There are competing images of what kind of person Wallis Simpson was and why she mattered. By some accounts, she was an impossibly charming, quick-witted woman whose forbidden but passionate relationship with King Edward VIII of England made for the most romantic love story of the century. And by other accounts, she was a self-centered social climber whose affair with an irrational leader nearly toppled the monarchy at a critical time in British history. In “That Woman,” Anne Sebba cuts through decades of rumor and mythology to try to reveal the truth about this woman and her extraordinary journey from upper-middle-class Baltimore girl to jet-setting royal mistress to lonely outcast.
Born Bessiewallis Warfield, she was an early enchantress. “All her schoolfriends remember Wallis as exceptionally flirtatious from a very young age,” Sebba writes, “not just charming in a typically Southern way but teasingly and unusually enticing.” After a failed marriage to an aviator, a brief stint in Washington mingling with well-heeled diplomats and a long trip through China, she settled in London with her second husband, affluent businessman Ernest Simpson.
It wasn’t long before the Simpsons found themselves drawn into the royal social circle and the king became smitten with the American woman. The relationship that blossomed was obviously taboo, but the king began to feel he couldn’t live without Wallis, and she at least briefly believed she could juggle the affections of her husband and the king. When it became clear that the royal family and government officials would never accept a divorcee as the nation’s queen, the king dramatically abdicated to be with his lover. (The book’s title, “That Woman,” refers to the dismissive phrase the king’s mother, Queen Mary, often used when speaking of Wallis.)
The couple forged an odd, unequal relationship that few people understood. “He genuinely saw no other way to continue his life and adored her to the end. It was an obsession,” Sebba writes. “For her, the slavish devotion was at times claustrophobic and she was not afraid to show it.” Although Simpson eventually married the former king, she did so with trepidation. Before he relinquished power, Sebba writes, she tried “to extricate herself, painfully aware now how history would view her as the woman who forced a man to give up his throne.”
Some of the book’s most fascinating anecdotes date from the beginning of World War II, portraying a deluded, and petulant former king and a wife who was either complicit in his foolish behavior or powerless to stop it. As the royal family tried to whisk the exiled couple out of France, where they were living at the time, ahead of Hitler’s invading army, the former king’s top concern should have been for his and his wife’s safety. Instead, he was preoccupied with his petty requests about travel accommodations and demands that his wife be addressed as “Her Royal Highness,” a major sticking point that the current monarchy would not concede.
The book’s strength is that Sebba remains objective in telling the story of such a polarizing figure as Simpson. The king’s paramour elicits empathy for the media scrutiny she had to endure and for the dilemma she faced as she realized she was trapped in asuffocating relationship. But Sebba doesn’t skimp on unflattering details that reveal Simpson’s cruel verbal abuse of her husband and her shallow fixation on her weight and wealth.
Though most of the book is rooted in solid research, the discussion of Simpson’s sexuality and her sexual relationship with the king leans too heavily on conjecture. Sebba says there is “strong circumstantial and psychosexual evidence” that Simpson was intersexual, which refers to a broad spectrum of sexual development disorders. She offers this as a possible explanation for the fact that Simpson never bore any children and flirted in an unusually aggressive way. Furthermore, Sebba gives credence to speculation that the couple’s passion was driven by Simpson’s sexual prowess, which may have included a repertoire of tricks acquired during her years in China. But she offers scant evidence to support these claims.
Simpson was more than once seduced by the promise of increased fortune and stability. But even though she found those qualities in at least two of her husbands, she never seemed to find true happiness. Near the end of her life, after Edward died, she turned to drinking. And her own final days were lonely ones, spent in a dilapidated house in Paris. “It would be hard to imagine a more desperate, lingering death than hers,” Sebba writes.
If there is a lesson in Wallis’s story, it’s that the luster of material wealth can wear off quickly and ultimately leave even the most affluent and prosperous among us feeling insecure and forlorn.
The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor
By Anne Sebba
St. Martin’s. 344 pp. $27.99