MARRYING UP

By Liesl Schillinger

Published: March 11, 2012

Seventy-five years ago, Edward VIII swapped his kingdom for a divorcee, the American-born Wallis Warfield Simpson. At this advanced date, could there possibly be anything new to add to the mountain of autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, novels and films that have accreted on this subject? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. In “That Woman,” Anne Sebba boldly recasts the relationship that was once considered the “most romantic love story of the last century” as “a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core.” The king, in Sebba’s telling, emerges as a man who today might be looked on as something of a stalker.

On Dec. 11, 1936, the day after Edward VIII signed away his rights to the British crown, he announced on a BBC broadcast that he had abdicated for love of a woman whom he wished to marry, but could not marry as king. The object of his ardor was herself married at the time, to her second husband, Ernest Simpson.

In Britain, the public had not been aware of the seriousness of the king’s attachment. His protectors in the news media, notably Bernard Rickatson-Hatt, the editor in chief of Reuters and a close friend of Ernest Simpson’s (a connection Sebba explores in depth in the book), struggled to keep the mud from spattering. But across the Atlantic, American newspapers covered the courtship zestfully, portraying Wallis Simpson as a shrewd adventuress.

The British elite, who knew all about the king’s liaison, mostly deplored it, scornfully branding her “That Woman.” (Winston Churchill, then a Tory member of Parliament, was more indulgently disposed, calling her the king’s “cutie.”) Was Simpson as shameless as so many people said? Did she love the king as much as he loved her? Had she really wanted to divorce Ernest Simpson? Or really wanted to marry the king? Did he force her hand through a public proposal she couldn’t refuse?

Availing herself of previously unpublished documents – in particular a trove of 15 letters written in Wallis’s own hand, postmarked 1936 and 1937 and addressed to Ernest – Sebba makes the case that Wallis had wanted out of her relationship with the neurotic Edward for years. “This man is exhausting,” she complained to her aunt Bessie in 1934, back when she still fancied herself “in control of the situation.”

At first, Wallis relished the cachet of the dalliance, and her husband turned a blind eye since both were eager to profit from the social boost it gave them. Neither had expected the affair to take a serious turn, Sebba writes, but they were powerless to resist once the king made up his mind. In October 1936, when his determination to marry Wallis became clear, Ernest wrote to his wife: “I know that somewhere in your heart there is a small flame burning for me. Guard it carefully, my darling, and don’t let it go out.” A month later, Wallis told Ernest she was leaving the country to put distance between herself and “H.M.” (His Majesty), hoping the affair would blow over. No such luck.

While idling in a villa near Cannes (where she had fled in the king’s Buick), Wallis listened to the abdication speech on a crackly radio. In a mournful letter to Ernest soon after, she blamed the newly created Duke of Windsor (“Peter Pan,” she called him) for “this mess” and plaintively asked, “Oh dear, wasn’t life lovely, sweet and simple.” But Sebba’s devourable feast of highly spiced history doesn’t try to hide Wallis’s cayenne bite. Here she retains the epithets customarily attached to her – temptress, social climber, tactless boor, gold digger. But she is granted another that, in light of this substantial new evidence, seems to make her a little more palatable: helpless pawn.

Sebba, a British journalist and biographer (of Jennie Churchill, Mother Teresa and Laura Ashley, among others), believes that Wallis did not want to marry her royal lover, but that she was very likely used as a scapegoat by schemers in the British government who regarded Edward VIII as unstable, irresponsible and dangerously well disposed to Nazi Germany. The palace staff considered him “mad” (one retainer exclaimed, “We shall have to lock him up!”), and the royal family’s doctor was “convinced” that the prince’s moral development had stalled when he was in his teens.

His Majesty’s detractors (including Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin) sniffed an opportunity in the royal paramour. The king’s obsession with her was so great, they thought, that if he could be persuaded that he was constitutionally barred from marrying her, he might willingly transfer the crown to his more levelheaded brother Bertie (later George VI). The factual basis of the constitutional threat was shaky, according not only to Sebba but also to Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister during World War I. It was a risky ploy because the king was so popular with the British public, a “pinup figure for millions,” with his “wistful blue eyes” and suave sense of style. But it worked.

Obviously, Wallis, unlike Edward, was unpopular with the British public. Was this fair? Sebba tacitly asks. Without quite defending her subject, Sebba provides some background for Wallis’s actions by retracing her beginnings. Born in 1896 to a consumptive father, who died soon after her birth, and a romantic, well-connected mother whose marriage had alienated her family and wrecked her fortunes, Bessiewallis Warfield grew up aspiring to the status her mother had lost. Attending the Maryland finishing school Oldfields (where her tuition was subsidized by a fond uncle), she grew up to be fiery and flirtatious, readily attracting male attention.

When her uncle refused to pay for a coming-out ball, Wallis went off to stay with another relative in Florida. There she met Win Spencer, a young naval aviator with “film-star good looks” and a drinking problem. They married when she was 20 and stayed married, despite discord, for a decade. In 1928, following her divorce, she wedded Ernest Simpson, a British-American businessman, whose sister had married a British M.P. With her second husband, Wallis felt (according to her memoir, “The Heart Has Its Reasons”) “a security that I had never really experienced since early childhood.” It lasted until 1934, when Edward, then still a prince, dumped his two favorite mistresses and set his sights exclusively on her.

“That Woman” acquires the propulsive energy of a thriller as it advances through Wallis’s life, picking up speed as she and her royal suitor gain notoriety, then slowing as the couple’s courtship screeches to a halt at their sparsely attended wedding in France. Their married life rolls on haltingly for decades, traveling on fumes. They went from country to country, never again welcome in England. George VI refused his brother’s repeated requests to grant his wife the honorific “Her Royal Highness.” For the duke and duchess, this was a slap that never stopped stinging. “It’s not always as bad as this,” Wallis had joked at their wedding in 1937, poking fun at her ostracism, back when she thought it might end one day. “It just happens to be if you’re marrying the ex-king of England.” Her jest was met, Sebba reports, by “embarrassed silence.”

(Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review.)
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