David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

The mistakes of a leader: Parshat Vayikra

Edward, Prince of Wales, In August 1915, during the First World War. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Edward, Prince of Wales, In August 1915, during the First World War. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

When people think of King Edward VIII, they usually think of his abdication from the throne in 1936 so he could marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. They may also remember his antisemitism, support for Hitler during World War II, and his post-war “retirement” in France.

However, few know that before Simpson, the Prince of Wales (as he was then) had a series of mistresses who were married to others, including Freda Dudley Ward (who was married to William Dudley Ward, the Liberal MP for Southampton) from 1918 until 1929, and Thelma Furness (who was married to Marmaduke Furness, 1st Viscount Furness) between 1929 and 1934.

Scandalous as those relationships were, (his father, King George V, once said, “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months”), they paled into comparison to his first affair with a blackmailing, murdering, French prostitute.

Prince Edward and Thelma Furness, 1932. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Marguerite Alibert was born on December 9, 1890. Her parents were typical Parisian working-class people – her father Fermin was a coach driver, and her mother Marie was a domestic servant. One fateful day, her four-year-old younger brother was hit by a truck and killed while Marguerite was babysitting him. Her parents blamed her for his death and sent her away to the Sisters of Mercy Catholic boarding school.

When she was 15, the nuns sent her off to work as a servant. Shortly afterwards, Alibert became pregnant and was immediately fired. She gave birth to a daughter she named Raymonde, but unable to care for her, Alibert sent her daughter to live with a family in the country.

Marguerite Alibert circa late 1910s or early 1920s. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Homeless and unemployed, but with long auburn hair and provocative charm, Alibert became a courtesan (an upper-class prostitute). She worked in a brothel in the 16th arrondissement, run by Madame Denart, who described Alibert as, “the mistress of nearly all my best clients, gentleman of wealth and position in France, England, America and other countries … It was me that made a sort of lady of her.”

When she was only 17, she adopted the last name of one of her clients, Andre Meller, though they were never married. Their affair ended in scandal and Meller giving Aliert 200,000 francs (which she felt was too little).

By 1917, Alibert was 27 years old. It was the height of World War I. The 22-year-old Prince of Wales, first in line to the crown, was stationed in France in the British army, as an officer with the Grenadier Guards.

While his men were dying in the trenches, Edward was frequenting the brothels of Paris, where he met Alibert. The future king was infatuated with her. Their affair lasted for 18 months. Whenever the prince could escape to Paris, he would drive her around the city in his Rolls Royce, as the two of them drank champagne.

In between his visits to the capital, he wrote her letters, each addressed to “Mon Bébé” and signed simply, “E.”

In his book, “The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Parisian Courtesan, and the Perfect Murder,” Andrew Rose writes that some of those letters contained wartime secrets that would have had devastating consequences if they had fallen into enemy hands. The prince also included derogatory comments about his father, King George V.

We think there are about 20 letters…which are wildly indiscreet. He’s said things about the conduct of the War that might have been misinterpreted, he’s made rude remarks about his father, and there’s commonly a sexual content in them as well. They are not the kind of letters that he would have wanted the world to know about.

After their affair ended in late summer of 1918 (when the prince began an affair with Dudley Ward), Edward wrote to his equerry, Piers (Joey) Legh, “Oh! Those bloody letters, and what a fool I was not to take your advice over a year ago.”

Edward, Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada in 1919. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The prince asked Alibert to destroy the letters but instead of complying with his wishes, she threatened to blackmail him. As Edward wrote, “I am afraid she’s the £100,000 or nothing type, tho’ I’m disappointed and didn’t think she’d turn nasty: of the whole trouble is my letters and she’s not burnt one.”

Luckily for the prince and the royal family, Alibert realized that blackmailing the future king would have been extremely risky. Marrying a rich socialite seemed a better option. She took up with Charles Laurent, a wealthy young air force officer. His family owned the Hotel Crillon and a large department store in the Grand Magasins du Louvre. But the marriage was dissolved in 1920, much to the relief of Laurent’s family.

Alibert could now afford to live in the fashionable Avenue Henri-Martin. She had servants, a stable with 10 horses, a full-time groom and two limousines. She also paid for her daughter to attend an English boarding school.

In the early 1920s, while touring Egypt with her daughter Raymonde, Alibert (who now called herself Madame Laurent) met Ali Kamel Fahmy, an extremely wealthy Egyptian with the honorary title of “Bey” – the equivalent of “Governor.” Fahmy was 10 years her junior and was smitten. In 1922 he proposed to Alibert, and she moved to live with him in Cairo.

Unsurprisingly, the marriage was not happy. Fahmy tried to train and subjugate his wife. He wrote to Marguerite’s sister Yvonne, ““Just now I am engaged in training her [Marguerite]. Yesterday, to begin with, I did not come in to lunch or to dinner and I also left her at the theatre. With women one must act with energy and be severe – no bad habits.”

The couple fought constantly, often in public. However, divorcing an Egyptian prince in Cairo would have been difficult. Alibert was effectively a captive to an abusive, controlling husband.

However, in the summer of 1923, the couple visited London. On July 9 they attended a show, “The Merry Widow.” After they returned to their hotel room at the Savoy, they fought violently, and Fahmy left the hotel for a couple of hours.

When he returned around 2am, Alibert took the Browning 32 pistol she kept under her pillow and shot her husband three times — two bullets in the back and one in the head. He died a few hours later.

