The scandalous unseen letters of ‘love rat’ Prince George, Duke of Kent

'Later in life there were accusations he seduced men as well as women, but the truth was he enjoyed naughtiness of any kind,' writes Wilson
'Later in life there were accusations he seduced men as well as women, but the truth was he enjoyed naughtiness of any kind,' writes Wilson - Getty

Dashing, debonaire and sexy with it, he was a party animal whose playground was the nightclubs of Mayfair between the two wars. It was the jazz age, a time when many in high society – Prince George included – fell foul of the temptations of morphine and cocaine. But the prince managed to clean up his act and became a much-loved public figure before his mysterious wartime death.

He left behind three children – the present Duke of Kent, Princess Alexandra, and Prince Michael of Kent. The memories they have are of a loving father and family man.

The Duke of Kent, George Edward Alexander Edmund, with the Duchess and their children
The Duke of Kent, George Edward Alexander Edmund, with the Duchess and their children - Getty

Indeed he was. But if George had a fault it was because he was always falling in love, and often with the most inappropriate people – a drug-addicted Vanderbilt heiress here, a black jazz singer there. He was said to have fathered at least one illegitimate child, and his father, King George V, paid two women to leave the country rather than risk the scandal of their entanglement with his son coming out in public.

Gorgeous George was lovely, but a love rat. He kissed the girls and made them cry.

But while the passion lasted he would always write them, in his elegant hand, a shoal of sweetly-worded love letters, extracts from which are exclusively revealed by The Telegraph for the first time today.

From left to right: Prince George, Duke of Kent; King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor; Prince Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester
From left to right: Prince George, Duke of Kent; King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor; Prince Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI; Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester - Getty

At the age of 20 George had already blotted his copy-book with a couple of girls and was now, under orders from his overbearing father, permanently under close watch. Pushed into the Royal Navy against his will, his minder was a kindly officer called Cecil Gairdner. But even the circumspect Gairdner could not stop the young prince lavishly spreading his charms wherever he could.

As a sub-lieutenant on a smart new destroyer, HMS Mackay, he met, on one of his trips ashore, “Baby” Jean Combe – rich in her own right and grand-daughter of the third Marquess Conyngham. With vast homes in Scotland, Ascot and Belgrave Square, she was just the kind of well-bred girl to show the prince a good time.

Except that, in those days, good girls didn’t – their virtue was a priceless commodity only to be relinquished on the marriage bed.

On the other hand, Georgie being Georgie…

“My dear Combe,” he wrote playfully, “I am sending you a small relic [of underwear] which you left behind and hope you were able to support yourself without it.”

The couple – he 20, she 22 – were enjoying each other’s company hugely since, apart from the sex, both had an oddball sense of humour. “Many thanks for your completely mad letter and that box of trinkets. The treatise on how to stop wind was most instructive,” he wrote.

His travels around Europe on board ship allowed him free rein. Later in life there were accusations he seduced men as well as women, but the truth was he enjoyed naughtiness of any kind.

“One night I dressed up as a woman,” he wrote from Danzig in Poland, in 1922. “I was far better-looking and far better-dressed than anyone else there. Several Germans came and danced with me and kissed my hand after. Everything cheap and champagne five shillings a bottle – but the German fraus! Badly dressed with shoes that turned up at the toe!”

His joke at the time – oft-repeated in his letters – was “I have a complaint!” meaning he was permanently and desperately in need of Miss Combe’s loving attention.

Prince George
George was was said to have fathered at least one illegitimate child, and his father paid two women to leave the country rather than risk public scandal - Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images

Despite many partings caused by his naval duties, they continued to enjoy their private jokes. Unlike his stuffier brothers, George had a taste for the surreal. A postcard to Combe from 1923 reads:

“Scuse my rudeness. Do you like string so strange. This is like Bobs and Aunt Botham – very queer. How’s the Cauliflower.

Been raining for 7 days now dear – melons are cheap today.”

It was all going swimmingly. But then Georgie met the love of his life, Alice Gwynne – better known to history by her later name, Kiki Preston – and Baby Jean was cast out.

The broken romance had a shattering effect on her – she remained single until after George’s death nearly 20 years later when she married the 6th Marquess of Donegall at the age of 43. It was as if she’d been waiting all that time to catch George on the rebound.

Kiki Preston, though her colossally rich great-uncle Cornelius Vanderbilt was a friend of George V, was soon banned from Britain by agents of His Majesty after encouraging Prince George’s use of morphine. This enforced exile made little difference to the couple since they continued the affair in Paris whenever he was on leave.

The prince’s hero at the time was Lord “Naps” Alington, a rich and glamorous bisexual and voluptuary whose later life descended into drugs, sex and alcohol, and who died at the age of 43. In many ways Alington shaped George’s attitude to life by his aristocratic devil-may-care approach – once, he slowly stripped naked at dawn on the doorstep of the Paris Ritz – and, certainly, his prevailing philosophy in life was, “Love ’em and leave ’em.”

Given his relish for Naps’s way of life it’s no surprise that, before long, George was packed off by the King to the Far East. The plan was to get him out of harm’s way – and though he didn’t know it, the plan was also to keep him away.

