SARAH BRADFORD Wednesday 09 August 1995
Lady Alexandra Metcalfe was the last surviving witness of the Duke of Windsor's wedding to Mrs Wallis Simpson in June 1937.
She was born Alexandra Naldera Curzon in 1904, into circles of great power and pomp. Her father, George Nathaniel Curzon, Harold Nicolson's "Very Superior Person", first and last Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, later Foreign Secretary, was then about to undertake his second term as Viceroy of India. The nickname by which she was always to be known came from her father's Indian servants, who called her "Baba Sahib", "the Viceroy's baby". She was named Alexandra after her godmother, Queen Alexandra, Naldera after the camp near Simla where she was probably conceived.
"Baba" inherited from her father his commanding presence and physical attraction, a good deal, too, of his intelligence and administrative capacity and a measure of his imperiousness. She inherited beauty and money from her mother, Mary Leiter, the daughter of a Chicago store and property magnate, Levi Leiter, of Lutheran stock from Pennsylvania. Mary Leiter Curzon died aged only 36 just two years after Baba was born, leaving Curzon with three daughters, Irene, Cynthia and Baba. The sisters were brought up in grand houses, Hackwood Park and Montacute; their London home, in Carlton House Terrace, became a centre of smart social life after Curzon's second marriage in 1917 to another American, Grace, widow of Herbert Duggan.
In the early Twenties, Baba was very much a part of the Prince of Wales's set. She taught Prince George, later Duke of Kent, to drive and it was at an impromptu party organised by her at Carlton House Terrace that Prince "Bertie", later King George VI, sat on a table and broke it. She married the Prince of Wales's closest, some said his only male friend, his equerry, Major Edward Dudley Metcalfe, always known as "Fruity". Tall, good-looking, horsy and amusing, Fruity was quite unlike most of Baba's friends, being neither rich nor titled; perhaps his only claim to fame was his genuine friendship with the Prince of Wales. Although the Metcalfes were never part of the Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson circle – Fruity and Wallis disliked each other – they remained loyal at the time of the Abdication when fairweather friends "ratted". Metcalfe rallied to the side of "the little man", spending weeks with him in exile at the Rothschild Schloss Enzesfeld in Austria, and acting as best man when six months later he married Wallis Simpson. Baba observed the "pitiable and tragic" scene at the Chateau de Cande, near Tours, with anguished sympathy.
Only seven of the ex-King's former subjects attended the wedding, the host was dubious, the officiating minister disreputable, but Windsor's "simple and dignified manner . . . so sure in his happiness gave the sad little service something which is hard to describe." Her account of the occasion and Fruity's letters to her in the post- Abdication period formed an important part of Frances Donaldson's biography Edward VIII (1974).
In September 1939, when the Duke returned to England for the first time since his Abdication, Buckingham Palace made no arrangements either for his accommodation or transport. The Windsors travelled to London in the Metcalfes' car, stayed with them in the country and used their – by royal standards – small house in Wilton Place as a London base. The reward for Fruity's loyalty was betrayal when the Duke of Windsor fled Paris in May 1940 to join the Duchess in Biarritz, leaving Fruity to find his own way home in the face of the German advance.
Baba Metcalfe's own code of loyalty was positively Sicilian. She never said publicly what she thought of Windsor's behaviour. Although her marriage failed, she resented any denigration of her former husband. She had many admirers, among them Lord Halifax, who wrote her long letters describing his wartime embassy in Washington, her brother-in-law Sir Oswald "Tom" Mosley, whom she comforted after her sister Cimmie's early death in 1933, and Douglas Fairbanks. Publishers tried to tempt her to tell her story but met with a blank refusal.
She kept diaries but they were mainly about her travels. She inherited her father's passion for distant places and even in old age was an indomitable traveller, impervious to the discomforts of package travelling when visiting her beloved Naldera, the villa she built in Corfu in the Fifties. Like her contemporary Edwina Mountbatten, she found a vocation in exercising her administrative ability in charity work. In 1950 she joined the Save the Children Fund and worked for them unpaid for over 40 years. She became a friend of the Dalai Lama as a result of her work for Tibetan children, made regular visits to Saigon during the Vietnam war, and to Cambodia, spending her 80th birthday in Phnom Penh. Baba Metcalfe's intimidating imperiousness mellowed in old age. She loved gossip and her unquenchable interest in people made her the best of companions. There was almost no place she had not seen or person of interest or importance she had not known. When I lunched with her last week in London, with the temperature near the nineties, Baba was as cool, beautiful and immaculately dressed as ever. The term grande dame might have been invented for her.
Alexandra Naldera Curzon: born 20 March 1904; CBE 1975; married 1925 Major Edward Dudley Metcalfe (died 1957; one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1955); died 7 August 1995.