- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

LONDON | Watch out, Kate Middleton. Another royal consort is in the limelight as the royal wedding approaches.

Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who scandalized Britain and brought down a king in the 1930s, is back in style.

She appears as a character in the Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech” — as the interloper who lures Edward VIII away from royal duties, thrusting his stammering younger brother George onto the throne. She turns up trailing glamour and menace in the recent British TV series “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Any Human Heart.”

She is the subject of two new biographies, and is the central character in “W.E.,” a forthcoming movie directed by Madonna — one powerful woman examining another.

Her striking sense of style continues to inspire designers well after her death in 1986. Her jewelry sold for $13 million at a Sotheby’s auction, and now fans are even buying her lingerie. One of her scarlet chiffon nightdresses with a cape sold for more than $10,500 at auction Thursday, and her Louis Vuitton vanity case went for $77,500.

Wallis Simpson, the duchess of Windsor, owned several scarlet chiffon nightdresses. One of them (seen here) sold for more than $10,500 at auction Thursday. (Associated Press)
Wallis Simpson, the duchess of Windsor, owned several scarlet chiffon nightdresses. One ... more >

Style icon, romantic heroine, villain — Simpson is an elusive character. Anne Sebba, whose biography “That Woman: A Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor,” will be published in August, said her enduring fascination rests on that sense of mystery.

“Why and how did a middle-aged woman, not conventionally beautiful, beyond childbearing years and with two living husbands win over a man so forcefully that he gave up not just a throne but an empire to live with her?” Miss Sebba said.

It’s still possible to feel a frisson of the scandal Simpson caused in 1930s Britain. The divorcee from Baltimore was still married to her second husband when she took up with Edward, then the heir to the British throne.

Reports of the affair were censored in Britain. Newspapers did not report it, and American magazines had offending articles cut out before going on sale. That didn’t stop rumors swirling that Simpson was a spy, a witch, a Nazi sympathizer, a prostitute — she had lived in licentious Shanghai in the 1920s — and even a transsexual.

Torn between duty and passion for Simpson, Edward abdicated the throne in December 1936, announcing in a radio broadcast that “I have found it impossible … to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

The king’s younger brother unexpectedly became King George VI — the story recounted in “The King’s Speech.” Edward and Wallis, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and suspected by some of Nazi sympathies, were sent to the Bahamas, where he served as governor. After the war they mostly stayed away from Britain, living a life of nomadic luxury.

Many in Britain never forgave Simpson — including George VI’s wife Elizabeth, who became queen and later queen mother.

She blamed Simpson — whom she referred to witheringly as “that woman” — for forcing her husband onto the throne. She felt the stress contributed to his early death from cancer.

George’s widow became one of Britain’s best-loved royals — the “Queen Mum” — and died in 2002 at the age of 101. Plump and maternal, she was, in the popular imagination, everything the Duchess of Windsor was not.

Wallis had the good clothes,” author Justine Picardie wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph, “but Elizabeth the kind heart.”

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