James Gill: A duke’s sad legacy to history _lowres

State Library of Louisiana photo -- The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Boston Club, Carnival Day, 1950.

Among the most oft-told tales from the history of Carnival in New Orleans is the visit paid by the former King Edward VIII of England and his wife, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

The implication has always been that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as they were then styled, honored the local swells with their presence.

That has always seemed a dubious proposition, for the occasion was the meeting of the Rex and Comus courts a mere five years after World War II. Many of those present must have fought against the Nazis the Duke and Duchess had so enthusiastically embraced.

This was a refined crowed used to minding its manners, but surely some of the faces behind those masks bore a contemptuous scowl.

A new book provides plenty of fresh dope on the Windsors’ cozy dealings with Adolf Hitler, which had already been extensively documented in files discovered in Germany by the American military at the end of the war. Winston Churchill requested that those files be destroyed, but they were finally published in 1957.

Even in 1950, however, the Windsors’ treachery was hardly news. Five months after their wedding in 1937, they paid Hitler a visit and dined with his deputy Rudolf Hess. By the time war broke out in Europe two years later, their admiration for the Third Reich was common knowledge.

After the war, the Windsors frittered the time away in an endless, transatlantic social whirl. They were feckless and pampered narcissists. The sense of concept of noblesse oblige that can give some privileged lives a purpose was entirely lacking in their case.

The motto of the Rex organization, by contrast, is pro bono publico, and the king of Carnival is always a man with a record of civic or philanthropic involvement. Thus, when the Windsors showed up, it was beyond dispute that make-believe American royalty was in every respect superior to the genuine European article.

Although Rex is supposed to reign supreme in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, his powers are sadly limited. He could not, for instance, order the former king beheaded in front of Gallier Hall for his perfidy.

Instead, the duke saluted Rex Reuben Brown from the balcony of the Boston Club, had a few cocktails and dined at Antoine’s before processing to the Municipal Auditorium. There an unprecedented etiquette issue arose, for tradition demands that gentlemen bow, and ladies curtsy, before Carnival royalty and it was thought the Windsors might prefer to stand on their dignity. In the event, they played along with the charade.

The krewes cannot have hesitated before agreeing to let the Windsors attend their bash, for this was the ultimate fashionable couple, lionized everywhere, their idle comings and goings faithfully chronicled in the press. The allure of royalty, even in its most degraded incarnations, can turn the head of the most dedicated republican.

Edward abdicated in 1936 to marry Simpson, without whom he professed himself unable to face the responsibilities of kingship. She was deemed unfit for the throne by the British government, having discarded two husbands and a string of lovers. Among them was Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who sent Simpson a floral tribute before her wedding to mark each of the occasions he claimed to have bedded her.

Hence the title of the new book, “17 Carnations, The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-up in History,” by Andrew Morton, official biographer of Princess Diana.

The book piles on the evidence not only of the Windsor’s treachery but of their triviality. After they fled France as the German army advanced, Edward, according to Morton, remained in touch with his Nazi friends from Spain and Portugal. His main concern was ensuring that occupying forces spared properties he had abandoned in Paris and Cannes. American diplomats, meanwhile, with their government still neutral, managed to retrieve the favorite green swimsuit Simpson had left at a French villa.

Edward evidently expected the Nazis would put him back on the throne when they won the war. Bowing before Rex and Comus must have seemed a bit of a comedown, but in reality, he wasn’t worthy to lick their boots.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.