Monday, 17 December 2007

High Times at the Hotel Bristol: Chapter 6

FOR VARIOUS reasons, I have never managed to stay at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, though I have visited Europe’s “city of music” several times. I know where it is, of course. It is impossible to miss the imposing building on the corner of Kärtnerring where doormen in beige coats with braided epaulettes have tipped their bowler hats to most of the rich and famous who ever came to the Austrian capital. Opened as a hotel in 1892 and expanding into the neighbouring buildings for the next fifty years, it is an elegant place, dripping with chandeliers, Regency stripes and heavy drapes. Its Ringstrassen Salons and dining rooms belong to a baroque-Louis Seize era, a style that never seems to go out of grand hotel fashion.
Though disappointed not to stay here, I did once have a hot chocolate in the wood-panelled Bristol Bar, where a piano player in a dickie bow was tinkering with Strauss. The bourgeois opera-goers drifted in before the evening’s performance at the Vienna State Opera House directly opposite. They had a ready familiarity with the pianist and the rest of the staff, as well as with one another, but I have no doubt their conventions would not be easy either to live with or to learn. Not a hair was out of place, not a shoe unshone.
All the rooms in the hotel that face the Staatsoper bear the names of famous musician managers of the opera house including Karajan, Mahler and Strauss, while the sumptuous hotel suites are named after a handful of the Bristol’s early 20th-century guests: Enrico Caruso, Yehudi Menuhin, Giacomo Puccini, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Artur Rubinstein, Arturo Toscanini and the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales is the only suite attributed to a man who did not make music. In fact the future Edward VIII did not like music much. He once interrupted Rubinstein at a private party in London when he had heard enough, and he viewed a night at the opera as purgatory. Wales was more of a foxtrot and gypsy-violin man, happier to be tripping across the hotel ballroom than sitting in a plush box in the building opposite, listening to Kirsten Flagstad.
The Prince of Wales is undoubtedly the king of suites, the largest in Austria and a zenith of style, and this haven of luxury may well be the greatest material legacy of the man and his lover, Wallis Simpson, who were to be drummed into permanent exile as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Comprising an antechamber, a double bedroom, library, dining room, office, private fitness room and sauna, it costs around four thousand euros a night, depending on the season. The suite occupies the entire floor that the Prince of Wales hired for his first visit with Wallis in February 1935 and again, after the death of his father George V, as uncrowned King Edward VIII in 1936 at the turning point in their courtship.
Hotels can be deliciously illicit places, neutral territory filled with hints of pleasure and desire. But hotels as grand as the Bristol are far too theatrical for a brief encounter. This is the stage to act out the full drama of a life-changing romance. And of course there was nothing discreet or passing about the drama of Wallis and Wales.
By early 1935 half London knew of the affair, no thanks to the Press, since the media barons had agreed on a conspiracy of silence. The Prince, heir to the throne, went on his first trip abroad with Wallis Simpson in February that year. She was among the royal party that he joined in Paris, where they boarded the Orient Express, first stopping at Kitzbuhl for a week of fun in the snow. Austria was then a favourite destination for British tourists, and there was more English to be heard on the slopes than any other foreign language.
With his party commanding fifty pieces of luggage, with his pale blue eyes and “buttercup yellow” hair, Wales and his entourage were as impossible to ignore as his grandfather and namesake had been when he travelled to Biarritz with his mistress in a party that filled eleven carriages of an exclusive royal train. And yet this latest Wales insisted on travelling under the name of one of his lesser titles, “The Earl of Chester”. It can only have brought more attention on himself, just as the Austrian Press’s plea to readers to leave the royal visitor alone ensured that people came to the Bristol for a chance of glimpsing the world’s most celebrated bachelor prince, who was then aged thirty-nine.
At the time of his arrival in Vienna, the city was in political turmoil. Parliamentary democracy had been abolished, socialist protests were being suppressed and outside the Hotel Bristol demonstrators tried to get their messages across to this visiting monarch-in-waiting whom they imagined had some influence in matters of state. During his visit the Prince met the president and the chancellor and tried to persuade them to restore the Austro-Hungarian empire under Otto von Habsburg, a distant relation. Then he went on a tour of showcase housing estates.
But he was on holiday, too. Habitually late to bed, kept up by the nightlife of the city, he rose each day between 10am and 11am when he was brought a traditional English breakfast of grapefruit, tea, toast and marmalade accompanied by his favourite Kaisersemmelen rolls. Perhaps it was Wallis, with what gossips had described as her “Chinese tricks”, who kept him so long between the Bristol’s satin sheets. By all accounts it was a curious relationship. He liked to be mothered, and allowed Wallis on occasion to give him a public telling off. She always called him “sir” when in company, perhaps sometimes in private, too, though of course his real name was David. She was waspish, a wisecracker, a Becky Sharp, a fun hostess and impeccable dresser. The royal family loathed her.
