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The truth behind the Wallis myths


While on honeymoon with her third husband, the man who had been King Edward VIII, now the Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson wrote plaintively to her second husband, Ernest, "I think of us so much, though I try not to".

Barely months previously, another letter to Ernest, at the time she fled from England, terrified by the rising tide of public hatred, read: "None of this mess ... is of my own making. It is the new Peter Pan plan. I miss you and worry about you ... Oh dear, wasn't life lovely, sweet and simple?"

The writing -- and the private name, 'Peter Pan', that she and Ernest always used about Edward -- was a disloyal act, but one she was to continue throughout the years of exile, rattling around Europe and America with the increasingly bewildered and aimless Duke. This was to be her own personal purgatory, penance for grasping at something -- someone -- she never really wanted, beguiled by what he stood for and possessed, not who he was. Wallis was venal, greedy and deluded, but she paid a high price for her follies, a living embodiment of the old proverb, 'Be careful what you wish for'. What she gained was considerable -- a girl from Baltimore USA who married one of the most charismatic of European royals -- but by inspiring such demented devotion in Edward VIII, she lost her freedom and her reputation.

Wallis Simpson was neither brilliant, beautiful nor particularly charming. Her harsh, rasping voice was considered grating by many. She was neurotic about her weight, often substituting whiskey and water for food, and trying endless extreme diets. She was uninterested in books or culture, excessively physically fearful -- planes, heights, even sudden noises, all caused her to become hysterical -- and utterly money-obsessed. She had a limited talent for friendship, and made many implacable enemies -- including her sister-in-law the Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth, who caught Wallis doing a snide impression of her at a weekend party. She may not have been a lesbian or a Nazi spy as was often rumoured -- although she never lived down the photograph of her smiling sympathetically while Hitler kisses her hand, taken in 1937 -- but she was certainly an abrasive, divisive figure. Even of her apparent wit, few examples survive; "you can never be too rich or too thin" may have been hers, but it is hardly especially witty.

And yet her ability to fascinate is as strong now as ever, 25 years after her death and 75 since King Edward VIII abdicated -- saying in an address to his people: "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."

He was the first British monarch since Anglo-Saxon times to willingly depart the throne, in an act that was incomprehensible to those around him, particularly his mother, Queen Mary, for whom duty was sacred. Wallis herself always insisted that she expressly begged him not to do it, and indeed that it ruined her life in many ways. But for Edward there was to be no compromise. He insisted on marrying this obscure, twice-divorced American, both of whose ex-husbands were still alive, and if it cost him a kingdom, well so be it.

Edward VIII's grande geste is still one of the more fascinating chapters of the British monarchy, because all the answers lie in the psychology of the two people involved. On the surface there is little enough to explain what happened; the solution lies in the shadows -- in his personality, his frustrations and inadequacies, and her corresponding abilities. It lies behind closed doors, in the bedroom and the private chambers of the Prince of Wales, who became king for just 11 months.

It may even lie in a radical theory, put forward in a new biography by Anne Sebba, that Wallis was not a woman at all.

In That Woman, The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor, Sebba speculates that Wallis may have been born with a Disorder of Sexual Development, a term which covers a whole spectrum of conditions, from subtle sexual uncertainty through to hermaphroditism, and essentially means a mismatch between the outer gender indicators and inner reproductive organs. It's a condition that apparently affects one in 15,000 births, and was, until fairly recently, often badly dealt with or ignored by the medical profession. There is no hard evidence that Wallis suffered from any such condition, but the fact that she never had children, despite a fairly promiscuous life at a time when contraception was very uncertain, as well as her deep voice, mannish figure and angular face, all lend some weight to the speculation.

By the time she arrived in London, in 1928, Wallis had reinvented herself, from Bessie Wallis Warfield, impoverished Southern belle, to Wallis Simpson, stylish woman of the world. She had divorced her first husband after he apparently drank too much and behaved like a brute -- when posted in China during the war, he forced Wallis to accompany him to his favourite Sing-Song houses, basically brothels with some added light entertainment, like singing and dancing, as well as opium and gambling (here, it was later whispered, she learned the sexual techniques she apparently used to mesmerise Prince Edward; although one female friend of theirs, when this was suggested to her, quipped, "there's nothing Oriental about oral sex").

Wallis was then married to Ernest Simpson, her second husband, a well read, cultured and decent man with whom she felt at ease. He had a sense of humour, and together he and Wallis found much to laugh at and talk about. But it was only a matter of time before the dashing Mrs Simpson, who entertained lavishly, and in an informal, modern style -- cocktails served with sausages, caviar and vodka to rather rakish guests -- should meet the Prince of Wales. She was desperate to get into the best society, and he was a most unusually accessible royal heir.

