Duchess dearest

By Peter Kurth

By Salon Staff

Published February 12, 2001 8:09PM (EST)

Author Christopher Wilson responds, in a fashion, to Peter Kurth's review of his book "Dancing With the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue." Read the review.

The Windsors and their weaknesses have made elegant copy for writers over half a century. Uniquely so. It hardly seems possible that further examples of their epic glamour, failings and allure could be unearthed, yet in researching my book "Dancing With the Devil" I mined an extraordinary gem.

The duchess, I discovered, had had an affair with a homosexual New Yorker, Jimmy Donahue. She was almost paralyzed by the intensity of the relationship, and for four years it blinded her to the consequences of cuckolding the man who quit throne, country and empire for "the woman I love." Mired in a passionless marriage that lasted 35 years, this was her only infidelity, and when it was over, the name Jimmy Donahue was never mentioned again in the Windsor household.

I could hardly believe such a thing to be true. Yet during the course of my lengthy researches I talked to many surviving friends of the Windsors and the Donahues, and they all confirmed it was so. The duchess's greatest friend in Paris, Princess Ghislaine de Polignac; Jimmy's best friend in New York and Palm Beach, Billy Livingston; the duke's godson, David Metcalfe; Jimmy's sister-in-law, Mary Woolworth Donahue -- all attested to the strange and intense passion that engulfed everyone in this extraordinary love triangle.

I received a letter from the close friend of Oscar Hammerstein's widow, Dorothy: She had played cards with the trio while aboard the Queen Mary, but later on deck, in the embrace of night, she'd spotted the duchess in a most unregal pose before Mr. Donahue, behind the lifeboats. It was a mere detail, but an important eyewitness account -- especially for those whose own uninformed prejudices refuse to allow that such a relationship could have occurred.

But the story of Jimmy, henpecked son of Woolworth heir Jessie Donahue, and the marooned duke and duchess is deeper and hugely more glamorous than a mere poopdeck privity. The backdrop to their story encompasses New York, Palm Beach, Paris, Monte Carlo, Venice and the soignie Mediterranean of the early 1950s. The story is stiff with the golden people who lived and played long before jet travel made Magellans of us all.

In part, it is a portrait of a lost age when nightclubs had dance bands, when men wore gardenias in their buttonhole, when the cocktail hour was sacrosanct. It is also about a time when tired old men endured the dalliances of their wives rather than risk the scandal of divorce. And it is about a time when the homosexual act was still illegal.

In writing "Dancing With the Devil," I sniffed the heady air of a lost age. It filled my senses with an extraordinary power, like a drug, and I hope that euphoria carries over on to the pages of my book. Jimmy Donahue was mad, bad and dangerous to know; and yet of all the people I have encountered in my life, he is the one I wish I could have met. On a clear day, with a cocktail bar between us.

-- Christopher Wilson

Salon Staff

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