship’s siren. From the balcony overlooking Hatchet Bay, we watched the Southern Cross come over the bar and put into the inner harbor, where it anchored. By the time we had breakfast and had gone downstairs the barge was coming ashore to dock at the yachtclub landing on the grounds of the hotel. We stood and watched as the Duke, the Duchess, and Captain Drury came ashore.…A large Buick and a station wagon were waiting at the dock and they drove off.
Half an hour later I received a call from McGrath. He said that I was expected at Government House at 11 o’clock. I met him at his office and we walked up the hill to Government House, past the sentries and up to the front of the building. We climbed up the wooden stairs to a great ballroom with a platform covered with cranberry red carpet at the further end and beside that a desk. The rest of the room was barren except for all sorts of luggage ranged along the side of the walls, the stuff the Duke and Duchess had brought from Europe. There was a full length portrait of King Edward the Seventh on the wall.
McGrath and I waited and talked for a while, and then appeared Captain Drury—tall, thin, in his early thirties, very slick, very smooth, urbane, kindly, hospitable—. He said that the Duke would be glad to see me the following evening. I said that was impossible as I had to get back to the States in time for Christmas. He then went downstairs and talked with the Duke, came back and said the Duke would receive Mrs. Oursler and my daughter, April, and myself at 6 o’clock that evening; that he would talk with them for a few minutes and then would give me an hour. I told Drury some of the things I would like to talk with him about and he promised to prepare the Duke for these questions.
I then went home to lunch with McGrath.…At six o’clock we all went out to Government House, went into the front door and into the very elegant drawing room just refurnished.…After awhile the Duke came in wearing a sport coat, looking very fit. He greeted us affably and talked about his visit to Miami, his first visit to the United States in sixteen years and his wife’s first visit in eight years. Life in Nassau was like living in a village. Getting back to the United States was a tremendously invigorating experience; forty new hotels, throb of energy; good for the soul; is Miami the United States? Where do people get the money? Good thing anyway.
Then Grace and April left, and we sat down to discuss the affairs of the world. I put the questions to the Duke that I had in mind and he answered them as will appear in the Liberty story. Then, to my astonishment, he began to ask me questions. Did I think that America should come into the war? I replied that I did not and told him of the many conversations I had had on this subject with Herbert Hoover, also the point that Hoover had made in his Liberty article about the need for a strong neutral power at the peace table.
At this the Duke became greatly agitated. He said that that represented his own opinion exactly. He asked me if the leading intellectuals with whom I had acquaintance also held this view. I said that some of them did and some of them did not. He asked me if they thought Great Britain could win the war. I said that some of them did and some of them did not. He spoke of the bitterness that was being bred in the people and that there would be need of a reconciling force at the peace table. He said that there was no such thing in modern warfare as victory. There could be no victory.
He reminded me that the German armies were never defeated in 1914—1918; that the German nation collapsed behind the lines but that the lines had never been broken. I asked him if he thought a similar situation was developing now. I pointed out what had happened in Norway and Denmark when German soldiers had been attacked. I pointed out the courage of Marshal Pétain in deposing Laval. I remarked that while news of the Italian defeat was not published in Germany that the underground of rumor was undoubtedly spreading the story and making it much worse than it was and that this might lead to revolution in Germany.
He said there was too much wishful thinking; that there would be no revolution in Germany and it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were overthrown. Hitler, he said, was the right and logical leader of the German people. He said it was unfortunate that I had never met Hitler just as he was sorry he had never met Mussolini. He regarded Hitler as a great man.
I was beginning to feel dazed. For the first time in my life it was literally true that I did not believe my ears. There was a silence. Suddenly Windsor leaned forward, shooting his head out like a turtle and bent almost double in his chair, he looked around at me and said, “Do you suppose that your President would consider intervening as a mediator when, as and if the proper time arrives?”
I tried to keep my voice steady as I replied that in my opinion, the President would do so if the time ever arrived when he thought it would be to the best interests of humanity for him to do so, but I added that…I had had no expression from him on the subject and that my opinion was merely a guess founded on my knowledge of him and what others had said.
