Few figures in modern royal history have faced greater opprobrium than Wallis Warfield, but the view of the woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in December 1936 has softened a little since her death in 1986. The Baltimore belle has long been cast as a scheming seductress, and even Nazi agent, who supported the Duke of Windsor in his goal of avoiding war by bringing Britain to an accommodation with Nazi Germany. Those more sympathetic to Edward and Wallis have stressed the romantic aspect – of a king who abdicated for love. Edward and Wallis were certainly one of the great dramas of the twentieth century. An odd couple, the glamorous monarch and the brash American divorcee, whose love threatened to bring down the British Empire during its darkest hour. Their relationship has been discussed and immortalised in a multitude of ways and with several new biographies recently released, as well as a forthcoming Hollywood film directed by Madonna soon to be released worldwide, Wallis is currently very much centre stage. Yet she remains an enigmatic personality whose inner truths have been hard to penetrate. Which is rather intriguing as biographers have always had a great deal of material to draw on: with both Edward and Wallis having written memoirs as well as a plethora of contemporary accounts from politicians, royal advisors, society diarists, official documents and private letters.
With this degree of attention and, it must be said, commercial exploitation of Wallis, a 21st century biographer must surely ask themselves have we drilled to the depths that the historic materials will allow in search of Wallis Simpson, is there any more to be said? For historian Anne Sebba the answer is a resounding yes – through an unflinching look at the life, times and mind of the Duchess of Windsor. Sebba has chosen a different approach attempting a psychological portrait that is both sympathetic and disturbing. ‘That Woman’ is the story of one woman’s search for security and companionship and her struggles with her own inner demons that she could not fully understand. Drawing on new materials, including a cache of letters written by Wallis in 1936 the author has uncovered, Sebba is not afraid to draw conclusions. The Wallis that emerges is a complex, deeply conflicted character: a woman whose desire to live the good life led her to one of opulent emptiness shared with a man every bit as flawed as she. Sebba grounds her psychological thesis on Wallis’ formative years, which she suggests were marked by psychological trauma: a difficult childhood compounded by the fact that she may have suffered from a condition known as disorder of sexual development (DSD), sometimes also referred to as intersexuality. Weaving the psychological and (more speculatively) the physiological, Sebba’s attempt to uncover the real Wallis is compelling reading.
Wallis was born into a respected Baltimore family, the only daughter of Teackle Wallis Warfield and Alice Monatgue. Teackle was in business as a flour merchant and described as “one of the best known and personally one of the most popular citizens of Baltimore.” But Wallis would never come to know her father who died from tuberculosis just five months after her birth in 1896 and it was left to Alice to raise their only child. The family was of good stock but Wallis’ parents were not themselves rich and with Teackle’s death Alice had become a poor relation. Family ties brought some support as she was soon invited by her mother-in-law, Anna Emory Warfield, to stay at her house in the centre of town where she was able to raise Wallis for the next five years. The child’s first memories were coloured by this strict matriarch and, even more so, by her uncle Solomon Davies Warfield. Solomon was a financier whose political ambitions to become mayor had not been fulfilled; although he still achieved local status as postmaster. He supported Wallis financially and paid for her education but exerted a mean spirited hold over her and Alice, not least through intermittent payments into Alice’s bank account. It was a lesson not forgotten by Wallis as she recounted it decades later in her memoirs.
Whilst there were tensions from family relations they were nonetheless a saving grace. In times of still rigid social and racial division, Solomon’s support saved Alice and Wallis from suffering too close a connection to the more vulgar Baltimore that was emerging at the start of the twentieth century – a bustling port city of immigrants. This sense of belonging to her class would also stay with Wallis throughout her life, to belong and equally importantly to appear to belong amongst the “right sort of people” was a cornerstone of her world view. Unfortunately for Alice and Wallis the safety net provided by Anna Emory Warfield ended abruptly, according to Wallis because Uncle Solomon fell in love with Alice. His overtures were deemed inappropriate and the unfortunate Alice had little choice but to move out. This opened a difficult period in Alice’s life, which saw her and Wallis living in a hotel with Alice making ends meet by selling embroideries at the local Women’s Exchange Shop. Their fortunes took a turn for the better when Alice’s newly widowed sister, Bessie Merryman, invited them to live with her. Wallis grew to love Aunt Bessie but Alice, determined to support herself, moved out to run a lodging house. After several desperate years, during which Wallis watched her mother “working herself to death,” Aunt Bessie again came to the rescue and demanded the enterprise be shut down and they moved back in with her. Sebba believes these unsettled early years brought about a reaction in the young Wallis. She was already showing a strong and independent nature, carving out her own identity Sebba sees significance in Wallis’ decision to drop her forename, ‘Bessie’: “Choosing your own name is the supreme act of self-creation . . . she was constructing an identity, giving herself from a young age freedom that women of her era could not take for granted.”
