A royal mess

Anne Sebba says could see woman who caused King Edward VIII’s abdication as friend – but not one she could trust.

Wallis Simpson (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
Wallis Simpson
(photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
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 century.”
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 year.
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 later.
“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 subject.
“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 critical reassessment.
“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.
“The Queen 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.
But Sebba’s 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 nothing.”
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 it.”
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 femininity.
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 have children.”
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.
For the moment.
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 even.
“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 priority.
“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 troubling.
Public opinion – in contrast to the modern day – scarcely played a role in the drama that played out over the course of 1936.
“The 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 out.
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 George V].”
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.
“It 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 question.”
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 king.
“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 understatement.
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.
In search of the complexities of the Simpson/Solomon story, Sebba spent four days with him in Mexico.
“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.”
And what 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 witty....”
Sebba could even see her as a friend – of sorts.
“Yes, 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.”