Location Spotting in The Woman Before Wallis!
“I think we may lose you to this place,” Thelma murmured, sweeping aside a heavy curtain in the drawing room to look at the vast grounds beyond. The drawing room was the heart of the Fort: a cozy octagonal space with wood-paneled walls and windows on five sides that flooded the dark space with light. She could see the top of the tennis court, its posts just visible past the ramparts that hemmed the lawn into a wide semicircle. “I’ll know where to look if I lose you at the Ritz.”
Fort Belvedere, King Edward VIII’s country estate, is located in Windsor Great Park. Built in the 1750s, it was originally a folly, which grew over the years to become a tea-house for Queen Victoria and, later, grace-and-favour residence. In 1929, the Prince of Wales asked King George V if he could take over Fort Belvedere – a request which came as something of a surprise to the king, who assumed he wanted it for “those damned weekends” – and carried out a renovation of the building and the grounds.
The Fort played host to a revolving door of guests during its time as Edward’s weekend house, but it is most known for its role in the abdication crisis. When Edward and Wallis Simpson went public with their relationship in 1936, Wallis received a solid wave of vitriol from the British public – so much so that she moved to Fort Belvedere for her own safety while Edward was still on the throne. On December 10, 1936, Edward signed the Instrument of Abdication at Fort Belvedere before leaving the country, but not without the expectation that one day he’d be allowed back to live in exile at his beloved Fort. After the war, Edward – now Duke of Windsor – persistently petitioned King George VI to allow him to return to his Fort, but the king refused: Edward’s former popularity as Prince of Wales, combined with his appalling support for Hitler in the late 1930s, made him too toxic to be allowed back on British soil.
Today, the Fort is a private residence, currently occupied by Galen and Hilary Weston (fellow Canadians!)
She felt as though she was dreaming as the peaked roofline of Affric Lodge came into view: a compact gray-stone mansion with a fairy-tale turret, perched on a tree-lined outcrop overlooking a wide loch. "Is that it?" she said, nudging Duke in the ribs. "That old mess?"
Glen Affric is the one place on my location list that I wish I’d gotten the chance to go to in person. Despite the fact that I lived in Scotland while I wrote this book, Glen Affric remained frustratingly out of reach: at a rate of $17,000 a night, I couldn’t quite justify a research trip! I did get the chance to glimpse it out of my car window, though, and it truly is a fairy-tale place: currently owned by the Matthews family (you might know them best as Pippa Middleton’s in-laws), Glen Affric is a luxury rental property that, wonderfully, retains many of the period features that had endeared it to Thelma (including the blue hand-painted highland walls in the reading rooms).
Ritz Hotel Paris
The private dining room at the Ritz was bright, electric lights in chandeliers sparkling over the soft glow of candles. A dining table laden with flowers stood at one end of the room, and a three-piece band sat on a raised dais at the other, rehearsing a jerking, rhythmic piece as Gloria flitted past, setting handwritten place cards on the table. She and Thelma had come down early, instructing the maître d’ to squeeze in another setting.
Established in 1898, the Hotel Ritz in Paris is one of the most famous hotels in the world. As one of the first hotels in Europe to offer ensuite bathrooms and electricity, the Ritz earned its reputation for comfort and luxury from the very start, and quickly became known for its impeccable service, over-the-top sophistication – and its roster of iconic guests.
During the Second World War, the hotel was used as headquarters for the Luftwaffe under the command of Hermann Goering: a particularly odious Nazi whose taste for luxury was second to none. It was during this time that Coco Chanel moved into the hotel – just across the street from her Rue Cambon boutique – and struck up an affair with Nazi spy Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage (more about that in my fashion featurette on Chanel). In 1944 the hotel changed hands again, when the hotel bar was “liberated” by Ernest Hemingway, who called for a round of champagne for the advancing allied soldiers.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Paris Ritz went into decline, but it was resurrected in 2010, when the hotel shut its doors for a four-year long top-to-tail restoration.
Famous guests included Oscar Wilde, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, Salvador Dali, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Cole Porter, Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed – and, of course, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, following Edward’s abdication.
Ritz Hotel London
Of all the hotels in London, the Ritz was Thelma's favourite. It reminded her of Paris, in its old-world brilliance, yet to Thelma’s mind the Ritz London surpassed its French cousin in glamour. She loved it all: walking beneath the arcade entrance on Piccadilly, with its marquee-bright letters. Passing an afternoon in the butter-gold tearoom, overhearing conversations from other tables, new loves and old feuds forming and dissolving around her; watching couples pass arm in arm through the flower-laden lobby.
