American Girl: The Wallis Simpson story, told differently

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Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. ()
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The story of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, the man who was known, for the latter part of his life, as Edward, Duke of Windsor, is one of those tales that, even though it took place in the public eye, sifts down through generations not always accurately.

We remember it because it seems like a great love story: Edward gave up the throne of England for the love of a woman that the monarchy would not make a queen. And we remember in part because it reinforces American values; in a country whose founders deliberately rejected the entrenched formality of the monarchy, the belief in social mobility is sacred, as is the belief in second starts. We like to think a woman twice-divorced would not be shamed for it, could still do anything and be whoever she wanted to be.  

So the story survives this way, with one character as the lovestruck would-be king, and the other a woman so bewitching—though not because of her beauty—that she was able to coax him off the throne.

If the story author Anne Sebba tells in her new book, That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, is true, then the narrative of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that has been passed down is very much a myth. The story Sebba tells is more like this: an emotionally and morally stunted prince who never wanted to be king becomes obsessed with a woman who—although she enjoys his attention, the jewelry, and the lifestyle—he essentially has to corner into marriage.

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The trouble with writing about this particular story and this cast of characters is that much of the work that goes into it is purely interpretation of documents written or letters sent by people who knew they were on the historical record, and had an interest in curating their legacies even as they were inventing them. Still, Sebba’s interpretation is credible, and unusual.

The title of the book comes from what the royal family, their advisers, and their close circle of friends came to call Wallis Simpson, derogatorily. But throughout her life she was, in the circles she was closest to, often a form of “that woman,” someone remarkable yet always apart. She was the sort of person who always had the material—the past, the personality—to be a legend, going back to the circumstances of her birth.

Wallis had no birth certificate, nor was there a newspaper announcement of her birth, although it probably took place on June 19, 1896. She was born in a cottage at a fashionable resort that happened to sprawl across the meeting of four counties, two in Maryland, two in Pennsylvania, such that she literally came into the world on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Wallis' parents both came from distinguished families, and both had supported the Confederacy, but neither family approved of their marriage; her mother’s Warfields looked down on her father’s Montagues, who they believed to be below them. Wallis’s father died five months after she was born. She grew up in Baltimore, with her mother always dependent on the Warfield fortune, which was meted out in small, irregular amounts by Wallis' controlling uncle Sol. She went to the most prestigious preparatory school in Maryland, Oldfield’s, where she got a reputation for smoking, sneaking out, and having boyfriends. While she displayed a strong and outgoing personality that made her magnetic to some of the girls—in particular her best friend, Mary Kirk—that same disposition offended most adults, including Mary’s family.

“Some of the parents at the time believed that there was something extraordinary about Wallis and that her influence was malign,” Sebba writes.

It is a description that, if one were to substitute any number of social groups for “parents,”  would accurately describe the reputation Simpson established in many places throughout her life. Just after graduation Wallis went to live in Pensacola, Florida, with her cousin Corrine, whose husband, a U.S. Navy captain, had just been appointed head of the then-new Pensacola Air Base. This sort of excitement suited Wallis, and she almost immediately fell in love with an officer at the base, Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer—known as Win—and married him.

The way Sebba tells the story is somewhat remarkable, because the book is extraordinarily detailed, yet reads easily. Quotes from any number of sources are in almost every paragraph, which makes her interpretation of the evidence all the more convincing. Yet since this is a work of popular nonfiction—certainly approachable for any reader—rather than a scholarly work, hunting down the sources and original texts does not always reward the reader. (There are footnotes and a bibliography.)

The brisk pace of Sebba's narrative, however, is rather jarringly interrupted along the way with a half dozen or so moments where she leaves aside the story and attempts to analyze the tale's main characters from a formal psychiatric perspective. It's a bizarre, though ultimately compelling strategy, even if the writing in these sections becomes somewhat clinical.

In the first she devotes a chapter to the possible sexual abnormalities that may have contributed to the ways in which Wallis approached others, and the choices she made in her life. Among these theories, the most dependable seems to be the one that originated from her biographer, Michael Bloch, who lived in her house in Paris while she was still alive and consulted with her doctors. Bloch thought she may have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, which means she would have been born with an XY chromosome—genetically male—but with receptors that were insensitive to testosterone, so that she developed as female. People who have this condition are considered female by doctors, but they do not have ovaries or a uterus, and therefore cannot have children.

If true, the condition may have contributed to the development of her angular features, and Wallis’s lifelong obsession with being thin, lest it become obvious she didn’t have a waistline, and of course, that through three marriages she never had children. According to one biographer, she told her good friend Herman Rogers, who gave her away at her wedding to the Duke of Windsor, that she had never had sex with her first two husbands, nor had anyone been allowed to touch her below her “personal Mason-Dixon line.”

Nevertheless, Wallis was a talented and notorious flirt, lit up by men in a way she never was with women, so much so that Win Spencer’s sister said of her, “she could no more keep from flirting than breathing.”

Because Win was in the military the couple moved frequently; he drank heavily and was at times abusive, and it’s likely that Wallis’s flirting and failure to produce children (or perhaps have a sexual relationship of any kind) contributed to the disintegration of their marriage, but Wallis dropped the idea of pursuing a legal divorce when Win was posted to China.

“It was easier for unhappy naval wives like Wallis to keep up appearances of still being married while living alone,” Sebba writes. “Wallis was 25, and she now discovered freedom.” From this point until nearly the end of the book Wallis' life appears as a waterfall of parties and lunches and lists of names and who was having an affair with whom and where. Wallis was, for example, passed over by a man she had fallen in love with—Don Felipe Espril, first secretary at the Argentine Embassy and later ambassador—for “one of a quartet of Chicago debutantes known as the Big Four who attended parties, played tennis together and were legendary for their beauty, money and magnetism. All had multiple relationships, at least two of which provided the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Great Gatsby.”