Not since the Mardi Gras journey to New Orleans by the Russian Grand Duke Alexis in 1872 had the town been abuzz in such anticipation as when news broke that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would pay a Carnivaltime visit to the Crescent City in 1950.
The backstory is well known. On Dec. 11, 1936, King Edward VIII, monarch of the United Kingdom, abdicated, broadcasting over radio to the British people: “It is impossible to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
A few months later, he married twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson at a French chateau in front of 30 guests — none of them from his family. From then on, the couple became glamorous globe-trotters, the toast of formal dinners and charity balls everywhere. After World War II, they lived in Paris but traveled to New York regularly.
And finally, on Feb. 21, 1950, the couple came to New Orleans.
New Orleans writer Ronnie Virgets says, “The Windsors arrived into the Missouri-Pacific yard on their private railroad cars at 7 a.m. filled with what one witness described as ‘God-knows-how-many trunks.’ ”
But not enough. Biographer Ralph G. Martin, in noting that the Duke was a bell-ringer when it came to service, chose this illustration: “It did not seem outlandish to him that a bellhop at the Waldorf in New York flew down to New Orleans to bring him his white tie and tails for a big ball.”
The couple was whisked off to the St. Charles Hotel to start a long day that began with a news conference. The Windsors then met Mayor Chep Morrison at Gallier Hall to toast Rex. Then they were driven to the Boston Club for more parade-viewing, followed by cocktails at Beauregard House and dinner at Antoine’s. Next came the Municipal Auditorium, where they attended the prestigious balls of the Mistick Krewe of Comus and Rex.
For the first time in history, Rex, the make-believe monarch of Mardi Gras, and his queen would be presented to the man who was once the King of England and ruler of the British Empire. Now who was going to bow to whom? Carnival protocol demands that Mardi Gras royalty never bow to anyone.
The Duchess of Windsor turned down a corsage, saying, “I never wear flowers on my clothing.”
A national magazine story noted that none of the New Orleanians in attendance seemed concerned about whether Carnival would be exciting enough for their super-celebrity guests. What they were concerned about was what would happen when the Windsors appeared before Comus and then Rex.
In the first official history of the Rex organization, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” authors Charles Dufour and Leonard Huber described the scene: “When the captain of the Comus organization presented the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they looked anything but apathetic. The Duchess hit the floor with two of the most beautiful and graceful curtsies ever seen, and the Duke bowed from the waist, almost touching the floor with his forehead. Comus’ 2,500 guests were in ecstasy. They responded with deafening applause.”
Ronnie Virgets reported, “A picture of real royalty, paying homage to the make-believe royalty, made by Charlie Bennett of the Times-Picayune staff, received a double-page spread in Life magazine and appeared on Page 1 of newspapers in many parts of the world. The event was a journalistic extravaganza. When someone told the Duchess of Windsor about the picture, she had only a single question: ‘Will it be seen in England?’ ”