Located in lovely Piccadilly, the Ritz Hotel in London, England is an icon of the golden age, so instantly recognizable as a symbol of luxury and comfort that it has its own song (“If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to…”)
Built in 1906, the Ritz was the place to see and be seen during the interwar period. Whether for afternoon tea, cocktails, dinner, or dancing, you could (and still can) count on seeing a famous face or two, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbaks, Noel Coward, Michael Arlen, the Aga Khan, Mahatma Ghandi – and, of course, Edward VIII. The Ritz was the hotel of choice for Edward and his retinue, so much so that newspapers in the 1930s remarked on his stamina on the dance floor; indeed, Edward so trusted the discretion of the hotel that during his affair with Wallis Simpson, he and Wallis could be found dining at separate, but nearby, tables.
During WWII, the Ritz became home base for many aristocrats, who appreciated the fact that staff wouldn’t dream of letting standards slip over something as trifling as a global conflict – no, they simply carried champagne bottles into the bomb shelter and carried on with cocktail hour.
Thelma removed her overcoat, feeling a childish sort of pleasure at seeing Burrough Court’s front hall decorated for Christmas—Averill’s doing, no doubt, she thought, brushing a hand against a pine bough adorning the staircase. Cedar garlands hung from the chandeliers, spicing the room with a woodsy perfume; on side tables, nestled amid pine cones and dried pomegranates and oranges, stood white taper candles, unlit but ready to suffuse the foyer with a soft glow.
The sprawling estate of Burrough Court was Thelma and Duke Furness’s country estate – their retreat from London, where they entertained friends, family, and of course, a certain royal visitor. Originally a hunting lodge built in 1906, Burrough Court was purchased by Duke Furness in the early 1920s as a hunting lodge; Duke’s daughter Averill, in particular, loved Burrough Court and its proximity to the Belvoir Hunt (along with its distance from London drawing rooms). As Thelma’s preferred retreat from London (particularly with the Fort still under construction in the early 1930s), Burrough Court played host to the Prince of Wales on numerous occasions – some with Duke present, some without – and it was the site of the first meeting between Edward and Wallis Simpson.
For Duke, Burrough Court was also a place to reminisce about time in Africa – the continent he loved above all others, and frequently visited on safari. In fact, Duke brought back zebras on one safari in the hopes of training them to pull a coach-and-four; it was this fateful decision which led to Averill Furness’s doomed elopment with professional big-game hunter Andrew Rattray, the love of her life. A rather marvellous photograph of Averill on a zebra at Burrough Court still exists today.
While the original home was destroyed in a fire in 1944 – allegedly by Canadian soldiers attempting to access a locked wine cellar – the spectacular stables of Burrough Court still stand today. Now a business park, Burrough Court celebrates its regal past with office spaces named after its former royal residents.
The sunlight in Cannes shone brighter than it ever seemed to do in London, casting glittering light across the thousand blues of the Mediterranean and lending Thelma’s pale arms a brief golden glow. The Croisette, a meandering promenade dividing the city from the beach, pulsed with movement: musicians played on street corners, vying for the attention of diners eating on patios along the sidewalk, the scent of grilled fish stronger than the petrol fumes from automobiles carrying people to and from the waterfront. Beyond the beach, small fishing boats darted between gleaming white yachts anchored in the harbor, matchstick men and women just visible on the decks. The houses, too, were prettier—as were the women, their flowing, patterned slacks giving them a languid glamour that reflected the stunning backdrop of the French Rivera.
Cannes, the glamourous capital of the French Riviera, is best known for its annual film festival, but its reputation as a playground for the rich and famous stretches back to the 1800s, when Lord Brougham, ex-chancellor of Britain, built a mansion in the village of Le Suquet (now Cannes) and invited his wealthy friends to come stay. Since then, it’s been a popular holiday destination, bringing people across Europe to come and enjoy the sunshine and the city’s signature palm trees, which line the Croisette – Cannes’ famous boardwalk.
Of course, I can’t mention Cannes without talking about the film festival: Founded in 1946, the festival began as a direct competitor to the Venice Film Festival, which had developed a markedly fascist bent in the 1930s. Today, the Cannes Film Festival is one of the largest film festivals in the world, dedicated to artistic freedom and expression.
Cannes also held a special significance for Edward and Wallis Simpson, as they were frequent guests at Villa Lou Viei, the Cannes home of Herman and Katherine Rogers. Close friends with Wallis Simpson, Herman and Katherine were deeply embroiled in Wallis and Edward’s affair: in 1936, they took Wallis and Edward on a much-publicized cruise through the Adriatic, and regularly spent time with the couple in England and France alike. When she divorced Ernest Simpson, Wallis waited anxiously by the telephone at Villa Lou Viei for confirmation that the divorce had been finalized; when news of her relationship with Edward broke in England, Wallis fled once again to Villa Lou Viei, where she listened to Edward’s historic abdication speech. Indeed, Wallis so trusted the Rogers; that, in 1937, it was Herman Rogers who gave Wallis away when she walked down the aisle for the third time to become the Duchess of Windsor.
RMS Empress of Britain
Thelma leaned over the railing on the upper deck of the ship, squinting in the cold sunlight as she watched passengers on a lower deck. Farther down, sailors moved in twos and threes, bracing lines on lifeboats and watching clouds build in the far-off horizon. A cold wind blew off the sea and Thelma pulled her shawl close, watching the water in the engine’s wake churn in a furious, sparkling froth.
