By Megan McKinney
A 1937 press photo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their honeymoon at the Wasserleonburg Castle.
The eldest Curzon daughter, Irene, was handsome rather than beautiful and less feminine but more commanding than her younger sisters. She had inherited her father’s title Barony of Ravensdale at his death and never married but was devoted to her sisters’ children. For the young Mosleys, her determination was to compensate for the loss of their mother and to the Metcalfe children, the lack of Baba’s maternal nature. Irene longed to be a mother herself, but the complete and happy marriage for which she yearned eluded her. Although she experienced many affairs as well as casual flings within the easy sexual climate of Melton Mowbray and was several times engaged, she usually found the men who wished to marry her were more interested in what her standing could bring to their lives than a passionate attachment to Irene herself.
Melton Mowbray, where illicit romance was a diversion favored second only to riding to hounds.
Her great romantic obsession was with Gordon Leith, a firmly married man who occupied her attention for a good part of her adult life. Another notable romance, one that spanned many years of off-and-on sex and stimulating companionship, was with the famed piano and sexual virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein, with whom she slept on his wedding day. In addition to equestrian activities, she was immensely attracted to both alcohol and travel, and spent an immoderate amount of time enjoying both.
Arthur Rubinstein was Lady Irene’s off-and-on lover for decades.
Fruity’s devotion to Baba meant overlooking a great deal, particularly when it came to his brother-in-law Oswald Mosley. Despite his flagrant infidelity, Mosley had genuinely loved his wife, Cimmie, and he would have remained with her for life, while also continuing his relationship with Diana Guinness — and perhaps others. But, now that Cimmie’s death set him free to push the limits of civilized conduct beyond even his own previous boundaries, he engineered the scenario’s most bizarre twist.
After convincing Diana that they must not see each other while he consoled Cimmie’s family, he had persuaded Baba to motor across the continent alone with him only three months after Cimmie’s death — beginning a passionate love affair that not only infuriated both Diana and Fruity but also appalled all those who knew them. However, for the swaggering Oswald, it was a spectacular tour de force. He had managed to secure as his paramours — simultaneously and very visibly — two of the most desirable women in England.
Diana, who had dedicated her life to the Leader, as she called Mosley, listened quietly to the explanation that it was his duty to assist Baba through the grief of losing her sister. And she waited. But, while waiting, she also made frequent trips to Germany with her sister Unity, where they were often lunch or dinner companions of Adolf Hitler, an avid admirer of the Mitford sisters’ Aryan blonde beauty and aristocratic British demeanor. Diana found the Führer fascinating and would be a devotee for the rest of her life, no matter what she learned about his war crimes. But for Unity, it was a passion; she was a genuine groupie, who had stalked him until they met and following that he would be the only man in her life.
Diana Guinness, right, with her sister, Unity Mitford, in Germany.
For Fruity, no explanation was offered. He, too, waited, but he had no choice. Baba held the power in their marriage; she had the money, owned the houses, the art and the great automobiles, and she paid for holidays and the children’s education; Fruity was simply a superb horseman whose only credential was his friendship with the future king — which mattered little to Baba, who could have had his royal brother, Prince George. The damage to their marriage was, however, greater than it appeared at the time. Baba, who it has been suggested inherited her father’s robust libido, stayed with Mosley until 1935, but then went on to many other lovers over the next several decades. Fruity was humiliated by her behavior but powerless to act.
Baba and Fruity Metcalfe with Oswald Mosley, right, on a holiday in Antibes.
In January 1934, Prince Edward’s current favorite Thelma Furness had departed for a three-month holiday in America, leaving “the little man” to be entertained by her friend Wallis Simpson.
Thelma would soon have genuine cause for concern.
When Lady Furness returned in March, the prince — surrounded from birth by sycophants — had been bewitched by the aggressive Mrs. Simpson, who treated him as only his nanny had, nagging him, correcting him, and slapping his hand when it reached too far at the dinner table.
Edward had grown up in terror of both his parents, partly by design. George V enjoyed saying, “My father was frightened of his mother [Queen Victoria]; I was frightened of my father [King Edward VII], and I am damned well going to see to it that my children are frightened of me.”
The historic photograph of four generations of monarchs: Edward VII, Queen Victoria holding the infant Edward VIII, and George V.
The little prince also had the dubious gift of a nanny whose obsessive love of her charge further estranged him from his parents. When she took Edward for brief teatime visits with George and Mary, she first gave him a painful pinch that produced a screaming child who was promptly returned to her. Pain was love, parents were grim strangers who rejected him, and a slapped hand for a minor infraction was a gesture of genuine caring. Furthermore, Mrs. Simpson’s outrageous demands for money, jewelry, and placement indicated that she was a woman in charge — a slender, chic nanny who could direct a grown man’s life. And when George V died on January 20, 1936, a hyper-controlling woman was precisely what the little man required to guide him through the transition from weak, fun-loving prince to king-emperor — or possibly an exit strategy.
Fruity, although completely naive and without an agenda, had also instinctively known the secret of intimacy with the prince, and was in many ways the male counterpart of Mrs. Simpson. David Lloyd George articulated Edward’s feeling for Fruity best: “Except for the physical side, he has a homosexual love for him. He is passionately fond of him.” And Wallis knew it. The moment the prince became Edward VIII, she stood in the doorway, keeping Fruity away from the king, and a household post he had been promised never materialized.
