Liz Smith: The Woman He Loved

And more from our Liz: Wallis Simpson still remembered—the good, bad and who the hell really knows?

“THE GREATEST story since the Resurrection!” said one journalist after King Edward VIII abdicated his throne for the  sake of “the woman I love.”

Well, that was back in 1936. And in these days of the rampant Internet and everything else that has changed the world of print, the story seems to be making a comeback, in spades.

I am talking now, again, about the ultimate villain, Wallis Simpson, who became the internationally known Duchess of Windsor when her lover, the most famous Prince of Wales in 20th century history, informed her that he could no longer be “the Emperor of India.” His younger brother, Bertie, would have to take over.

Wally, the American divorcee from Baltimore, a siren of sorts, became an anathema in Great Britain, in her aspired-to empire and everywhere in the English-speaking world. The British Royal Family, which the Prince – then briefly King Edward VIII — deserted, has enjoyed tough times, both before and after Wally. But now everything about this amazing story is back in vogue again.

A TV show, “The Darkness of Wallis Simpson,” was broadcast in Great Britain on Dec. 28. It depicted Wally not so much as a mean, horrible woman, but as someone who actually tried to dissuade the playboy prince from abdicating  his throne. She was evidently willing to disappear or just be a mistress. Or nothing at all. This playlet was written by Rose Tremain, who interpreted the Duchess in retirement in old age in Paris, unable to even remember the man she called “David.” He had died before her. Not everybody believes that version of a self-sacrificing Wallis.

In the current movie hit “The King’s Speech,” both the Duke and Duchess of Windsor appear as negatives. Played by actress Eve Best, Wallis seems to be a thoughtless, climber who disregarded history.

But that was largely Edward VIII’s fault. The Prince sacrificed his worldwide popularity. He didn’t seem to care about anything but Wallis, and moved off the throne so that he could have his life with her. He thought it was fine that his unwilling younger brother would have to become George VI. (The latter, as you know, stuttered and feared he couldn’t shoulder responsibilities for which he had never prepared. This future also included World War II. But events turned out mercifully and possibly for the best, eventually producing the long-running successful monarch, Elizabeth II.)

You probably know that Madonna has already filmed a movie titled “W.E.” (meaning Wallis and Edward) and it is being cut and edited as we speak. Andrea Riseborough plays the Duchess of Windsor in this one, and I have heard the film is partial to the woman who almost destroyed the British monarchy.

Another film on British TV, called “Any Human Heart,” written by William Boyd, showed the actress Gillian Anderson as the Duchess.

I have heard also that the American writer Joan Juliet Buck, famous reporter for Vogue and points elegant, is prepping a show about the Duke and Duchess. There is also a musical, already being evaluated by Broadway producers; it has been seen to good reviews on the West Coast where it bowed at the Pasadena Playhouse. Written by New York City’s Judith Steir, this one is titled “Only a Kingdom.” Again, it seems to come down on the side of The Duchess.

Probably hundreds of other aspiring creators, citing the success of “The King’s Speech,” which shows the Windsors as callous, immature, opportunistic and selfish, are now in the big pot, circulating, pro and con.

When I met Oscar-winning Colin Firth recently, he asked if I recalled the days of the abdication of Edward VIII. I told him I had been in junior high school in Fort Worth, Texas, but even I knew all the scandal being printed week after week in the Hearst newspapers. We Americans knew a lot about the subject about which the British people had been kept firmly in the dark. They didn’t really get much time for even a hint before their idol, the Prince of Wales, (the newly minted Edward VIII) was on the radio abdicating and saluting his inept brother “Bertie.”

Then, David flew off to the South of France and married his Duchess. They lived the rest of their days being distanced from the British royals, buying a beautiful getaway home near Paris. They bitterly governed the Bahamas during the war and then became so-called Society’s guests, accepting plane tickets, hotel suites, and freebies in the flickering fleshpots of the world. In time, they even posed upstairs in the nightclub El Morocco, wearing paper crowns and being themselves.

Playwright Tremain says, “History’s damning verdict on Wallis Simpson will never change.” But, hey, there is so much going down – who knows?

9 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    A climber she was, no doubt.  It has been over 20 years since I read a biography of Wallis Simpson who, as I recall, was the product of a climbing mother.  From what I recall, there is no question that she and her mother were gold-diggers extraordinaire (think some of the Real Housewives of Whatever City you want.)  Her first husband held some promise until he turned into a a hapless drunk and as I recall did not deliver the money the mother/daughter duo had anticpated would come from the marriage.  So that was one divorce and she sought another rich man.  Poor Mr. Simpson, was rich but not rich compared to David.   I don’t think anyone will ever know for sure whether Wallis would have been happy being the mistress of the King or if she was pressing for the morganitic marriage or the full title of Her Royal Highness (one which George VI did not give her even after the marriage…something David reputedly never got over).  I think both of them were very shallow narcissists.  I cannot recall anything that either of them ever did for anyone else in their whole lives, but I may be wrong.  From everything I have read about them over the years, I do not think the portrayal of them in The Kings Speech was off the mark by much if at all.  Perhaps, however, England owes her a debt of gratitude for delivering them from a callow, narcissistic and by all accounts Nazi sympathetic king at a time when England had to fight for its survival. 

