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The Crown: The story of Mohamed Al-Fayed and his valet

Sydney Johnson was born in the Bahamas and started working for the Duke of Windsor when he was 16, when the duke was governor of the islands during World War II. His character is introduced in the latest season of Netflix series The Crown.

al fayedMohamed Al Fayed's character appears in the latest season of The Crown. (Photo: Marrowfat/YouTube, Netflix via NYT)

Written by Roslyn Sulcas

 

It’s 1946 in a dusty square in Alexandria, Egypt. Teenagers play a boisterous football match, and one of the players looks on curiously as the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, arrive at the nearby British consulate, their car door opened by an immaculately dressed young Black man.

“I want to match them; I want to be like them, have power like them,” the boy later tells his siblings, after their father has excoriated the British for their occupation of Egypt.

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This is the opening of Episode 3 of the latest season of “The Crown.” We see that boy grow up to become businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed, whose son, Dodi, was for a while a household name in Britain after he and Diana, Princess of Wales, died together in a car crash in August 1997.

The episode charts the rise of Mohamed Al-Fayed, who would always long to be part of the British establishment, against the story of Sydney Johnson, the Bahamian valet to the Windsors, whom Al-Fayed saw in the square and would later employ himself.

The episode is a characteristic twist in the show’s focus on the ongoing story of the royals, as “Crown” creator Peter Morgan again finds prisms through which the monarchy can be understood in the context of British social history.

In the official podcast of “The Crown,” Morgan said that he had found Al-Fayed a fascinating character but that it would have been difficult to tell his story in the series if there hadn’t been a strong intersection with the royal family. “When I found out that the guy who had been the personal valet to Edward had been the valet to Al-Fayed, the story just fell into my lap,” Morgan said.

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So, who were the Al-Fayeds? Was the elder Al-Fayed really obsessed with the royals? How did he and his son meet Diana? Here is a guide to who’s who and what’s what.

Who is Mohamed Al-Fayed, and how did he make his money?

Mohamed Fayed (he added the “Al” prefix in the 1970s), or Mou Mou to his friends, grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, the son of a school inspector. He sold Coca-Cola on the street and sewing machines door to door before beginning to work as a furniture salesperson for Adnan Khashoggi, the future billionaire arms dealer.

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In 1954, he married Khashoggi’s sister, Samira, and a year later she gave birth to Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Mena’em Fayed, who became known as Dodi. The marriage only lasted two years, and custody of Dodi was given to his father, who sent Dodi to boarding school in Switzerland and then Sandhurst in Britain. Al-Fayed, initially bankrolled by Khashoggi, began to make his fortune in Europe, mostly as a middleman for the ruling family of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and in shipping.

He moved to Britain in the 1970s and bought the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1979, as “The Crown” depicts. In 1985, he bought landmark London department store Harrods, and in 1997, Fulham Football Club, as well as several British residences.

In 1986 he took a 50-year lease on the home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and spent a reputed $14 million on restoring the home to its previous splendor. Now around 93 (there is some debate about the year of his birth), Al-Fayed has sold both Harrods and the Fulham Football club, but still owns the Ritz.

Did Al-Fayed desperately want to be accepted by the royals?

It seems clear from Al-Fayed’s actions throughout his life that he had a deep desire to be accepted in social circles he perceived as established and establishment. In the “Crown” podcast, Morgan says “it’s worth seeing him as a character in the light of his own background, contextualizing: where did he come from? What is his relationship to Britain?”

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Al-Fayed grew up with British institutions, the British army and class system occupying positions of power all around him, Morgan points out: “For him, the idea of being accepted in any shape or form within those circles would have been such recognition of where he got to, more than money in the bank.”

The Al-Fayeds were usually cast as outsiders and social climbers by the British press, said Arianne Chernock, a professor of modern British history and a specialist in the monarchy at Boston University, although “the show portrayed them more sympathetically, suggesting how proximity to the monarchy meant acceptance for them.”

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Was Dodi Al-Fayed a film producer?

One of the episode’s most surprising moments is when it turns out the film Dodi has convinced his father to finance is the award-winning “Chariots of Fire,” the 1981 sports drama directed by Hugh Hudson. When “The Crown” depicts the film winning a best picture Oscar, we hear producer David Puttnam thank the Al-Fayeds “for putting their money where my mouth was,” and the elder Al-Fayed, watching with Johnson, dances with glee.

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The Al-Fayeds created a production company, Allied Stars, in the late 1970s, and “Chariots of Fire” was Dodi’s biggest success, although the company was also involved in producing the action thriller film “F/X,” Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” and “The Scarlet Letter,” starring Demi Moore.

How did Dodi Al-Fayed and Diana meet?

At the end of the episode we see a fictional meeting between Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, when the queen avoids sitting next to him by dispatching Diana in her place. (In reality, they probably met at Harrods, or possibly through Diana’s father and stepmother, with whom he was friendly.) In the episode, Al-Fayed and Diana get on famously, and although Dodi comes over to say hello, little is made of any connection between him and the princess.

This probably reflects the pair’s real first meeting, in the mid-1980s by various accounts, at a polo match in which Prince Charles was also playing. Later in the season, we see the elder Al-Fayed invite Diana to bring Princes William and Harry with her on holiday to his villa in St. Tropez. The scene is set for next season’s meeting, and Dodi and Diana’s fateful end.

Who was Sydney Johnson, the Duke of Windsor and Al-Fayed’s valet?

Sydney Johnson was born in the Bahamas and started working for the Duke of Windsor when he was 16, when the duke was governor of the islands during World War II.

The duke then took Johnson into his household service when he and the Duchess of Windsor moved to Paris. Johnson spent more than 30 years working for the couple, until soon after the duke’s death in Paris in 1972. (Reports vary about the reasons for his departure, but some say that the duchess was not sympathetic to his request for more time with his own family.)

Little is known about Johnson’s life in the years after he left the Windsor household, but he did work at the Ritz and was taken on by Mohamed Al-Fayed, in his nearby residence on the Champs-Élysées, in the late 1970s. He encouraged Al-Fayed to take on the lease of the duke’s Paris residence and advised the businessman on how to authentically restore the house.

Johnson died in Paris in January 1990. Al-Fayed was quoted in his wire agency obit, saying that Johnson “was truly a gentlemen’s gentleman. We shall miss him very much.”

What does a valet do, exactly?

When Al-Fayed (Daw) first talks to Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), he asks him what he did for the duke. Johnson replies simply: “Everything. I took care of every aspect of his life from the moment he opened his eyes in the morning to the moment he closed them at night.”

What’s fascinating about valets, said Jennifer Purcell, a professor of modern British history at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, is “they have intimate access and knowledge that other people in the household may not have. They become invisible. Sydney Johnson can operate in the shadows and really hear what’s going on. It’s an intimacy that is both desired and feared.”

Purcell added that for Al-Fayed, knowing the details of aristocratic and royal life through Johnson would have been “a ticket into those spaces.”

Was it unusual for a person of color to be employed in a royal household at that time?

Yes. The royal household “actively worked to keep out staff of color” from the 1940s to the 1970s, said Radhika Natarajan, a historian of 20th-century Britain at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, referring to 2021 reports in The Guardian newspaper, which included documents showing that until the late 1960s, people of color were banned from serving in clerical roles in the royal household.

“The royal family has a long and complicated relationship to outsiders,” Chernock said. “Queen Victoria brought members of the empire into her family and her household, so there is a larger tradition. But it was possible to entertain both possibilities: that you could welcome certain nonwhite, colonial people into your household, and also maintain a firm belief in white British superiority and Empire.”

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 12:31 IST
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