American Girl: The Wallis Simpson story, told differently
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.
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.”
When Win wrote and asked Wallis to come to China to try to make the marriage work again, she went, and in 1924 she arrived in Hong Kong. Things didn't work out with Win, but Wallis didn’t go home. She went to Shanghai. Wallis called this period in her life—single and in China—her “Lotus Year,” where she perfected the social skills she would depend upon for the rest of her life: using sometimes distant contacts to go where she wanted and to obtain access to the most fashionable parties.
In Shanghai she lived for a time with a man whose exact identity remains a mystery, and later moved to what was then known as Peking (now Beijing). There, attending a party with a man who was a friend of her cousin, she ran into an old friend, Katherine Rogers, who was living in China with her husband Herman. Wallis went to their house for lunch the next day, and subsequently moved in. The Lotus Year ended fairly bleakly when Wallis, nearing 30, thought it was time she go home and get married. Wallis became extremely ill on the boat back to the United States and on arrival had to be taken to a Seattle hospital for surgery. The source of her ailment, or the “stomach attacks” she had throughout her life, was never clear, with theories ranging from Win’s abuse to a botched abortion to complications of the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome she may have had.
Once she recovered, and was legally divorced from Win, Wallis was, as usual, dependent on the kindness of friends in New York. During this period she was theoretically trying to find a job, but she continually failed, sometimes as a result of her own tastes and sense of her own elevated social standing: an attempt at a secretarial course failed because she did not take to typewriters. At the time, though, Wallis asserted that she wanted to “do something different, something out of the ordinary for women, a job in which I could pitch my wits not against other women, but against men in a man’s world,” which is the enormous irony of her life. Wallis did do a number of things that were very out of the ordinary for women of her time and did go up against a man’s world, but she never did so by taking a job, and often did so in pitting herself against women.
The man she finally chose to marry, or who chose her—one comes away with the impression that in all of Wallis’ relationships, it was usually one way or the other, rather than a mutual choosing—was Ernest Simpson, whom she had met in New York through her childhood friend Mary Kirk, now Mary Raffrey. Simpson was already married, but became taken with Wallis and asked her if she would marry him once they were both out of their marriages. She agreed. Simpson was not that rich, nor was he particularly glamorous, and her decision to marry him as well as her continuing affection for him after they were married suggests that, though concerned with social status, Wallis was most interested in security. Ernest fit the bill. He was good-looking, bookish in a way that implied good breeding, and, what did turn out to be his greatest appeal, dependable.
Ernest was half-British, and once married, the couple moved to London for a new start. Wallis had always curated her life, and once she and Ernest found a permanent home in which she could entertain, “she set about collecting an interesting array of guests, inevitably with a strong American nucleus. Those whom she invited for dinner were drawn almost entirely from her carefully nurtured contacts.” The parties and people and home decor and food fly by in a long stretch of entirely enjoyable, almost sensual paragraphs with a seemingly purposeful minimum of punctuation, as if the reader is supposed to get lost in it all.
For example, the description of her original “carefully nurtured contacts”:
“Chief among these was Benjamin Thaw, newly appointed First Secretary of the US Embassy, married to Consuelo, one of the trio of glamorous Morgan sisters who had exotic Spanish looks and lots of money. Wallis had known Benjamin’s brother, Bill, at Coronado where he had been a beau of Katherine Bigelow before she married Herman Rogers. She also knew of, although she had not met, Consuelo’s twin sisters Thelma Furness and Gloria Vanderbilt, both celebrated society beauties. Thelma was currently the much gossiped-about lover of the Prince of Wales and Wallis knew that the pair sometimes met at the Thaws’ home. “Among regulars at the table there was also Wallis’s favourite cousin Corinne, now married to Lieutentent Commander George Murray assigned as assistant navel attache at the Embassy, Major Martin ‘Mike’ Scanlon, ‘a dashing bachelor who gave gay cocktail and dinner parties’ at his house, the former Ethel Noyes now Lady Lewis and her husband Sir Bill (William), Vincent Massey, the Oxford-educated and immensely wealthy Canadian diplomat and his pretty film-actress wife Alice.”
This was all before Wallis got involved with the British entitled noble classes.
