- An episode of season five of ‘The Crown’ explores the story of Sydney Johnson.
- Johnson served as the Duke of Windsor’s valet for 30 years.
- After meeting Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Al-Fayed, he also helped restore the Windsor Villa to its former glory.
Among the new characters in season five of “The Crown” is royal valet, Sydney Johnson, whose life has garnered renewed attention from viewers and historians alike.
After a brief and silent first appearance in season three of “The Crown,” Johnson reappeared on the screen in the fifth season episode “Mou Mou.” Johnson, played by Jude Akuwudike, shows Salim Daw’s Mohamed Al-Fayed the ropes of how to be “a British gentleman,” guiding the Egyptian tycoon through the gilded world of tailored suits, tea, and shooting.
The relationship between the two men supposedly closely mirrored real life. The episode also offers a flashback look at how Johnson, who was born in the Bahamas, became the longtime valet of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In both the televised and true accounts of his life, Johnson was an understated yet integral part of the staff who kept the British royal family — and its legacy — running.
From his personal background in the Bahamas to his relationship with an Egyptian billionaire, here’s what to know about the true life of Sydney Johnson.
Entering royal service
Johnson was born in the Bahamas in the early 1920s. In 1940, when he was just 16 years old, Johnson began working for the Duke of Windsor, according to the New York Times. The Duke was appointed as governor of the Bahamas after he abdicated from the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, a socialite and divorcee, in 1936.
Johnson swiftly rose the ranks to become the Duke’s valet, assisting him on his personal and royal needs and eventually moving with the Duke and Duchess to France.
Dressed in a scarlet, double-breasted livery jacket adorned with golden braids, Johnson helped run the day-to-day at the Duke and Duchess’ villa in Paris, a 14-room mansion in the Bois de Boulogne park. The staff, which numbered up to 19, unrolled toilet paper and folded them into squares; tended to the couple’s beloved pugs, which ate from silver bowls; and served an array of luminary guests like Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, and Aristotle Onassis, People reported in 1990.
Among the guests was a royal biographer Hugo Vickers, who told Time, “I met him at the Windsors’ house in Paris in 1989. He was a delightful man, with a lovely smile, and great human sympathy. He was clearly very fond of the Duke and Duchess and spoke of them with understanding.”
Leaving the Windsor household’s service
Johnson remained at the Windsor household even after the Duke died in 1972. But his 30-year tenure came to an end soon after, when Johnson’s wife died the following year.
The Duchess of Windsor refused to allow Johnson to leave work early at 4 p.m. to care for his four children, according to People.
“Let me take care of my four children. And you take care of your four dogs,” Johnson reportedly said.
A return to the Villa Windsor
That would not be the last time Johnson worked at the Villa Windsor. In “The Crown,” Johnson is shown working as a waiter at the Ritz Hotel in Paris when he meets Mohamed Al-Fayed, who had bought and restored the hotel in 1979.
An Egyptian tycoon who made his first millions in construction and shipping, Al-Fayed entered the British social scene with a splash in the 1960s. He had acquired a love for all things English, and, in addition to restoring the Ritz, also purchased the department store Harrods in 1985. Al-Fayed’s son, Dodi, was in a romantic relationship with Princess Diana of Wales before they were both killed in a car crash in 1997.
In 1986, Al-Fayed acquired the lease for the Villa Windsor, which had fallen into disarray since the Duke’s death. He tapped Johnson as his personal valet after learning of his background in the royal family.
”Sidney is a dictionary,” Al-Fayed told the New York Times. ”He’s a very cultured man. He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history.”
Johnson returned to the mansion and successfully helped Al-Fayed restore the villa to its former splendor — a restoration that cost Al-Fayed more than $14 million, according to the New York Times.
“I cried all through the party Mr. Al Fayed gave three years ago to celebrate his lease on the house,” Johnson told the Washington Post in 1989. “The restoration is so authentic I expect to see the duchess stepping down the staircase asking, ‘How do I look?'”
Johnson died in 1990 at 69 years old, the Associated Press reported. Johnson “was truly a gentleman’s gentleman,” Al-Fayed said. “We shall miss him very much.”