Tuesday 25 September 2018

The affairs of divorcee who seduced a king

Biography: Wallis in Love, Andrew Morton, Michael O'Mara, hardback, 401 pages, €24.70

Unflattering: The Duchess of Windsor, seen here with the Duke in 1951, treated him at best like a child, and at worst with contempt
Unflattering: The Duchess of Windsor, seen here with the Duke in 1951, treated him at best like a child, and at worst with contempt
Wallis in Love

Andrew Morton's clumsy story of Wallis Simpson reveals the real love of her life - and it wasn't King Edward VIII, writes Lewis Jones.

In the decades since the abdication of Britain's Edward VIII - formerly Prince of Wales, subsequently Duke of Windsor, and additionally, as The Crown has so vividly reminded us, Bad Uncle David the Nazi - the general view of the unhappy couple has not altered: divorcee Wallis Simpson was entirely unsuitable, he was a weak fool, and their life together was a gilded hell.

Their relationship has been exhaustively described. Frances Donaldson, for example, argued that her attraction for him was that she enabled him to give up the monarchy, which he had never wanted, while his for her was precisely that he was king. So they were doomed from the start. Philip Ziegler wrote that she treated him "at the best like a child who needed keeping in order, at the worst with contempt. But he invited it and begged for more".

To assume that there is little more to add is to underestimate the industry of Andrew Morton. Having started out as a tabloid journalist, he made his name with the startling Diana: Her True Story (1992), about her loveless marriage, bulimia and suicide attempts, for which she turned out to be the principal source. After forays into showbiz, with lives of Posh and Becks, Madonna, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie, he returned to the royal beat with William and Catherine (2011) - and a biography of Prince Harry's fiancée Meghan Markle is promised for April. Meanwhile, he gives us Wallis in Love.

Morton is not read for his prose, which is comically bad. Moths are drawn to flames, dates are had with destiny, twists of fate are strange, and while one invitation is wangled, another is wrangled. Some of his sentences just aren't. Nor is he read for his historical analysis, which is superbly moronic. "In the royal world of the House of Windsor," he opines, "truth, image and invention are an uneasy linguistic Esperanto."

He is read, rather, for his jaunty prurience. "Bessie Wallis Warfield was an unlikely seductress," he observes by way of introduction, "apparently more interested in cooking than coitus." She was one of those women - Joan Crawford was another - whose allure is close to that of the drag queen. James Pope-Hennessy thought that she was "not a woman at all".

During her teenage years in Baltimore, "dances, dinners and day trips with a laughing group of guys and gals were her daily diet". But she was determined "never to allow a man to journey below her intimate 'Mason-Dixon Line'," and was a virgin when she married Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, a dashing Navy pilot, in 1916.

'Win' drank to excess, and beat her, which Morton says she liked, but in 1921 she left him to live with her mother in Washington, where she was "putty in the knowing hands of the saturnine, monocle-wearing Felipe Aja Espil, the highly regarded and hugely ambitious Argentinian counsellor at the Washington embassy".

In 1924, she visited Win in Hong Kong, where, according to her unreliable memoirs, he insisted she accompany him to local "sing-song houses", or brothels. Morton writes that this "mutated into the legend that Wallis worked in an oriental brothel and... studied the techniques that would pleasure even the most recalcitrant of men", which "remains a deliciously unprovable urban legend".

The next year in Peking, she met Herman Rogers, a rich married American, and the "untold true passion" of Morton's subtitle. His source for this scoop is some conversations Rogers had in 1955 with Cleveland Amory, one of her ghostwriters, who resigned in disgust at her dishonesty.

In 1925, she met Ernest Simpson, who was married and the father of two young daughters, and whom Morton paints as a decent dullard whose favourite book was Winnie-the-Pooh. They married in 1928, having obtained divorces, but shortly before their wedding, she visited Herman and his wife Katherine to see if she could break up that marriage, too.

This established a pattern. Edward VIII abdicated on December 11, 1936, and married the by now twice-divorced Wallis on June 3, 1937.

Two days earlier, according to Morton, she told Herman that she loved him, and that "if she became pregnant by him [she was then 43], it would be considered the Duke's child... Herman's astonished response can only be imagined".

And still she would not let go. After Katherine's death in 1949, Herman became involved with Lucy Wann, whom he married the next year. "Wallis would have grabbed him," recalled Lucy's daughter-in-law, "and told the duke to go. Lucy knew that."

At the wedding, Wallis wore white, and insisted on adjusting Lucy's dress, wrenching it out of shape. The Windsors were guests of honour at the reception, but turned up so late that only two guests remained. Wallis's excuse was an appointment with their architect. "But Wallis, he was at the reception."

Seizing Lucy's hands, she said: "I'll hold you responsible if anything ever happens to Herman. He's the only man I've ever loved."

"How nice for the Duke," Lucy replied. And when Herman died in 1957, Wallis is reported to have sent his widow a telegram: "ALL MY LOVE AND SYMPATHY OVER YOUR AND MY LOSS."

The Windsors spent much of the next few years in America, where Wallis became an intimate friend of Jimmy Donahue, a vicious homosexual. "And to think I gave up a king for a queen," she once screeched at him. They were rumoured to be lovers, but as Nicky Haslam remarked: "I can't think he could have touched any woman, let alone one as rigidly un-undressable as Wallis." Besides, Donahue had circumcised himself with a penknife while drunk and was, as a friend said, "grotesquely scarred and painfully sensitive".

Lady Gladwyn (or Lady Cynthia Gladwyn, as Morton styles her; for all his vaunted familiarity with aristocracy, he is hopeless with titles) noted in her diaries that Wallis "spent all her time with effeminate young men, staying in nightclubs until dawn and sending the Duke home early: 'Buzz off, mosquito.' What a way to address the once king of England."

Morton presents his subject in the most unflattering light imaginable, which may not have been his intention. It is an unedifying story, told with exceptional clumsiness and vulgarity, but it is not without a certain squalid interest and his research seems solid. It will doubtless sell extremely well.

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