Edward, heir to the throne and darling of the Empire, was blond, handsome, dashing and effortlessly charming, a pin-up to millions around the world. But he was also a complex, neurotic figure, distanced from his stern, overly disciplinarian parents, especially the King, George V, who had a vile temper and would rage mercilessly at his children. Edward had an addiction to exercise and a form of anorexia, often eating nothing but an orange all day. He was obsessed with the thinness of his legs, smoked and drank to excess, and loved all things then considered modern -- jazz, nightclubs, the telephone, planes, cocktails, Americans. He was extravagant and reckless, and spoke in an affected accent, mixing cockney and an American twang with the more modulated tones of the English upper classes.

Edward was bored by the old notions of all-consuming royal duty, even, he sometimes claimed, with the very idea of monarchies. Several of his closest courtiers secretly believed him to be mad, or at least a case of arrested development, compounded by the fact that his face was relatively hairless and he only had to shave about once a week. He was clever and quick-witted, with an excellent memory, but no mental discipline. He had many girlfriends, indeed pursued women quite relentlessly and seemed addicted to conquest, but his girlfriends openly, humiliatingly, referred to him as "the little man", and he may well have been infertile as none of his liaisons ever resulted in a child.

By the time Prince Edward met Wallis he was feeling increasingly frustrated by the demands of his position -- to get married, to settle down, to produce an heir, to do his duty. None of that fitted with his aspirations towards a free, modern life. Wallis, however, did. Even the lack of deference with which she spoke to him -- considered rude by most -- struck him as refreshing. She wasn't afraid to snap out a challenging remark, or call him on his occasional high-handed rudeness. He was first amused and then captivated by her confident, aggressive style. She too lived for parties and fun; she shared his extravagant tastes and love of jewels, and also knew about dieting and obsessive thinness.

Ernest Simpson was initially, and for a long time, as much a part of the prince's set as Wallis, and everything she did seems to have been done with his acquiescence. He allowed her to dine alone with the prince once a week, and she seems to have confided in him about the affair from the start, telling him, "this man is exhausting!" Together they always referred to Edward as 'Peter Pan', the boy who never grew up. He phoned her several times a day, often late at night, as well as visiting most days. He was, from the outset, obsessive and demanding company and Wallis, although flattered -- and charmed with the invitations that began to pour in immediately -- was initially keen to keep some relative distance, and indeed keep Ernest "in good humour", as she put it in a letter to her aunt.

Ernest was always deeply deferential to the future monarch, and seems to have been genuinely loyal to him. And for a while Wallis did manage to convince him that Edward's patronage would be useful to them both -- as a naturalised English businessman, with Jewish roots, Ernest was well aware of the importance of the royal seal of approval -- and that his infatuation was temporary. In fact, almost up to the time of their marriage, Wallis assumed Edward would either tire of her or bow to the pressure to give her up. She never expected the affair to last, and much of her most mercenary behaviour -- inveigling him for diamonds and jewellery, demanding money for clothes and even rent -- was intended to compensate her for the end of the relationship. Her childhood as a dependent relative was an early exercise in insecurity that Wallis was to absorb completely; a fear of poverty and obscurity stayed with her forever, and were probably her most powerful psychological motivators.

But in predicting the affair would run its course, she reckoned without Edward's capacity for obsessive infatuation. Wallis became vital to his well-being. The fact that his immediate entourage were appalled by what they saw as her vulgarity only intensified his feeling that it was the two of them, together, against the world. His chivalrous instincts were roused by the bad treatment he imagined she suffered, and he refused to consider a life without her. Even as she was referring to Ernest, in a letter to her aunt, as "still the man of my dreams", the prince was writing to her daily, increasingly intense letters: "I love you more and more every minute and NO difficulties or complications can possibly prevent our ultimate happiness."

Wallis' appeal may have been part motherly -- she would often chastise the prince for his table manners, or, twitching the knife and fork from his hands, insist on carving herself -- but she could also be incredibly cruel, sometimes berating and teasing him until he was reduced to actual tears. His devotion, on the other hand, was complete, almost slavish. Whether she appealed to some kind of repressed homosexuality in him, as was theorised discreetly at the time, or simply dominated him in a way he found pleasurable, possibly sadomasochistic in origin, can only be speculated, but it was quickly apparent that while she wasn't ever especially in love with him -- rather, she was flattered, and beguiled by the richness of his lifestyle -- he was unable to do without her.

Even once he became king, after the death of George V, Edward attended to Wallis first, and State matters second. He spent ever-longer weekends out at Fort Belvedere, where State papers would be left lying around, unread, sometimes lost, sometimes returned with the sticky marks of glasses on them, and he would shut himself up with Wallis for hours, giggling and talking in their own private, baby-language, while his secretaries waited for him to sign essential papers.

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Wallis, smothered by his need for her, began to escape where possible, often to Paris, to the couture houses, where she would buy fabulously expensive clothes by Schiaparelli, Givenchy and Mainboucher, always demonstrating the same impeccable taste, to wear with the extravagant jewels, including many purpose-made pieces by Cartier, that Edward bought for her.

