Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The man who cut off cocks

If the crudeness of the heading offends you, my apologies. But the subject today is Jimmy Donahue, and Donahue was a man who always used the bluntest and frankest language, so for the moment at least we will do the same. This will be a longish post, but it's an interesting story.

Jimmy Donahue, you say -- who he? Well, he was the archetypal rich American playboy -- except that he was flagrantly homosexual in a time when homosexuality was still illegal. Even in New York.

I first learnt of Jimmy Donahue about ten years ago, when I was researching a novel which was later published as Beautiful Lady, under the pen-name Patrick Read. But recently I came across a biography of Donahue, Dancing with the Devil (2000), by Christopher Wilson; and so I now know a great deal more than I once did. In particular, Wilson concentrates on the unlikely love affair between Jimmy Donahue and the Duchess of Windsor.

Jimmy Donahue was an American. Born in 1915, he was the second son of Jessie Donahue, who was the daughter of Frank Woolworth, the founder of the Woolworth's retail empire. Jessie was massively, unbelievably rich: she had huge houses, scores of servants, gold plate, you name it; and she flashed her money around.

Jessie's husband, Jim Donahue senior, was not from a poor family by any means, but he was socially and financially Jessie's inferior. Nevertheless, she loved him dearly, and she gave him $5 million as a wedding present.

Neither parent was a good role model for their sons. Jim Donahue was bisexual and a chronic gambler. Jessie allowed him a credit limit of $50,000 a night. This was in the 1920s, remember, and the present-day equivalent would be about $440,000. A night. Jim seldom got up from the table without losing all of it. It was estimated that he was losing $1.5 million a year, in 1920s money.

Jim senior was also very keen on the young men. Eventually, in 1931, he committed suicide. He was driven to it by increasing anxiety about his financial position (hardly surprising) and by unrequited love. He had fallen for a young sailor, one who, after accepting Jim's lavish gifts, rebuffed him. The ungrateful bastard. Some people just don't know when they're well off, do they?

Jessie was also a gambler, but she set herself limits. When she went to France each year she allowed herself $300,000 of gambling money. In the 1950s, the UK Daily Express described her as sitting at the table, staking £200 (modern equivalent some £3,000) on each turn of the cards. Win or lose, said the Express, 'the sad expression on her chalk-white face never alters.'

Young Jimmy Donahue was Jessie's favourite son. But she spoilt him rotten. Ruined him beyond repair. His education, for a start, was sporadic at best. Clearly he was never going to do a job of work, because having a job was ineffably vulgar in Jessie's eyes, so she saw no need for him to be educated. He was sent to Choate, probably the poshest of American boarding schools, but he showed no interest in academic work; and anyway Jessie was for ever finding reasons why she needed him at home. Or he was 'ill'. Sinus trouble was a favourite. Eventually Choate grew weary of Jimmy Donahue and kicked him out.

Jessie was in Palm Beach at the time, so the 17-year-old Jimmy, his education over, stayed in the family's rooms at the Hotel Pierre in New York. On his own. He had already embarked on his homosexual adventures, aided by the fact that he had unlimited money, and he began his lifelong activity of going to nightclubs and staying up till dawn.

There are endless scandalous and shocking stories about Jimmy Donahue, but here are a couple. The first story is available in several versions, but typically it goes as related by Charles Higham in his book Wallis -- Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor (1988).

On 18 March 1946, says Higham, Jimmy took a number of sailors, soldiers and Marines to a party at his mother's apartment. There Jimmy and his pals stripped a GI naked and began to shave off his body hair, using an old-fashioned cut-throat razor. Well, you know how it is, accidents can happen, and Jimmy 'accidentally' castrated the soldier. Mrs Donahue paid the man close to a quarter of a million dollars to drop charges, and Jimmy fled to Mexico for two years. That's the Higham version.

