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Royal pain: Why Wallis Simpson gets a bad rap for ruining England


Caption: Dorothy Wilding’s portrait of the duke and duchess, New York, June 1943 (Courtesy of the author)

She was the woman an entire empire loved to hate.

The royal family shunned her, refusing even to speak her name. Millions of their subjects went further, calling her a trollop.

But to the king, she was “the woman I love.” He even gave up his throne for her.

Only to give her the one thing she didn’t want, a life in posh but perpetual exile, and a legend as the woman who wrecked a kingdom.

Yet, Anna Pasternak writes, the way the story of the duke and duchess of Windsor is usually told, that of Prince Charming and the Ungrateful Witch, is no truer than any fairy tale.

The Real Wallis Simpson. by Anna pasternak
The Real Wallis Simpson. by Anna pasternak (Atria Books)

And her book “The Real Wallis Simpson” is dedicated to rescuing Simpson from decades of bad press. Even if that means taking some of the shine off King Edward’s crown.

The romance couldn’t have been more improbable. He was the world’s most eligible royal, fabulously wealthy, elegantly stylish and so handsome he was practically pretty.

She was a plain-faced American from Baltimore. Her family had no money, and Wallis harbored no illusions, particularly when it came to life, love or her own looks.

“My endowments were definitely on the scanty side,” she said later, lamenting her flat chest and straight hair. “Nobody ever called me beautiful.”

So, Wallis compensated. Friends described her as not sexy but sassy; a woman with style, and a sense of fun.

At 20, she married a Navy pilot she had known for less than two months. On their honeymoon, she discovered he was a violent drunk. She took eight years of abuse before divorcing him.

At 32, she married again, this time to Ernest Simpson, a wealthy Anglo-American businessman. It wasn’t love, but it was enough. “I am very fond of him, and he is kind,” she told her mother. “I really feel so tired of fighting the world alone and with no money.”

And then she met the prince.

Unlike Wallis, he had never wanted for anything — except love. His father was brutal, his mother remote. As a child, he was raised by nannies and tutors. As an adult, his solitary amusements were gardening, needlepoint and playing the bagpipes.

He had affairs, of course. But no matter how many women offered themselves, the prince always chose the ones with husbands. It was as if he were ensuring he would always be alone. The king also served as the head of the conservative Church of England and the law prohibited marriage to a divorcee.

Then, in 1931, he met Wallis at a party. She was 35, he was 37. Naturally, he immediately realized she was very American and very different. She fixed her bright blue eyes on his. She laughed, loud and long, at his jokes. She even teased him.

They began seeing each other. After a few years, they became lovers. He obviously worshiped her, even though — or perhaps because — she bossed him around. No one, particularly Edward’s previous lovers, could figure out how she landed him.

KA breathtaking breach of protocol, as Wallis places a hand on the king's arm during the Nahlin cruise along the Adriatic, August 1936.
KA breathtaking breach of protocol, as Wallis places a hand on the king's arm during the Nahlin cruise along the Adriatic, August 1936. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

Of course, there were suspicions.

Some suggested Wallis was a Nazi spy, sent to seduce him. Another rumor was that she knew secret sexual techniques from the brothels of China. Other, even wilder gossips swore she was a hermaphrodite.

Certainly, there was something unusual about her. She swore she never got her period. She also claimed never to have slept with her first two husbands. Oh, and no one, she said, had ever gone below her “personal Mason-Dixon line.”

As for the prince, he had his own complications. His ex-lovers confided he was rather speedy. And a long-ago bout of mumps had reportedly left him sterile, which worried King George V, as that meant his heir could produce no heir.

There were political worries, too. It was the Depression, and the prince had been visiting shuttered mines and tumbling-down towns, announcing “something must be done.” To the nation’s Conservative government, he seemed dangerously close to challenging Parliament’s power.

By the time Edward was crowned in 1936, plenty of powerful men wanted him gone.

When he declared his intention to marry Wallis, once she was shed of her current spouse, they had their weapon. Later, Prince Charles would get special dispensation to marry the divorced Camilla, but no such accommodation was available then. Edward would have to choose.

He chose Wallis.

On Dec. 11, 1936, King Edward VIII went on the radio to tell his subjects he could no longer “discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love." He then left the country.

The following June, one month after her divorce from Simpson became final, he and Wallis married in France.

But this fairy tale of the handsome prince and the charming commoner had no happy ending.

The newly crowned King George VI told his older brother he would now be addressed as the duke of Windsor. His annual allowance of £25,000 would continue, too, as long as he stayed in exile.

But if he ever came back to England without permission, he would be cut off without a farthing. Oh, and if he returned, he need not bring his wife. No one in the family would ever receive her.

Wallis – who, right up until the abdication, had tried to break things off, for Edward’s sake – was distraught. She had not only ended a reign, it seemed, but destroyed a family.

Destroyed Edward, too, perhaps.

Until now, his entire life had been one long ceremony, every hour orchestrated. Now at 43, he found himself unemployed, and with absolutely nothing to do.

He tried to keep busy but kept blundering.

A trip to Germany was disastrous, particularly when photographers caught the couple smiling as Hitler kissed the duchess’ hand. Stories of their supposed fascist sympathies grew. The government quickly appointed him governor of the Bahamas, where he and the Duchess would sit out the war.

By 1945, though, the duke was once again unemployed and would remain so, for the rest of his life. They moved to France, where they amused themselves throwing parties. The duke bought the duchess jewels. The duchess bought herself facelifts.

A bit of a royal détente began in 1953, after the duke’s niece, Elizabeth, became queen. Although the duke did not attend her coronation, he was allowed to go to his brother’s funeral. Fifteen years later, when a plaque was laid to celebrate his mother’s centennial, he and the duchess were asked to come.

They were, however, not invited to stay, and soon returned to France. The duke died in 1972. Fourteen long years later, the duchess followed him. They are buried in England, the country that would not accept them as a couple in life finally giving them a home together in death.

And if we still see Wallis as the villain in this story, Pasternak writes, we’re not seeing the whole story. He was the one who pursued her. He was the one who caused a constitutional crisis. She was not the one to blame.

“It wasn’t her we hated,” the duke’s niece Princess Margaret finally admitted, the night Wallis died. “It was him.”