Over breakfast the Prince of Wales mapped out his day, choosing a variety of suits and outfits events might require, expecting to change three or four times before bedtime. The hotel provided the royal party with two limousines so that they might enjoy some independence. The Prince shopped with Wallis, buying her jewellery, and when he went out alone he did not stop thinking about her. He was seen purchasing lingerie, and although everyone could guess whom it was for, the cabaret artists in Vienna made fun of it, pretending ignorance of Wallis and impersonating HRH in drag, wearing the lingerie himself.
As a mistress, the twice-married Bessie Wallis Warfield from Baltimore was only hinted at. She was waiting for the right moment, but both her time and her husband’s money were running out. Juggling both Ernest Simpson and the Prince, who had been candid with each other about the affair, was exhausting, and she wrote to her mother to say that if the Prince did not cement their relationship soon, he might find someone younger and more suitable, in which case her lifestyle would be severely curtailed.
A year after they had returned from Vienna, Ernest Simpson, an Anglo-American businessman, attempted to join a company of masons but was turned down because “it was against Masonic law to accept cuckolds”. At this point the Prince, who was himself a member of the lodge, stepped in to say that he and Wallis were simply good friends, and as a result Simpson was accepted.
By the time Mrs Simpson returned to her favourite Hotel Bristol nineteen months later, however, it was clear to the world that she was neither just a good friend of the Prince nor merely another member of the royal party. She was very definitely the king’s moll.
By tradition, on the death of a monarch the royal family used to go into mourning for twelve months. When George V died on January 20 1936, the Prince of Wales automatically became Edward VIII, and a date would eventually be set for his coronation the following May. Yet little more than six months later he was openly courting a married woman deemed completely unsuitable as a consort, let alone a queen. Sailing in the face of all convention, the vehicle to be used for the courtship was the 1,391-ton Nahlin, rented from Lady Yule, the widow of a jute multi-millionaire, whose sense of patriotism had encouraged her to form British National Films with J Arthur Rank. The yacht was extensively modified to Edward’s specifications, in particular the library was removed from the front of the vessel, making a spacious apartment for the monarch, while the other guests and their maids and valets bunked up in the stern. This floating hotel, with a crew that promised utmost discretion, awaited them in Sibenik on the Dalmatian coast in what is now Croatia.
This time, even more unnecessarily, Edward chose the Earl of Lancaster as the name to be written on his baggage tags. This was the title his grandfather had used when travelling incognito, when it was said that the word “Lancaster” was enough to open every royal suite across Europe. In August the king once again met Wallis and the royal party in Paris where they took up a whole carriage on the Orient Express courtesy of Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy. En route they stopped for tea with Prince Paul, Regent of Yugoslavia, with whom Edward had been at Oxford. In photographs with the King, Paul can be seen wearing a trilby and looking like a loss adjuster. In Corfu the couple would dine with George II of Greece and his English mistress, Joyce Britten-Jones – “the Mrs Simpson of Greece”.
And so the yacht sailed, not incognito, but cheered on its way by 20,000 well-wishers on the Sibenik quayside and trailed by two British warships. The month-long voyage traced the coasts of Dalmatia, Albania and Greece, where she slipped through the Corinth Canal, her patron in nothing but shorts and deck shoes. There were crowds everywhere they went, taking photos and mobbing them any time they strolled ashore. In Dubrovnik hundreds of well-wishers followed the couple through town shouting, “Long live love!” There is many a restaurant in ports along the Adriatic and Ionian seas still dining out on their famously romantic guests, while the island of Rab likes to advertise the fact that that the couple were given municipal consent to swim naked at Kandalora, the oldest nudist beach on the Adriatic.
The king made it perfectly clear that he wanted to be seen as a modern monarch and had little appetite for formal occasions, which he did his best to avoid. Even when they finally arrived in Istanbul to a tumultuous seaborne reception, he was annoyed that, as the first British monarch ever to visit Turkey, he could not play golf, and would instead have to meet the country’s leader, Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk. In the end the two men enjoyed each other’s company and Wallis thought the founder of the modern Turkish state worth “fifty Hitlers”. After laying on a seaborne “Venetian” spectacle and firework display, Atatürk lent them his gilded railway carriage to take them as far as the Bulgarian border where Czar Boris took over with a train of his own. He and Edward had boyish fun driving it. In Yugoslavia Prince Paul provided another train and a meal, but Edward was disgracefully discourteous to his host for delaying their arrival in Vienna.
He had been so looking forward to returning to the Bristol in “the city of music”, because it was there, he knew, that the holiday romance would reach a climax and the relationship pass the point of no return.
Whatever dispiriting effects the Belgrade interruption may have had upon David’s spirits were quickly dispelled by the more familiar atmosphere of Vienna,” Wallis Simpson wrote in her autobiography. “Here in the ancient and urbane capital on the Danube, with its long tradition of royalty and sympathy for romance, our happy summer reached its high noon.”
They were met by Austrian dignitaries at Vienna railway station at 1pm on September 8 and after a brief exchange of greetings the king was driven to the Hotel Bristol. “Vienna is crowded with the last visitors of the tourist season and with visitors to the Autumn Fair,” The Times reported, “but the news of his coming, and the British flag flying over the hotel, had swollen even the morning throng on the Ring, and several hundreds of Viennese and foreigners waited to give him the friendly but unobtrusive welcome which the Viennese habitually accord to the Duke of Lancaster.”
