Egypt's Al Fayed Restores the House Fit for a Former King

updated 01/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/08/1990 01:00AM

The stately villa, in Paris's Bois de Boulogne, has an intimate feel: The clothes of the late master and mistress of the house, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, still hang in the closets. A portrait of the duchess, painted by Cecil Beaton shortly before the King of England renounced his throne for her in 1936, hangs over her tub. On the duke's bed is the rag doll given to him by his mother, Queen Mary. Even the man polishing glasses in the kitchen is a hand-me-down: Valet Sydney Johnson, 66, worked for the Windsors until the duke's death.

And if you think owning a residence with the previous occupants' linens still on the beds seems a little peculiar, the new tenant, Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed, knows what you mean. "It's like a mausoleum," says Al Fayed, who spent $12 million for the furnishings and a just-completed renovation of the villa as a private museum. "It sometimes gives you the creeps—both of them having died here. But it's still a happy place, a great fantasy which I love to live in."

For the Anglophile Al Fayed, 60ish, adding the Windsor villa to an inventory of properties that includes a castle in Scotland, a country house in Surrey, a chalet in Gstaad and a penthouse on London's Park Lane fulfills a lifelong dream. "The impression of a great empire and a King dropping everything because of his love for a woman—this is what I lived with as a child," he says.

Leased from the city of Paris in 1952 by the duke and duchess for about $28 a year rent, the three-story villa became the site of life in the highest style. The royal crest of Edward, Prince of Wales, was emblazoned in brass upon the front door and carried as a theme throughout the interior. The staff numbered up to 19. Toilet tissue was unrolled and folded into squares by the servants. The couple's beloved pugs, tended by a footman, ate from silver bowls. For dinner parties, the duchess demanded the lettuce leaves be the same size and shape.

The guest list in the '50s and '60s was all glitter: Marlene Dietrich, Aristotle Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, the Aga Khan. But there were times even the duke seemed to realize how empty such nonstop indulgence could be. "Do you know what my day was today?" he once asked a friend. "I got up late and then I went with the duchess and watched her buy a hat."

The duke died in 1972. Johnson, who had been in the duke's service since age 16, stayed on, but when his wife died the following year, the Windsors' loyal retainer was forced to resign. The duchess would not allow him to leave at 4 P.M. to look after his children, and his obstinacy on the issue made her bitter. "I never want to see you again," she told him.

"I have four children," he snapped. "Let me take care of my four children. And you take care of your four dogs." The duchess died 13 years later, at 89, after a series of strokes.

By then, the villa had fallen into disrepair. Furniture was marked with pug teeth marks; the roof was leaking. The sovereign's banner from Edward VIII's brief reign was tissue-thin and flaking. The duchess, so exacting about her possessions in life, was indifferent to their fate after her death. Her will stated that the Windsors' treasures should be disposed of by the executors and most of the proceeds given to the Pasteur Institute. Possession of the villa was to revert to the city of Paris.

Mohamed Al Fayed had other ideas. Known in France for his elegant restoration of the famed Ritz Hotel, he had made headlines in Britain the previous year by purchasing the 102-store House of Fraser retail chain—including the famous Harrods—for $842 million.

In the art of luxury living, Al Fayed, whose wealth is conservatively put at $7 billion, might have taught the Windsors a few things. He owns a helicopter and a 12-passenger Gulfstream jet. He is surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards, advisers and several decorous young female assistants. His first wife, Samira, sister of Adnan Khashoggi, was well connected; his second wife, Finnish-born Heini, is beautiful. (Al Fayed has one grown son, Dodi, a movie producer, from his first marriage and four young children from his second.)

Al Fayed—who made his first millions in construction and shipping—acquired a love for all things English as a child in Egypt. He dresses in Savile Row suits and need never fret about matching them up to the proper shirt—he owns Turnbuil & Asser, a blue-blooded haberdashery. Al Fayed met the duke and duchess just once, at a cocktail party at the villa in the '60s. "I was completely taken by their manner and their warmth," he says.

Some time before the death of the duchess, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, impressed by Al Fayed's work at the Ritz, spoke to him about leasing the villa. Al Fayed liked the idea of restoring the house—he had, after all, begun reclaiming the Windsors' realm in 1977 by hiring Johnson—but he suggested to Chirac that he also purchase the villa's contents. Keeping the Windsors' belongings together appealed to the executors of the estate as well. In 1986 Al Fayed leased the villa for 50 years for a nominal rent and set about restoring it.

But accounting for all of the villa's lavish furnishings soon put him at odds with the Windsor estate. On the estate's side, executor Maitre Suzanne Blum and historian Michael Bloch, who edited the Windsors' letters, claim that Al Fayed tried to obtain the duchess's jewels for a rock-bottom price. (These and other valuables were later sold at auction for $50.3 million.) "Haggling isn't the word for it," says Bloch. "It was like the grand bazaar at Constantinople." Al Fayed, who denies this charge, claims that executors swiped the Windsors' love letters and that a trustee spirited away the dining room table and chairs.

Still, Al Fayed managed to acquire most of the villa's contents for several million and spent several more refurbishing them. The Chippendale table at which the duke signed his letter of abdication was sent back to English furniture experts who reglued its joints and rejuvenated its tooled leather top. The duke's polo trophies and his ceremonial sword were sent to silversmiths to be reburnished. The tattered sovereign's banner was rewoven by French craftsmen.

Last month the work was completed, and Al Fayed chartered a 737 to fly 120 guests from London for an opening afternoon tea (and caviar) party. "Very tastefully done," said Earl Spencer, Princess Di's dad, who was among the guests. The party over, Al Fayed says two floors of the villa will be opened to "historians, members of the British royal family, personalities, friends and important guests of the Ritz." The extensively remodeled third floor he will use as a private apartment.

He does not see himself sleeping in the duke's bed or squeezing into one of his old dinner jackets. But he does plan to succeed where the Windsors failed, by keeping the villa in the family "as a good example for my children and grandchildren to follow in my path."

Joyce Wadler, Fred Hauptfuhrer in Paris

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