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He smiled and welcomed the prominent guests from all over the world wearing his old uniform. The red waiter’s suit with the gold stripes.
“What do I look like?” Sydney Johnson asked jokingly. And added happily: “I feel on top of the world.”
But he wasn’t. A month later he was dead.
If you’ve seen the latest season of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’, you’ve probably already come across him and perhaps been moved by his story.
Sydney Johnson and Mohamed Al-Fayed at the inauguration of Villa Windsor.
Photo: Alan Davidson/Shutterstock
About the former King Edward’s valet and lackey, who was employed late in life as a waiter at the Hotel Ritz in Paris and ended up becoming the new owner’s personal servant.
But – as with TV series – there are details that have been left out. Details that do not make the story any less touching.
Exactly when Sydney Johnson was born on the island of Andros in the Bahamas, no one knows for sure.
But his fate changed radically when, in 1940, former King Edward, the Duke of Windsor, was installed as Governor of the Bahamas and moved to the island nation together with the woman he had abdicated the throne for. Wallis Simpson.
The post of governor he hated. Both he and his wife were, if not ardent Nazis, at least sympathizers, which was one of the reasons why he had been assigned the distant post by the British government.
The former King Edward with the woman he abdicated for, Wallis Simpson.
Because the further away from civilization – and thus the press – the better.
But that Edward did not have much left for the native population, he managed to express in clear terms on several occasions.
Nevertheless, it was the natives who were to serve the couple in their governor’s residence. And among them, a 16-year-old Sydney Johnson, who was sent to France as a servant when the couple moved back to Paris, where they had settled in a stately villa before the war.
And it was there that something resembling a friendship developed between them.
As the couple’s valet and footman, Sydney Johnson took care of everything in their lives. Small and large details were placed in his hands.
Discreetly – always three steps in the background – he had an eye on every finger to be able to react to their slightest gesture.
Villa Windsor is located west of Paris in the Bois de Boulogne park. Here seen from the street.
Photo: MICHEL CLEMENT
But the fact that he was not just a lackey testified to two things.
One, that when former King Edward died in 1972, Sydney Johnson was one of the chosen few invited to the royal funeral in London.
And the second, that the Duke of Windsor had stipulated in his will that Sydney Johnson’s contract was irrevocable.
But that was not to be.
In contrast to her husband, Wallis Simpson hated Sydney Johnson with a pure heart, which was expressed in 1973.
That year, Sydney Johnson’s wife died, leaving him alone in charge of their four children.
Therefore, he amicably asked his employer to only work until 5 pm in the future, so that he could look after the children. A proposal that according to Vanity Fair did not go down well.
“If you leave at five o’clock, you’ll never come back,” was Wallis Simpson’s icy response.
“I never want to see you again,” she then added.
This is how 33 years of faithful service ended. And that’s how Sydney Johnson ended up becoming a waiter at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, which a few years later was bought by the wealthy Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed. Who ended up hiring Sydney Johnson as his personal servant.
As portrayed in ‘The Crown’ they also became close friends.
In 1986, Wallis Simpson died. And Sydney’s Johnson’s new employer bought the couple’s now dilapidated Parisian mansion with fixtures and decided to renovate everything and return it to its former glory. A process in which Sydney Johnson was an invaluable help.
With his more than 30 years of faithful service to the duke and duchess, he knew every nook and cranny, remembered a long life lived and decades of traditional Christmas days, where a gigantic tree filled most of the hall.
The Duke and Duchess photographed in their Parisian home.
“We were always alone on Christmas Day. Just the two of us, the staff and our families. The dogs also got presents,’ he recalled in an interview with The New York Times back in 1986, where he also showed the room where not only the household linen and bedding were stored, but also the uniforms.
“I always wore one like that when I served at the big dinners,” he added proudly about the red waiter’s suit with the gold stripes.
It was the one he wore on December 10, 1989. Where the restoration was finished and Villa Windsor – as it had been named after its previous owners – was once again to be filled with prominent guests.
“How do I look?” he asked, excitedly telling me that the renovation had been done so authentically that he expected to see the duchess come down the stairs at any moment.
January 17, 1990, Sydney Johnson was dead. He lived to be 69 years old.
“He was a gentleman’s gentleman. We will miss him immensely,’ said Mohamed Al-Fayed.