But no sooner did George set foot ashore in Singapore, in 1926, than he bumped into Mrs Leila Devitt, a prominent hostess and comely wife of a commodities czar, 10 years his senior.

Leila Devitt quickly caught George's eye
Leila Devitt quickly caught George's eye - Christopher Wilson

With dazzling good looks and a remarkable figure, she was just what he was looking for – and at the party where they were introduced he presented her with the carnation from his buttonhole and proceeded to seduce her.

Soon the couple quit the party, jumped into a car lent by a fellow officer, Lieutenant Vaughan Jones, and headed off into the night while colonial eyes popped, monocles dropped, and jaws hit the floor.

“It was fun last night,” he happily wrote to her, “& I enjoyed it & it really was very funny. I suppose it was rude going off like that in the car for so long, and I don’t know what scandal won’t be started in Singapore!!”

He was right – there was a scandal. But it was hushed up and allowed to continue, an urgent affair punctuated with a copious correspondence between the two.

A shoal of sweetly-worded love letters give some insight into the extent of George's dalliances with Devitt
A shoal of sweetly-worded love letters give some insight into the extent of George's dalliances with Devitt

A couple of days later there came a pencilled note to Leila’s mansion on Chatsworth Road, one of the grander boulevards in Singapore, summoning her to a dinner. The evening followed pretty much the same pattern as their first – disappearing off in Vaughan Jones’s car in front of their hosts.

“It was fun the other night and I enjoyed it so much – never shall I forget all the worry and trouble about going for a drive. What scandal can have gone round Singapore by now, I don’t care to think (?!).”

By now George was calling her “Darling”. Their behaviour – in an outpost of the Empire where people behaved even more correctly than at home – was outrageous. He even employed the technique later used by his eldest brother the Prince of Wales, with Wallis Simpson, of inviting both her and her husband to dinner to allay suspicions. It fooled nobody.

Their behaviour became erratic – in a bungalow where they went to make love she left a chain behind which had to be retrieved. They made love in Vaughan Jones’s yellow car. He brought her on board his ship, HMS Hawkins, and fellow officers noted, as she walked down the gangplank, she was dressed in different clothes from when she’d come on board.

When George was sent away on naval exercises the letters became more passionate: “I wish I could come and stay with you,” he wrote, “I know you’d look after me – you have been so sweet & understanding.”

The prince hated the Royal Navy – he was finally encouraged to resign his commission – and the longer he spent on board ship the more he poured out his heart to Mrs Devitt. It would appear from their correspondence she believed that when he returned home to Britain they would have a future together.

But, just like poor Jean Combe, Leila was much mistaken.

In the end, she left for England before he did. He wrote to her: “Let me know how you are & how London is & what you’re doing and going to do. I have not forgotten and think of you often, Leila, and of all the fun we had and only wish we were going to meet again soon.”

They never did. On her return to London, that much longed-for return, Mrs Devitt, her husband and children moved into an imposing stuccoed mansion in Warwick Square only a short walk from Buckingham Palace; but they were never invited.

Later, George wrote to her: “I shall never forget those last few days we had together, & you were so sweet & did help me a lot & I don’t regret it – & only wish we could have had longer.”

It was the princely kiss-off. He’d moved on.

In the end he was to marry Princess Marina of Greece, 27, in what now appears to be a hastily stitched-together dynastic alliance. Their marriage in November 1934 came after increasing parental pressure on George to regularise his affairs.

But the price paid by Marina, until then living in exile in Paris after the fall of the Greek crown, was a marriage dogged by his irrepressible infidelity.

In no particular order, his mistresses included sprigs of the aristocracy like Poppy Baring, Lois Sturt, Paula Gellibrand and Audrey Coats together with married women like Edythe d’Erlanger and Myrtle Farquharson – as well as black women in Paris including singers Florence Mills and, appropriately, Adelaide Hall who became famous for I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (it should have been Georgie’s motto).

In his youth, it’s said the prince skirmished with a couple of young men, too: “He simply wasn’t safe in taxis – not with anyone!” said a friend admiringly. And there are tales, still unsubstantiated, that King George dispatched his agents to Paris to retrieve an embarrassingly-inscribed gold box and some letters to a young man.

But claims that George had an affair with Noel Coward are wide of the mark, a rumour which gained traction through a fog of misinformation put out by an unhappy so-called royal chronicler. Similarly, stories that he bedded Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, the actress Jessie Matthews and the writer Barbara Cartland – all of whom feature prominently on the Duke’s Wikipedia page – are also without foundation.

But there were many others. We might have learnt more of this adorable rogue’s love life in the 82 years since his death – but the circumstances surrounding the accident caused the Royal family to shut down talk about the prince, and airbrush him from history.

The findings of an official inquiry into the loss of the first British prince to die defending his country in several hundred years have gone missing. Despite his high public profile and recognition as the most lovable prince of his generation, there’s no public monument to him beyond a vaguely-worded stained glass window in the Savoy Chapel behind London’s Strand.

There are good reasons why.

Something went badly wrong on the day of August 25 1942 when George’s Sunderland flying boat took off from a Scottish airfield and flew into the side of a mountain.

