The story of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII has captivated for 75 years.
Numerous books have been written about the love affair that almost destroyed the
British monarchy; Madonna’s film WE from earlier this year was billed by its
director – initially, at least – as the “love affair of the
Part of the enduring fascination comes from the primary
characters: the twice-divorced American, brash and calculating, and the rakish
heir to the British throne, who gave up his kingdom – or at least, so he said –
to be with the woman he loved. The story is fertile ground for biographers and
historians, but for Anne Sebba, the attraction had more to do with the
peculiarities of its historical backdrop.
“1936 was an extraordinary
Hitler marched into the Rhineland, the [Spaniards] were fighting an
existential struggle, of Fascists against Republicans...
and in England,
we were faffing about, worrying about who our King was going to marry!” Sebba –
brisk, businesslike but an entertaining public speaker – has just finished
speaking to an audience about the research for her most recent book That Woman:
The Life of Wallis Simpson, which took her to Baltimore, France and – quite
interestingly – an isolated Mexican beach for four days. But more about that
“It seemed so bizarre that there absolutely key world events were
happening – you know, if ever there was a time to stop Hitler, it was ’36 – but
we weren’t ready in England.”
That Woman is by no means the first
biography of Wallis Simpson, but interestingly is the first to have been written
by a woman. Sebba, who was a journalist with Reuters before taking up writing
full time, has written a number of acclaimed biographies, including studies of
Jennie Churchill – Winston Churchill’s American mother – and Mother Teresa. One
might say that Sebba has an interest in writing about women who break the mold,
so to speak. In this respect, Wallis Simpson was an irresistible
“I knew that I would start from a different perspective, ask
different questions,” Sebba says. Beyond this, the passage of time presented
other advantages – the change in public attitude toward the royal family, still
respectful but less deferential and thus less inclined to protect them from
“The other key event was that Queen Elizabeth, the
Queen Mother, died in 2002, and some of the papers that I quote in the public
record office had only been released after her death.”
The Queen Mother
was the wife of George VI, Edward’s younger brother and successor to the throne
after the abdication; he died young, and she was convinced that the stress of
his unexpected elevation had driven him to an early grave.
Mother had so loathed Wallis, and had so wanted everyone else to believe that
she was the incarnation of evil. But no one else had really dared to say
anything else... whilst she was alive,” Sebba says.
The Queen Mother’s
attitude summed up general public opinion towards Wallis Simpson in the years
after the abdication crisis – indeed, the book’s title comes from her supposed
refusal to refer to her sister-in-law by name. Thus, popular perception has
always been one of Edward being the tragic hero in the affair, torn between duty
and love, with Wallis coolly manipulating affairs stage-left.
book offers a fresh, intriguing perspective; of a woman who was indeed
manipulative – at times callously so – but who in fact wound up trapped by
Edward’s infatuation with her. As for Edward, this fresh appraisal does not cast
him in a flattering light. Self-absorbed and self-indulgent, the duty that came
with the privileges of his birth never featured very highly in his list of
priorities. He wanted to eat his cake and have it, too: one senses that if it
hadn’t been Wallis, it might well have been something else.
This is not
to say that Wallis’s reputation as an arch-manipulator was not deserved. But to
understand the woman, one must understand her past.
In a well-researched
and evenly observed biography, Sebba takes the reader back to Wallis’s childhood
in Baltimore, Ohio. She was born in 1896, the child of socially well-connected
parents, but her father died before her first birthday and she grew up shuttling
between dependence on wealthy relatives and genteel poverty. Her mother married
thrice; none of the marriages were successful, and at times she resorted to
taking in lodgers and selling embroidery, eminently unsuitable for people of
their social class.
“I think it is absolutely key to understanding
[Wallis],” Sebba says. “I think this lack of security... was pretty important to
understanding Wallis’s insecurity and fear that one day she might be left with
Another key factor in Wallis’s past was the delicate question
of her gender orientation. The topic has been alluded to many times in the past;
one senses that Sebba finds the discussion a little distasteful but as she
observes crisply, “since it had already been questioned, I had to look into
Sebba spoke with psychologists and specialists in the area of
disorders of sexual development.
“For them, it all made sense in terms of
her personality, and that did interest me – her need to confirm her
The way most women confirm their femininity is by having a
baby, but she knew... I am convinced that she knew, early on, that she could not
What were these substitutes? Sebba mentions three things
eternally associated with Wallis.
“Dressing is very important. Diet is
very important. Flirting is very important.
And all these three things,
she believed in big time. It makes sense.” WALLIS’S FIRST marriage, at the age of 19 to Navy aviator Win Spencer, was short
and unhappy. This marriage took her to the Far East, and then she drifted on to
England. By the time they divorced, at the end of 1927, she was already involved
with her second husband, Ernest Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping executive
working in London.
Simpson was an unabashed social climber; Wallis, with
an eye open for a provider, found in him an ideal match.
Sebba is clear that as far as relationships were concerned,
Wallis was in it for the money.
“She says in her memoirs ‘none of us had
careers, it wasn’t for that generation.’ Well, I did interview a few people from
her school who did actually work and get proper jobs and go to university... she
could have earned her own living.”