The Duke then remarked that few people were aware of what a serious situation Britain was in. England was blockading Germany, but Germany was also blockading England. The submarine losses were enormous and getting worse and creating havoc. The time was coming when something would have to be done. Some one would have to make a move. This was a war between two very stubborn peoples. Again he bent forward in the jackknife gesture and said to me, “It sounds very silly to put it this way, but the time is coming when somebody has got to say, you two boys have fought long enough and now you have to kiss and make up.”
I concealed my horror at this utterance believing that it was to my country’s best interest for me to lead him on. I told him that I did not believe Hitler would listen to any proposals that would give England a break because Hitler had a kind of mysticism that supplanted reason.
He said that he believed that there was a strong enough element in German politics to moderate Hitler’s fanaticism and that a just peace could be made. He agreed with me that the problems of the peace would be infinitely more tragic than the problems of the war.
“It’s getting worse,” he said, “and the longer the peace is delayed, the worse these problems are going to be.”
I remarked that America was already trying to solve the postwar problems and told him about the General Motors Forum, at which Knudson had talked. [William S. Knudsen was president of General Motors.]
“Ah, yes,” he said, “but if you have with your cessation of your defense program another unemployment problem, at least your factories will have roofs over them. Your machinery will be intact. But look at our country. Our factories are being destroyed; our cities are being destroyed; our ships are being destroyed. Britain is an empire. We depend upon raw materials to be carried in boats, brought to our factories and then shipped out as merchandise. What in God’s name are we going to do after the war? How are we going to rebuild these factories, these cities, these ships? Where’s the money coming from? I tell you something has to be done about it and the sooner the better. I don’t say the time has come now, but it is shortly coming when a man like your President must stop this war. I am not a defeatist but I am realistic. It’s all very well to talk about the war to the bitter end—”
“A l’outrance,” interrupted Captain Drury.
I said that a great many of our people believed that the war, if allowed to continue, would end in a stalemate and the entrance of the United States into the war would prolong it for thirty years.
He agreed with that. He said that he thought President Roosevelt was a great man and would play a large part in history, but he said it rather reluctantly. He told me he had an interview with the President on the Tuscaloosa and their discussion was about the development of the Caribbean Islands in which the United States would have a joint interest. He praised the American hotels and especially the service. He talked of other matters which will appear in the Liberty article and then I said goodnight. He had promised me an hour. We had been together nearly two hours.
Captain Drury walked with me into the garden. He deliberately led me away from my taxi cab. He talked in a running, humming tone, very low, almost a whisper, as if he were trying to get up the courage to say something, but he never quite got around to it. I had a suspicion of what he was not getting at but he would not come to the point. He said that the Duke of Windsor could be of the greatest service to both our countries. He spoke of the cruel persecutions to which the Duke and Duchess had been subjected.…I remarked that perhaps Baldwin was now the most detested man in England. [Stanley Baldwin, prime minister during the abdication, had been opposed to allowing Windsor, as king, to marry Mrs. Simpson.]
Then I went home. I had only ten minutes in which to change into evening clothes and get to the council chamber. There Grace, April and I were seated in the third row. The council was in session and presently the Duke arrived. He was wearing a white uniform with gold epaulets and a dress sword and looked every inch a king. Taking his place on the platform he sent a messenger to summon parliament and then sat down. Presently he looked over at us and spoke to each one of us individually from the throne. This caused audible excitement in the crowd and caused Mrs. Taussig to pat me on the back. She was sitting behind us. It then occurred to me suddenly that the presidential envoy had not as yet been received by the Duke.
The ceremony over, the Duke departed, and then we three went with the Taussigs to the home of Consul Die for a buffet supper. Until I got there I had not realized that this supper was being given for us and I did not get wise to this until I found myself seated at the table on the right of the wife of the Colonial Secretary, while Grace was seated between the Colonial Secretary and my Lord Bishop who wore gaiters and a black apron, while April was seated next to the Attorney General. The Taussigs were seated way below the salt. So the Colonial Secretary had to be nice to my wife, and his wife had to be very nice to me, but by this time I was suspiciously aware of some great intrigue in all of this.
