She was neither beautiful nor rich, no longer young nor titled. So what was it about Wallis Simpson, a twice married American divorcée from Baltimore, that enabled her to lure a King from his throne into permanent exile in France? This year, the 75th anniversary of the abdication crisis, as it was known, has seen an explosion of interest in the so called love story of the 20th century from the award winning The King’s Speech to Any Human Heart the novel adapted for television and any day soon, the eagerly awaited Madonna biopic called W.E. This was the name they called themselves based on their initials, Wallis and Edward, but which also made fun of the royal WE. Twenty five years after her death – surely time to revise our views of ‘That Woman’ as her sister-in-law and much of the royal family called her in disgust – why does the middle aged woman in the eye of the storm continue to cause controversy and to fascinate?
I have spent the last four years researching her life for a biography, surprisingly the first full biography by a woman, and I think I have some of the answers. In the first place, having pored over hundreds of photographs from her childhood onwards, I see her as rather beautiful, albeit not a classic English rose. She had deep set violet blue eyes which she would fix seductively on a man in whom she was interested, perfectly arched brows, a flawless complexion and a mole on her chin that could easily be taken as a beauty spot. Her brown chestnut hair was, according to a school friend, tinted – something which in the 1930’s stigmatized girls as ‘fast’ because hair colouring was not as effective as it is today. More shocking, she had spent a year as a single woman in China, alone – a truly outlandish way to behave in the years before cheap jet travel allowed everyone to visit far flung places. This alone, her detractors decided, confirmed that she was a woman of loose principles and the rumour spread that Queen Mary, Edward’s mother, and/or a disapproving Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, had compiled a ‘China dossier’ detailing her behaviour in brothels and ‘sing song’ houses. Such a dossier has never been found and probably never existed but the rumour is common currency still today that her sexual prowess and deviant ways were the reason he could not remain king ‘without the woman I love’ by his side, as he broadcast so poignantly from Windsor Castle. But was his dependence in fact because of the Shanghai Squeeze, the Baltimore Grip or the China Clinch as it was variously called or was it perhaps because Wallis, at 41, was simply confident in the bedroom, which is more than could be said of many well to do English gels at the time.
Wallis is not always easy to like – her sharp humour poking fun at the Queen Mother’s dress sense, nicknaming her in the fifties ‘ Shirley Temple Senior’ and her daughter, the Queen, ‘Shirley Temple’, alienated many – but she deserves to be understood. One of her deepest fears was insecurity, her own father having died when she was a few months old. So the acceptance of lavish gifts of jewellery from Edward, which led to accusations from the start that she was a gold digging adventuress, can be explained, if not excused, by her fear that she would soon be dropped like any other royal mistress and would then need a cushion or else she would be forced to live hand to mouth like her mother, who took in lodgers and sold embroidery.
There were sound reasons why the royal family needed to demonise Wallis; they were worried that the stammering new King George V1 might not be up to the job and that the country and dominions would pine for the glamorous former monarch who had promised ‘something must be done’ – without knowing quite what. This jeopardised the stability of the monarchy itself and the cohesion of the Empire. Then there was the fear in the country at large at a time when divorce was unavailable to ordinary people other than in exceptional circumstances that if this woman with two living husbands was allowed to marry a third all sorts of marriages might collapse as easily as hers had been allowed to. Not surprisingly the 50,000 strong Mothers’ Union objected strongly to the idea of Queen Wallis just as did the British Legion and the Archbishop of Canterbury who both looked to a monarch to offer religious guidance and a life of unquestioning service. Edward and Wallis with their carefree life of jazz, cocktails and nightclubs could not be relied upon for this. But they were modern and forward looking, or as Wallis always insisted in interviews after the abdication, trendsetters. Arguably one of the greatest contributions Edward may have made as King was towards making acceptable the notion of personal or individual happiness.
Will the current crop of books and films end ‘Simpson Season’ or is the story of Wallis and Edward destined to remain a perennial favourite? Madonna’s stunningly beautiful film (I’ve had a preview) is bound to stir further controversy since she, like me, recognises a fragile and vulnerable woman. Yet new material I have discovered reveals that, far from being a romantic fairy tale, their story has more in common with a gothic fable where a Faustian pact with the devil ends with the moral: Be careful what you wish for. The allure of Wallis can no longer be seen as elusive; she offered a weak personality a way out of a role for which he was unfit and at some deep level knew it. Their relationship, with its evident aspects of emotional and physical humiliation, enabled him to punish himself for what he always knew was a dereliction of duty.