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The Windsor Knot: Anne Sebba Debuts Book on Wallis Simpson

“That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor” aims to portray her in a more sympathetic light.

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That Woman The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor Anne Sebba
That Woman The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor Anne Sebba

Anne Sebba

Photo By John Stoddart

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.

That Woman The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor Anne Sebba

Wallis Simpson when she left Oldfields School.

Photo By Courtesy of Oldfields School, Baltimore

Duke and Duchess of Windsor Mainbocher Chateau de Conde

“I don’t believe she encouraged him — [the Duke] forced her, and she, in the end, had to give in,” says Sebba. “I don’t want to make her out as saintly, but I did find that in the end she found herself trapped in this situation. I don’t quite see it as the fulfillment of a great romance. Like many romances, it was rather one-sided and dark and Faustian with almost dark overtones of obsession on one side and a corrosive need for material fulfillment on the other....When she tried to call it off, he threatened to kill himself. I think she recognized that he’d go wherever she was.”

Sebba writes of the last months of the affair: “From now on there is a painful inexorability to Wallis’ life. She was carried forward, more or less willingly, by the King’s alternating threats, blandishments and jewels.”

At another point in the book, she writes, “[Noted biographer] Philip Ziegler believes that Wallis provoked in [Edward] both ‘slavish devotion’ and ‘profound sexual excitement,’” Sebba writes. “‘That such excitement may have had some kind of sadomasochistic trimmings is possible, even likely.’” Sebba addresses the longstanding rumors that Wallis may have had a disorder of sexual development, or DSM, and have been what’s called a pseudohermaphrodite, with incompletely developed male organs. These women often have very commanding personalities. Staying very slender to avoid looking mannish would have been important to such a woman, as would flirting with men in order to affirm her femininity, something that Wallis was always known for. It would have been impossible for her to have children. After the Duke and Duchess married, Sebba says, “I think she had convinced herself that to create a mini-kingdom of style for him was the best she could do for him.”

At the beginning of the relationship, Wallis’ influence was seen by some as positive since she tried to get Edward to drink less and to review his boxes of state papers, which he often left around where anybody could get hold of them. But this perception soon changed. “The views of most who met Wallis at this fraught time [were] that she was ‘a third class kind of woman...but no heart’ or ‘a hard-bitten bitch,’” Sebba writes. Many members of the Royal Family, it seems, felt that Wallis had to be painted as black as possible, because in the early years after the abdication, any more positive representation might have threatened the monarchy.

The Windsors had only one period when both worked — during World War II, the Duke was the governor of the Bahamas, and the Duchess served as his hostess, organizing charitable events. In later years, they lived in Paris, where they rented a beautiful house and were part of international cafe society. But their lives together seemed arid and claustrophobic.

Sebba, a former foreign correspondent for Reuters who has written seven other books, among them “American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill,” “Laura Ashley: A Life by Design” and “Enid Bagnold: A Life,” read history at King’s College, London, and said of her motivation for writing a book about Wallis Simpson, “I think just to change perceptions of history for an individual who has been vilified is very, very exciting. I love the period absolutely. It was a deeply dangerous time in the world; here’s a woman caught up in the eye of history, the maelstrom of it. You see how these things happen. I love writing about women....I also think the Royal Family are ordinary people. These are flawed individuals, [and the story is about] the magnetic attraction of one flawed individual for another. That’s why I write fact, not fiction. If you wrote this as a novel, people wouldn’t believe you. I really believe that life is stranger than fiction.”