And the Royal family, supported by successive governments, never want you to know what it was.

Poppy Baring

Baronet’s daughter and member of the banking family. Affair with Prince George 1923-25 shortly before his being sent to sea. “He would have married her but for the violent objections of the King and Queen,” wrote diarist Chips Channon. “They minded her painted and oriental appearance.” They may also have objected to Poppy’s morals – more than a dozen affairs before her marriage in 1925, and a few more after that.

Hon Lois Sturt

Sister of the famed voluptuary Lord “Naps” Alington. George met them both at the family home, Crichel, and fell under Naps’s spell – the peer became George’s alter ego and introduced him to drugs. Though principally gay, Naps was wooing the actress Tallulah Bankhead at the same time George and Lois tested the bedsprings. “There won’t be anybody at Lois’s wedding [to Viscount Tredegar] who hasn’t slept with both the bride and groom,” grimly joked a friend, Rupert Beckett.

Lady Anne Wood

Daughter of the 1st Earl of Halifax, politician who turned down the wartime premiership in favour of Winston Churchill. By 1934, the pressure on George to marry was intense and he was on the verge of proposing to Lady Anne – until Princess Marina threw her hat in the ring. Anne was a bit of a goer – affairs with the Earl of Dudley as well as (simultaneously) the brothers-in-law Lord Stavordale and Count von Munster were among her other titled conquests.

Audrey Coats

Audrey Coats
Audrey Coats

Canadian-born beauty and wife of millionaire gambler “Dashing” Jack Coats. One of George’s earliest conquests, she bizarrely shared the same name with a mistress of the Prince of Wales. Husband Jack broke the bank at Monte Carlo and went to an early grave.

Paula Gellibrand

Society beauty painted by Augustus John and photographed by Cecil Beaton whose affair with George coincided with Princess Marina’s second pregnancy. Caused headlines when the pair were discovered clandestinely visiting a “phrenologist”, and despite angry protestations of innocence by the prince and Paula’s husband Bill Allen, the consequent rupture between George and Marina led London society to believe they would divorce – unprecedented in royalty at the time.

Lady Alexandra “Baba” Curzon

Daughter of the famed Indian viceroy. When George was not yet 22, Baba had her hooks in him, even though in July 1923 Chips Channon noted, “She has become so self-important – quite convinced she is going to marry the Prince of Wales.” Ended up marrying neither prince, but instead the PoW’s sidekick “Fruity” Metcalfe.

Alice “Kiki” Preston

George’s nemesis, kicked out of the country by King George V’s emissaries for encouraging George’s drug-taking, which led him to be forcibly hospitalised at the Prince of Wales’s home, Middleton near Sunningdale (the precursor of Fort Belvedere). Brought up in Paris where she first met George, her family was an offshoot of the Vanderbilts. Lived for a time in Happy Valley, where she was known as “the girl with the silver syringe”. Stayed in touch with George until his 1942 death and was probably the love of his life. Committed suicide 1946.

Myrtle Farquharson of Invercauld

Head of Clan Farquharson. Childhood best friends with George’s sister Princess Mary – the family estate was next door to Balmoral – she was rich if not beautiful. In time-honoured tradition (think King Charles and the sons of Camilla and Lady “Kanga” Tryon), Myrtle asked her former lover to stand godfather to her first child and gave her the name “Georgia”. Killed in a 1941 Luftwaffe bombing raid – Evelyn Waugh wrote, “People one knew [socially] were never killed in raids – except Myrtle.”

Edythe d’Erlanger

Edythe d'Erlanger, a gifted boogie-woogie pianist and the wife of Gerard 'Pop' d'Erlanger, 1933
Edythe d'Erlanger, a gifted boogie-woogie pianist and the wife of Gerard 'Pop' d'Erlanger, 1933 - Alamy

One of George’s last mistresses, the Kansas-born pianist became famous performing with the Ziegfeld Follies before marrying banker Baron Gerard d’Erlanger and becoming a fixture in London high society. Billy Ward, 4th Earl of Dudley, told this writer, “I went to a party at Edythe’s flat in Grosvenor Square – probably late 1941. I rather had my eye on Edythe, extraordinarily pretty, though older of course, but that night she sat at the piano with Prince George leaning over her as she played. They had eyes only for each other.”

Florence Mills

US-born black “Queen of Happiness” was a singer, dancer and comedian who George met when she starred in the hottest musical of the 1920s, Blackbirds. Unlike most of his squeezes, Florence came from the other end of the social spectrum – her parents had been slaves. Died at 31 from tuberculosis. Memorialised in music composed variously by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Constant Lambert.

Unknown woman

When George died in an air crash at Berriedale, Caithness, in August 1942, the circumstances surrounding the catastrophe were instantly hushed up. Even today there is no official record of what happened, despite George being the only prince of royal blood in over 500 years to die defending his country. Among those most closely connected to the crash the belief remains that an extra person, unaccounted for, was also on board the fatal flight. And that person was a woman, according to a member of the RAF rescue party which attended the scene. To carry a woman on an operational mission was against King’s Regulations.

The file remains open.