When Ernest Simpson finally confronted the king, some months before his coronation, asking what he intended to do about Wallis, the king rose from his chair, saying grandly, "Do you really think that I would be crowned without Wallis by my side?" And so Ernest agreed to a divorce, even though this wasn't quite what Wallis wanted. From there, events seemed to spiral way beyond her control as she realised that, far from managing the situation, she was actually at the mercy of the king's need for her.

The more trapped she felt, the crueller Wallis could be, and as she began to understand that she had made a mess of things, she was more cutting than ever to Edward, who nevertheless continued to devote all his energies, puppy-dog-like, to making her happy. But as the scandal caught fire -- reported first in the European and American papers, rather than the self-censoring British media, along with photos of the couple on the lavish yacht, "furnished rather like a Calais whore-house", that Edward hired for the summer of 1936 -- she became a hate figure; the twice-divorced American commoner with designs on the golden king.

And so she tried to end the affair, telling Edward: "I am sure you and I would only create disaster together." The king responded by threatening to cut his own throat, saying that he would never let her go. His nerves were terribly frayed at the time, by his endless dieting, drinking, smoking, late nights, the stress of his infatuation and the implacable opposition to it everywhere he turned, and now the spectre of losing Wallis. He took to sleeping with a loaded pistol under his pillow, and caused those nearest to him serious concern.

Wallis was devastated as she began to understand how much she was hated. The general public despised her, the empire was rocking at the very notion of 'Queen Wallis', while Britain's own royal family already loathed "That Woman", as Queen Mary called her. About the couple's only supporter was Winston Churchill, who argued that the King should "be allowed to marry his Cutie"; to which Noel Coward quipped, "England does not wish for a Queen Cutie". It was a situation spiralling out of control, and even spoiled Edward began to realise that this time he would not get his way. Actually, he seems to have accepted the notion of abdication with relative ease, telling his horrified mother, "the only thing that matters is our happiness". Wallis always insisted that she begged him not to, to let her go and give up the fight. "I tried to convince him of the hopelessness of our position," she later wrote; "to go on fighting the inevitable could only mean tragedy for him and catastrophe for me."

In this she was entirely right. Public hatred of her reached critical mass and she lived in fear of violent attacks. Still corresponding with Ernest through it all, she wrote to him that: "I've been pretty flattened out by the world in general ... used by politicians, hated by jealous women, accused of everything." Stones were thrown at her windows and she could no longer leave the house safely. And so she fled to France, bringing with her the jewels, worth at least £100,000, that Edward had given her, a gesture which seemed to taint her departure with the ignominious finality of exile.

Edward joined her as soon as he decently could, having abdicated his crown in a historic, Quixotic, futile romantic gesture, becoming Duke of Windsor rather than Edward VIII; and wrangling to the last for the biggest settlement he could get -- "a royal who counted his royalties", as one courtier put it. He and Wallis were finally married, at the Chateau de Candé, in the presence of just seven friends. The French prime minister sent a bouquet, but there was no representative from the British Crown or Edward's family. Of those few friends invited, several declined on spurious grounds, not wanting to be seen on the losing side. One woman who was present, Baba Metcalfe, described Wallis thus: "The effect is of an older woman unmoved by the infatuated love of a younger man."

Thereafter the Duke always felt he had let Wallis down, having failed to secure her a crown or even a royal title (in an act of some official pettiness, only he was allowed to be HRH). His self-abasement and flagellatory tendencies were more marked than ever.

She, meanwhile, tried to show her support by dressing the part of a duchess, often wearing far too many of the exquisite jewels he bought her, appearing be-decked in rings, earrings, broaches, necklaces and bracelets, almost stooped under their weight.

To the end of his life Edward continued to agitate on Wallis' behalf -- chiefly that she should be granted royal status -- along with requests that the Crown pay for various medical procedures. His constant need for her never changed. She, meanwhile, tried to make the best of the situation she found herself in, pouring her energies into shopping, lunch, some small-scale charity work and remaining on the best-dressed lists. At one point she had had so many face lifts that, the rumour went, she couldn't close her eyes even when asleep. Their lives in exile were aimless and rather second rate, according to those who knew them, both drinking too much -- "tiny twins with large bottles of drink", as the writer Lesley Blanch described them. They based themselves in France, where their story was considered highly romantic rather than the car crash it was viewed as in Britain. The duke died first, of cancer, and Wallis had a horrible, protracted death, lingering for a decade, fed by tubes in bed, unable to recognise anyone or even see, paralysed and denied the company of whatever friends she had left by her lawyer, who took full control of her life and finances. When she died, in 1986, the cards and flowers at her funeral came mainly from couture houses and jewellers -- Dior, Van Cleef, Alexandre. Because, in the end, once the duke was dead, these were her most meaningful relationships.

That Woman, The Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor, by Anne Sebba, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €18.45

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