Christopher Wilson, in Dancing with the Devil, quotes the version of the story which was sworn to by Truman Capote, no less. In that version, the young soldier also passed out from too much booze, and Jimmy and his pals took advantage of the man's unconsciousness. 'They were all drunk and stoned,' said Capote, 'and someone accidentally cut off his prick.... As I understand it, it was all Jimmy Donahue.'

The true story, as revealed by Christopher Wilson, is not quite so horrible, though still bad enough. Wilson gives the date as 1945. Yes, there was a man at one of Jimmy's gay parties who passed out from drink. But no, he was not a soldier; he as a 32-year-old salesman. Yes, Jimmy and his pals did strip him naked, and yes, he did get a few nicks and cuts. But no, he did not lose his cock. Or his balls. What he did lose was part of an ear, probably bitten off in a moment of passion when someone fucked him while he was unconscious. And yes, $200,000 of Jessie's money (1945 values) was used to shut him up. The man lived on that money, quite comfortably, for the rest of his life. He bought a big hat to cover his ear.

Jimmy did not have to go to Mexico because the court case was dropped. (By and large, rich men do not go to jail. Think of your own examples. Any bets on the Enron two?) Jimmy was, in any case, serving in the army at the time. But the case did result in the army kicking him out. Not that Jimmy cared. And he never bothered to deny the gory version of the tale which eventually, despite Jessie splashing money around, appeared in Confidential.

There's another story about Jimmy Donahue which, when you think of it, is rather similar to the first one, but it demonstrates Jimmy's fondest for the practical joke.

Shortly after the 1945 VJ-Day celebrations in New York, Jimmy went to a butcher's shop and bought himself a cow's udder. Then he took a walk down fashionable Fifth Avenue with the cow's udder sticking out from his flies. This, as you can imagine, created a bit of a stir. When halted by a policeman and asked to explain himself, Jimmy apologised, took out a pair of scissors, and snipped off the udder at its base. One eyewitness said that several ladies of gentle birth fainted clean away.

Oh, he was a laugh a minute was our Jimmy.

This then, was the handsome, rich Jimmy Donahue. By 1951, when he was 36 years old, Jimmy's sexual tastes were notorious throughout New York society. Despite determined efforts on the part of his mother's press agents, who arranged dates for him with some beautiful women, no one in society doubted for one second that he was a fully committed gay man.

Jimmy did not, apparently, draw his sexual partners from his own social class; he preferred the rough end of town. But society people could hardly fail to know about his tastes, since Jimmy talked about little else. 'He was as bright as a dime,' said one of his cousins, 'and very witty, but his sense of humour was the washroom variety, full of cloacal references and four-letter words. He never stopped talking about orifices, of what went into and came out of them.'

He was charming (when he chose to be), amusing (if you liked that kind of thing), and although he had no real money of his own, his mother had it by the truckload. He epitomised the idle rich. And, just as many a famous woman today may find it convenient to be escorted at times by a financially independent and sophisticated man whom everyone knows to be gay, so Jimmy was about to become the close and intimate friend of a woman who, at the time, was arguably the most famous woman in the world, even including Hollywood. She was the Duchess of Windsor.

No one over 50 years of age will need to be told who the Duchess of Windsor was, but younger readers will probably never have heard of her. So here's a quick rundown.

In January 1936, England acquired a new King: Edward VIII. Lord Simon once wrote that 'When Edward VIII ascended the throne he was the most widely known and the most universally popular personality in the world.' And he was single.

The question was, who was he going to marry? Ideally, of course, a King needs an heir, and a spare, pretty damn quick. So there was pressure to get on with it. And in fact, the King had already made his mind up. He was utterly determined to marry an American woman. A married woman. And her name was Wallis Simpson.

When the King made this wish known, it soon became apparent that there were few people to whom the proposed marriage was acceptable. From the point of view of the Government, the Church of England, and the ordinary British public, it was completely catastrophic. Divorce was then a rare event in the UK, and was strongly disapproved of; and this woman had not just been married once, but twice! Furthermore, in the summer of 1936 she was 41 years old (though she claimed to be younger because her parents hadn't actually been married when she was born), so she was hardly likely to produce children. And, to cap it all, she was American.