  2. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Liz — in another context, I would say “it is the journey, not the destination” — and, as we know little of what goes on in private lives, those that speculate about Wallis will continue to do so — particularly if they can make a few bucks on books and plays about this love.  I continue to think there is a fascination with British royalty, British aristocrats that did so many naughty things way back in the 1920s.  How did they get away with revolving bedrooms at the house parties?  Changing partners was a way of life in the upper class set.  And then — in what looks to be not a match made in heaven, Wallis and David stayed together to the end.  I think we are fascinated with love – what makes it tick, what makes it stick, — to this day.  It is a game — sometimes a lucrative game – to make judgments on Wallis Simpson and all the other royalty.

    If the past has to be re-hashed, I think I would rather read something (if I had to) about those lives so many years ago, than the not-at-all-private lives of today’s long list of trashy young things who have now made the word “scandal” not only ordinary — but disgusting.

  3. avatar Richard Bassett says:

    Many actresses portrayed the Duchess of Windsor through-out the years and this continues into the present day.  In the 1930’s, she seemed to be a woman of scandal with her marriages, and affairs…before The Duke of course. After being accused of being associated with the Nazi’s (and Hitler), their story seems to fizzle out. I see a little of Barbara Hutton in her. Just a pinch. With her luck (poor) in the film industry, it will be interesting to see how Madonna directs a film about the couple in W.E. She may see the Duchess as a part of herself, and part of Eva Peron. No doubt, Wallace Simpson sparked an interest in her to do this project….but not tempted enough to play the role, herself. 

  4. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    As the Duchess herself once said, one can never be too rich or too thin. Or, as Baby Snooks would add, too vapid. 

  5. avatar Dan Patterson says:

    Wallis Simpson did Great Britain a great service in removing that complete twit David/Edward from the throne.  He would have been a disaster as a king, whereas his brother Bertie/George worked hard to be the best king he possibly could.  England should erect a monument to Wallis.

  6. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    I’ve read extensively about the Duke and Duchess and the royal family of the 30s and 40s. Every reputable biography points to Wallis doing everything she could to stop David from abdicating. She was content to be a mistress, knowing that British society would never accept her as queen. Up until the end, she tried to stop that immature, spoiled little boy from shattering his world and hers.

  7. avatar Rho says:

    I will not comment on the Duke.

  8. avatar Bonnie O says:

    Liz –  A very interesting article.

    It is my opinion that folks are either too harsh or too much pro-Wallis in the scandal of the century.  (Pardon me Liz, Richard, Eddie and Debbie)  I think she got stuck in a relationship that could only result in marriage if the King abdicated.  Of course, she wanted Edward to remain King.  No matter what others would think or say, she would then consider herself a Queen, not a consort as she and Edward proposed.  Yet, their ambitions fell apart.

    As a mistress of an unmarried King, Wallis would still retain her societal role among the British aristocracy.  If, however, she threw over the King once he abdicated, she would lose everything, and be forever labeled as an adventuress by British society and it would be doubtful if she could ever arrange another marriage except with another person also looked upon with low esteem.  Wallis was stuck.  Marry Edward and lose the crown or dismiss him and lose everything else plus the crown. 

  9. avatar Adele Corner House says:

    In defense of the dead, no one bothers to remember that Wallis’ first husband was an alcoholic. In those times it was essential for upper class women to marry since only the poor worked. Most people have no clue about Wallis’ character. She was brought up with a great sense of propriety and in a very wealthy neighborhood of Baltimore. It is not only a very ignorant idea to call Wallis and her Mother Alyce Warfield gold diggers, it is very stupid. The Warfield family took care of Wallis and her Mother. Her Father died from tuberculosis, not alcoholism and the family had a duty in polite society. Alyce Warfield didn’t remarry until 1911 which was 14 years after Wallis was born and would hardly qualify as a gold digger.
    I have read the FBI files on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Some people try to make fact over 4 hand written letters to J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI and, over several years during WWII, accusing Wallis of being a Nazi spy. Two were anonymous. all had misspelled words, bad grammar and the accusations of The Duchess or The Duke had no merit and no proof. These letters were written by “nobody’s” and in my opinion were complete idiots. Hoover’s reply to the letters with a return address was in effect, “Thank you for your letter.” There is absolutely no information in the FBI files alluding to any fact of suspicious activity by The Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
    The Duke did have one affection with the Nazi’s style of government; They were not Communists. If you have read the private letters between the Duke and The Duchess, then you know that he was a Brit through and through. I won’t say that the Duke isn’t on record of making cocky remarks but most people forget the Duke’s connection with the Germans. Kaiser Wilhelm was Queen Victoria’s oldest grandchild. Great Britain’s Royal Family changed their last name to Windsor when WWI began. The Duke and Duchess visit to Germany in 1937 was long before the horrific treatment of the Jews became known and long before the invasion of Czechoslavakia and Poland. People forget that the Duke, as Prince of Wales and Edward VIII, promised his people that he would do his best to remedy the unemployment situation in Great Britain. He visited Germany to witness how Hitler had changed the economy of the country and put people back to work from massive unemployment. No one knew that Hitler was re-building the military in defiance of the Versailles Treaty. No one could predict the atrocities that Hitler would cause.