Introduction to the Vintage Books Edition
Caroline Blackwood wrote ten books of fiction and nonfiction, one of which, Great Granny Webster, was nominated for the Booker Prize. But the “dark fairy tale” that obsessed her for the longest time—indeed for fifteen years—starred Maître Suzanne Blum, the wily, confrontational, “necrophiliac” lawyer who presided over the last decade of the almost lifeless Duchess of Windsor, locked away, bedridden behind the shutters of her villa in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, under the Maître’s jealous and sinister control.
The story touched some nerves in Caroline. She was old enough to have witnessed the tail end of the Abdication Crisis of 1936. The English loathing of Wallis Simpson for “stealing” King Edward VIII was particularly strong, for largely snobbish reasons, among the upper class into which Caroline was born as daughter of the 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and Maureen Guinness, the brewing heiress. Maureen was a close friend of the Queen Mother. “[The abdication] was . . . something so obscene and shocking that it had to be hidden from the children,” Caroline writes here. Only its denouement forty-four years later was properly shocking to Caroline and also compulsively fascinating. “Too awful, even for us” was one of her frequent phrases. She had a fearful view of real or impending disaster or horror—all irresistibly funny in the telling, including the telling of the dramas of her own life. Her daughter Ivana recalls in her memoir her mother walking the night, “catastrophising,” rehearsing aloud her “worst nightmares.” “When you see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she warned, “it could be a train coming towards you.” Here was a story that therefore greatly appealed to her—the macabre image of the Duchess as a shriveled, desiccated “prune” that rumors and paparazzi shots suggested—imprisoned and kept alive through feeding tubes for the vanity of venal Maître Blum who was not only selling her jewels but had taken away her vodka. And there was nothing, apparently, the Duchess’s friends could do.
As a writer Caroline was gifted with a charged, ironic, often savagely observant prose. Her writing was close to her style of speech—passionate, brilliantly comic, obsessed, outlandish, and inventive in her speculations. Describing Maître Blum and her attempt at rejuvenating plastic surgery she wrote, “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 pigment, the brown flowers of death that discolored her arms . . . her slanting, blinking eyes had a snake-like malevolence.” Her reporting was less roman-reportage—a genre invented by a famous French journalist-philosopher to elevate a shortness on reliable facts—than a more literary Gonzo journalism, a gothic treatment of the events, enhanced with outlandish speculation, which unloosed a very rich flow of comic narrative. She was skeptical and perceptive. Most of her darkest speculations about Maître Blum turned out to be correct.
It was first Lord Snowdon, himself a marginalized royal and divorcé, who wanted to photograph the Duchess for the London Sunday Times Magazine. When that was vetoed by Blum, the writer Francis Wyndham, then its senior editor, who had commissioned Blackwood to write the piece, switched the focus to Maître Blum herself. As a Hollywood fan Wyndham saw her as a figure of interest. She’d netted the record divorce settlement—for Rita Hayworth from Ali Khan—when she was lawyer to the stars in Hollywood. Snowdon photographed a flattered Maître Blum; Blackwood wrote—in the face of libel threats—a piece so anodyne she felt ashamed and disappointed. She got to work in her own right, to expand her interviews and write the unexpurgated account of her bruising time with the Maître; of the Maître as a human monster and kidnapper. Its publication would have to wait until Blum’s death, fifteen years later.
Caroline had known a few monsters and included her mother, Maureen, in their company, but none like Maître Blum. The writer David Pryce Jones called Blum one of the rudest and most snobbish women he had ever met. Both Caroline and Maître Blum had their own mutually unrecognizable versions of the situation, Caroline’s containing Blum’s “blatant, joyful lies.” “She lived for the poor,” Blum averred of the jewel-hoarding Wallis. She crossed out Caroline’s description of the gloomy villa in the Bois and inserted “she lives in a house that resembles Buckingham Palace.”
Caroline rebelled against her background though she still moved in its world. She had an acute ear for its nuances. She also had an ear for domineering women. The names of her former husbands, including Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell—the latter who had put her on the path of writing—wouldn’t have impressed Maître Blum. They hadn’t impressed Maureen either. “Freud? What kind of a name is that?” said Maureen, when Caroline ran off with him. “Who are his family? I’ve never heard of them.” Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford, “Poor Maureen’s daughter made a runaway match with a terrible Yid.” Describing Diana Mosley, friend of the Duchess and widow of the British fascist leader, Caroline wrote “her huge ice blue eyes had a childish, yearning expression”; “and she was so beguiling that she made one forget that she had spent her life yearning for a Europe united by a repressive fascist leadership.” Central to Caroline’s story, as she would impart in a conspiratorial voice, was the irony of the Duchess, the other old anti-Semite, being controlled and imprisoned by an old Jewish lawyer. (Blum ended her life in the same vegetative state as her client, in Blum’s case, for three years.)
In the highly praised, eponymous play written by Nicholas Wright, performed at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2011, Caroline, played by Anna Chancellor, is depicted visiting Blum with a half bottle of vodka in her handbag. In real life she carried an unapologetic full one; at home she would bin the cap after opening it. On stage she is given a tape recorder. In life she never used one, hence the roman in the reportage. The vodka never seemed to dim Caroline’s verbal wit or her prose. I knew her from the period she interviewed Maître Blum, around 1980, through friends and because our sons went to the same school. We once sat together to hear the headmaster’s cliché ridden exhortations in his term address—and I got Caroline’s hilarious parody of it afterwards. We both smoked Gitanes—the black French tobacco without a filter. She would endlessly hunt for them—since we’d always run out—or search fruitlessly for ashtrays, stooped slightly forward, her sentence suspended. Her flat in Redcliffe Square, London, was disorganized. She was a chaotic mix of fiercely maternal and frequently unreliable. Her lovely house in Sag Harbor, where I last remember her, was more serene. There lunch went into the afternoon and nothing was more enjoyable. She was funny, fearless, original, and supremely gifted. All of these qualities—and the voice itself—are in these pages.
Excerpted from The Last of the Duchess by Caroline Blackwood With a New Introduction by James Fox. Copyright © 2012 by James Fox. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.