When Wallis Simpson tried to leave Edward VIII, he threatened to kill himself. She stayed, became his wife and so saved the British royal family.
This is Anne Sebba’s unusual perspective in “That Woman,” her new biography of the U.S. socialite who is often blamed for almost destroying the monarchy by her obsession with becoming queen.
The author quotes letters that suggest Wallis was “utterly genuine in her desire to disappear from the king’s life” and “get out of a predicament she now loathed.”
It’s been 80 years since the then-Prince of Wales dined at the London home Wallis shared with her second husband, Ernest Simpson, staying until 4 a.m.
Four years later, Edward gave up his crown and empire for “the woman I love.” If the woman born Bessiewallis Warfield had been crowned, Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee wouldn’t be happening now.
Newly uncovered documents show Wallis retained enough love for Ernest to write him passionate letters as they broke up, and she wasn’t so crazy about the king, whom she called “Peter Pan,” says Sebba.
Edward was a childish man who put whims above duty and was quite prepared to cut his throat if she walked away, according to courtier Alan Lascelles. Wallis was trapped. This is hardly the love story of the century.
The king avoided books, neglected state papers and naively meddled in politics -- as he did when he was Duke of Windsor and visited Adolf Hitler in the highly mistaken hope of encouraging peace and rebuilding ties with Germany.
Wallis was complicit in that ill-timed visit. Photographs of Hitler kissing her hand encouraged the view that the Windsors would be installed as king and queen at the head of a puppet government if the Germans invaded Britain.
Sebba is dismissive of lurid stories of an earlier affair with an Italian count and a botched abortion -- though she’s no Wallis apologist and can see the reasons she was branded a grasping monster, a Champagne-swigging party crasher, a spy and a sexual gymnast who wanted a man and money.
Wallis was striking, not beautiful; bright, not charming. Sebba praises her for her fashion sense and poise, though she doesn’t quite answer the big question of why Edward married her.
While the queen mother called her “that woman,” there are suggestions that Wallis was really “that man.” The book soberly examines the claims, saying she may have had androgen insensitivity syndrome, or an inability to process testosterone, which leads a child with male chromosomes to appear female from the outside.
Sebba’s book is more satisfying than “W.E.,” Madonna’s recent movie presenting Wallis as a U.S. style icon who becomes an English social climber with ruthless ambition.
There’s been a whole industry of books about the duchess. Hugo Vickers’s “Behind Closed Doors” examines her later years in detail. Her health problems in the 1950s are often said to have been cancer of the ovaries or womb, while Wallis’s own unrevealing autobiography from 1956, “The Heart Has Its Reasons,” dryly notes on its last page that she would have liked to have had children.
Sebba skates over some moral and political issues, while drawing out British class snobbery and the duchess’s aimless life after her exile to Paris.
The book’s final picture is well chosen. It shows Wallis’s funeral at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, on April 30, 1986. As the Welsh Guards efficiently move the coffin down the steps before laying it to rest next to the Duke at Frogmore, the queen mother watches with a faint smile.
“That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor” is published by St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. and Phoenix in the U.K. (344 pages, $27.99, 7.99 pounds paperback). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)