The RMS Empress of Britain was a luxury Canadian ocean liner that traveled between Quebec and England during the interwar period. Launched by the Prince of Wales in 1931, the Empress of Britain was one of the most luxurious ships on the ocean, boasting ten decks, stunning deco features, tennis courts, a cinema, a wood-lined lounge, an Olympic swimming pool, Turkish baths, and an entire sports and recreation deck – and the spectacular Empress Room, a 2,800 square foot ballroom illuminated by starlight from a domed skylight above. Unlike on other ocean liners, first-class passengers on the Empress lived in large apartments rather than cabins.
During the war, the Empress served as a troop transport ship, bringing Canadian recruits to England for training; however, the Empress was bombed on October 26, 1940 off the coast of Ireland by a German long-range bomber. Though the ship caught fire, most of the passengers and crew survived: they were picked up before a German submarine torpedoed and sank the liner off the coast of County Donegal.
Bryanston Court (Wallis’s house)
The Simpsons’ flat was in Marylebone, in a redbrick building that was nearly indistinguishable from the homes surrounding it. Looking up at the limestone columns that flanked the front door Thelma felt a strange sense of disappointment: she’d expected something more unique, somehow, from Wallis. But then, she thought as she stepped over the lintel, she didn’t know the Simpsons all that well.
Wallis and Ernest Simpson lived for a time in a three-bedroom apartment in Bryanston Court on George Street, near the Marble Arch tube station. Decorated, per a 1936 Weekly Illustrated feature, “in accordance with her own ideas”, in soft pastel shades and dark wooden furniture, pictures show that the flat was comfortable and well appointed, with flowers on every available table and long, heavy curtains.
In 2015, the Simpsons’ old flat went on the market, giving the public a glimpse into the home where Wallis and Edward grew close – and while it’s been beautifully modernized, sadly no historic details survived the renovation. The flat hasn’t retained any trace of its past: were she to walk through the front door today, Wallis wouldn’t recognize it.
Over the past several years there have been attempts to have the property issued with a English Heritage blue plaque to commemorate the fact that Wallis Simpson lived there; however, English Heritage has refused to do so, citing rumours that Wallis had an affair with a high-ranking Nazi official. Possibly, her role in the abdication crisis might have something to do with it, too.
They stood at the top of the red-carpeted staircase, looking down on tables of women clutching cigarettes, men leaning back in their chairs with rock-glasses balanced on their crossed legs. An orchestra played in a pit below a stage at the end of the room, the singer crooning “Carolina Moon.”
The Embassy Club – fondly referred to by the Prince of Wales as “the Buckingham Palace of nightclubs” – was considered one of the first and best nightclubs in London. Located on Old Bond Street, it was the place to be in the 1920s and 1930s: the spot where bright young things would gather in their evening dress to dance, drink, and overindulge in legal and extralegal activities. With its seven-piece band and cabaret, the Embassy Club was full to capacity nearly every night – and of course, the Prince of Wales’ frequent visits to the club were an additional draw for women who wanted to “dance with a man who’d danced with a girl who’d danced with the Prince of Wales.”
Though Thelma was becoming used to Duke's old-world wealth, the Vanderbilt estate was an entirely different form of opulence... She felt as though she'd stepped into the Renaissance, and had to remind herself that the mansion, with its quaint cottage name and sweeping crimson carpets, had been built only thirty years ago.
One of the grandest, most opulent “cottages” in the United States, the Breakers was built in 1893 as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt in Newport, Rhode Island. Protected by immense wrought-iron gates, the Breakers, an Italian Renaissance palazzo plonked on the shores of the Atlantic, is a designated historic landmark – and with over 70 rooms, there’s a lot to explore.
One of my favourite tidbits about the Breakers it is rumoured to be fireproof: because the previous mansion on the site burned down, Cornelius Vanderbilt II stipulated that no wood was to be used in the new building: consequently the architect, Richard Morris Hunt, used steel instead of wood in the house’s construction; even the boiler is set back from the main building so there’s no risk of explosion.
In terms of the interior, the mansion looks positively Downton-esque, with coffered ceilings, marble arches, and opulent fabrics. Many of the Breakers’ more exciting architectural features were imported from French chateaux, giving the place an old-world, Beaux-Arts feel.
The Breakers was opened to the public in 1948, when Countess Gladys Szechenyi, Alice Vanderbilt’s youngest daughter, leased the estate to the Newport Preservation Society for $1 a year. In 1972, the Preservation Society bought the Breakers outright from Gladys’s daughter, Countess Sylvia Szapary.
Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Debut Novel
“Brimming with scandal and an equal amount of heart…a sweeping yet intimate look at the lives of some of history’s most notorious figures from Vanderbilts to the Prince of Wales… A must-read.”
New York Times bestselling author of When We Left Cuba and Next Year in Havana