The rehabilitation of Wallis Simpson

Two new biographies and a film by Madonna attempt to change our perception of ‘that woman’

That woman is back

John Rawlings/Conde Nast Archive/Corbis; EOne Films

That woman is back
John Rawlings/Conde Nast Archive/Corbis; EOne Films

What a difference a year makes. At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Wallis Simpson was portrayed in The King’s Speech as a vulgar Yankee huntress who’d so bewitched Edward VIII that the handsome king chucked everything to be with her. This year another film about those pivotal events in 1936 was centre stage at TIFF, but this time, in Madonna’s W.E., the twice-divorced American is a vulnerable woman whose love for Edward sparked only jealousy and outrage from his family. The new Wallis-friendly attitude is a sea change for a woman reviled to mythic extremes for decades—she was a Nazi! A lesbian! A man! A prostitute! In The King’s Speech, the monarch’s fascination for her is attributed to “certain skills, acquired in an establishment in Shanghai.” It was “a terrible portrayal,” recalls Hugo Vickers, a historical adviser on the Oscar-winning movie. (Obviously, some of his suggestions were ignored.)

W.E., for which Vickers also gave advice, isn’t alone in re-evaluating “that woman” as the 75th anniversary (in December) of the abdication approaches. Two new biographies, including Behind Closed Doors by Vickers, present Simpson in a sympathetic light. The new tone can be partly explained by the fact that the passage of time, and decades of royal scandals, have softened once harsh attitudes. New interviews and documents have also cast her motives and actions in a more favourable light. “I can’t believe that such a thing could have happened to two people who got along so well,” she wrote plaintively to her second husband, Ernest, about their marriage shortly after the abdication, in a previously unpublished letter. Far from an uncaring woman who’d flung off her spouse, she was in fact full of regret: “It never should have been like it is now.”

The abdication story still fascinates, largely because it is so unique. “No man ever gave up so much for one woman,” says Vickers, who’s written about the couple for nearly four decades. “And we don’t understand why. These things don’t happen normally.” Simpson was and still is “a very provocative character,” Madonna said at TIFF. “She is also a mysterious and enigmatic creature, not conventionally beautiful, not young, twice divorced.”

Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in 1896. Five months after her birth, her father died, leaving her to grow up as the poor relation in a good family, dependent on handouts for survival. “Wallis learned that men are the source of money,” says Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, to be released in Canada next year, “but be careful: sometimes they withdraw the funds.” Fuelled by that deep-seated insecurity, she quickly married her first husband, Earl “Win” Spencer, a handsome military pilot who turned out to be a lush. The marriage soon foundered. After having exotic adventures in the Far East—which helped spawn the rumours of a Chinese sexual education—she divorced him in 1927. Seven months later she married dull, dependable Ernest Simpson and they settled in Britain.

It was there she crossed paths with the prince of Wales in early 1931. By then she was 34 and well aware that she was not beautiful in any traditional sense. (Her rather masculine features have long been the subject of scrutiny. Anne Sebba explores a number of theories, including that she was born with intersexuality.) What is clear is that she compensated for her lack of conventional attractiveness with an amazing fashion sense and a quick wit. She was also bold and brash in a way Edward found refreshing. When she was formally presented at Court to the king and queen—after first proving she was the “injured party” in her divorce—she overheard the prince of Wales saying the lighting made “all the women look ghastly.” Later that evening, when he complimented her on her gown, she retorted, “But sir, I thought you said we all looked ghastly.” She quickly became a favourite.

Then, in 1934, she promised the prince’s long-term married mistress, Thelma Furness, to keep the “little man” from being lonely while Furness visited New York. By the time Furness returned two months later, Wallis Simpson was firmly ensconced in her place.

Both Sebba and Vickers doubt she was in love with her royal suitor, or ever intended to legalize the relationship. “I don’t think she wanted to marry, she didn’t want to become queen, she didn’t want to be the exiled wife of the duke of Windsor either and the woman who stole the king, the hated woman,” says Vickers. Sebba agrees. “I think she thought she was building a little nest egg,” she says. “So when the king dumped her or got rid of her or dismissed her, she and Ernest would go back to life with some golden memories, some good friends, a little jewellery that, if necessary, she would sell.”

Being solicitously attended to by the most eligible bachelor in the world was a heady experience full of perks. After a dinner in December 1935, in which Wallis occupied the place of honour, guest Marie Belloc Lowndes was asked what she thought of the American. “I had been surprised, considering that she dressed so simply, to see that she wore such a mass of dressmakers’ jewels,” she said. At that, fellow guests “screamed with laughter, explaining that all the jewels were real.”

Unfortunately, Simpson didn’t realize until it was too late that she was playing with a man terribly unhappy with his lot in life. “She flirted with the prince of Wales as if he were a tycoon or film star,” Vickers says, “and she captured a damaged man longing to escape.” He was totally obsessed from the start. And the intensity of his feelings kept growing. In late 1935 he wrote to her: “I love you more and more every minute and NO difficulties or complications can possibly prevent our ultimate happiness . . . God bless WE [Wallis Edward] for ever.” Soon his desires were driving the relationship. Anne Sebba’s chapter titles say it all: “Wallis in control” is followed by “Wallis out of control.”

As with any reworked fairy tale, replacing Wallis as the villain requires finding a new bad guy. For Madonna, the villain is the royal family, especially Edward’s sister-in-law, the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose husband would inherit the damaged throne. To that end, she makes up scenes, including one of Edward listening at his ill father’s bedroom door, all the better to overhear the king’s prophecy: “I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet [the future George VI and Elizabeth II] and the throne,” while a dumpy Elizabeth sits nearby. In reality, George V said those words to a family friend before his death on Jan. 20, 1936. (Wallis stood next to Edward VIII to hear him proclaimed sovereign.)

What Madonna’s fawning, laughably incorrect version of events ignores is a basic fact: this was a constitutional crisis. Constitutional monarchs can’t go against the will of their governments. And, in this case, the British and Empire parliaments (including Canada’s) were resolutely against a woman with two living husbands becoming queen consort.

However, the new king was determined to marry his love, and for that “pig-headed” attitude, Vickers, as well as Sebba, rest the crisis on his narrow shoulders. “He was a weak man, and like a lot of weak men, he was obstinate,” Vickers explains bluntly. While the people adored him for his dashing facade, those who knew him despaired. “He’s mad, he’s mad,” exclaimed his father’s private secretary. Prime minister Stanley Baldwin observed that speaking with his sovereign was like “talking to a child of 10.” Wallis gave him the perfect opportunity to ditch his unwanted job. Near the end of the crisis Edward kept repeating, “I can’t do my job without her.” Baldwin notes that “there simply was no moral struggle and it appalled me.”

But the king’s mind was settled. On Dec. 10, 1936, Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, telling his subjects—at the time he reigned over two-thirds of the world’s population—that he couldn’t fulfill his duty as sovereign without “the help and support of the woman I love.” She cowered under a rug crying, knowing her fate was irrevocably tied to his. He married his beloved in France the next year. The newly minted duke and duchess of Windsor spent their lives in luxurious neo-royal splendour meandering through a soulless round of dinners, parties and social events. If she didn’t love him, then at least she cared for him until the end, as he obsessively followed her around like a puppy. The duke died in 1972, she in 1986.

Regardless of people’s impression of Wallis Simpson—sympathetic or otherwise—her contribution to the British Empire should not be undervalued: at the very least, she removed a feckless king on the eve of war. For that, Noël Coward said, “a statue should be erected to Mrs. Simpson in every town in England for the blessing she had bestowed upon the country.”