That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, Anne Sebba, St. Martin’s Press
Wallis Warfield Simpson is a figure of fascination to generations of women and young girls. Her story is so romantic-on its face- that most of us cannot resist yet another biography. However, there is another view of Wallis that inverts the whole fairy tale and turns it into a tale of grotesques, hobbling along a doomed path tethered together for a lifetime, something designed to torment the damned in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell. Biographers see the same picture, some one way up, and some topsy turvy, and in Ms. Sebba’s case it is the upside down version that fills her book with intimations of deformities, neurosis, and disease.
The facts are simply that Bessie Wallis Warfield was the child of a marriage between two respectable young people from Baltimore. Her mother was a Montague, and her father a Warfield. The trouble was that the marriage was early, unapproved, and that her father was tubercular and did not long survive her birth. Bessie Wallis was raised as a poor relation, on back stairwells, and grew up with a frustrated sense that other people had money, but that she did not. It was a situation she decided to rectify.
Because of the support of a wealthy uncle, she went to a privileged school, Oldfields, was presented as a debutante, and rapidly married her first husband Earl Winfield Spencer in 1916. It was too quick a courtship, and Wallis, as she had become, having sensibly ditched the “Bessie”, found that the dashing young aviator – drank. They separated, but came back together briefly in China, where her husband was posted.
It is at this point that the tale of Wallis Simpson becomes interesting. Wallis was an adventuress. She showed no inclination to go home, get a divorce and get a job. She stayed. The story becomes murky as Wallis sank beneath the surface of bright respectability. She was initially in Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily large number of prostitutes, and it was her account that Winn, her husband, had taken to frequenting tea houses where you could spend an afternoon doing more than sipping tea, and that he took her along on a few of these excursions.
No one will ever know for sure just what (or who) Wallis picked up in Shanghai or elsewhere, but when she finally got back to New York, properly divorced from Spencer, she set about further man catching without much ado. Her second husband was Ernest Simpson, already a married businessman, though not married for long to Wallis’ predecessor, and he was about to return to England and the family business. He married Wallis after a quickie divorce, and they went to London together.
Wallis rapidly worked her way up in London café society until she met the Prince of Wales, then the lover of Thelma Furness, and when Thelma went on a trip to the States, Wallis took her place as the Prince’s mistress. The rest is history, but mostly conjectural history, since not much can be guessed about an obsession as powerful as Edward VIII’s.
This is where Ms Sebba’s book hits a speed bump. She avoids the customary pitfalls of retrospective envy of Wallis’ jewels and clothes, but she cannot resist speculating about how these two came and remained together.
She suggests that Wallis was born with a DSD or disorder of sexual development, this accounting for the quasi-masculinity of Wallis’ manner sometimes noted by contemporaries. Ms. Sebba bases this idea on the belief of an earlier biographer, Marc Bloch (Duchess of Windsor), who was also working at Wallis’ last residence, that she had Androgen Insensitivity Spectrum or AIS.
Alas for both hypotheses, there is no medical evidence to back them up.
The Prince of Wales also receives some interested speculation from Ms. Sebba. He is variously diagnosed as an anorexic, or autism spectrum, and she digs up a quote or two from his irascible father to the effect of his being mad. To the first speculation once again, there is no answer, because in those days, anorexia nervosa was not a commonly diagnosed disorder; to the second, one can only respond that these days about 100% of one’s family, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors seem to be on the spectrum, which by inference makes the ex-king normal. That he was infertile, as she also speculates, seems likely, since despite extensive womanizing, there were never any rumors of illegitimate offspring, although he seems to have chased women with relish up until meeting Wallis.
This readable book would have succeeded much better with me if Ms. Sebba had refrained from practicing medicine retrospectively and without a license. The best of this biography is the fairness of tone it takes regarding Wallis’ marriage to Ernest Simpson. That Woman reveals how long the correspondence between the two ex-spouses continued, years into Wallis’ new marriage to Edward, and how much genuine love there was. In the end it seemed that Wallis, because of her own ambition, did wind up married to the wrong man.
She also downplays the rumors that Wallis was behind such socializing with Nazis as the Windsors were pictured doing. It occurred during a trip to Germany in 1937. This appears to have been mostly Edward’ idea, and mostly aimed at avoiding another war (he was a pacifist) while giving Wallis a taste of official life and state visits. He did not realize until too late, what a threat the Nazis posed to Britain, democracy, and human rights.
Were they in love? Ms. Sebba’s answer seems to be that Edward was enduringly fascinated, and Wallis was simply caught in a web largely of her own weaving. Wallis saw the lifestyle, the jewels, the clothes, the houses, the travel, and did not put on the breaks until it was far too late to stop the whole luxurious caravan crashing into reality. There were chances to stop along the way, Wallis could have called a halt early in the affair, she could have refused to get a divorce from Simpson, or she could, quite honestly, have told the King what seems to have been the truth, that she loved Simpson.
“I miss you and worry about you…” she wrote to her ex-husband shortly before her marriage to the Duke, and Simpson wrote her, “I know somewhere in your heart there is a small flame burning for me.”
So it seems there was a genuine love story buried under all that scandal; just not the one that everybody knows.