A photograph of the king stepping from the Rolls-Royce specially flown to Vienna for the occasion shows police holding back the crowd. However, the British Press was still muzzled by the agreement between Buckingham Palace and the newspaper proprietors. The Illustrated London News, with a page of photographs of the king’s Balkan tour, went as far as entitling their report “A Busman’s Holiday”, suggesting that the jaunt had been all work and no play. No such agreements existed abroad. Foreign newspapers and magazines with their paparazzi pictures of the monarch and his American mistress were seized by customs officers around Britain, while some publications would reach their subscribers with pages torn or articles cut out. Though there was no sign of Wallis in the British Press, everyone knew that she was only a heartbeat away.
In fact by the time the couple had reached Vienna, it was clear to the world that this was no holiday romance. They were back in familiar territory, on terra firma, and Wallis felt home and dry. Although she liked to think of Vienna in terms of candle-lit restaurants, as she came into the Hotel Bristol that day, she seemed to have weightier matters on her mind.
Elsa Maxwell, the American “hostess with the mostest”, was in the lobby. “The clicking of heels by the manager and his staff sounded like castanets and a crew of porters scurried through the door with mountains of baggage. Then the King’s entourage entered, led by a small, beautifully dressed woman. Her sullen expression and the purposeful way she walked gave me the impression that she would brush aside anyone who had the temerity to get in her path.”
The couple had six days of dedicated enjoyment at the Bristol. The shorts and deck shoes were now firmly packed away in the Duke of Lancaster’s luggage and one by one the Nahlin party headed for home, leaving the couple to linger in the Austrian capital. It was time to dress up and join society again. Rudolph Paller, a hotel page boy, remembers taking the king a carnation for his button hole each day. There was golf to be played and partridge to be shot. On an outing at the Lainzer Country Club, dressed in loden cloth and a Tyrolean hat with a tuft of feathers, the king helped to bag seventy-eight birds. His new clothes included a birthday suit, which he displayed when he strolled naked into a public Turkish bath accompanied by his Scotland Yard officer and six armed Viennese policemen all completely undressed. These were the modern king’s new clothes.
It was impossible to maintain a social position in Vienna without visiting the opera and Wallis insisted they went, accompanying Winifred Wagner, the composer’s Hastings-born daughter-in-law and a founder of the German Nazi party, to see a full performance of Götterdämmerung, a favourite of the Führer. The king did not join them until the third act. He had only agreed to attend at all after Wallis told him that he could leave the box when he liked, as long as he was there when the final curtain came down. He preferred the ballet, and they both loved the Spanish Riding School.
Most of all the king liked to waltz in the ballroom of the Bristol, to dine at the hotel’s restaurant, or go out to the fashionable Drei Husaren – the Three Hussars, opened three years earlier and still going today – and the Rotter Bar. He also visited an ear specialist, Professor Neuman, who had treated an ear problem the previous year. The professor pronounced that a summer of sea bathing had done him no harm. In between he kept up the “busman’s holiday”, touring the Vienna Fair where he visited the Indian Pavilion and lingered over exhibits of cigarette-making machines.
On his last afternoon Edward and Wallis stayed in his hotel suite and watched film footage of his visit the previous year. Then they took their leave, catching the night train and cheered on their way by thousands of well-wishers calling for their speedy return.
In Zurich, the king left Wallis and took a plane of the King’s Flight back to London to face the music. When Wallis reached England she knew there was no going back and she pursued an action for divorce against Ernest Simpson, citing his own adultery. Britain had no equivalent of America’s Reno, a town where anyone could receive a swift separation, and any divorce that the courts agreed on would have to wait a further six months to become absolute, and even that was not guaranteed. The couple were concerned that the case might not be settled before the coronation, when Edward now intended to have Wallis by his side.
The London divorce courts were fully booked, so alternatives were sought, finally settling on Ipswich in Norfolk, not far from the royal Sandringham estate. Even here there were delays, during which foreign correspondents, unbound by the continuing conspiracy between the British Press and Buckingham Palace, had to fill column inches of their newspapers as they awaited the hearing. Roaming the streets of the county town looking for stories, American journalists took to writing about Ipswich itself, informing their readers that this was where Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s powerful minister, had been born.
When the case finally went through on a nod in October 23, the Chicago Sun-Times was able to run the headline: King’s Moll Reno’d in Wolsey’s Home Town.
The decree absolute came through six months later, and would have been just in time for the coronation. But by Christmas the king had abdicated and returned to Austria, staying with friends, where he waited until Wallis’s divorce came through the following May. They immediately married in France, to become the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
According to her own account, in her autobiography, the morning after their wedding the Duchess awoke to find the Duke standing by their bed. With his boyish smile, he asked, “And what do we do now?” Her heart sank.
It had been fun being the king and his moll for a while. Life would not be the same and they would never stay in Vienna’s Hotel Bristol again.

This story is the copyright of Roger Williams,
© 2007