17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis, and the Biggest Cover-Up in History By Andrew Morton
Book Review by Elizabeth K. Mahon, Author of “Scandalous Women”
When I saw the promo for Andrew Morton’s new book 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis, and the Biggest Cover-Up in History, I was immediately intrigued. I have read a great deal about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor ever since I watched Edward and Mrs. Simpson on PBS in high school. Having read several of Morton’s books on Princess Diana and the royal family, I was interested to read his take on a royal couple who, in their day, were about as famous as Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
The book marks Morton’s return to royal subjects after several years writing biographies of celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise, apart from a book on the Spanish Royal family which, unfortunately, has yet to be published in English (I can’t tell you how much I wish I had taken Spanish in college so that I could read it!).
Unfortunately, 17 Carnations did not live up to the hype. The first two-thirds of the book retells the story the Duke of Windsor from his early days as the most eligible bachelor in the world, his relationships with older women including Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness, his fascination with American culture, to his relationship with Wallis Simpson. Morton doesn’t shy away from portraying the Duke as a Nazi sympathizer and later an embarrassment for the British royal family. None of this is new information to anyone who has read any biography about either the Duke or the Duchess of Windsor.
The title of Morton’s book refers to the flowers that German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop apparently sent daily to Mrs. Simpson during this time, 17 referring to the number of times they had slept together. Morton provides no new evidence that the relationship between Wallis and Ribbentrop was anything more than a flirtation. He repeats the story about Wallis Simpson having an affair with a local car dealer, which again has never been proven conclusively.
He paints a portrait of a prince who was more a needy boy than a man, who chafed against his responsibilities, calling it ‘princing’, who had one foot out of the door of the castle before Wallis even showed up on the scene. It is not a new revelation that Edward never really wanted to be king and that Wallis never wanted to marry him. While the Duke of Windsor comes off as indiscreet, irresponsible, petulant, and childish and naïve, the Duchess comes across more as a cipher in this book. We never get a sense from Morton about what binds the two of them together.
In fact, there are very few new revelations in the first two-thirds of the book apart from the fact that The Duchess sent someone to her French chateau to rescue her bathing suit after they fled France ahead of the Nazis. For a great deal of the book, the Duke and Duchess are off stage, while Morton details the behind the scenes maneuverings between the major players. I’m not going to lie, this book was hard for me to get through, and I often found myself falling asleep in the middle of a chapter.
The book only picks up the pace in the final third of the book when it is revealed that there was written evidence of The Duke of Windsor making statements that could be construed as treasonous. Here the book becomes more of a spy thriller, as the British and Americans try to keep the information out of Russian hands. Anthony Blunt, who was later revealed to be a communist spy, makes an appearance. Days before the end of the war, copies of communications among the Germans, Spanish and the Windsors were discovered in the Russian zone and quickly spirited away by the British. It was felt that this evidence of his clear knowledge of the plan would have done irreparable damage to the British monarchy. Morton argues that British authorities kept this evidence under wraps as part of what he calls “the Biggest Cover-Up in History.” But in the end, the information was published after all, and the sky didn’t fall.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Morton provides an interesting but rather dry account of their lives. A more compelling book would have either started with the couple’s wedding and an in-depth look at the trip to Germany, or with the end of the war, focusing on the damning evidence, saving readers from having to slog through information that they already know including innuendo about Simpson’s affairs.