THE HEIR TO THE THRONE of King George V was born Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, was formally called Edward, Prince of Wales, and was also known as the Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay, until he became King Edward VIII, until, less than a year later, he abdicated and become Edward, Duke of Windsor, which he would remain. Meanwhile, he was known to those close to him simply as David, and that is what he is called in most of the correspondence quoted in the book. Many have said that all he wanted was to be normal. But he was a very strange character, according to Sebba.
Though groomed from birth to be a king, Edward never seemed interested in it, which is where Sebba gets into breaking apart another part of the myth of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, that to give up the throne is such an unlikely, unexpected, even irrational act. But it becomes very clear once Sebba gets into the Prince’s personal traits that it was not at all unlikely that a person of his character would do that sort of thing. He admitted in letters to his first mistress that he thought the monarchy was a thing of the past, and that his father was out of touch, and in the 1920s, according to Sebba, wrote things in his diaries and letters like, “I feel quite ready to commit suicide and would if I didn’t think it unfair to Papa.”
Edward was intelligent, but bored and tired of authority; he left Oxford before he graduated. He exercised excessively and ate sparingly in a way that was almost self-punishing. Sebba breaks off to dig into the Prince’s unusual psyche. She quotes the psychiatrist Simon Baron Cohen: “his extremes of behaviour—including a refusal to eat adequately, violent exercise and obsessive concern about the thinness of his legs, verging on anorexia, arranging his myriad clothes in serried rows, his unusual speech, social insensitivity and nervous tics such as constantly fiddling with his cuffs—are just some of the characteristics that come under the broad spectrum of autism and or its sometimes less virulent cousin Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Edward's advisers and attendants were deeply anxious about him ascending to the throne. Several used the word “mad.” His assistant private secretary as of 1920, Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, referred to the Prince’s “ethical impotence.” George V’s private secretary allegedly was heard coming down from a conversation with the Prince saying, “He’s mad—he’s mad. We shall have to lock him up.” And the royal doctor, Lord Dawson of Penn was “convinced that EP’s moral development ... had for some reason been arrested in his adolescence.” Lascellus actually resigned over the Prince’s behavior. In 1928 he was with the Prince on a visit to Kenya and received a telegram that the King was very ill and the Prince needed to return. The Prince “shrugged” and gave him “a look” and then went about successfully seducing the wife of a colonial official.
The place the Prince liked most was Fort Belvedere, a country house for the royal family southeast of London, in Surrey. One observer of the Court wrote that it was like, “a child’s idea of a fort ‘missing only fifty red soldiers ... between the battlements to make it into a Walt Disney coloured symphony toy.’”
The Prince also had a thing for teddy bears.
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.
KING GEORGE V DIED ON JAN. 20, 1936.
The prince became Edward VIII and immediately horrified the royal staff by insisting that he stand next to Wallis at the ceremony of his own proclamation by the Garter King of Arms—Wallis was still married to Ernest—and then going about being king without much sense of duty. One close aide “described him as an “abnormal being, half-child, half-genius ... it is almost as though two or three cells of his brain had remained entirely undeveloped while the rest of him is a mature man”
He barely read the papers, took five-day weekends with Wallis at the Fort, and when in London shut himself in with her; he became more and more attached. Meanwhile civil war broke out in Spain, and Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles for the first time as he continued to militarize Germany. The king was, during all of these events, mainly concerned with finding a way to make Wallis his queen, facing the vehement opposition of his family and the fact that Wallis was still married to another man. Wallis, according to Sebba, eventually took a trip to Paris with a friend to escape him, in part because “she hated the pressure on her, with the King constantly telephoning her, relying on her; she felt she was losing control of the situation and wanted to get Ernest back as her husband.”
One night in February, Ernest and his friend Bernard Rickatson-Hatt, the editor-in-chief of Reuters, were at dinner with the king when Ernest finally asked him if he intended to marry her. The king apparently stood up and said “Do you really think I would be crowned without Wallis at my side?” He and Ernest then reached what Sebba calls an “accommodation,” that Ernest would let go of Wallis if the king would agree to take care of her. When Edward told his secretaries and his mother that, after much thought, he had decided to abdicate and marry Wallis, they “remonstrated with the King, calling up the obvious argument of duty and responsibility, his answer was, ‘The only thing that matters is our happiness.’”