There is no doubt that the period was
not terribly sympathetic to independent women; there is no doubt in Sebba’s mind
that Wallis went further than this, writing, “She took the decision to live
vicariously through a man.”
Mr. and Mrs. Simpson married in 1928 – after
Ernest had divorced his first wife.
Although they were well set up at
first, living in the upper class Mayfair district of London in a house with four
servants, financial troubles soon intruded. Even though Ernest’s shipping
business was not badly affected by the economic depression of the 1930s, they
were living beyond their means. Given what we know about Wallis at this point,
when she was introduced to Edward – still Prince of Wales – in 1931 he must have
presented as a good catch. Ironically, the introduction was effected by Edward’s
mistress of the moment, a friend of Wallis’s.
Moving in high society was
important for both Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Sebba thinks that Wallis’s move on Edward – the relationship, as far as one can
say with any certainty, was consummated in 1934 – was deliberate, mercenary
“I think it was quite calculated,” Sebba says. “She often wrote
letters to her aunt, saying ‘I’ve got some nice pieces, big stones, but you know
it’ll all end soon....’” Again, financial security was her first
“The Simpsons almost thought they’d have to sell their flat,
and she could hardly keep up appearances. The Prince was putting money in a
trust for her very early on... he was paying for things from a very early stage
so she could look the part.”
Wallis’s motivations, Sebba thinks, were not
to become a royal herself but to get what she could from being the Prince of
Wales’s paramour. Edward, however, was besotted with her. This did not matter so
much while his father, George V, was alive, but after the king’s death in early
1936, the prospect of the new king’s choice of potential wife – and by this
time, he was absolutely besotted with her – became very real, and very
Public opinion – in contrast to the modern day – scarcely
played a role in the drama that played out over the course of 1936.
newspapers were censored, [the public] didn’t know about it! They barely knew a
thing until a week before the abdication, it was all kept quiet,” Sebba points
So what was it that turned so violently against Wallis Simpson? “I
think the idea of having two living husbands really shocked Queen Mary [widow of
PERSONAL MORALITY aside, there was a constitutional issue:
divorce was not permitted by the Church of England.
And Edward, by now
Edward VIII, was the constitutional head of the Church of England.
broke the law because you could not get a divorce in England, so why should she
be above the law?” Sebba points out.
“You know, if you are going to
subvert the law like that, then the whole law of the land comes into
There was also something else. Edward – as his stubborn
insistence on being with Wallis demonstrated – was not considered a safe pair of
hands for the monarchy, at a time when Europe was trying to deal with Hitler’s
maximalist ambitions. It has been suggested before that Wallis was a deliberate
plant to undermine Edward’s reign. Sebba dismisses this. The courtiers behind
the throne were already concerned about the difficulties that Edward’s reign
might present; his intransigence presented a suitable solution for an unsuitable
“I don’t even think it was a pretext.
Once they knew that he
wasn’t going to give her up, they were not unhappy. I think that is as strongly
as I would put it,” Sebba says, with – one suspects – classic British
Edward VIII abdicated the throne on December 10, 1936.
Contrary to the received wisdom, Sebba is quite clear that Edward was as much to
blame as Wallis.
Not that the Duchess of Windsor, as she became, was by
any means the blameless party; she had turned her husband into a cuckold and
precipitated a constitutional crisis for one thing. But one gets the sense from
That Woman – and it is a persuasive argument – that she had overplayed her hand,
wanting the money and winding up stuck to the provider.
The Windsors, an
utterly self-centred couple if there ever was one, lived in self imposed exile
for the rest of their lives.
They evoked remarkable loyalty in some, but
their abiding legacy was for popping up from time to time to make nuisances of
themselves – protracted arguments about money and the Duchess’s HRH status, for
example, or visiting Hitler in 1937 – which, even in the cosseted world that
they inhabited, was spectacularly poor judgment.
Edward died in 1972, and
Wallis survived him by 14 years. She maintained her elegant public face until
close to the end of her life, but there is no doubt that she was a lonely woman,
surrounded by the luxury she had always craved, but nothing else to give her
comfort in her dotage. Ernest Simpson went on to marry a third time – to
Wallis’s former best friend, no less.
And this, oddly, contributes to one
of the more startling – if tangential – revelations of the book. Their son,
christened Ernest, was educated at the top schools in England and Switzerland,
and like his father served in the socially elite Coldstream Guards. But it was
only after his father’s death in 1958 that he discovered that his father had
willfully obscured his Jewish origins. On discovering this Ernest reverted to
his father’s original name, Solomon, and immigrated to Israel, where he became a
free-diving instructor after several years’ service in the IDF.
of the complexities of the Simpson/Solomon story, Sebba spent four days with him
“He has been interested in what I’ve found, pursuing all
this... but I think he feels that his family was damaged by the connection to
Wallis – she was really a sort of vicious, charismatic storm that erupted in
their lives. He’s carved out a new life for himself in Israel.”
does she think of Wallis, having spent so much time with her? “I am more
sympathetic now... to the extent that I think she deserved to be understood. She
is still very hard to like – she was manipulative and brash, but she was
Sebba could even see her as a friend – of sorts.
as a female friend... you just wouldn’t invite her home to meet your husband,
you know. She was hard to like, but deserves to be understood.”