The True Story of Sydney Johnson, “The Crown”‘s Hidden Gem

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Season five of Netflix’s “The Crown” is notably tackling the highs and lows of the royal family throughout the 1990s. Prominent events like Princess Diana’s romance with Dodi Fayed and the queen’s “annus horribilis” declaration in 1992 are just some royal highlights that dominate the show, and yet lesser known stories and people involved with the royal family have also made their way to the spotlight.

Episode three of the season, titled “Mou Mou,” is dedicated to Sydney Johnson, a person who viewers might have briefly spotted in “The Crown”‘s season three episode “Dangling Man” as the former King Edward VIII, later known as the Duke of Windsor, was on his death bed. In real life, Johnson served the duke for over 30 years and was a treasured member of his royal staff until the duke’s death in 1972.

As you’re binge-watching “The Crown” and researching the historical people and events portrayed in the show, read on to learn more about the life and legacy of Johnson, the royal family’s hidden gem.

Who Was Sydney Johnson?

Born in 1923 on the Bahamas island of Andros, Johnson was just 16 years old when he was hired by the Duke of Windsor and his wife, Wallis Simpson, to be a beach attendant at their government house residence in Nassau, according to Netflix’s “Beneath the Crown: The True Story of Sydney Johnson.” At the time, the duke was governor of the Bahamas, but when his term ended in 1945, he had plans to move back to Europe. When the duke and duchess made the decision to move to Paris in 1952, he was serious about bringing Johnson along, and he did.

With the duke’s Bois de Boulogne mansion as his new residence, Johnson was promoted to footman in 1960, which consisted of him intimately aiding the duke and duchess with everyday tasks and accompanying him during travel overseas, according to Vanity Fair. He was later appointed to be the duke’s personal valet, but his responsibilities and relationship with the duke surpassed simply driving the royal around. Over the years, the two became very close, and Johnson even helped the duke pick out clothes for the day based on a numerical system they created together.

When the duke died in 1972, Johnson was devastated. As arrangements were being prepared, Johnson received $30,000 (the equivalent to $200,000 today) from the duke’s fortune, something the duke specifically detailed in his will before his death, according to Netflix’s “Beneath the Crown: The True Story of Sydney Johnson” featurette. Shortly after the duke’s death that same year, Johnson experienced more tragedy when his wife died. Now a single father to his four children, Johnson allegedly asked the duchess for some time off, but she was not receptive. “The Duchess wanted to dismiss him. At that time [Johnson’s] wife died, and he asked for more time off to care for his children. She fired him,” Hugo Vickers, author of “The Crown Dissected,” told Time.

What Happened to Sydney Johnson After the Duke of Windsor Died?

Shunned by the duchess and in need of work, Johnson found work as a waiter at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where he met Mohamed Al-Fayed, as reported by Vanity Fair. Though it took some time for Al-Fayed to warm up to Johnson due to his own racial biases, the businessman eventually hired Johnson as his personal butler in his Champs-Élysées home in Paris, per People.

By the mid-1980s, Al-Fayed had an interest in restoring the duke and duchess’s Paris home and took on the mansion’s 50-year lease after the duchess died in 1984. With a budget of $2 million, Al-Fayed’s goal was to restore the mansion, which he later renamed Villa Windsor, to its original state and turn it into a museum filled with royal memorabilia, according to The New York Times. Johnson, filled with 32 years of wisdom living with the duke and duchess, assisted Al-Fayed during the restoration. “Sidney is a dictionary. He’s a very cultured man. He got all these things out of boxes and safes and storage rooms, and he knows their history,” the businessman revealed to the publication in 1986.

Johnson lived to see the reopening of the Villa Windsor on Dec. 10, 1989, and was quoted saying at the event, “I feel on top of the world. The restoration is so authentic I expect to see the duchess stepping down the staircase asking, ‘How do I look?” Just a little over one month after the opening, Johnson died at the age of 69 on Jan. 17, 1990, per The Associated Press.

Though it has been over 30 years since Johnson left the world, his impactful life will memorialized in “The Crown.” Catch season five of the acclaimed series streaming now on Netflix.