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It was an enormous international scandal, one of the biggest of the 20th century. It may or may not have been a great love story. Edward, Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VIII after the death of his father, George V, famously abdicated in December 1936 to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American woman. Now English historian Anne Sebba has written a book, “That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor” (St. Martin’s Press) that aims to portray her in a more sympathetic light than the one in which she has generally been shown in the British Isles. In the U.S., as Sebba says, Wallis Simpson is seen as “a local girl [who] made good,” whereas, to the British, “to give up on what was your duty was something that could never be forgotten. The British have never forgiven [the Duke].”
“In England, there was an intense disrespect of a man who gave up his duty — the words duty and pluck are very strong words in England in the 20th century,” Sebba says. “People sacrificed an awful lot and saw a lot of men, lovers or husbands, killed or maimed for duty. It was OK to fall in love, but Edward gave up on his duty for what he perceived as his personal fulfillment.”
In America, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were seen as having an extraordinary romance; after all, what greater passion could there be than one that made a man give up a throne? Then there’s the matter of Wallis’ impeccably groomed, streamlined style, with her Mainbocher clothes and big, dramatic jewelry, which show up beautifully in photographs. Only in recent years has more information come out here about the Windsors — that their lives were empty, that they were paid to go to parties, that Wallis could be extremely sharp and cruel to the Duke in public, that she was anorexic and so on. What’s distinctive about Sebba’s take on this much-written-about subject is that she has gone back to many primary sources and read newly available letters and diaries to explore the psychological underpinnings of the relationship.
In “That Woman,” Sebba tells the story of a woman who grew up as Bessie Wallis Warfield, a poor relation in an aristocratic family in Baltimore. Her bachelor uncle, Solomon Davies Warfield, was a millionaire; he had said he would pay for her debut, then demurred when World War I broke out. At one point, her mother, whose first two marriages had failed, ran a boardinghouse. “An aspect of this story is avenging her mother’s hard life; she lost all her money in the Great Depression,” Sebba notes.
Wallis, who was known early on for her original clothes, made a rather hasty marriage to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a dashing World War I flier who turned out to have a serious drinking problem. After years of a volatile relationship, Wallis made plans to divorce him, then went to Shanghai and Washington. In both places, she was surrounded by admiring men. When she did get the divorce, which her Uncle Sol didn’t approve of, he wrote her out of his will.
In Washington, she met Ernest Simpson, who was then married with two young children. Simpson was a dual national, and when he and Wallis started an affair, he left his marriage and got a divorce. The couple married and moved to London, where before long Wallis met the Prince of Wales. Wallis became involved in a flirtation with the prince, but he fell madly in love with her and soon didn’t want to let her out of his sight. What started out as simple social climbing became a compelling, even coercive, romance. At one point, Wallis believed that she would lose Simpson and be left all alone. Later, she was attacked in the American and British press and received death threats. She eventually had to leave the U.K. because the police said that they couldn’t guarantee her safety.