To cut a long story short, there was a bloody great row. And eventually the King realised that he could either dump Mrs Simpson, and stay on as King, or he could marry Mrs Simpson and bugger off. He chose the latter. In December 1936 Edward VIII abdicated, i.e. he resigned from the office of King. He and Mrs Simpson left England (part of the deal) and went into exile abroad. The King got a new title: the Duke of Windsor, and his wife became the Duchess.

There were many influential men and women in the UK who breathed a great sigh of relief when the Duke had gone. For one thing, he was almost as badly educated as Jimmy Donahue, and he understood nothing of the British constitution. As King, he had been showing an alarming desire to get involved in matters of state. Indeed he seemed to think that he ought to have extensive executive powers, rather like that Hitler chappie in Germany. So the good and the great in the UK were glad to see the back of him.

The women of the world, however, particularly in the US, knew nothing of that. What they saw, and heard, was the most romantic story they'd ever come across in their lives. A King! Who gave up his throne to be able to marry the woman he loved!! And she was an American!!! Wow. This went down pretty bloody well in Boise, Idaho.

Of course, nothing in life is ever quite as simple as it seems. And the 'love affair of the century', as it became known, was not simple either. In his bachelor days, the Duke of Windsor had had a number of affairs with married women, in the royal tradition, but none of these had proved very satisfactory to him or to the women. So what was it that Wallis Simpson had that the other women didn't have?

To answer that question we have to look into Wallis's early life, a life which has been the subject of many books. In brief, Wallis was not your average mousy housewife. Her first husband had been a Navy pilot, and the US government seems to have selected Wallis for espionage duties. She was sent to the Far East, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and she may also have dabbled in intelligence on her own behalf, selling information to the Russians.

Both during and after her first marriage, Wallis had affairs with some powerful people, such as the Italian ambassador to the US, Gelasio Caetani. While in Hong Kong, she may or may not have worked in a Chinese brothel, as later rumour had it. But she seems to have been a woman who was available to any rich man who would bankroll her. In other words, Wallis had knocked around a bit. She was well travelled, highly sophisticated, and quite an operator. No wonder she beat off all those pathetic 20-year old English virgins when they tried to attract the King's attention.

In the 1930s and '40s there was much speculation as to what, exactly, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor did together in the bedroom. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't missionary-position sex of the vanilla variety. The probability is that she acted as his dominatrix in various sordid ways. And it was certainly one-way traffic. The Duke was totally obsessed with her, because she delivered complete sexual satisfaction in a way that no other woman ever could. But when it was Wallis's turn, so to speak, he could do nothing for her.

That was the position as the years went by. To pass the time, the Windsors travelled constantly. They were often in America, where they were treated like... well, like royalty. Society hostesses queued up to have them as guests. And the Windsors, I regret to say, were always very happy for someone else to pick up the tab.

By 1951, the Windsors had been living their life of exiled travel, ever in search of something to stimulate their jaded palates, for fifteen years; and Wallis had endured fifteen years of sexless existence. She was, it is true, in her mid-fifties. She was post-menopausal, and had survived cancer. But she still liked to feel that she had it. You know? She who had once landed the biggest catch of all, she still liked to feel that she could pull men if she wanted to.

And that was when she met Jimmy Donahue. Not quite for the first time, it's true. But this time the stars were right. The Duchess and Jimmy began to see a great deal of each other, which was not difficult, because they both lived their lives in expensive restaurants and nightclubs.

At first, as you would expect, people just assumed that the Duchess had become a fag-hag in her advancing years. But gradually, particularly after she and Jimmy were seen kissing passionately on the dance floor, the realisation sank in that this was a real live sexually active love affair. And the word spread, causing the Duke enormous anguish.

