Footsteps biography doesn’t get more real than this. Young Wallis Warfield, barely ten years old and fatherless, lived in this building in Baltimore where I have just spent a night. Many times she walked up the same red brick-edged steps that I just have, with a heart – by her own account – almost as heavy as my suitcase.
Brexton Hotel Steps
It was around 1905 that Wallis and her widowed mother, Alice, moved in to the Brexton lodging house, built in 1891 on a strange corner plot with 58 bedrooms and only a handful of shared bathrooms. The time they spent here was deeply unhappy for them both. Wallis recalled later how she endured meals alone with her mother, bathrooms shared with other tenants “and rather forlorn excursions” to the Warfield family house on East Preston Street, the smartest part of town, that they had just left. Probably they had fled in a hurry because her late father’s brother, Uncle Sol, on whom they depended for money, had made unwelcome overtures to the beautiful Alice. As keen-eyed Wallis noticed, there suddenly descended a mysterious and disturbing barrier preventing discussion of anything connected with the family mansion. Read More
There have been several attempts to demythologise the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. It is variously alleged that she never really loved him and he never really loved her, or that theirs was a great love affair that the establishment tried to destroy. And of course, there is that photograph of the pair shaking hands with Hitler, making them not only a couple who perhaps weren’t in love but who were also fascist and treacherous, too.
Simpson in particular has always been demonised. A possible hermaphrodite who learned the ways of prostitutes while in Shanghai, her sexuality has been called into question, never mind what British biographers loyal to the Royal Family consider her “brash” American ways.
But in this commendably restrained biography, Anna Sebba creates some sympathy for a woman who endured a brutal and sordid first marriage before leaping into the comfort of a second, with Ernest Simpson, that, alas, could never save her. Sebba’s real coup, though, is the discovery of letters between Wallis and Ernest, dated long after she had become involved with Edward. Indeed, Simpson’s genuine sorrow at the loss of Ernest (“the grave of everything that was us”) and her terror at the Abdication show an ordinary woman caught up in events she couldn’t hope to control, and help to balance the damning indictments written even by some of her closest friends.
Giving a talk about That Woman – what else? -the other night I was thrown an interesting question from a well-known journalist in the audience.
Did I think – he asked – that I would have made the risky journey to the Mexican desert to interview a man I had never met had I not been a journalist at heart? Journalists go for people and human interest stories whereas academic historians rely on sober printed sources and would never expect an encounter with a stranger in such a bizarre and beautiful location to yield useful documents or to provide reliable information. On balance, I think he is right. It was both my journalist’s instinct and the fact that he gave me almost no time to dither or deliberate, that decided me to go. The man – a champion free diver who ran a diving camp on the edge of the magnificently beautiful Sea of Cortes, offered me a window of opportunity when he could see me and after that – well, he said, he couldn’t promise anything. At least I would see some amazing sea lions, he promised.
So what was to lose? My life perhaps! It didn’t feel too risky at the time but, in addition to the machete my new friend took with us on the journey (to kill snakes he insisted) and the lack of phone signal for several days in the desert , Mexican Swine ‘ flu took hold while I was there resulting in hundreds of deaths and I was seriously at risk. Airport officials almost refused me entry back into London. But I didn’t know any of that when I decided to fly out and meet him, any more than I knew that the journey would result, albeit indirectly, in my finding a new archive about Wallis Simpson and the Abdication – a find of serious historical significance that truly changes perspective of the Abdication crisis.
So, at a time when being a journalist carries a whiff of deepest unpleasantness, I was pleased this week to own up to being one. Luckily I consider myself a historian as well and think both disciplines combine rather well.
Seeing my book in the window of Hatchard’s Piccadilly book store, sandwiched between the Duchess of Devonshire and Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames, gave me a frisson of pleasure. Of course it is a most illustrious position for me but I wondered if Wallis herself would give a toss? Probably not. After all much of the aristocracy did not have a problem with her and Churchill certainly did not. The elite London circles in which she moved encouraged her to think all would eventually be well… The real opposition to the idea of Wallis as Queen came from the middle classes, the Church and the Dominions. I think she’d be quite comfortable between these two National Treasures who’d probably give her a pat on the back have plenty to say to her after all these years.
That Woman is the Number One recommended non-fiction hardback book in today’s Observer (September 4 2011)