When we got home, I literally took my wife into a closet and closed the door and told her what had happened. It was at once apparent that she thought I had taken leave of my wits and I did not believe my own words as I told her what had happened. What’s more, I told her that I had the uneasy suspicion that what the Duke of Windsor really wanted was for me to convey these almost treasonable sentiments to President Roosevelt. Yet, he had not asked me to do so and I resolved, therefore, not to do it. As I say, I told her these things in a closet with the door closed. We stayed up for the rest of the night talking in guarded tones and words about what happened.
Shortly after breakfast the next morning the telephone rang. Captain Drury was on the phone. He wanted to know if he could come and see me. I told him to come right over. He said he would be there at eleven o’clock and would have to leave at twelve because his wife was having a birthday party. He arrived at eleven and did not leave until one thirty. We went over the same ground as the night before but in greater detail. He told me about the hatred for Windsor in the hearts of Anthony Eden, Lord Halifax, Lord Lothian and that the only friends Windsor had were Bevan, the Labor [Labour] leader, and Winston Churchill.
Finally he came to the point. Drury said, “Would you enter into a Machiavellian conspiracy?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Will you see your President and tell him these things?”
I said, “Yes.”
Drury said, “Tell Mr. Roosevelt that if he will make an offer of intervention for peace, that before any one in England can oppose it, the Duke of Windsor will instantly issue a statement supporting it and that will start a revolution in England and force peace.”
That was the message he asked me to carry to the President of the United States. He said he was perfectly well aware that if I were to print anything of what the Duke had said that the lid would be blown off the British Empire.
I told him that I was perfectly well aware of that when the Duke was speaking but that the secret was safe with me.
He then explained to me that when the request came from one of the President’s secretaries for the interview that the British Embassy in Washington had written them, the Duke and Drury, that I was believed not to be friendly to the British cause. Drury had replied that he could not understand how the President could allow one of his secretaries to ask for such an interview if that were true. The British Embassy had then replied that they had further investigated the matter and found it was not so. Drury said that they had never believed it was so but had raised this question because they did not want the Duke to talk to Americans. The amazing part to me was that what had seemed to recommend me to the Duke was the suspicion that I was not friendly to Great Britain. This threw some added light on the attitude of the Colonial Secretary. He was opposed to this interview and that was why in the Duke’s absence he had snubbed me. The Duke’s prompt reception of me had thrown the Colonial Secretary into confusion.
Drury finally left and I went off to lunch with Grace and the Taussigs at the Victoria Hotel. When I separated from Captain Drury he warned me to be very careful when I wrote to him not to be explicit; he would understand guarded references. Back at the hotel again to pack I had another call from Captain Drury. He wanted to tell me that the Duke looked forward to writing articles for Liberty a little later on. This was the first thing that smacked of a bribe in the whole transaction, and perhaps it was not that at all.
We flew back to Miami, had dinner at the Macfadden Deauville Hotel and I told Mr. Macfadden the whole story.…He said he was god dammed if I wasn’t the god damndest journalist ever born, and he recognized the fact that I carried around in my bosom the greatest news story on earth. Was I going to call on the President?
I said yes, but that I would not stop off at Washington; that would be too obvious. I would go to New York and try to make the appointment from there.
We left Miami that night at eleven fifty-nine and arrived at La Guardia Field the next morning. We spent Saturday quietly in New York, and on Sunday Grace and April left for Sandalwood [our home in Cape Cod].
I telephoned the White House and talked with Grace Tully. I asked her to ask Missy to try to make an appointment for me with the President. I received a call from Missy. The President would see me. On Sunday night [December 22] I left on the train for Washington.
At ten-thirty [on the morning of December 23] I presented myself at the White House. I had been told not to go to the executive offices but to go to the front door like any tourist. I did this and waited in the red room for about fifteen minutes. Then I was taken upstairs to the oval study where I had spent so many hours with the President and found him entirely alone with his new little Scottie dog. He was very friendly, asked all about April and her school, about which he seemed to be well informed. Finally we settled down for a talk, and I began as follows:
“Mr. President, I am perfectly aware that there is more than a slight air of the preposterous about what I have to tell you, but it is all factual. It all happened and I think it is my duty to report it to you.”
