Royal Dirt

05.14.13

The King and the Courtesan: Inside Edward VIII’s Steamy French Affair

Long before Prince Harry, England’s Edward VIII enjoyed a ribald youth. Tom Sykes on the dishy new book that exposes the future king’s World War I tryst with a French prostitute.

The adolescence and early manhood of the most reviled monarch in recent British history, Edward VIII—the abdicator who married Wallis Simpson and threw the monarchy into a near-fatal tailspin in 1936—has been oft mined by writers and historians.

So hated was David Windsor (his birth name) by an entire generation of establishment writers and propagandists determined to expose every flaw in his character that it seems hard to believe that any truly new information could be found about the prince’s misspent youth. And while the story of his affair with Marguerite “Maggie” Meller, a famous French courtesan, is not exactly unknown, Andrew Rose, a retired judge, does unearth some extraordinary details in his new, meticulously researched, and highly evocative new book. Furthermore, he makes the extraordinary claim that Meller used a cache of erotic letters written to her by the young prince years earlier to “fix” her 1923 Old Bailey trial in which she was acquitted of murdering her billionaire husband despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Edward is portrayed by Rose as a withdrawn young man, ill at ease in company. “Despite a rough-house naval education, including considerable periods at sea which should have been a character-forming experience, the prince was physically and emotionally a late developer. Today he would be thought of as something of a ‘nerd,’” writes Rose.

His development, when it came, was sudden, and thanks to a prewar trip to Paris that was described as having “no political implication,” but Rose says that both England and France, fearful of the growing power of imperial Germany, were eager to underline the 1904 Entente Cordiale.

It was while posted to France during the First World War and on leave in Paris that Edward discovered sex, striking up a passionate sexual relationship with Marie Marguerite Alibert, the courtesan known to the Paris demimonde as Maggie Meller.

Rose makes it clear that Meller was not a common prostitute, putting the concept of the courtesan into context: “Some courtesans became acknowledged figures in the field of art, music and literature. Apollonie Sabatier, born in 1822 and known as ‘La Présidente,’ was famous for her Sunday dinners, attended by literary lions such as Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Feydeau and Théophile Gautier.”

In France during the First World War, the prince’s affair with Maggie blossomed, and between 1917 and 1918, the prince—as Rose wryly notes forgetting the old adage, “Do right to every man. Don’t write to any woman.”—wrote some 20 letters to Marguerite, greeting her as “Mon Bébé” and signing himself “E.”

Rose writes that the future king often enclosed photos of himself “uniformed or shirtsleeves, in camp or at table, sometimes adding souvenirs from the front, such as Prussian tunic buttons or even a German helmet.”

When he dropped her at the end of the war, Marguerite wrote David a letter which he described as “a regular stinker,” which reminded “the inconstant prince” that she still had his love letters, “with all those foolish, indiscreet comments about the conduct of the war, insulting abuse about his father, letters very probably scabrous into the bargain.”

“Oh those bloody letters, and what a fool I was not to take your advice over a year ago!!” the prince wrote despairingly to his adviser Joey Legh. “How I curse myself now, tho’ if only I can square this case it will be the last one, as she’s the only (woman) I’ve really written to...I’m afraid she’s the £100,000 or nothing type, tho’ I must say I’m disappointed and didn’t think she’d turn nasty: the whole trouble is my letters and she’s not burnt one!!”

However, no further demands were received, the threat of exposure receded, and in 1920 Maggie married a billionaire Egyptian prince, Ali Fahmy. She converted to Islam, but Marguerite, a lover of Parisian haute couture, was not obliged by contract to wear Islamic dress. She retained her French nationality.

But by 1923 things had turned sour. She claimed Ali raped and beat her and forced her into “unnatural sexual practices” (namely, anal sex).

One night at the Savoy hotel in London, Maggie shot him dead. Three bullets to the back of the head.

She was consigned for trial at the Old Bailey.

Luckily, she still had her trump card—Edward’s letters. The British establishment feared Maggie would reveal the contents of the letters and details of her affair in the trial. She had, as they well knew, already threatened blackmail in 1918.

The Woman Before Wallis by Andrew Rose
“The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Paris Courtesan, and The Perfect Murder.” By Andrew Rose. $28; Picador; 384 pages. ()

Rose writes: “The priority, beyond doubt, was secrecy—at almost any cost. The fewer who knew about the prince’s mésalliance with Marguerite, the better would be the outcome. The wartime letters had to be recovered and Marguerite must be stopped from revealing the affair. The prince’s people must have been concerned from the outset to know what Marguerite would accept in return for handing over the letters and remaining silent.”

The deal made was that her past as a prostitute would be whitewashed and kept out of the court in return for the letters. The judge simply prohibited any reference to Marguerite’s sexual history, and consequently the prince’s name was successfully kept out of the trial.

“For these vital purposes, the Royal Household colluded with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the trial judge. Arguably, this created a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice,” writes Rose.

In the course of the trial, Fahmy was portayed as “a monster of Eastern depravity and decadence, whose sexual tastes were indicative of an amoral sadism towards his helpless European wife,” and Marguerite was duly acquitted.

“In reality this had been a Show Trial,” says Rose. “In the 1930s and 1940s, the notorious trials of supposed traitors or enemies of the people in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia were fake processes, condemnation assured. In the England of 1923, the prosecuting authority (with the Royal Household hovering in the background) desperately wanted an acquittal.

“The dire consequences of a conviction for murder were only too obvious. Sentence of death was mandatory. The Home Secretary would then have to decide whether to advise the King to commute the sentence to one of life imprisonment.

“The agreement reached between Marguerite and the Royal Household in August, with the aim of ensuring her silence about the liaison, could be in jeopardy.”

Maggie returned to Paris and inherited her dead husband’s fortune. Occasionally, in later years, her path must have crossed with Edward and Wallis when they lived there in exile after the abdication.

Maggie died at age 80 in 1971, having “retired from her life’s work” as a courtesan only at age 70.

This is a fascinating book full of wonderful period detail and required reading for students of the British monarchy’s most reviled individual.