But this independence of spirit was a rather contradictory trait: driving but also simultaneously disturbing Wallis’ psychological development was a deep sense of insecurity. This clever, funny and smart girl viewed the world as cold and inhospitable, a threat to be contained and controlled rather than an opportunity to be engaged with. Wallis was not academically inclined, nor (with the unhappy example of her mother in mind) was she motivated to set out on the uncertain path of a career. Instead she would hone her social skills which she viewed as her main asset in life’s struggle. This too was a surprising development in that Wallis was never considered to be a pretty girl and as she approached adulthood she cut a rather androgynous figure. A lack of conventional physical beauty is not however to lack charm or sexual charisma and Wallis had both in abundance. At Oldfield’s Girls’ School the young Wallis also showed rebellious tendencies, smoking and absconding to meet with boys. A “daredevil ringleader never afraid to set the pace, a tomboy” was one account. And she was adept at running more than one boyfriend at a time, unusual behaviour for a well bred young girl with the intent of saving herself for marriage to a wealthy man. The young risk taker was nonetheless clear that marriage was the route to the good life. One contemporary recalled it was Wallis’ main topic of conversation: “On this score I remember very well a remark that Wallis made a number of times, even I think at our family dinner table – it was memorable because so unconventional. She would announce that the man she married would have to have lots of money – the kind of thing that ‘nice girls’ did not say.” From the modern perspective Wallis might be viewed as seeking the easy route, but it was still an ambition fraught with uncertainty. And, given her single minded focus the refusal of Uncle Sol to pay for her debutante party (he said he had no funds spare for frivolities citing the Great War as excuse) was a devastating blow.
Undeterred Wallis accepted as many party invitations as she could to ensure she was visible on the social scene. Her determination would bear fruit. A trip to her cousin in Florida would be a fateful one – in the guise of Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer. A US Navy pilot ‘Win’ Spencer was handsome, dashing with, as Wallis wrote in her memoirs, “a suggestion of inner force and vitality that struck me instantly.” Wallis was soon in love: the nineteen year-old was infatuated with the glamour and excitement of being wooed by a man of the world eight years her senior. They were married in 1916 but it would not turn out to be the fairytale Wallis had dreamed of. Underneath the charm Win Spencer was a troubled character: an alcoholic with a streak of bitterness, prone to jealousy and brooding. Wallis endured eight turbulent years trying to be the good wife and Sebba suggests the experience added another layer of complexity to Wallis’ psyche: “In order to make sense of Wallis it is important to understand the horror of her marriage to Spencer.” There was certainly abusive behaviour from Spencer when he was drunk, but the author sees a deeper complexity undermining the relationship, stemming in part from Wallis’ physiological problems from the DSD condition and an inability to have full sexual intercourse.
Undoubtedly a leap of faith is asked of the reader as this portrait of Wallis depends heavily on how well Sebba makes the case for the DSD thesis. If Wallis did suffer from a mild degree of DSD it could not have been diagnosed without modern techniques using full ultrasound. Furthermore it is not a simple diagnosis as the term covers a wide range of conditions and some are hard to spot at birth via visual examination. It is not however an implausibly rare condition and estimates are that around one baby in 15,000 is born with some degree of DSD. But in the late nineteenth century, around the time of Wallis’ birth, the doctors would have dismissed any abnormalities (which can be very subtle) as something the child would grow out of. There are therefore no medical records to draw on and the case must be made circumstantially. Citing Wallis’ behaviour during childhood and adolescence, analysing her behaviour and physiology and her adult medical history (which is an intriguing but vaguely recorded one) Sebba does a credible job at fleshing out her ideas aided by quotes from various medical authorities, psychologists and even a graphologist to bolster her theory.