Here the President interrupted. “Fulton,” he said, “nothing can surprise me these days. Nothing will seem too fantastic. Why do you know,” he went on earnestly, but with a very cunning, cousining [sic] smile, “why do you know that I am amazed to find some of the greatest people in the British Empire, men of the so-called upper classes, men of the highest rank, secretly want to appease Hitler and stop the war?”
I gasped. It was perfectly apparent that agents of the Colonial Secretary had been listening to what the Duke had said and to what Drury had said to me, and that this report had been sent to the British Embassy and the embassy had sent it to Roosevelt. Roosevelt knew exactly what I had come to tell him before I opened my mouth.
He went on. “I call these people ignorant, uneducated. They are well schooled but they don’t understand. Do you know who is carrying on the war in England today? Not the upper classes but the laboring man. I don’t mean the organized labor. I mean all men who work with their hands. They know their government may compromise between ideals. Now, go on Fulton, and tell me what you have to say.”
I laughed and said, “Mr. President, you are a telepathist. In vaudeville you would get top billing as a mind reader, but it is all done with mirrors.”
Then he laughed. I then recited to him my experiences in Nassau just as I have put them down here. As I came to the important remarks, the President grew greatly agitated. He was as agitated in his way as Windsor was. He could barely listen to the words that I spoke. He looked away. His hands trembled. His whole body shook. It was an unparalleled exhibition.
I felt it necessary to say to him that this did not represent my sentiments but that I had construed it as my duty to tell him and I hoped he was not offended. He said no; he was glad that I had told him. I asked him if he were I what message would he send to Drury.
Suddenly he exploded. “When little Windsor says he doesn’t think there should be revolution in Germany, I tell you, Fulton, I would rather have April’s opinion on that than his. Now, how to answer him. You’ll have to be very careful about that because if all this ever comes out you want to be in the clear. Otherwise, it might do you a great deal of harm personally. Why don’t you be a good come-on guy? That’s good Americanism.”
And here the President, to my complete amazement, dictated the following letter for me to send to Captain Drury—“Bad boy,” he said, “bad boy.”
Here is the letter:
V. D. Drury A.D.C. to H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor Government House, Bahamas
Dear Captain Drury:
On my way home from Florida, I stopped off in Washington and had a talk with my friend. His answer to my conversation was that in Washington today everything is on a twenty-fourhour basis and no man has the gift of being able to read the future.
If you have anything else in mind, let me know.
What did the President mean? Was he playing this as an ace in the hole? Or is this just a come-on game? Who can tell? Certainly I cannot.
(I fully appreciate the danger to which I am exposed as a result of all this. I confided everything to Walter Karig [a journalist who often wrote for Liberty] in case I should die too suddenly on the way home from Washington. When I started to tell him about it, I crept to the door of the hotel room in the Willard and flung open the door. Three chambermaids were listening outside, and I chased them away.)
Having dictated the letter, he [the President] then proceeded to tell me something about the Duke of Windsor. This began when I said that the Duke indicated to me that he had not felt he could discuss these matters with the President when they lunched on the Tuscaloosa.
“Indeed not,” said the President. “I would not let him. The nearest we came to discussing the war was when I praised the great courage and fighting spirit of the British people and he thanked me for these expressions. Then I said to him, ‘Whatever became of your father’s stamp collection?’ He said that it was put at the disposal of the Empire and that they were only Empire stamps. I told him I knew that very well. I had often seen the stamp collection and had frequently talked with his father.
“Then I said, ‘You know your father was a Navy man. You ought to have heard him express his opinion of the Germans. He used every short word known to a sailor.’
“The Duke replied, ‘Yes, I know that my father felt that way,’ and opened his mouth to say something else but didn’t.”
The President then told me how the Duke when he was King kept Mrs. Simpson, who was still Mrs. Simpson, at Fort Belvedere which is on the grounds of Windsor Castle Park. The President went on to say, “Every day from the offices of the Prime Minister in Downing Street, there would be brought to the King a dispatch box. It was the same thing as a briefcase except that it was made of wood and lacquered and locked. These were the most confidential papers of the Empire.
