LONG IMPATIENT with the view that she had trapped the world's most coveted bachelor into marrying at the cost of his patrimony, the Duchess of Windsor left instructions for posthumous publicaton of their letters. They now appear so soon after her death -- she was nearly 90 -- as to make clear that the preparation, and even the typesetting, occured in the years when she lay slowly dying, unaware of the world well lost.
Few things in life are as predictable as outraged respectability and public appetite for prurient gossip. That both could combine in one notorious love affair, and that involving the King of England, made the year 1936 an annus mirabilis for readers of newspapers. Only in England itself were the delicious details withheld for a time; yet they were common knowledge.
In a period of increasingly flexible public morality, it is difficult to remember that it was once socially suicidal to divorce but quite acceptable to flaunt a mistress or lover one did not expect to marry. In the court of Queen Victoria, for most of her reign, divorced women, even when innocent parties, could not be received. One titled and venerable lady was banned because she had eloped when she was a teen-ager, 50 years earlier. Lady St. Leonards was the wife of the lord chancellor, but, she was told, "it was a principle at Court not to receive ladies whose characters are under stigma." Even Victoria's son, popularly known in her time as Edward the Caresser, excluded divorced parties from court while keeping a serial harem of semi-official mistresses -- all safely married. The last, and most respectable of them, the bosomy Mrs. Frances Keppel, well acquainted with the king's pillow in livelier times, was even sent for by Queen Alexandra in 1910, to pay her respects at the royal deathbed.
Twenty-six years later, the king's grandson David, who called himself Edward VIII, relinquished his throne to marry a twice-divorced American lady with whom he had gadded about but possibly had not slept, although opportunity had not been lacking. The elderly Mrs. Keppel, pillar of the English colony in Florence, huffed, "The King has shown neither decency, nor wisdom, nor regard for tradition." She was, at the least, partly correct.
Despite the presence of all the necessary Aristotelian ingredients, nothing could read less like Greek tragedy. Only a tawdry grandeur pervades these pages. The letters linked here in Michael Bloch's over-annotated running commentary, largely those from Wallis Simpson to Aunt Bessie Merryman in Washington, and between Mrs. Simpson and the Prince of Wales, contain talk of kings and princes and dukes, of prime ministers and ambassadors and business tycoons, but these pale in significance to discussion of clothes, of dogs, of society doings, of maids, and above all, of money. The "all for love" denouement seems drifted into on both sides, and whether it was really love on either side depends upon one's definition of the term.
SHE HAD BEEN BORN Bessiewallis Warfield to a penniless Baltimorean father, of old Virginia antecedents, who died when she was 5 months old, and a mother with a distinguished southern name but otherwise with all the characteristics of Tennessee Williams' Amanda Wingfield. When Wallis first met the Prince of Wales in 1931, she was already married for the second time, now to a London shipping broker of American parentage and rootless ways whose finances were being underminded by the world depression and his aged father's rapacious French mistress. Mrs. Simpson was 34, undistinguished by beauty, birth, wealth or intellect.
Wallis knew at least one of the prince's mistresses, the American-born Thelma Morgan, then the Viscountess Furness. All the prince's ladies were married -- there was safety in that -- but his preference for experienced and unmarriageable women left him and the kingdom without a future queen. At 36 he was still handsome and lively. He performed ceremonial duties for his ailing father, George V, when necessary, but preferred golf in the afternoons, dances that went on until dawn, and houseparties on long country weekends.
Vivacious married women (and their husbands) were useful chaperones and companions for the prince's unstrenuous diversions. When Wallis and Ernest Simpson drifted into royal favor, and invitation followed invitation, her letters to Bessie Merryman took on a tone that combined Alice in Wonderland with perpetual panic about affording the elevated lifestyle. She had thought little about anything but maids and clothes before; now she worried to Aunt Bessie, who had regularly sent her money and clothes anyway, that she was "really naked." One couldn't wear the same dresses and jewels when seeing the same people so often -- especially when one was "David," the Prince of Wales. Soon he was quietly furnishing money to Wallis, to keep her Parisian wardrobe competitive, and Ernest was contriving excuses to mind his business.
