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Wallis was not the first woman with whom he became obsessed. In 1918 he met Freda Dudley Ward, who was married to a Liberal MP, William Dudley Ward “vice chamberlain of the Royal Household and therefore often out late on public duties,” Sebba writes, “the ideal mari complaisant.” Edward was obsessed with her, sometimes writing her three letters in a day. He wrote to Ward in baby-talk, as Sebba quotes: “I’m just dippy to die with YOU even if we can’t live together...” His behavior bears a strong resemblance to the approach he would take to Wallis, and making him seem as much “That Man” as she was “That Woman,” at the highest levels of power and prestige and yet always, ineluctably other.
Wallis was openly interested in meeting the prince from the moment she moved to London, and in 1931 she did, through her friend Thelma Furness, who was herself having an affair with the prince, after he and Freda were no longer an item, though she, too, was married. To keep up some appearance of innocence, Furness needed a married couple for cover, to “chaperone” a gang for a weekend at Thelma’s home in Leicestershire—fox-hunting country—with the prince.
Sebba uncharacteristically lacks many details for this weekend, but the two met again at a later cocktail party Furness also hosted, and then again when Wallis and Ernest were “presented to the Court.” It’s not totally clear how Wallis went from there to entertaining the Prince at a dinner party at her home in 1932, but she did, and she and Ernest were then invited to spend a weekend at the Fort. They went on to spend many weekends there, which Ernest enjoyed at least in the beginning, although as time went by it was clear that Thelma was inviting the pair for Wallis’s benefit, as the prince had fallen for her “sharp tongue and risque repartee.”
Sebba spends some time considering why the prince was so attracted to that sharp tongue and risque repartee, suggesting that there was a deeper psycho-sexual dynamic between the two. Observers noted that Wallis frequently humiliated, or emasculated the prince, by such things as taking over the carving of a chicken by seizing the knife from his hand, or having him call her a taxi instead of one of his abundant staff. When they were alone—without guests at the fort—Wallis was noted by staff members to “taunt and berate him until he was reduced to tears.” He then overcompensated to please her.
The root of either of their sexual tendencies and interpersonal tics is, of course, pure speculation, but Sebba does, emphatically, speculate. Apparently the Prince had a lack of body hair, and the staff “questioned his virility.” Wallis may have had a sexual condition that made her feel incomplete, imperfect, and insecure. In a bit of a reach, with a very small grain of sand, Sebba writes, “But, drawing the conclusion that Wallis, with her obviously dominating personality, was therefore able to satisfy both his repressed and his yearning for a mother figure is, again, speculation, however likely it may seem.”
Regarding Wallis, Sebba writes, “Psychologists may have an explanation for her behavior: the ideal partner for her personality would be one who allowed her to appear the perfect one, the other (him) as the inadequate one and the one who carried the flaw.”
If all of this comes close to the truth, the myth of the love story between Edward and Wallis is reduced to little more than two complicated, wounded psychologies feeding off each other. “In this way an aspect of one is transferred to the other which makes both partners feel good and as a result each person develops a vital sense of closeness with the other,” Sebba writes.
The first time it seemed as if the Prince might have truly singled Wallis out as a real object of affection was on the eve of a trip she was taking to the United States. She received a radiogram from him fondly wishing her good-bye and a safe journey. “Nonetheless at this stage,” Sebba writes, “Wallis believed it was evidence of no more than than a mild interest, though perhaps something to make Thelma jealous, and that she had the situation well under control.”
“Well under control” is phrase that comes up throughout the next part of the book. Sebba’s interpretation is less that Wallis seduced or charmed Edward—although she took quickly and passionately to his lifestyle—but that he was obsessed with her and was not a man who liked, or was very good, at being managed, and Wallis lost control of everything fairly quickly, ending up carried along by his obsession.
When Thelma left for an extended stateside trip, and the Prince was suddenly without a mistress—he put the full weight of his admiration on Wallis. He came by her house to see her nearly every day, came for dinner several times a week, phoned two or three times a day, and she was expected at the Fort on weekends and whenever else she could make time. Ernest hadn’t raised any formal objections; “at the moment he’s flattered with it all, “ Wallis wrote her aunt. But she admitted, with a touch of anxiety, that “keeping up with 2 men is making me move all the time.” Wallis is generally blamed for Edward's “summary dismissal,” according to Sebba, of Thelma upon her return from America, and also of Freda, who at the time the Prince still had as a mother figure, but Sebba suggests that it was more his awkwardness and lack of courage that made the breaks so bad.
In the summer of 1934, Wallis went, without Ernest, on a vacation with the prince. They were not entirely alone, of course; princes tend to travel with an entourage; Wallis’s Aunt Bessie went with them to Biarritz, and the Rogerses went with them when the whole group went cruising on a friend’s boat, but Wallis later wrote of the trip, “Perhaps it was during those evenings off the Spanish coast that we crossed the line that marks the indefinable boundary between friendship and love.”
The royal opinion can be summed up the report from Hon. John Aird, who was along for the vacation as a staff member, and who was offended by Wallis’s brash behavior, and by the prince’s apparent adoration for it. By the end of it, Aird wrote, the prince had “lost all confidence in himself and follows W around like a dog.” After the trip, the prince insisted on presenting Wallis before the King and Queen, reportedly began paying Wallis an income, and at the same time began gifting her an ever-expanding collection of jewelry, a topic of much gossip in London.
It becomes a matter of interpretation at this point as to who was pulling what strings. The old guard disapproved and abhored the idea of Wallis as Queen; the newer guard found the idea exciting because it meant there was a way, a way for nearly anyone, into the royal family; the royal family itself wanted her gone, and of course commissioned an investigation, but then in the investigation it came out that Ernest himself (who had already been admitted to the prince’s Mason order) was fine with the whole arrangement because he expected the prince to become king soon, at which point he imagined he would have his wife back and be awarded “high honours.” It can be difficult, around this point in the story, to keep the chronology of events clear. Like the seemingly endless and slippery lists of names that Sebba inserts, it requires of the reader a certain leap of faith that the author will ultimately produce, at the end of a chapter, a sense of overall familiarity that makes the story complete, which she does.
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