A shorter version of this diary appeared in The Telegraph March 15th 2012
Researching my biography of Wallis Simpson in Shanghai a few years ago I had a hunch. Now I am here again trying to take that hunch one stage further even though my book has been published. In 2010, I believed I had discovered the name of a man Wallis coyly described in her 1956 memoir, The Heart has its Reasons, merely as ‘Robbie.’ She said she could not give his full name but he sent her baskets of exotic fruit and dancing with him underneath a bower of flowers made her feel she was in Shangri La. Life was so good, it was “almost too good for a woman.” Why could she not identify him? And why was continuing the friendship with him in 1924-25 ‘purposeless?’ He was not married so it was not a question of destroying a marriage. Yet, as he had a male business partner the possibility that he was gay, unmentionable in the 1920’s, cannot be discounted.
I guessed – but could not know – that Robbie was quite probably the architect of the clubhouse for the 66-acre Shanghai racecourse. This clubhouse, the epicentre of smart expatriate life, was rebuilt in the 1930’s by one H.G. F. Robinson, according to the foundation stone. Sure enough, the London archives of RIBA confirmed that a British architect by this name had gone out to Shanghai in the early part of the last century where he founded a successful partnership, Spence, Robinson and Partners.
But it was only a guess – until my book was published. Then, after giving a talk at Cheltenham Literary Festival last autumn, I was approached by an elderly lady queuing patiently to buy my book. “I hope you’ve mentioned my Uncle Harold Robinson,” she said as my pen was poised to sign. It was an extraordinary moment not only because she thereby confirmed what I had surmised but then proceeded to tell me much more. We have been corresponding ever since and she has filled in some gaps, sent me photos of her uncle and told me other stories. “Uncle Harold would never hear a word against Wallis,” explained my informant, now almost 90, whose own family lived in Shanghai’s International Settlement. “He thought she was wonderful.” Uncle Harold introduced Wallis to a highly sought after doctor in Shanghai society, Dr Hugo Rudolf Friedlander, known as Freddy. “Dr Friedlander became much involved with Wallis and ‘her problem’ and recommended a surgeon for her.” What problem? Ah well, my mother had ideas on that, added my informant tantalisingly.
So, on this visit I am trying to discover more about Dr Friedlander and, after a morning poring through various Shanghai directories, including an impressive tome called Men of Shanghai and North China, I find him.
In 1923-4, Dr H. R. Friedlander MRCS LRCP lived at 396, Avenue Foch and practised at 3 Peking Road. His consulting hours were advertised as 11.30 am – 1 pm. What, I wondered, did he do the rest of the day? My Cheltenham source revealed that Dr Friedlander left Shanghai in a hurry in 1929 following a scandal involving her aunt, a British woman who left her husband and three sons for him. The new family moved swiftly to Kent, although Friedlander himself died in 1960 in Auckland, which is where my research will take me next. Watch this space.
I am giving talks about Wallis at both the Beijing and Shanghai Literary Festivals, the latter a firm fixture on the Shanghai cultural map for the past decade, the former still a tender sapling. Wallis, jealous to a fault, especially when younger women such as Marilyn Monroe pushed her off the front page, would be thrilled at the current interest in her story. Both festivals are the brainchild of Michelle Garnaut, a creative Australian restaurateur and generous philanthropist who set up a restaurant called M on the Bund in one of the grand old buildings on Shanghai’s main street just as the economic boom was taking off. The sister restaurant, Capital M, in Beijing overlooks Tiananmen Square. Both locations bear her hallmark quirky, colourful style and writers are pampered throughout their stay, culminating with a fabulous author dinner on Sunday night before returning, Cindarella-like, to our lonely writing lives. She attracts dozens of sponsors – thank you Virgin for flying me there and back – without whom these festivals could not exist. Authors could do with more Michelles around the world enthusiastically promoting their books.
In Shanghai my session on Wallis Simpson was introduced by the British Consul-General, Brian Davidson, now on his third posting in China after a brief spell in Lithuania in between. We compared notes over lunch about the difficulties of giving the same talks for the twentieth time and making each one sound as if it were the first. He addresses Chinese industrialists, persuading them to invest in Britain. I think I have an easier task. Sebastian Wood, the British Ambassador, said over dinner two nights before that armed guards permanently stationed at the gate of his residence were a constant reminder to him of quite how different this country was. In case we had not already noticed, the mistranslations we saw everywhere did the job. At the passport inspection barrier we were encouraged to ‘raise our children up’, on the airline we were offered a ‘distinct wet tissue’, in the car park we were warned to ‘note relaxin vehicles,’ whatever they may be.
The main story while in Beijing may have been the annual National People’s Congress, but I was more interested in a story in the China Daily Post headed ‘Flushed with Success’ about a protest demonstration by women in several parts of China agitating for more female lavatory stalls. After all, everyone knows that women take longer than men and there are always queues outside women’s toilets, rarely at men’s. Who said this was a different country? Women of Britain take note!
Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman, a Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix £7.99)