Share this article

print logo

Royal scandal of Wallis Simpson gets thorough airing in new book

The British are still touchy about Wallis Warfield Simpson, the American divorcee who stole the heart of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII. Their romance led to his abdication.

Even after King Edward stepped down to marry "the woman I love," and the pair became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, things were never quite right. There was resentment over the disruption of a long-established order. Elizabeth, wife of George VI (of "The King's Speech") never forgave the Duke for what she saw as shirking his duty, and putting her husband in the hot seat. Even worse, there were allegations, which have never gone away, that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were Nazi sympathizers.

Because of all the controversy, the Duchess of Windsor remains a polarizing figure, even decades after her death.
In the movie "The King's Speech," Mrs. Simpson appears simply as a silly shrew.

On the other hand, she is portrayed with sympathy in Madonna's new, entertaining movie "W.E." ("W.E.," Wallis and Edward's initials, was their code for their partnership.)

London author Anne Sebba, in her book "That Woman," takes a middle course.

The book is not the scandalous page-turner you might expect. Its clinical style, though, does serve to play up the stark drama of certain events. For instance:

On 20 January at five minutes to midnight King George V died, his end hastened by an overdose of morphine and cocaine injected by the royal physician to ensure that the death announcement was in time for the quality newspapers. The Queen's first act was to take her eldest son's hand and kiss it, offering fealty to the new King. He was embarrassed by such subservience and broke down, weeping hysterically and noisily with dread at what the future might hold as much as for the passing of his father.

Culture clashes soon surrounded the newly crowned Edward VIII and his American paramour.

A photo went around the world of her placing her hand soothingly on the king's wrist, an intimate and possessive gesture.

It must have dismayed people beyond measure to hear her reprimanding the king in front of people, and to see the king neglecting his royal duties to lie around with her and giggle.

They entertained together. And when one noblewoman, Lady Diana Cooper, apologized for arriving late for dinner, Wallis said: "Oh, cut it out. David and I don't mind."

Still, the book gives reasons to sympathize with Wallis.

Wallis comes across as having a uniquely American charm. She joked with reporters -- Sebba says she was "never one to miss an opportunity for a wisecrack." About the Nazi allegations, Sebba writes: "She was probably no more pro-Nazi than the pro-appeasement Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and many of the Cabinet at the time" (a somewhat faint defense).

Wallis' wartime stint when her husband was made governor of the Bahamas brought out her generous side. One reliable source recalls how "extraordinarily nice Wallis was to people ... and always had the right word for everyone, always able to make whomever she was talking to feel they were the person she'd been waiting all her life to meet, which was very flattering."

That sounds similar to things said about Princess Diana.

Wallis could, however, be flighty and self-involved. Though she enjoyed Prince Edward's attentions early on, she was in fact toying with him. Sebba writes that Wallis was planning to go back to her husband, Ernest.

Reality hit with the death of King George V. As his father was dying, Edward wrote to her: "You are all and everything I have in life and WE must hold each other so tight."

What a burden!

I am not suggesting that hearts bleed for the Duchess of Windsor. She made her choices.

Sebba is also not the first to suggest that Edward's character flaws may have made him unsuited to being a good king, anyway. She writes that Winston Churchill declined advice from the duke during World War II, telling him he could not listen to someone who "had given up the greatest throne in world history." Maybe Wallis did Britain a favor.

But this story stands as a cautionary tale for anyone fond of playing with fire. The best you can say is that the duchess seems to have dealt gracefully with a situation she should never have permitted to arise.

Unwelcome in Britain, shunned by the royal family, she and the duke were doomed to wander, frequently trying to figure out where to live. They stayed admirably loyal to each other. They had friends. But there is no happy ending.

"That Woman" strikes the strangest note when it explores the relationship between Wallis and Mary Kirk, her close friend since childhood. Kirk married Ernest Simpson, Wallis' cast-aside second husband, in 1937.

They had a child together, but their happiness was brief. Kirk died of cancer in 1941. As the Germans were bombing Britain, Kirk wrote in her diary:

If I believed in that sort of thing, I might say that my getting cancer again was a judgment on me because I once wished that when Wallis came to die she'd be fully conscious and know it because she is the most arrant coward I ever knew and terrified of dying. I had hoped she knows it is to pay her back for all the wicked things she's done in her life -- for I think of her as people think of Hitler, an evil force. ... How she would panic if forced to live now in England. I can just imagine what her terror of bombing would be. ...

Wallis did have a long death with a long, drawn-out dotage. The Duke of Windsor died in 1972; she lived until 1986, lingering for years half-forgotten and half-blind. Though many aspects of "That Woman" are interesting, it was this dark subplot, like something out of "Jane Eyre," that stays with you.

Because, you could say, that is the story that continues.

I do not think the Duchess of Windsor will ever rest in peace.

Mary Kunz Goldman is The News' classical music critic.


That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

By Anne Sebba

St. Martin's Press

344 pages, $28