Dickie Mountbatten, not Fruity, was made the king’s personal aide-de-camp in June 1936, and in August, when Edward and Mrs. Simpson cruised the Dalmatian Coast on the chartered yacht Nahlin, guests included the Mountbattens, Diana and Duff Cooper, and others within the king’s circle — but not the Metcalfes. The implications were devastating to any hope Fruity had in gaining ascendance in power balance of his marriage.
Jock Whitney and his first wife, the former Liz Altemus.
Baba had left Mosley, but Jock Whitney, his first marriage in tatters, was back in England and eager to make Lady Alexandra Curzon the second Mrs. John Hay Whitney. She was greatly tempted and later very much regretted not accepting a proposal that would have transformed her life. But, to her credit, she simply could not allow herself to abandon her husband.
Edward VIII rehearsing his Abdication speech.
After the December 11 abdication, Fruity’s situation would change. Edward, now Duke of Windsor, was in exile at Schloss Enzesfeld, a Rothschild estate in Austria, connected only by telephone with a hysterical and demanding Wallis — now in Cannes on the French Riviera — with whom he talked for hours each day. When he wasn’t on the telephone, the antsy former king paced the property throughout the night alone, playing his accordion or bagpipes.
When Dudley Forwood, a temporary equerry assigned to the duke by the British legation in Vienna, became desperate in his inability to handle Edward, he remembering hearing of Fruity. When he called to ask for help, Fruity easily answered in the appealing Irish brogue he never lost, “I’ll be on that airplane first thing tomorrow morning, boy.”
Mrs. Simpson was furious, but powerless to change the situation, and the duke was thrilled. He and Fruity skied together every day until nightfall and stayed up through the night talking and drinking, or they played poker until dawn. They might go into Vienna for a day in the Turkish baths and shopping or simply lounge in the great hall of the Schloss and reminisce. For the guileless Fruity, it was not a matter of a return to favoritism or even the possibility of salvaging his marriage; he enjoyed the companionship of the man who had been his closest friend for so many years. He wrote to Baba, “If he’d remain as he is now, I’d give up anything to serve him for the rest of my life. I really am devoted to him.” However, he was exhausted by March and relieved when the duke moved on to another exile and he returned to England.
As best man for the former king, Fruity would earn a place in history.
Preparations were under way for the royal wedding at Château de Candé in Touraine, the French vacation home of Charles Bedaux, a wealthy American. When each of the duke’s brothers refused to stand up for him at the June 3 ceremony, he again prevailed upon Fruity. And again, Fruity agreed to serve his friend, this time as his best man. Happily, the duchess appeared to fasten her objections elsewhere over the next months and began an active, and successful, campaign to charm Fruity. The following summer, the Metcalfes were guests at the Windsors’ house, Villa La Croe, near Antibes on the French Riviera.
On November 28, 1938, Diana Guinness gave birth to a son, Alexander, an event that forced the disclosure of her marriage to Oswald Mosley on October 6, 1936, in the Berlin drawing room of Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. Among the four others present for the intimate ceremony were Diana’s sister Unity and Adolph Hitler. To secure the secrecy of the wedding, the marriage certificate was kept by Hitler.
When the Windsors returned to England in September 1939, the first visit since the abdication, no provision for their transportation or accommodation was provided by Buckingham Palace. Baba and Fruity stepped in, driving them to London and hosting them in their houses in the country and in London.
On May 10, 1940, the ominous cloud hanging over Europe for more than a year and a half suddenly burst when Hitler launched his Western Offensive, invading Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium.
In England, an abrupt change of the guard saw Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, with his policy of appeasement, replaced by Winston Churchill. Four days later, the Netherlands surrendered, and Queen Wilhelmina fled to Britain. On the 15th, the Duke of Windsor escorted the duchess out of Paris to Biarritz and quickly returned to the capital and his post with the Military Mission. When the German Army pierced the French defenses at Sedan on the 23rd, a chain of events was launched in France and England that would — within five days — bring an end to the remnants of the Levi Leiter dynasty’s eight decades of drama.
The new Prime Minister.
On May 22, the Churchill government had put through the Emergency Powers Act, empowering the home secretary to hold anyone “who he had reason to believe” was of “hostile origins or associations” or believed to be associated with anything “prejudicial to public safety or the defense of the realm.” This would include members of organizations “subject to foreign influence or control” or whose leaders “have or have had associations with persons concerned in the government of, or sympathetic with the government of, any power with which His Majesty is at war.” The following day, Oswald Mosley was arrested in Pimlico and escorted to Brixton Prison.
In Paris, Fruity placed his customary 8:30 morning telephone call to the duke on the morning of the 28th and was told by a servant that “His Royal Highness left for Biarritz at 6:30 this morning.” Edward had left without a word to his alleged best friend, taking all the cars with him, leaving not even a bicycle. Fruity, who had devoted years of his life to the duke, without pay, had been abandoned.
Left alone in a city that within days would be occupied by the enemy and without the authority to commandeer transportation, the good-natured Fruity finally broke. In a letter to Baba, he wrote, “This man is not worth doing anything for. He deserted his job in 1936. Well, he’s deserted his country now, at a time when every office boy and cripple is trying to do what he can. This is the end.” Fruity hitchhiked to Cherbourg through the swarming confusion of a nation in collapse and eventually found his way back to England, arriving on June 5, a scant week before the Germans marched into Paris.
Megan McKinney’s series of articles, The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, will conclude in Classic Chicago next week.
Next Sunday: The Leiter Finale
Robert F. Carl