“The next day the Prime Minister called to see the Duke at Fort Belvedere and found all these papers strewn about the piano for any one to see and especially Mrs. Simpson. Now, no one doubted that Mrs. Simpson was loyal to the King, but the fact was that she had played around not with the Cliveden Set but with the Ribbentrop Set. [Cliveden was Lord Astor’s home on the Thames, where it was reputed that anti-German guests, including Churchill, were not welcome. Suspicions about Wallis Simpson as a Nazi collaborator would become a theme in biographies of the Windsors.]
“This put an idea into Baldwin’s head. Made him nervous. When Edward threatened to abdicate, Baldwin called his bluff.
“He said, ‘Maybe it would be a good idea.’
“Then the Duke went over to a castle in Austria and associated with German friends. Perhaps that was all right but the English felt suspicious about it. When the war came on he was made a liaison officer between the French and British armies. He was there at the most intimate councils of the commanders in chief of these two armies. He knew everything that was going on.
“Sometimes he would suddenly decide that there was nothing more for him to do and he would go back to Paris, not just over night but for three or four days.
“Now, I have nothing to prove what I am going to say, but I do know that there were nine shortwave wireless sets in Paris constantly sending information to the German troops, and no one has ever been able to decide how such accurate information could be sent over these wireless stations.
“After a while it was suggested to the Duke that he go down to Cannes where he could be with his wife and just stay there. He was never relieved of his commission. He just stayed there away from Paris.
“Then the Germans broke through Belgium and Holland but Edward stayed on in Cannes for a long time. Finally, he and his wife went to Madrid where they mingled with the wrong people.
“Meanwhile, the British were trying to make up their mind what to do with him. They couldn’t send him to the Fiji Islands because he wouldn’t go there. Finally they hit on the Bahamas. They wouldn’t go to Jamaica; too far away. But the Bahamas were close to the United States. Now and then they could go over to Miami and mingle with the night club crowds that they so enjoy. So the Bahamas were offered them as the greatest gift of the Empire.
“Bill Bullitt [then U.S. ambassador to France] saw them in Madrid just before they sailed, and he said, ‘Well, are you looking forward to sailing tomorrow?’
“And she said, ‘We sail for our Saint Helena tomorrow.’
“Now,” added the President, “I don’t know how well she knows her history. There was Elba after Saint Helena, but she knew enough to imply that there would be a come-back. She knew that Napoleon came back from Saint Helena.” [My father’s memo makes no comment about this mistake. Napoleon, of course, escaped from Elba and died on Saint Helena.]
We wished each other Merry Christmas and I left. As I walked out, I found a little man sitting in a chair just outside the door. I stopped and looked at him. He kept his head down so that I could not see his face. Who was he? Only God and Franklin Roosevelt know.
[So ends the memo my father dictated to a secretary on December 26, 1940.]
The discoveries I made about my father after he had died convince me that history is often a phantom and that among the most powerful historical forces are secrets: secret passions, plans, and actions.
My father’s memo offers a glimpse into a secret of state so hidden that I could find only one other man who knew of it. Louis B. Nichols had been third-in-command of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and was the man who persuaded my father to work for the Bureau during the war. I told him about the memo when I was working on my father’s unfinished autobiography, Behold This Dreamer, which was published in 1963. Nichols knew the entire story; my father had told it to him in detail soon after the visit to the White House.
Nichols added that he had no doubt that British intelligence knew what had happened as well. It would not surprise him, he said, if accounts of what both the duke and President had told my father were in the intelligence files of other nations.
But Nichols warned me that the memo was still exploisive. Even then, after more than twenty years had passed, it would embarrass the royal family, enrage the duke’s friends and supporters, and inflame his enemies. He did not counsel me to suppress it. In fact, he told me that if necessary, he would take the stand in court and swear that the memo was true.
But he and others asked difficult questions. I had worked closely with my father on his memoirs before his death. Did I have any indication that he had intended to include the report in his book? Had he ever talked about the memo or shown it to me? The answer in each case was no. The sanitized version of the interview published in Liberty, in March 1941, downplayed the duke’s sentiments—yet still enraged Churchill.
