Villa Windsor

4 Route du Champ d'Entraînement, Paris, 16th Arrondisement

Completed in 1929, for Henri Lillaz (1881-1949) and his wife, May Becker (b.1890). Situated on the northern perimeter of the Bois-de-Boulogne, it was designed by Roger Bouvard in the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and replaced a pair of earlier mansions built in 1858 on the order of Emperor Napoléon III. The original houses on the Champ d'Entraînement were summer homes gifted to the highest ranking officials within the Department of Parks and Gardens who'd been responsible for laying out the Bois-de-Boulogne, modelled on London's Hyde Park. All the houses on this exclusive enclave are still owned by the City of Paris and over the years they've been leased to a variety of high profile tenants, but perhaps none more so than those at No. 4, the former King of England, Edward VIII, and his wife Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor....

This house is best associated with...

Edward, Duke of Windsor

H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII of England


Wallis Simpson

Bessie Wallis (Warfield), Spencer, Simpson; Duchess of Windsor


The "ambitious and enthusiastic" Henri Lillaz made a fortuitous marriage in 1910 to the maternal granddaughter of Xavier Ruel, founder of Paris' iconic department store Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville (BHV) and the 40,000-francs he brought to the marriage paled in comparison to her dowry of 2.1-million. Backed by his wife's money he became a politician, hotelier, and Mayor of the 16th Arrondisement. In 1927, he took out a 15-year lease from the City of Paris for Numbers 4 and 6 Route du Champ d'Entraînement. He came to an agreement with the city whereby they allowed him to knock down both existing houses to create one property as long as certain conditions were met: he had to spend at least a million francs; the new house had to be completed within two years; it had to have a minimum footprint of 1,150-square feet; and, a maximum height of 40-feet.

In the same year that the Bouvard-designed house was complete (1929), Lillaz divorced his wife and remarried Germaine Couderc, herself recently divorced from Charles Robert Waterton. The witnesses at their marriage were the former Prime Minister of France, Louis Barthou, and the most reviled leader of the Vichy French, Pierre Laval, the same who bought Lafayette's Chateau de la Grange-Bléneau for his only daughter, Josée.

During the War, the house was given over to the Nazis and became home to Reichsmarschall Herman Goering who used it as a base from which to further swell his already bloated collection of looted artwork. After the city was liberated in 1944, the house was expropriated by the French government and for the two years before he moved into Château de Bagatelle next door it was the home of the French President, Charles de Gaulle. He personally selected it, but his wife, Yvonne, found it a fraction too grandiose for her tastes and never felt comfortable in the knowledge that Goering was the last to live here - there was even a Mercedes that had belonged to Hitler still stored in the garage.

Finding their Feet

Following their controversial marriage at the Château de Candé the Windsors remained in France where they were given tax free status. In 1938, they rented the Chateau de la Maye in Versailles for six months before taking up residence in Paris at 24 Boulevard du Suchet while leasing the Villa de la Croë on the Cap d'Antibes as a summer home. But, when war was declared with Germany, they were posted to the Bahamas. On their return they lived a nomadic lifestyle between France and the States, staying with friends or at hotels - the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, the Ritz in Paris, or Claridge's if in London.

In Paris, their tacit support of Hitler before the war was not easily forgotten, nor forgiven, and they avoided going out in public, finding themselves unwelcome at the places where the fashionable international set gathered. From 1949, they lived quietly at 85 Rue de la Faisanderie, the former home of William K. Vanderbilt Jr., but it was decidedly smaller than 24 Boulevard du Suchet and they were never comfortable there. When it became clear that a return to England was not on the cards, their thoughts turned to a permanent home - something close to the city center for the Duchess, with a garden for the Duke.

Fit for a (Former) King

The first - and in fact the only - home they ever bought was not in Paris at all. In 1952, the British government released funds that allowed them to buy Le Moulin de la Tuilerie just south of Versailles which more than adequately answered the Duke's need for a garden. It wasn't until the following year (1953) that the Duchess stumbled across this imposing 14-room, 12,700-square foot, cut limestone mansion that had been specifically designed for grand entertaining. The ceilings of the reception rooms rise up to a dignified 15-feet and the mansion as a whole was surrounded by 2.7-acres of landscaped gardens with a separate garage and gate lodge, all enclosed by a tall wrought-iron fence. Similar in style and scale to the house they had briefly enjoyed on the Boulevard du Suchet, it was as close as the Duchess could hope to having a palace of her own and the French government offered it to them on a 50-year lease for a steal at just $50/year.

Once the Duke's advisor, Walter Monkton, had concluded negotiations with the French government, in addition to their peppercorn rent the Windsors were given free security and they were exempt from: paying any income tax; any duty on foreign purchases; and anything on any profits made on any of their investments. Not bad, especially when one considers that the Duke's personal fortune at that time was a not too shoddy £3-million ($8.4-million) and the only home they ever owned (Le Moulin) was bought with British taxpayer's money, but still they somehow managed to complain they were always hard up.

Hiring Stéphane Boudin of the celebrated Maison Jansen to redecorate under Wallis' careful supervision - and just in case anyone was forgetful of precisely whose house they were entering - it was given a distinctly Royal makeover: draped over the galleried marble entrance hall was the former king's red and gold silk banner emblazoned with the Royal coat-of-arms; in the same room a trompe l'oeil depicted the Duke's garter banner; their footmen were attired in Royal livery; an antique floor-to-wall tapestry embroidered with the Royal coat-of-arms hung over the Duke's bed; and, the Duke slept under a bedcover with the monogram "E.R" ("Edward Rex"), a further reminder of his eleven month reign.

