Wallis Simpson — why ever are we talking about "that woman" after all these years?
Blame Madonna, whose new movie, W.E., is about her. Or blame the new stage drama in London The Last of the Duchess, and the new novel Abdication set during the crisis. And blame the new biographies, including That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by British writer Anne Sebba.
PHOTOS: The life of 'That Woman' - Wallis Simpson
In contrast to most British assessments of Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor, this book is clear-sighted unsentimental about but relatively sympathetic to the woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne in 1936, shaking Britain and its royal family to the core.
And amazingly, after 75 years, there is new material to assess. Sebba has gained access to previously unexamined Simpson letters that reveal more about who she was, her fears and regrets during the abdication crisis, how she tried to prevent it and the marriage, and how she was nearly destroyed when the "romance of the century" was near universally condemned.
Simpson, in Sebba's telling, was misunderstood. The ridiculous things said and believed about her at the time would curl hair, and some of it came from the king's family. It was his sister-in-law, the Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who contemptuously dubbed her "that woman."
Sebba's book suggests Wallis would have been unsuitable as a queen even if she hadn't been a rather plain, 40-year-old, twice-divorced American with a brittle manner and harsh speaking voice, who looked like a man and was too old to bear children.
Simpson emerges in these pages as chic but also selfish, self-pitying and shallow. She was oblivious about what it actually meant to be the consort of a king in a constitutional monarchy. She thought, for example, that British kings could do what they wanted and no one could stop them. Wrong.
As President Kennedy's London-based sister once described her, Simpson was a crashing bore. She rarely thought seriously about anything except her next party, her next purchase of couture clothes or statement jewelry, her next cocktail. Her life after abdication was an endless effort to fend off ennui in the aimless, parasitic exile she shared with her little ex-king husband, now known as the Duke of Windsor.
But here's the sympathetic part: The ex-king was even worse than Wallis. He was a golden Prince of Wales, but it turned out he didn't actually want to be king. He became so insanely obsessed with Simpson — for reasons even his friends at the time could not understand — that he abandoned his duty, his family (especially his stuttering younger brother who had to take his place) and his country. Indignant that everyone was furious at him, he spent the rest of his life in querulous conflict with his family over the trifling (to an American) debate of whether Wallis should receive an HRH (Her Royal Highness) in her title. She never got it; he never got over it.
Wallis is the relatively rational one in this ditzy duo. Sebba documents that Wallis didn't want the king to abdicate and didn't want to marry him, even tried to break it off with him, in part because she still loved her second husband, Ernest Simpson. Even during the honeymoon she continued to write lovingly to Ernest, referring to her new, third husband as "Peter Pan" for his petulant personality.
But Peter Pan threatened suicide if she left him, and after he abdicated, Wallis was stuck with him. As Sebba reads it, Wallis was trapped, by a situation of her own making, for 36 years until the duke died. She survived another 14 years, spending most of that time barely conscious and bedridden in her Paris mansion.
How's that for a "great romance"?
Sebba dispenses with the silly stuff said about Simpson, such as the claim she learned exotic sexual techniques while living in China with her first husband and then used them to ensnare the king. Sebba also doesn't believe the Windsors were card-carrying Nazis, but they foolishly met with Hitler, socialized with prominent Nazis and British Fascists and were stoutly pro-German. Sebba also makes a case for the theory that Bessiewallis Warfield was born (in Baltimore in 1896) with a possible disorder of sexual development that gave her the appearance of a man and could explain her failure to have children with any of her husbands.
But despite being published on Valentine's Day, her book suggests this was no great romance — it was just a pathetic muddle.
"Few who knew them well described what they shared as love," Sebba writes near the end. Whatever it was, it left the couple in question adrift and unhappy for the rest of their lives, while placing a much more suitable couple on the British throne. The monarchy is better and stronger for it today.