Sebba stresses that the condition is not in anyway to imply that Wallis was a freak and certainly not a man, which has been claimed. But she conjectures she may have been born a ‘psuedo-hermaphrodite’, a term only coined a decade before Wallis’ birth. In this condition the patient exhibits the external organs of one gender and the internal reproductive organs of the other. The female version of the condition usually produces a shallow vagina but no uterus, cervix and in some cases no ovaries. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was still a taboo subject, especially with regard to girls. Without an accurate diagnosis possible there would have been no need to raise the child as having a special condition. Nor would there necessarily have been outward signs of the condition, such as facial hair; although after puberty a degree of masculinity may have been noticeable in bone structure, muscle development and voice change, all of which to a degree Wallis exhibited. Wallis’ behaviour suggests she was aware that in some way she was different and that her gender identity was ambivalent. One sign was that from a young age she kept to a strict diet. The reason, although not consciously articulated, may have been to stress her femininity and elegance, to keep her “curves,” which would not have been the case had she allowed herself to gain weight which would have accentuated her muscularity. Throughout her life Wallis dieted strictly, cutting an elegant but not particularly feminine figure. The writer James Pope-Hennessy noted Wallis’ odd physique during a visit to the Windsors in 1958: “One of the very oddest women I have ever seen. She is, to look at, phenomenal. She is flat and angular and could have been designed for a medieval playing card . . . I would be tempted to classify her as an American woman par excellence . . . were it not for the suspicion that she is not a woman at all.” Wallis certainly cut an androgynous figure throughout her life.
Intriguingly Wallis has added to the evidence herself. In 1937 she confided to a friend that in her first two marriages she had not had full intercourse with either of her first two husbands and she had never let anyone touch her below her “personal Mason-Dixon line” (below the waist). It is an extraordinary admission. Of course we cannot be certain that Wallis suffered from DSD but the circumstantial evidence does mount up tellingly and, if correct, provides a crucial insight into Wallis’ psychological make up. In her sexual relations Wallis may have dealt with these problems by finding other ways to provide the men in her life with pleasure. It was during her first unhappy marriage that Wallis was finding her way in the adult world and when, legend has it, she learned the sexual skills that would eventually ensnare a king. By 1924 Wallis had told Win Spencer she had had enough of the marriage and they separated. Soon after, in a last ditch attempt to save the relationship, he suggested she join him in Hong Kong where he had been posted by the US navy. The reconciliation was a dismal failure and they both concluded that, even overlooking Win’s abusive behaviour, they were not well suited as a couple. The impression of sexual problems in the marriage persists. Win, ostensibly patching things up with his wife, behaved more outrageously than ever as Wallis recalled: “To his already formidable repertory of taunts and humiliations he now added some oriental variations. I gathered that during our long absence he had spent a considerable amount of time ashore in the local sing-song houses. In any event, he now insisted on my accompanying him to his favourite haunts where he would ostentatiously make a fuss over the girls.”
Having reached the end of the road with her husband, Wallis decided to spend more time in China and she travelled to Shanghai, possibly to see if divorce proceedings would be easier in the American court there and to follow up on the letters of introduction to single men she had been given while she was in Washington during her estrangement from Win Spencer. Whatever her reasons for going, the Shanghai sojourn has added to the Wallis legend, the notorious “free” city where she learned the sexual skills of the mysterious east. At the time Shanghai was a centre for the sex trade and was estimated to have some 70,000 prostitutes, more than any other city in the world. It was also a city of intrigue – of political agitators, smugglers and spies. During the abdication crisis it was said that British PM Stanley Baldwin had commissioned a dossier on the order of Queen Mary detailing Wallis’ lewd activities in Shanghai. But this seems the stuff of rumour as, despite the extensive spy network and the fact that Special Branch were said to have kept files on all important people in the city, no such file on Wallis has ever come to light. Wallis, a risk taker by nature, may well have had a degree of curiousity with regard to the highly visible sex trade in the city and she may have sought to increase her own sexual knowledge after her difficulties with her husband. She can certainly be imagined as being bolder than some of her social class but the idea that Wallis became a Mata Hari type figure should be dismissed.
More prosaically and more in character, Wallis, who was now in her late twenties, was husband hunting. Her attention seems to have been focused on an English diplomat named Harold Robinson. But the relationship did not develop into a romance and instead Wallis focused her energies on obtaining a divorce, which she soon abandoned due to the cost. From Shanghai Wallis travelled onto Peking to stay with close friends Herman and Katherine Rogers. This was an intriguing episode in which Wallis partook of the company of diplomats, artists and writers who passed through the Rogers’ residence. Wallis enjoyed the attentions of the Italian diplomat Alberto Da Zara who wrote about her in his memoirs with some passion: “. . . her best features were her eyes and her hair worn off the face and the way her classic hairstyle suited the beauty of her forehead.” Others from this time recall Wallis’ social skills: “Through the years I think men found her witty, and that special ability of giving them her full attention, quite an art!” Certainly the dashing Italian diplomat fell for Wallis’ charms and he never forgot their brief relationship.