Avert your eyes if you don't want to know what they did together. Basically, she sucked Jimmy's cock for him. Simple as that. Jimmy never made any secret of it, because he was not a gentleman. Whether he reciprocated by providing oral sex for the Duchess, Christopher Wilson does not say, but it doesn't matter. Whatever they did together, it is quite clear that the Duchess was almost unhinged by the physical pleasure that Jimmy Donahue gave her. At one point she even talked of divorcing the Duke and marrying Jimmy.

After four years it all fell apart, as such affairs always do.

Afterwards, Jimmy became involved, to some extent, in good works, through the Roman Catholic Church; but he was in no way a reformed character. And scandal pursued him, as ever: a boyfriend died in mysterious circumstances and gossip said that Jimmy had killed him with drugs.

On the morning of 8 December 1966, Jimmy Donahue was found dead in bed. He had choked to death on his own vomit, after yet another night of too much booze and Seconal. Thus died the man who cut off cocks -- allegedly.

At the time of Jimmy's death, the only adornment in his bedroom was thirteen framed photographs of the Duchess of Windsor. And so the relationship between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor may indeed, from some points of view, have been the love affair of the century; but the love affair between Jimmy and the Duchess was evidently, in its own peculiar way, just as intense. And Jimmy may have been the one who was left with the deepest regrets.

Finally, since this is a book blog, a word about books.

If you want to know more about the Duchess of Windsor, there is ample choice. You might try Charles Higham's lengthy and carefully researched book, already mentioned. The Duchess's life story was written up as a very readable novel, by Anne Edwards, under the title Wallis (1991). And in Caroline Blackwood's The Last of the Duchess, a number of elderly English ladies get to tell us what they really thought about Wallis Simpson, all those years ago.

So far as I know, Christopher Wilson's book is the only biography of Jimmy Donahue. It is the product of extensive research and tells an extraordinary story rather well.

12 comments:

Clive Keeble said...

Steady on Michael old man, you'll be giving some of your readers a touch of the vapours if you carry on like this.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Charles Higham is an unreliable source for just about anything biographical. He wrote a biography of Errol Flynn in which he alleged that Flynn was a Nazi spy and had affairs with men. He couldn't document either charge. For the full story read the book Fair Game: What Biographers Don't Tell You.

ivan said...

Oh dear.
The swashbuckler a possible swish?
God help us all.

Martin said...

Sounds a lot like Bruce Chatwin. Minus the books.

"al-Salam" said...

I once read that while in Asia Wallis had some surgery that shrunk her vagina and it is how she was later able to have Edward reach orgasm in spite of his small dick.

judith woolworth donahue said...

Jimmy Donahue was my uncle....his brother Woolworth Donahue "Woolly" was my father....thank god Jimmy was flambouyant not some old stick in the mud... i adore him....

hiya unc up there in heaven!!

luv

ur only niece ... thanx 4 signing the babtismal god knows we needed someone responsible to sign it....

judith woolworth donahue

loving niece of jimmy donahue

Anonymous said...

Apparently the Duke was bisexual. On the gay forum Datalounge a few years back, a couple of elderly posters shared anecdotes: one had been a delivery boy for a florist, and was chased round the Windsor's hotel suite by the Duke; another was a close friend of Walter Chrysler Jnr, who said that Walter told him that he and the Duke shared the same tastes in servicemen and together used to cruise for them.

Anonymous said...

I am sure that the release of the movie The King's Speech will spark a lot of interest in Edward and Wallis. Most Americans under 70 have probably never heard of them.
Edward (David) was certainly a handsome devil.

Anonymous said...

I've read an alternative theory that Wallis and Jimmy pretended to have an affair to cover up the affair between the Duke and Jimmy. I guess the truth will never be known.

Tiered link building said...

great article
keep it up

Anonymous said...

hi. i am reading a book right now, by blackwood that states he jumped off a roof. ????

Anonymous said...

Well, I knew a man who sucked a man who sucked a manwho was sucked by the prince of whales