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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Wallis Simpson when she left Oldfields School.

Photo By Courtesy of Oldfields School, Baltimore

“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.”


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