There were other male admirers: “a dashing British military officer” and, most intriguingly, the young Count Galeazzo Ciano, who was “very taken by her.” The future son-in-law and foreign minister to Benito Mussolini was rumoured to have had an affair with Wallis, which resulted in a botched abortion. Ciano was a playboy but the story is probably fiction, a good example of the legends that have accrued over the years. What these episodes confirm is that Wallis was (whatever the image that has come down to us through the years) to her contemporaries a charismatic and alluring companion, a woman a variety of men found to be intelligent, attractive, in fact rather unforgettable. It is something worth bearing in mind when Wallis’ relationship with the Duke of Windsor is considered. Wallis’ route to royal romance came about through her second marriage to the anglo-American businessman, Ernest Simpson. When they met he was already married with a daughter and Wallis would be accused of husband poaching. Wallis always asserted that the Simpson marriage was already on the rocks but Simpson’s wife, Dorothea, told a different tale: “From the moment I met her I never liked her at all. I have never been around anybody like that . . . she moved in and helped herself to my house and my clothes and, finally, to my husband.” Wallis was not infatuated with Ernest as she had been with Win Spencer. Now more worldly-wise, she had settled for a solidly dependable man to share her life with. The owner of a successful shipping company Ernest seemed an excellent choice and the marriage was a reasonably happy one. Wallis seemed to have been fortunate in finding financial security with a decent man, even more so as her personal investments would be wiped out in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the year after their marriage. But Ernest, who had few friends of his own, proved to be a rather dull companion for Wallis. Having set up home in London she put her energies into the social scene and the Simpson’s parties became well known as amongst the most enjoyable around as Wallis collected an eclectic set around her. One comment sums it up nicely: “Wallis’ parties have so much pep no one ever wants to leave.”
As ever socially ambitious, Wallis set her sights on meeting the Prince of Wales and she had the right connections through her friendship with Thelma Furness. Wallis had met the current royal mistress via Thelma’s sister Consuelo Thaw. Thelma (the daughter of an American diplomat) had been in a relationship with Edward since around 1930 whilst still married to Marmaduke Furness, 1st Viscount Furness (they divorced in 1933). But Edward’s strongest feelings had been for his previous mistress (from 1918-1923) Freda Dudley Ward (the wife of Liberal MP William Dudley Ward). Edward had an abiding fear of marriage but had admitted to his father he would have married Freda if she had been available. Edward’s penchant for all things American was evident long before he met Wallis and this extended to his affairs as both Freda and Thelma were half-American And for those who blame Wallis for ruining Edward as a prospective monarch a different perspective can be found from the American born diarist Henry ‘Chips’ Channon who wrote that Thelma was “the woman who first ‘modernised’ him and Americanized him, making him over-democratic, casual and a little common. Hers is the true blame for this drama [the abdication crisis].” An interesting contemporary view but whether or not any of the women in his life can be held responsible for Edward’s choices is doubtful and his inclinations for modernity, whether it be of the American, or indeed of the Nazi variety, were very much his own. More relevantly for the women in his life Edward was notoriously demanding and any would be lover needed to have the right touch, psychologically speaking. Thelma and Freda had known how to pander to Edward and his personal idiosyncrasies. What Thelma did not realise was that Wallis was even more adept at making the men in her life feel special, as if they were the only thing that mattered to her.
Wallis and Thelma had become good friends and Ernest was understandably flattered that he and his wife were part of the social circle of the Prince of Wales, who would call on the Simpsons as often as twice a week. That Edward had an interest in Wallis became clear soon enough but whether it would become more than friendship was uncertain and Wallis had no plans in this regard. The ground shifted in January 1934 when Thelma took a trip to New York and left her friend to “look after” Edward while she was away. Thelma later suggested that it was Wallis’ idea; Wallis claimed the opposite. In any event it marked the end of Thelma’s relationship with Edward who switched his attentions to Wallis. Ernest accepted the situation with good grace: sharing his wife with the future king had a certain cachet and amongst the upper classes a liberal attitude on sexual relations prevailed. As Ernest, a pliant partner in Wallis’ hands, took a pragmatic view of this menage a trois he also had other more pressing issues to deal with. By the mid 1930s times were hard for the Simpsons who were struggling to maintain themselves in the style they (particularly Wallis) were accustomed to. Their economic woes meant that Ernest was making more frequent trips abroad to drum up new business and his relations with Wallis were becoming more distant. Wallis, as she had as a girl, thought she would be able to manage having more than one man in her life and for a while she could. And it was understandable that as she approached her fortieth birthday she enjoyed the attentions of the Prince of Wales and equally the assurance that she was still an attractive and desirable woman. But the risk taker would be trapped in her own machinations as circumstances conspired against her.