Sebba adheres to the opinion, throughout the book, that Wallis was enamored primarily with the Prince’s lifestyle—Ernest’s business suffered after the crash of 1929, so what had always been his advantage, security, wasn't what it had once been—but not necessarily of him, that she did not ever want to be queen, that she always assumed his infatuation would pass, that she always intended to end up with Ernest, and that, essentially, events spiraled our of her control.
Sebba makes a convincing argument, presenting letters Wallis wrote to Ernest in summer of 1935—she happened to be at the Prince’s place in Cannes, where Ernest could not have gone even if he was invited—and letters she wrote to her Aunt Bessie in the fall of the same year, when he Ernest went on a business trip, of how much she missed the “saintly” Ernest. Later, even after the Prince had told Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and his own mother, at a meeting, of his intention to abdicate the throne, and told Wallis to flee to Cannes, the letters she wrote to Ernest were filled with regret, and even after she was divorced and remarried to Edward, she wrote to Ernest tenderly, and referred to him as Peter Pan, a nickname that didn't exactly indicate hopeless love so much as deep tenderness.
Even if such communications were done with posterity, and her historical reputation as a kind-hearted character in mind, or simply to make Ernest feel better about the whole thing (who was already involved with Wallis's old friend Mary Kirk, so presumably feeling okay), there's still not much convincing evidence that Wallis wanted either to be queen or for Edward to abdicate. She well knew that, set afloat in the world, they would end up dependent on others, less sought-out by powerful people, and concerned about money; all the things she'd tried her whole life to avoid.
There were other options, of course: that Edward keep Wallis as a formal mistress without the entanglements of marriage; that he marry her and she be given a title, and title lower than that of queen. According to Sebba, Wallis and her Aunt Bessie did make cases for just these options, but the king stubbornly refused, and thus Wallis knew the only thing he could do was abdicate. Historians have suggested that there was a real chance the two could have been reconciled with the royal family and even moved back to England if Edward would allow Wallis to be recognized only as the Duchess of Windsor, but he would have a queen or nothing.
The way that things worked out could not have been what Wallis ever wanted for her life or her relationship with Edward. She became the focal point of massive, collective ill will—she received piles of hate mail, and was so hounded by newspapers and shunned by former friends in London that she could barely leave the house, and eventually fled the country, at one point in her escape being forced to hide under a blanket in the back of the car.
A wedding should, theoretically, come near the beginning of a love story, but for the Windsors, at least from the outside, it was the end of theirs. Wallis had gotten to the very top of her era's social world, and gotten her hands on a few strings, only to lose her grip and end up in a situation she could only attempt to endure. Other than the iconic dress Wallis wore, and the clement weather, the event of the wedding itself, which took place in the Loire Valley home of French-born American industrialist Charles Bedaux, was dismal, with few friends and no royals attending; the one eccentric royal chaplain who would perform the service, the Reverend R. Anderson Jardine, was ostracized when he returned to England, and moved to America shortly after. Once married, the couple did some traveling, including a trip to Germany, where Wallis was photographed meeting Hitler, a connection that would only further doom the couple to infamy at home. During World War II Edward was appointed the governor of the Bahamas, a position most people, Wallis included, generally considered a punishment.
Sebba devotes only 30 pages to the lives of Wallis and Edward after the war, for the rest of their lives. She paints a drooping picture of two figures floating between France and New York City, entertaining and occasionally lending themselves to charitable events. Their lives were defined by each other, the past, and aesthetics: decorating, shopping, holding formal dinners, being noticed by the newspapers. They were bitter toward the royal family, and Wallis was eternally frustrated that she no longer held the interest of people at high levels of society, government, or the arts. Her wit grew sharper, and meaner. They wrote their separate memoirs, they ate next to nothing, and they drank a lot. Sebba cites reported opinions of Wallis that range widely, from vain and harsh to kind and thoughtful, while the Prince was primarily known only for his devotion to her. It’s a spare description of a great deal of time that, actually, doesn’t feel out of sync with the myth of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were immortalized in the moment of abdication.
“Nothing else in his life gave him any sense of achievement other than his marriage to Wallis,” Sebba writes. “For her, the slavish devotion was at times claustrophobic and she was not afraid to show it. But love is impossible to define and in their case especially so. Few who knew them well described what they shared as love. “