And so I have kept the memo until now. And today, fifty years after the event, other questions remain unanswered. Dr. William Emerson, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, tried to assist me in answering them. The White House appointment schedule does record my father’s visit, but among the fourteen million documents at the library, not a single notation makes mention of his secret report to the President. The slender file concerning the Duke of Windsor contains little more than polite notes, such as birthday greetings.
In recent years a number of books have appeared that contain accounts that support or verify the suspicions Roosevelt shared with my father. It is now clear, for example, that the distrust began as soon as the king installed Mrs. Simpson in Fort Belvedere. Even Philip Ziegler, in his recent book King Edward VIII, widely regarded as the authorized biography, has described the alarm concerning the care of state secrets that were sent to the king in official government boxes. There was little doubt in court and government circles that he shared them with Mrs. Simpson, and her close association with Germans actually led to fears that the Foreign Office cipher might be compromised.
Perhaps the most curious revelation concerning the duke in recent years is one that appears to add damning con- firmation of the suspicions that FDR shared with my father. It comes from reports sent to the Nazi secretary of state in Berlin by the German minister to the Netherlands, Count Julius von Zech-Burckesroda, in January 1940. “Through personal relationships,” the count wrote Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, “I might have the opportunity to establish certain lines leading to the Duke of Windsor.…When he was recently in London, I had explained to him through an intermediary why it is completely Utopian for England to effect a change of regime in Germany…”
These words were written after the duke had concluded months of service as a member of a military delegation sent from the British War Office to Gen. Maurice Gustave Gamelin, France’s chief of national defense. The duke had made a number of inspections of troops and fortifications, including one of the Maginot Line.
The delegation had been billeted at the town of Nogent-sur-Marne, some five miles south of Paris. In late 1939, during the time of his visits to the defense lines, Windsor made frequent trips to Paris. There he and the duchess entertained Charles Bedaux, a multimillionaire entrepreneur whose Nazi sympathies were obvious. In fact, Bedaux, who would eventually commit suicide after his arrest as a Nazi collaborator, had helped arrange a visit between Hitler and Windsor at Berchtesgaden in 1937, a few months after the duke and duchess were married in Bedaux’s castle in France.
That the former king could have consorted with this man during a military mission for Britain after his abdication seemed worse than irresponsible to many observers. It could only inspire such suspicion and disgust as Roosevelt expressed when he told my father of the short-wave communications that sent such accurate information to the Germans from Paris.
A month after he had hoped to establish “lines” to the duke, Count von Zech-Burckesroda had important news. “The Duke of W…has said that the Allied War Council devoted an exhaustive discussion at its last meeting to the situation that would arise if Germany invaded Belgium,” he wrote in February 1940. The count continued with details he had received: The Allies would maintain a line of resistance along the Belgian-French border.
This account of what the duke revealed made no mention of whom Windsor had talked to or how the information had reached the count. It was sent to the Foreign Office in Berlin and was considered so important that it apparently came to the attention of Hitler. The baron’s jubilant reply to Zech-Burckesroda notes that the duke’s report was of interest to the Führer and asks for further information.
But strangely, as the author Michael Bloch and others have commented, the Allied plans for the defense of Belgium were in complete contradiction to what the duke is reported to have said. (British forces met the Germans at two points deep within Belgium.) This has led to speculation that the duke might have been part of a disinformation operation, to confuse the Germans. That is possible, but a corollary scheme seems just as likely: a test to find an insecure or traitorous source of information to the enemy.
Given the suspicions that swirled about both the duke and the duchess, British intelligence could have leaked the false report to Windsor as a “marked card,” a unique piece of information that, if it reached German hands, could be traced only to the duke. Such a test would require a British spy with access to the “marked card” when it appeared.
In his recent book The Duchess of Windsor, Charles Higham does not advance this theory but presents information that supports it. He learned that the defense of Belgium was discussed at a secret meeting of the British War Cabinet when the duke visited London in January 1940 and that the duke had met with Gen. Sir William Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, at the War Office. In an interview with Higham, Lord Ironside, the son of the general, declared: “My father determined that the duke was a serious security leak. He was giving the duchess a great deal of information that was classified in the matter of the defenses of France and Belgium. She in turn was passing this information on to extremely dangerous enemy-connected people over dinner tables in Paris. As a result, this information made its way into German hands.”