What seems certain is that Wallis had no plans to marry Edward and it was his obsessive need to be with her that drove the relationship forwards. In fact Wallis took a very realistic view of her affair with the future king, privately admitting that “this man is exhausting” and telling her Aunt Bessie “I think I do amuse him. I’m the comedy relief and we like to dance together but I always have Ernest hanging around my neck so all is safe.” Being Edward’s “latest” made Wallis a celebrity on the social scene and she could reassure Ernest that the benefits of her dalliance with the future king outweighed the risks. But she was also aware of the gauntlet she was running, musing that “ . . . if my insatiable ambitions will land me back in such a flat as the room on Conn Hill, the Woburn [the grim building where Alice and the young Wallis had lodged in the 1920s].” Wallis was certainly not without insight into her own inner drives, which she mixed with a gambler’s dose of fatalism. What she could never have anticipated was the strength of the feelings she had excited in Edward. It was if a lifetime of yearning for companionship was focused on Wallis and Edward had become utterly convinced that he must marry Wallis. The situation spiralled out of her control with the death of King George V in January 1936. Wallis was caught between a rock and a hard place. Her relationship with Ernest had deteriorated and her future was in jeopardy if her marriage ended as Edward, despite his own wishes, might be persuaded or coerced by his family or the government into ending their relationship. The marriage would end but Edward was adamant that Wallis would become his wife and consort and believed he could bend PM Stanley Baldwin to his will. Baldwin, however, was having none of it: if Wallis would not be a “good whore” and remain a mere mistress she had to go, and if Edward married her regardless he would be forced off the throne. Wallis’ role in the abdication crisis is much disputed. Did she scheme with Edward during the crisis and even after the abdication, dreaming of a restoration following a peace deal between Britain and Nazi Germany? Or was her offer during the crisis “to withdraw” genuine? Was it Edward’s obstinacy that forced her into the marriage? Whatever the view, the strain on Wallis was enormous: suddenly propelled to centre stage in the greatest constitutional crisis in British history; the rushed and disputed divorce from Ernest and the flight to refuge in France whilst Edward fought a losing battle with his government. Increasingly the view is, including the author’s, that Wallis was thoroughly trapped and lost control of events.
Ironically the dependable Ernest played an unexpected role as he would start a relationship with Wallis’ childhood friend Mary Kirk, who had introduced them in 1925. Mary had agreed to be the “other woman” to give grounds for the Simpson’s divorce. Sebba sees the abdication not as Wallis at the height of her power but rather as her greatest crisis with her carefully constructed world crumbling all around. The security that Ernest had brought was gone and, having turned forty, she was trapped in a relationship with a king who was fighting a losing battle to keep his throne. The risk taker had gambled once too often and this time there was no escape. All Wallis’ social skills, her acuity and her charm, were worth little against the immutable political struggles being waged around her. She had become a pawn in Edward’s drama and the role he assigned to her was to be his wife. Wallis’ “triumph” in marrying Edward and gaining the financial security she had long sought was mixed with regret, for the simpler life she had lost with Ernest. As monarch Edward’s life had purpose and meaning: without an official role to play there was little for him to do and he had little inclination to make a new career anymore than Wallis could reinvent herself. Wallis pursued her goals and in many ways achieved them but the cost was a life with a man she was most likely not in love with. Although it is presumptuous to judge the nature of personal relations there is little to indicate that Wallis reciprocated Edward’s obsessive love. Marriage to Edward may have been the culmination of her life but this was no happy ending. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were cast aside by the British ruling classes who never forgave them their sins real or perceived. In the searing heat of the abdication crisis Edward took a decision that changed British history and sealed the fate of the restless woman from Baltimore – they would share an aimless life together in a gilded cage. ‘That Woman’ portrays Wallis as a victim of her formative experiences and circumstance, of her own desires and, above all, as a slave to her own psychological drives. She remains a fascinating figure but not one many would wish to emulate. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 22/04)