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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Woman Before Wallis’

THE WOMAN BEFORE WALLIS: PRINCE EDWARD, THE PARISIAN COURTESAN, AND THE PERFECT MURDER
By Andrew Rose
Picador, $28, 352 pages

There may be several things to quibble about in "The Woman Before Wallis." It is repetitive, overly detailed and can drag on, but if you want the lowdown on the well-born, the intimate details of a major royal sex scandal and elaborate cover-up, the book provides a really dishy read. Author Andrew Rose also gives the reader a meticulously researched narrative describing the end of Belle Epoque France and of the "Downton Abbey" era of England. He captures the opulence, pomposity and peccadilloes of the aristocracy that flourished on both sides of the channel.

It is the story of a torrid affair, a passionate liaison between an immature and feckless future King Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, who frequented Paris rather than the front during World War I and became hopelessly embroiled with Marguerite "Maggie" Alibert, a courtesan with a mean streak and a nasty temper, who slept with a gun under her pillow. She was also glamorous, rich and highly skilled at her job. She taught the inexperienced prince all there was to know about the boudoir. He was enthralled.

Although there were to be innumerable mistresses after the alluring Parisian and before Edward renounced his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, Marguerite remained a thorn in his side. At the height of his fling from 1917 to 1918, he sent her 20 intimate love letters, calling her "mon bebe" and signing himself "E." Some of the letters contained erotic baby talk, others his hatred of what he called his "stunts" — his official outings as prince — and his visceral dislike for his father. Sometimes he sent souvenirs: a Prussian tunic button or a German helmet.

When he found a new playmate in London and tried to break up with his Parisian plaything, Marguerite replied with what Edward called " a regular stinker," reminding him she had all those love letters, which Mr. Rose describes as "probably scabrous."

"'Oh those bloody letters,' " Edward wrote to a friend. 'How I curse myself now, tho' only if I can square this case it will be the last one as she's the only woman I've ever written to.' "

Weeks later, he told his British paramour he thought the worst was over, "though I must get those letters back somehow." Marguerite made no further move and did not waste time. There were other victims in her sights. She quickly married and divorced Charles Laurent, a wealthy member of minor French nobility. In 1920, Marguerite converted to Islam to marry a billionaire Egyptian prince, Ali Fahmy, a charming and elegant playboy 10 years her junior.

It was a mismatch from the start, with bickering, insults, physical abuse on both sides and death threats played out against the backdrop of glittering watering holes across Europe and the Middle East. The fighting Fahmys became notorious.

One sultry, stormy night in the summer of 1923, Marguerite had enough. She wanted her independence and her husband's fortune. As he left their sumptuous suite at the Savoy Hotel in London to chase her lapdog, Marguerite shot him dead. Three times in the back.

Her claim: Ali was bisexual and repeatedly raped and beat her. But she was not worried. She had her get out of jail free card — Edward's letters.

Terrified that Marguerite would produce the missives — evidence of the prince's lascivious past — the British establishment closed ranks. They made a deal that would remain secret for almost a century. In return for the letters, Marguerite was guaranteed no mention of her questionable lifestyle. The judge avoided any testimony involving reference to her line of work. The prince, who was spirited off to Canada on a royal visit, got off scot-free.

So did Marguerite.

During the trial, Fahmy was called a monster of "Eastern depravity whose sexual tastes were indicative of an amoral sadism towards his European wife." Marguerite was portrayed as the naive and innocent victim driven to despair. It was a show trial. The justice system was totally compromised. Marguerite returned to France and went back to her old profession. For added security, she brought along a few of the steamy letters she carefully neglected to return.

Over the years both she and Edward probably crossed paths in chic restaurants, jewelry shops and hotels. Did the two former lovers nod and smile and move on, or did they reconnect and rekindle an old flame? Mr. Rose speculates that there might have been a couple of brief encounters, but offers no positive proof. In her 70s, she retired, announcing plans to sleep alone in a single bed. When she died at 80 in 1971, she was still receiving munificent sums from five or six former lovers.

After her death, her last lover, a director of a major French bank, destroyed Edward's remaining letters, innumerable photographs and, saddest of all, Marguerite's unique little black book in which she kept a detailed list of all her clients.

Quel dommage.

Sandra McElwaine is Washington correspondent for Newsweek Daily Beast.

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