Who could have seen a “marked card” and alerted British intelligence? Higham reports that a British agent, Wolfgang zu Putlitz, was in the German Embassy at The Hague when the count’s report about Windsor was sent to Berlin. His bona fides were later called into question when he defected to East Germany.
What actually came into the hands of British, Nazi, and Soviet intelligence concerning the Duke of Windsor? Sometime after Sir Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the queen’s pictures, was exposed as a Soviet spy, I began to hear rumors that he had been sent on a secret mission to Germany toward the end of the war. Philip Knightly and Colin Simpson raised the issue in a Sunday Times article in November 1979, and in the past few years the speculation about Blunt’s mission has hardened.
It has been described, by John Costello in Mask of Treachery and by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman in Conspiracy of Silence, as an assignment authorized by King George VI (the duke’s brother) to find any incriminating material about Windsor in Germany and deliver it to the royal family. Both books maintain that Blunt was successful in his endeavors. Most recently the story has been dismissed as lacking documentation by Philip Ziegler, in Edward VIII.
But the question remains sensitive. If there was such a mission and if incriminating documents were found, an investigation would be needed to discover if Blunt, whose hidden masters were the Soviets, had passed anything he found to Moscow and if the Soviet government had ever made use of such material in its dealings with Britain and the West.
Peter Wright, the assistant director of M15 who questioned Blunt, reveals in Spycatcher that he was told by Michael Adeane, the queen’s personal secretary, that Blunt might mention “an assignment he undertook on behalf of the Palace—a visit to Germany at the end of the war.” Wright reports that Adeane asked that the matter not be pursued, stating, “Strictly speaking, it is not relevant to considerations of national security.” Wright declares that he never discovered the secret of this mission even though he spent hundreds of hours with Blunt. “By then,” he adds, “the Palace had had several centuries to learn the difficult art of scandal burying.”
But that art did not reach to the memo my father wrote and the vivid events it recorded. At a time when bombs were raining on England, he became witness to a scandal of prodigious dimensions.
The duke may have deluded himself into thinking he had the safeguard of plausible deniability by sending the proposal first through Captain Drury to my father and then through my father to the President. But the memo leaves no doubt that it was Windsor’s plan.
Nothing less than revolution was on Windsor’s mind. He had dismissed the suggestion that a revolution in Germany might depose Hitler. In the duke’s opinion, that was “wishful thinking” and wrong; he declared that “it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were overthrown.” Then, through his spokesman, Captain Drury, the former monarch revealed that he was subject to his own wishful thoughts: “Tell Mr. Roosevelt that if he will make an offer on intervention for peace, that before anyone in England can oppose it, the Duke of Windsor will instantly issue a statement supporting it and that will start a revolution in England and force peace.”
Did the duke harbor hopes that such a revolution would restore him to the throne? The question seems almost irrelevant. By sending his plea to the President, he had already stepped beyond the bounds of diplomacy and trespassed on treason.
Who in the British government knew what he had proposed, and when did they know it? Considering the fact that Roosevelt knew even before my father told him, it is hard to believe that British intelligence, arguably the finest in the West at that time, did not.
Did Captain Drury report the proposal? Was he ever questioned? Published references to Drury (who has died) are sparse. There are glimpses of him in Bloch’s The Duke of Windsor’s War, where he is described as “a First World War comrade” of the duke and the brother-in-law of Maj. Gen. Sir Richard Howard-Vyse, Windsor’s superior during his work at the military mission in France. A brief paragraph in The New York Times on September 22, 1942, reports that Drury left Nassau to offer his services in the war. It is easy to speculate that he had been in a perfect position as the duke’s aide-decamp to act as informant for British intelligence. But why did Roosevelt call him a “bad boy”?
One can understand why no action was taken against Windsor during the war. But is it possible that there was no investigation later? Was anything found in German archives to indicate that Hitler knew of Windsor’s offer to the President or that Nazis had in any way supported it?
Only others can answer such questions. But in asking them, one is forced to wonder if the royal family and successive British governments have engaged in a long and collective cover-up to keep hidden one of the darkest secrets of modern history.