Mohamed Al Fayed’s long-term butler Sydney Johnson was such a key figure in the gilded life of the entrepreneur, who died on Wednesday aged 94, that their friendship featured in The Crown.
The fourth episode of the fifth series of the drama, which aired last year, was dedicated to Al-Fayed and his relationship with the valet – recounting how he employed Johnson after seeing him working at the Ritz and finding out he was once the Duke of Windsor’s aide.
The valet went on to teach Al-Fayed about ‘how to be a gentleman’, even helping him to get his suits tailored in the exact same way that Edward would – and Al-Fayed was at his bedside when he died in January 1990.
Their relationship was depicted in the 2020 series, with Johnson played by Jude Akuwudike and Al-Fayed played by Salim Daw.
The valet is purported to have taught his employer ‘how to be a gentleman’, offering guidance from how to have his suits tailored, to the way to drink tea and shoot.
The Crown episode ends with Johnson being shown developing a cough before Mohamed stands by his bed-side, nursing him as he dies. The final scenes of the episode show Mohamed visiting his grave in Paris, which reads: ‘Sydney Johnson, valet to the King’.
In reality, Sydney had served the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for over 30 years, from the age of approximately 16, before working for Al-Fayed.
He gave away very little about his background throughout his life. After he was born on the island of Andros in the Bahamas, his life changed forever when the Duke of Windsor, exiled from Britain, became governor.
It was a position forced upon him by Winston Churchill. Sixteen-year-old Sydney was initially hired as a beach attendant, but made a good impression.
He was quickly promoted to a higher ranking servant inside the house, and became a footman.
Sydney became so indispensable to the Duke and Duchess, he joined them when they left the Bahamas and moved to Europe.
During the 1960s, he began acting as a personal valet to the Duke, who was impressed by his attitude and high standards of work.
He also wore uniform and served as a footman at formal dinners of the Duke and Duchess.
Speaking in 1989, in a clip attained by Netflix, Sydney can be heard saying: ‘He knew he was a very handsome man, he knew that. He was one of the best looking people I’ve ever seen.’
Meanwhile, according to Vanity Fair, the Duke ‘loved Sydney as a son.’
The Duke showed Sydney the ways of life in the British establishment and a deep attachment formed between the two men.
Royal biographer Andrew Morton even reported that Sydney was present for the duke’s final words in his biography Wallis With Love, reportedly, ‘mama, mama, mama, mama.’
Decades later, the royal butler told how he had been on hand to assist with the Duke’s body after his death. He told the New York Times in 1989: ‘I remember they came to embalm him and I picked a suit for him to wear.
‘But they said, no, he’ll be wearing nothing. ‘As he comes, so he goes.’ That’s what they said.’
In an indication of their closeness, Sydney was among the few attendees at the funeral service of the Duke of Windsor on 5 June 1972.
Meanwhile he suffered tragedy in his personal life – being widowed in 1972, and resigning in order to care for his children.
There are differing reports as to why he may have resigned, but there appear to have been issues with Wallis after the Duke’s death.
Andrew Lownie wrote in Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor: ‘Having failed to engage a nurse or housekeeper, he asked if he might begin going home at five.
‘Wallis’s response had been, ‘If you go at five, don’t come back.’ He left and did not come back.’
Others said he left after Wallis told him, ‘I never want to see you again.’
He was left $30,000 in the Duke’s will and found work as a waiter at the Ritz in Paris.
However, by 1986 he had been employed as a personal valet for Al-Fayed, and oversaw the restoration of Villa Windsor.
Al-Fayed signed a 50-year lease on the Parisian villa of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after Simpson’s death, which he promptly restored in three years. He said it would be ‘a gift to the British royal family’.
Al-Fayed later said: ‘Sydney is a dictionary, he is a very cultured man, he got all these things out of storage rooms and he knows it’s history.’
Sydney reportedly cried with joy when the renovation was completed. While the programme depicts his health as faltering, in reality he died suddenly on 17th January 1990 at the age of 69.
READ MORE: ‘Succession-style squabble’ over Mohamed Al-Fayed’s fortune looms: Tycoon’s four children have been in a ‘sibling power struggle’
On his death, he was reported to have been described by Al-Fayed as ‘truly a gentlemen’s gentleman. We shall miss him very much.’
The fourth episode of series five of The Crown follows Al-Fayed from his years selling Coca-Cola on the streets of Egypt to meeting the Princess of Wales.
In the programme, he is depicted as relentlessly ambitious, constantly seeking to move up in terms of social class and reputation in Britain.
After buying The Ritz in Paris, he asks his son Dodi to fire one of the waiters who is a person of colour – before learning he was once the valet to the Duke of Windsor.
He requests a personal meeting with Sydney, asking him how ‘with his background’ he would know how to act like a British gentleman.
Sydney says: ‘I didn’t but His Royal Highness taught me everything with great patience and kindness.’
Mohamed goes on to hire him to be his personal valet. He asks him to teach him how to become ‘a British gentleman.’