Times had changed only a little. For Wallis to be presented at court, Aunt Bessie was deputed to provide for the lord chamberlain's office not only a copy of her niece's divorce decree but the shorthand reporter's trial notes "to prove nothing was said against me." The rarefied life would not last, she told Aunt Bessie in 1933; it was her "swan song unless I can hang onto my figure."
When David began turning up at Wallis' flat in Marylebone for potluck suppers, and began instructing his aides not to put through telephone calls to him from Thelma Furness and Freda Dudley Ward, Wallis began confessing to Aunt Bessie that she was becoming "a bit worn -- never a restful moment as it requires great tact to manage both men ." But her skills in management and in tact were becoming sophisticated. After a lecture from Washington that Wallis was on a collision course with harsh reality, Bessie was assured that "if Ernest raises any objections to the situation I shall give up the prince at once. So far things are going along beautifully and the 3 of us are always together . . ." That was less and less so, as the David-and-Wallis segment of the correspondence begins to burgeon; yet the letters have no suggestion of sexual urgency. Rather, they suggest an immature young man baby-talking to his child sweetheart. ("These three gardenias are eanum but they say enormous ooh and that a boy loves a girl more and more and is holding her so tight these trying days of waiting.") Emotionally, the prince seems a case of arrested development, but Wallis thrilled at being hostess at his glamorous table, choosing Christmas presents for his huge staff, and being his companion at whatever undemanding level he wanted and needed.
Michael Bloch sees the relationship as almost one of mother and son, but Wallis was less the mothering type than the plastic consort who fitted herself into whatever mold the prince required as the price of what seemed a transient but thrilling episode in her life. Yet the precipice she had ascended had left her with fewer alternatives than she had anticipated. Somehow she thought that the Establishment could be overcome once David was king, and she confessed frankly to Aunt Bessie about her "insatiable ambitions." These almost seemed possible when David became Edward VIII on January 20, 1936, and Ernest wrote to him the next day humbly as a "devoted loyal subject." And he was exactly that, arranging to be confronted by private detectives in bed with another woman so that Wallis could sue for divorce as the innocent victim. (The king reimbursed Simpson's expenses.)
Leaving nothing to chance, Wallis wrote to her aunt to have family trees researched, in case her lineage could be made of some account, and simultaneously she pooh-poohed American "bourgeois morals." As she confided, "nothing ventured nothing gained," for if His Majesty were to fall in love with someone else, "I would cease to be as powerful or have all I have today. . . . I can't go back to the old . . . I am 40 and I feel I must follow my own instincts." She already had a financial settlement in hand from the king, and an army of flatterers around her; and the king was more and more inclined, if it came to that, to renounce the throne rather than her. All the monarchy meant was ceremonial appearances at which he was effective, but which he detested, and -- he told her -- "red dispatch boxes full of mostly bunk to read." WHEN IT CAME to confronting his government -- he might have stalled the cabinet until after his coronation, when his position would have been stronger -- he had no stomach for it. Trapped by his flight from responsibility into exactly the role she had sought, suddenly she warned him, in a letter, "You and I can only create disaster together." Whether it was prophecy, or an attempt to create a document for her later exculpation, the warning was useless to either of them. Bloch sees her as considering withdrawal to rescue his position, but in actuality she had nowhere else to go but to him, and both still assumed that the leavings of power and glory would be substantial. The assumption was false, but Wallis assured David, "Together I suppose we are strong enough to face this mean world."
Mean it was. As she predicted to society hostess Sybil Colefax, "two people will suffer" because of "the workings of a system." Unwilling even to predicate his abdication upon a parting settlement that would guarantee him and his future wife royal status and position in Britain, he broadcast instead his eloquent "the woman I love" radio farewell in December 1936 (some touches in it by Winston Churchill) and went off into a European exile that meant cold shoulders from former sycophants and warm interest from the sleaziest elements of the popular press.
Denied dignity, and without anything useful to do, the new Duke of Windsor and his Duchess would be international society's most notorious parasites for a generation, while they thoroughly bored each other. But that book has already been written -- several times over. The Wallis-David correspondence ends as they are about to marry, in June 1937. She had thought of him as emotionally a Peter Pan, and of herself an Alice in Wonderland. The book they had written together, however, was a Paradise Lost.