THAT WOMAN: THE LIFE OF WALLIS SIMPSON, DUCHESS OF WINDSOR
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.
They seemed so companionable that his current mistress, Lady Furness, asked Wallis to look after “the little man,” as they called him while she went ona trip. By the time she returned, Wallis was firmly ensconced.
The rest, as they say, is history.
In reality, there was no happily ever after for the outcast duke and duchess of Windsor, titles created for them after his abdication. Aimlessly, they traveled the world, an odd couple sponging off society mavens and wealthy supporters trying to establish their own royal identity.
During World War II, because of their perceived Nazi sympathies, they were hustled off to languish in the Bahamas, where the duke served as governor of a tropical outpost the modish and gossip-loving Wallis loathed.
Afterward, they became mainstays of postwar cafe society, photographed at swanky nightclubs, partying in New York and Palm Beach. Groveling hostesses curtsied to the best-dressed,magnificently bejeweled duchess. (Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier were among her favorite pit stops.)Some flattered her by calling her HRH.
Eventually, they settled in a mansion in Paris. Despite a splendid lifestyle, they became even more embittered as they were shunned and remained persona non grata in England. Alcohol fueled their frustration and served as refuge.
Writer Lesley Blanch wrote a devastating description of the Windsors: “tiny twins with large bottles of drink.”
The most surprising part of the book is Wallis’ letters to Ernest during the Sturm und Drang of her affair with Edward and their ensuing divorce. Even on her honeymoon with her third husband, she penned rueful notes to her second.
Again and again, she speaks longingly of their time together, voicing her regrets, suggesting her new life was not what she had planned. “Wherever you are, you can be sure that never a day goes by without some hours thought of you & for you. With love, Wallis.”
In 1972, after the duke’s death, she was allowed to return to England for his funeral. Her husband had negotiated a royal burial plot for them both at Frogmore within the grounds of Windsor Castle.
She viewed her reception by the royals as correct but cold.
When Prince Philip and Lord Mountbatten asked about her plans, she snapped, “Don’t worry. I shan’t be coming back here.”
Wallis spent her remaining years ill, bed-ridden and alone in her Paris residence, cut off from her few friends by a fierce overseer/nanny Maitre Suzanne Blum. (Much has been written elsewhere about Maitre Blum’s ferocious guardianship of the feeble duchess.)
She died at almost 90 in 1986.
In an attempt to explain her motivation and choices, Wallis once wrote, “It was not quite enough for me to be, or try to be, the life of the party or to spend my existence merely taking part in good conversation. I wanted something more out of life.”
• Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast.