By BRIAN BRENNAN
Published October 29, 2013
When the heir to the British throne paid his first official visit to Canada in 1919, it was expected he would follow the usual royal routine of shaking hands, making speeches and inspecting troops. What wasn’t anticipated was that Edward, Prince of Wales, would buy a ranch while he was abroad. And what certainly wasn’t predicted was that the ranch would become a convenient hiding place for the prince four years later, when one of his former mistresses went on trial for murder in London.
The prince’s link to the murder trial has only come to light recently. For 90 years it was believed that when Edward returned to Canada in September 1923 to do some riding, fishing and shooting on his newly acquired 1,400-acre ranch near Calgary, it was just because he needed a break from his royal duties. What wasn’t disclosed, until a retired British judge named Andrew Rose published a book about it earlier this year, was that the prince’s staff wanted him out of the country when his former mistress, a French prostitute named Marguerite Fahmy (née Alibert), was being tried on a charge of murdering her wealthy Egyptian husband at their suite in London’s Savoy Hotel. Author Rose learned about the royal cover-up in 1991 when the woman’s grandson wrote him a letter about it.
Edward met the woman, known in the Paris demimonde as Maggie Meller, when he was in his early 20s, posted to France during the First World War. Author Rose, in his book The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Paris Courtesan and the Perfect Murder, says she was a high-class courtesan operating in the fabled tradition of those women from privileged backgrounds who provided companionship for distinguished European figures in the fields of art, music and literature. Rose compares Marguerite to Apollonie Sabatier, who was famous for her Sunday dinners, attended by such literary luminaries as Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Feydeau and Théophile Gautier.
Edward wrote about 20 letters to Marguerite between 1917 and 1918, addressing her as “Mon Bébé” and signing himself “E.” In them, he recalled regretfully afterwards, were “foolish, indiscreet comments about the conduct of the war, insulting abuse about my father, letters very probably scabrous into the bargain.” Occasionally, he enclosed photos of himself, together with such souvenirs from the front as Prussian tunic buttons and even a German helmet.
The love affair ended after the war ended in 1918. For a time Edward feared that Marguerite might blackmail him with the letters because she had kept them all and struck him as being “the £100,000 or nothing type.” However, the blackmail threat never materialized, and Edward was able to resume his duties as heir to the throne without any attendant scandal.
The 1919 goodwill tour of Canada was the first of many trips Edward made to the British Empire territories after the First World War. His mission, as envisaged by the government of Prime Minister Lloyd George, was to shore up ties between the mother country and the colonies before the solidarity of the war years evaporated. The fact he had received the Military Cross for his wartime service in France gave him instant credibility with the military community.
In Canada, Edward set out to learn how the residents made their living. To that end, he visited farms, mines and factories from Newfoundland to Alberta. By the time he reached Calgary, after three weeks of hand shaking and speeches, the 25-year-old prince was exhausted. Arrangements were made for him to spend some leisure time at the Bar U Ranch, a few miles south of the city.
Edward was enthralled by the Bar U. He rode horses along the foothills and watched the rites of the cattle drive, the roundup and the branding. “I spent 24 hours at the ranch, I wish it could have been 24 years,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, Queen Mary. He said he eventually wanted to become a part-time cowboy because “that’s a real life.” A month later, he became the buyer, sight unseen, of the Bedingfeld Ranch, adjoining the Bar U. He paid $130,000 for 1,400 acres, 400 horses and 150 cattle, and renamed it the EP (Edward, Prince) Ranch. He said for years afterwards that it was the only property he ever wanted to own.
Edward paid his first extended visit to the EP Ranch in the fall of 1923 and thoroughly enjoyed himself. The three-week visit coincided with the trial at the Old Bailey of Marguerite Fahmy on a charge of murdering her husband by shooting him in the head with a revolver. The court heard testimony that they had married about six months before the shooting and that their time together was marked by “frequent quarrels over what ordinary people would regard as trifles.” On the night of the murder, they had a more serious quarrel, when she asked him for a divorce and he refused.
At one point during the court proceedings, when the jury was out of the courtroom, the defence lawyer asked the trial judge to bar the prosecutor from asking Marguerite about her sexual history, because that would only prejudice the jury against her. The judge agreed and ruled that Marguerite could only be cross-examined about her relationship with her husband, not about the “immoral life” that had made her a “woman of the world.” Left unreported at the time, but now revealed in Rose’s book, is the fact the judge had already struck a deal with the royal household to do whatever he could to keep Prince Edward’s name out of the newspapers. “Arguably, this created a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.” The judge had also given the royals advance notice about the trial dates so they “could safely announce that the prince would visit his ranch in Alberta” during that period.
The defence lawyer argued that Marguerite shot her husband in self-defence after he tried to choke her. The jury agreed and acquitted her after a week-long trial and just one hour’s deliberation. She returned to Paris and lived on her husband’s fortune until her death in 1971 at age 80. Edward returned to London from his Canadian trip, and his wartime love affair remained secret for the next 90 years.
Edward’s fascination with ranch life was short-lived. By the time he made his third visit to Alberta, in 1927, he had become so bored with riding and shooting that he stayed for only two days. Boredom seems to have become a characteristic emotional state for the 33-year-old playboy prince at that point in his restless life. His private secretary became so concerned about Edward’s increasingly erratic behaviour that he complained to Prime Minister Baldwin: “In my considered opinion, the heir apparent, in his unbridled pursuit of wine, women and whatever selfish whim occupies him at the moment, is rapidly going to the devil and, unless he mends his ways, he will soon become no fit wearer of the British crown.”
Despite his change of attitude toward ranch life, Edward maintained ownership of the EP property for several years because, under the guidance of a livestock expert from England, it had become a centre of breeding excellence for cattle, sheep and horses. Prize-winning animals from the prince’s Duchy of Cornwall estate were used to improve the quality of livestock on farms and ranches throughout Western Canada. Plus, the original EP ranch house was renovated and improved to the point where it became an appealing holiday retreat for the prince. As the Calgary Herald reported, “Even York House, the London residence of the prince, can boast nothing more attractive than the white-tiled baths and shower.”
The prince tried to sell the ranch in 1936 after his short-lived reign as Edward VIII and subsequent abdication to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson. But he couldn’t find anyone to pay the asking price of $300,000. Instead he decided to start looking for oil on the property, which was located fairly close to the Turner Valley oilfields. In 1941, after a visit to the ranch with his new wife, the now Duke of Windsor directed that an exploratory well be drilled on the property. The well came up dry.
During the 1950s and into the 1960s, the EP Ranch grew into an internationally recognized multi-faceted breeding centre for pedigree stock. But it was never profitable and, in 1962, Edward finally decided to sell. He was 68 years old, his health was declining due to a lengthy struggle with shingles, he suffered from a heart condition that would kill him at age 77, and he no longer had the physical ability to ride and hunt prairie chicken as he had done in his 20s and 30s.
The successful bidder for the EP property was the owner of a neighbouring ranch, who paid $180,000 for the land, improvements and the EP brand. The record doesn’t show how Edward felt about finally giving up the rustic getaway in the Alberta foothills that he had owned for 43 years and used as a convenient refuge when he wanted to avoid the media spotlight. One suspects he must have felt a certain sadness.
Copyright © 2013 Brian Brennan
Prince Charming Goes West: The Story of the E.P. Ranch by Simon M. Evans (University of Calgary Press, 1993)
The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Paris Courtesan and the Perfect Murder by Andrew Rose (Picador, 2013)
Glenbow Museum, Alberta, page on EP Ranch