The English don’t mind if their king has a mistress provided she is what they call “a good sort.” This can mean English, a daughter of the people, and happy-go-lucky, like Charles II’s Nell Gwyn. Or English, an upper-middle-class widow, and predictable, like Edward VII’s Alice Keppel. The job of the mistress is to keep the king calm and content so that he can do his job.
The Era of Good Sortness crashed and burned in 1936 when George V died and the crown passed to his 41-year-old bachelor son Edward VIII, whose twice-married American mistress commented on royal mourning protocol in the idiom of her people, the wisecrack: “I haven’t worn black stockings since I gave up the can-can.”
Three-quarters of a century have now passed since Edward abdicated to marry “the woman I love,” long enough to replace the fevered romanticism of the time with a realistic probing of the question of how a middle-aged social climber managed to get herself into such a mess. For it was Wallis’s mess no less than England’s, says author Anne Sebba, who believes that “the Abdication [was] not in itself a crisis, but a solution to a crisis,” because Edward did not simply love Wallis: He stalked her, and she had to marry him to get rid of him.
It all began with Wallis’s standard modus operandi: meeting the right people. Living in London in 1930 with her second husband, shipping magnate Ernest Simpson, she decided that if they could meet the Prince of Wales and become members of his set it would benefit them both: social advantages for her and business advantages for Ernest. Once she had made up her mind, she did what she always did in such circumstances: “Wallis’s ability to use to her advantage contacts she barely knew was an art form.”
When she met the prince, another modus operandi kicked in: her southern identity, which impelled her to flirt with every man she met. “I was brought up to believe that one should be as entertaining as one can be at a party,” she noted coyly in her memoirs. She did not elaborate on the part her southernness played in her relations with the prince, but it is something her present biographer understands very well. As a Warfield of Maryland and a Montague of Virginia, Wallis could truthfully claim that she was more English than the mostly Teutonic royal family. Moreover, she was the ultimate aristocrat according to the tripartite southern pecking order: old blood and old money; old blood and new money; and, most exalted of all, old blood and no money. She saw herself as the prince’s equal if not his superior and acted accordingly, which set off his masochistic craving for self-abasement. She became his drug and he would not hesitate to move heaven and earth for an uninterrupted supply.
Wallis may be the only woman known to have spent her honeymoon with her third husband writing letters to her second. As the duke’s insubstantial personality and subservient adoration grated more and more on her nerves, she turned to steady, reliable Ernest Simpson as the rock she needed and now no longer had. It is clear that he brought out the best in her and was the only man she ever respected. Her letters to him are touching and sincere, revealing a Wallis we have never seen before: “What can I say when I am standing beside the grave of everything that was us and our laughter rings in my ears. . . . Oh my very dear, dear Ernest, I can only cry as I say farewell and press your hand very tightly and pray to God.”
The duke’s sick compulsion to serve her like a lackey has been well documented in other books, but Sebba produces the most riveting example. The trip to Nazi Germany the Windsors made after their marriage, the trip that gave the world the famous photo of Hitler bowing over Wallis’s hand, had nothing to do with politics or the duke’s unabashed Nazi sympathies. He arranged it solely because it “afforded a real opportunity for Wallis to sample a state visit . . . to give Wallis a taste of being queen.”
She got another taste of being queen when her new brother-in-law, King George VI, appointed the duke governor-general of the Bahamas during World War II. It was the most minor of queenships but her southern identity kicked in once again: In the subconscious mind of every southern woman is a vision of herself as a great lady, an Ellen O’Hara or Melanie Wilkes laboring uncomplainingly for others with no thought for herself. Once again Sebba gets it right. “Those who knew her at this time admired the element of Southern nobility” in her behavior, she writes. “Publicly she did not complain, and many remember her working hard and efficiently in a variety of capacities as the governor’s wife” — in the Red Cross, a home for destitute women and children, and a canteen for troops in transit. A British journalist was struck by how “extraordinarily nice Wallis was to people as she went around inspecting homes and creches,” and how she “always had the right word for everyone.” Her Bahamas period was the only time in her life when she was widely liked, and it raises an interesting point. Her surprising depths of dignified compassion might have made her, in time, a much-loved queen, and certainly a better match for the English temperament than the hugging dervish that was Princess Diana.
Wallis herself was aware of her complex, contradictory personality and often spoke of her good-Wallis, bad-Wallis split. The author does not stint in describing Wallis the Gorgon, but her ultimate assessment is more than favorable: “Merely by marrying the ineffectual king she not only did England but the world a favor.”
The abdication is now shrouded in the mists of nostalgia, but its political divide is still with us. On the day after the “woman I love” speech, the archbishop of Canterbury denounced the former king for giving in to “a craving for private happiness.” Instantly, a fiery debate broke out between traditionalists and fashionable lefties that sounds exactly like today’s face-offs between cultural conservatives and anti-religious progressives. “Harold [Nicolson] is glum as an undertaker and so are the other nobs,” observed feminist novelist Virginia Woolf, while the New Statesman’s drama critic wrote: “You may say that Parliament won — so did the prudes and the Pharisees; a dangerous victory. . . . Clericalism will now fight harder than ever to hold all its forts of intolerance and obscurantism.”
Gossip columnist Liz Smith famously said, “Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” Anne Sebba serves up all the well-known Wallis stories as well as some new ones, and even supplies what comes close to being a gynecological ultrasound, but no matter how much she dishes, this is not just another tell-all Wallis book. She has written the first historical biography of the Duchess of Windsor, and it is not to be missed.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.