"A Fairyland of Fantastic Luxury"

Helped by her slender figure (she was nicknamed 'skinny'), household name, and with the best couturiers in Paris fighting over her, Wallis became recognized as the best dressed woman in the world. She enjoyed fashion and design and in stark contrast to her fail at informality at Le Moulin, here she and Boudin succeeded in creating an elegant formal home. One guest said it was, "like stepping into a fairyland of fantastic luxury".

The Grand Salon was inspired by that at Amalienborg, the home of the Danish Royal family in Copenhagen. Finished in pale blue and gold, the huge Aubusson rug was commissioned especially with an ostrich feather design picked out in silver to blend seamlessly with the room. On its walls, among other pictures, hung full length portraits of the Duke's mother, Queen Mary (the same who steadfastly refused to ever meet her daughter-in-law, the Duchess) and the Duke himself regaled in his Garter Robes. One end of the room led to the dining room (with panelling and a minstrel's gallery retrofitted from another chateau slated for demolition) and the other led to the library of which the focal point was Brockhurst's 1939 portrait of the Duchess that hung against a mirror.

The marble staircase in the hall leads up to the Windsors' private rooms while the third floor in the mansard roof was for servants and storage. Wallis' bedroom is finished in turquoise, or what she liked to call 'Wallis Blue' which formed a striking contrast with her red Persian rug. Between her room and the Duke's is a comfortable sitting room which focused on comfort over elegance. The Duke's room, already alluded to, was dominated by its Royal connotations and of course a profusion of pictures of the woman he adored.

The hall boasted “frescoes, tapestries and a Japanese screen” that was said to be a gift from the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito. Throughout the house, exquisite 18th century furniture was on display offset with equally tasteful objet d'arts and a ready supply of the Duke's favorite flowers, orchids, from his own greenhouse. Aside from a permanent staff of fifteen, other occupants included their beloved dogs (Cairns and Pugs) who were spoiled rotten and the Duke particularly enjoyed feeding them from their own little silver bowls.

Her Gilded Cage

They settled down to a routine where except for the weekends that were spent at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie and taking three months every summer with friends in the States or somewhere hot such as Spain or Biarritz, this was their principal home.

Despite her aspirations, surroundings and her chef's exceptional cuisine, in contrast to the glittering life that was dangled before her eyes for a few months in 1936, by 1953 there were increasingly less people of any relevance making the effort to seek them out. Wallis of course blamed the establishment, but the reality was that their allure had worn thin and the stain of their pre-war support of Hitler never left them. Instead, more often than not, they were surrounded by an unsavoury group of social climbers and sycophants.

A lifelong smoker, the Duke died here of throat cancer in 1972. As for the Duchess, she lived out her last years here as a recluse, with very few visitors. After dementia set in, she lost the power of speech in 1980 and was bedridden until her death in 1986. Nonetheless, her staff were still expected to address her as "Your Royal Highness" (a title which she was denied in the real world) and on no account were they to speak French.

Mohamed Al-Fayad

After Wallis' death, the lease - which included almost all of the contents of the house - was taken up by the Egyptian businessman, Mohamed Al-Fayed, best known as the owner of Harrods in London. Aside from paying a million francs a year in rent, he agreed to restore the mansion to its original splendor at an additional cost of over $12 million. For his largesse, the French government made him an Officer of the Légion d'honneur.

"Villa Windsor" and the Auction of 1998

It was Fayad who dubbed the house the "Villa Windsor" as it is commonly referred to today, and he considered opening it as a museum. In July, 1997, he announced that he would hold an auction of the Windsor's possessions (for which he'd paid circa $4.5 million), but after the tragic death of his son and Princess Diana the following month who had visited the house only hours earlier that day, the auction was put on hold. 

Six months later, 40,000 items divided into 32 lots went under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York. Among the items sold included the desk from which Edward abdicated, personal letters, jewellery, numerous photographs, and even a slice of their wedding cake from 1937. The proceeds of $23 million went towards the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation and other charities associated with Princess Diana. After 1998, Fayad left France to live in Britain, then Switzerland and then Monaco. As of 2019, the lease is still held by Fayad. It is private property and not open to the public.

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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 27/10/2020 and last updated on 10/11/2022.
Image from Pinterest; Villa Windsor (2016), par Bertil Scali; Le Bois de Boulogne (1958), par Marianne Gilbert, Annette F. Henrion & Robert Joffet, pour La Bibliothèque des Arts; L’Art des Jardins sous le Second Empire, Le Souvenir Napoleonien; Traitor King, by Andrew Lownie; 4-6, Route du Champ d’Entraînement, Mairie de Paris; L’Hôtel du Duc et de la Duchesse de Windsor, Paris-Promeneurs; The Villa Windsor in Paris; Royal-Splendor.Blogspot; The House of Windsor: Interior Archive; The Duchess of Windsor: The Truth About the Royal Family's Greatest Scandal (2012), by Michael Bloch; Wartime Sites in Paris, 1939-145, by Steven Lehrer; Chateau de la Maye, Allen Proqatar; Que Devient la Somptueuse Villa Parisienne de Wallis Simpson et Edouard VIII? Gala, Le 4 Decembre, 2019; Pavillon Windsor, Marie de Paris


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