- - Friday, March 9, 2012

By Anne Sebba
St. Martin’s Press, $27.99 368 pages

Twenty-six years after her death, the notorious Mrs. Simpson, a.k.a. Wallis, the late duchess of Windsor, is making a comeback. In an ironic twist, the vermillion-lipped adventuress who nearly cratered the British monarchy and served as the catalyst for Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, is muscling in on Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.

A delicious new biography, “That Woman” (the name the Queen Mother Elizabeth gave to the dreaded Wallis) is the reason she has returned to center stage.

English author Anne Sebba unmasks the vaulting ambition, insecurities and incalculable mistakes made by the flirtatious thrice-married Maryland belle who insinuated herself into royal circles and scandalized the world by her flagrant affair with the Prince of Wales, soon to be King Edward VIII.

In myriad books pegged to the present queen and her upcoming celebration, this meticulously researched, newsy account may well be the sleeper of the lot.

For the uninitiated, the liaison was a tawdry soap opera dubbed “the Romance of the Century.” It centered on the abdication of the glamorous yet wimpy king who, besotted by his mistress, did the unthinkable. In 1936, he gave up his throne for the “woman I love.”

His decision to wed the brash - some said coarse - American divorcee rocked the British empire. Further, his obsession to make her his royal consort created a political, social and media frenzy, and Wallis quickly became the most despised woman in the world.

Through newly discovered personal letters, diaries and documents, Ms. Sebba reveals that Wallis was clearly out of her depth in her relationship with the needy monarch. Ultimately, she found herself bored, exiled from England along with her spouse and trapped in a union with a feckless, hollow man whom she ridiculed, bossed and is said to have cheated on.

A legendary romance?

Not according to this author.

Born Bessie Wallis Warfield in Baltimore into an old family of modest means, the future duchess yearned for the high life and wealth. Her first marriage to Win Spencer, a drunken, abusive aviator, was unhappy and difficult. They separated on a couple of occasions, but seeking adventure, she followed him when he was based in China.

There she began her so called “lotus year,” indulging in a number of high-profile dalliances and supposedly acquiring a variety of exotic sexual techniques, which would later snare and enthrall the future king. (Ms. Sebba speculates that both Wallis and Edward suffered from sexual dysfunctions.)

Her second marriage was to Ernest Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping executive who was well-placed, reliable, solid and kind. “I felt security that I had never really experienced since childhood,” she wrote a friend.

Novelist Barbara Cartland encountered Wallis early on as she was learning etiquette and elbowing her way into London’s smart set. She called her “aggressively American and badly dressed and told rather vulgar stories. I was shocked to the core.”

But the Prince of Wales delighted in her fast repartee, penchant for cocktails,breezy informality and acid tongue. He quickly assumed her gravelly accent and flippant manner.

Story Continues →