According to the Daily Herald of July 13, 1923:

Dr. E. S. Godron of Southamtpon Street, Strand, said he was called to the hotel at 2>30 am. Madame Fahmy told him she had fired the automatic pistol out of the window, and when asked by the police whether she had done the act, she replied, through witness, ‘Yes.’

Alibert was arrested and charged with murder. With witnesses and evidence (including her bloodstained Chanel gown), she seemed destined to hang on the gallows. But she still had the letters from the prince.

Emperor Nicholas II of Russia with his cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom (right), wearing German military uniforms in Berlin in 1913. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The gloomy interwar years were tough in Britain. So many young men had never returned from the trenches, and those who did were scarred emotionally and physically. The charming, boyishly good-looking Edward, Prince of Wales, became the face of the monarchy tasked with raising the morale of the nation. Having been in France during the war, he was seen as sympathetic to those who had fought and their families (little did they know how much time he had spent partying in Paris during the war).

Additionally, only a few years earlier, the Russian royal family (including George V’s first cousin, Tsar Nicholas Romanov, who was George’s doppelganger) had been executed by the Bolsheviks. The British monarchy could not afford a scandal with the threat of revolution in the air.

Edward was hurriedly sent on a royal visit to Canada, returning only after the trial was finished.

Rose discovered a letter written in 1923 by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, which said:

The French girl who shot her so-called Egyptian prince and is going to be tried for murder, is the fancy woman who was the Prince’s ‘keep’ in Paris during the war… and they were terribly afraid that he might be dragged in. It is fortunate that he is off to Canada and his name is to be kept out.

The king’s advisors sent Ernest Bald (another of Alibert’s former lovers) to visit her in Holloway Prison. We do not know the details of that meeting, but we can guess based on the fact that Alibert was acquitted of all charges. Rose claims that the deal called for Alibert to return all the prince’s letters, which were hidden in her Cairo home. In exchange, her past life as a courtesan would not be mentioned during the trial. Instead, the focus would be the late Fahmy’s violence towards his wife.

Leaning heavily on xenophobic tropes, the judge described Fahmy’s sexual behavior as “shocking, sickening and disgusting… a cruel and abominable act.” The jury was told that Alibert was a battered wife who had eventually snapped.

Rose wrote, “This was a show trial. The authorities wanted Alibert to be acquitted. A murder conviction would have been catastrophic for the Crown.”

The jury found Alibert to be innocent, and she returned to Paris where she lived until her death in 1971, aged 80. Edward abdicated in 1936, leaving his younger brother, George VI to guide the nation through World War II.

Edward reviewing SS guards on October 13, 1937. (CC BY-SA, Pahl, Georg/ Wikimedia Commons)

The royal family successfully covered up the scandal that could have destroyed not only the monarchy, but also the morale of the country. Had Edward come clean and admitted his wartime behavior, it would have had disastrous consequences. Imagine if the King’s wartime addresses had come from the womanizing, Hitler sympathizing Edward, rather than from his solid, family-oriented brother.

For a leader to admit a mistake is extremely difficult, not only because of the shame and embarrassment it would cause them personally, but also because of the impact it would make on those they govern.

Yet, this is what the Torah in this week’s Torah portion of Vayikra demands of a prince. The verse (Leviticus 4:22) states:

That a prince sins in any of the commandments of God that should not be done, unintentionally and is guilty.

This offering is unique among all the other sin offerings listed in the Torah portion because it begins with the word “asher” (“that”).

The Sifra is a third-century halachic midrash on the book of Leviticus. It points out (cited by Rashi) that the word “asher” is similar to the word “ashrei” meaning “fortunate.”

‘That a prince sins’ – Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said: Fortunate is a generation whose prince brings a sin offering for his unintentional sins. If he brings an offering for his unintentional sins, how much more so for his intentional sins.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai knew about corrupt and sinful leaders. Before the destruction of the Second Temple, he opposed the ruling Sadducees (and the Zealots who were aligned with them).

I’m sure each of the leaders of the various Jewish factions at the end of the Second Temple period was sure that theirs was the only possible approach to save the nation. Each made decisions that ultimately affected and shaped the future of Israel and Judaism. I’m equally sure that each of them felt that they were personally responsible for the survival of their people.

It would have been unthinkable for any of them to admit their mistakes or make an about-face. Even Rabban Yochanan’s nephew, Abba Sikra, who was the leader of the Zealots, was unable to change path. When asked why he was leading the people to war and almost certain defeat, he replied, “What can I do? If I say anything against them they will kill me,” (Gittin 56a).

Instead, Abba Sikra advised his uncle on how to escape from Jerusalem. Rabban Yochanan was able to negotiate with the future Emperor Vespasian for Yavne and its scholars to be saved.

Rabban Yochanan watched Jerusalem be destroyed by its intranscient leaders. It was only his intervention with Vespasian that allowed Judaism to be rebuilt by the rabbis of Yavne after the destruction of the Temple.

So, when he spoke of the importance of a prince admitting his mistake, he knew from first-hand experience what happens when a leader is unable to, or chooses not to, acknowledge his own shortcomings and admit his sins.

Would Edward have brought down the monarchy and changed the fate of the nation if he had admitted his affair with Alibert, instead of allowing her to get away with murder? We do not know. Perhaps if he had stood aside then and allowed his brother to become next in line during their father’s lifetime the kingdom could have forgiven his behavior. Maybe the royal family would have been stronger than one individual.

For a leader to admit a mistake or change course is incredibly difficult. The pressure to deny wrongdoing from those around them can render them powerless to say they were wrong.

Fortunate is the nation whose leader can publicly admit their unintentional or willful errors.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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