The Windsors: The Romance Of The Century?

AMY GROSS January 1 1980

The Windsors: The Romance Of The Century?

AMY GROSS January 1 1980



Why the Windsors now ? “The greatest news story since the Resurrection,” H. L. Mencken called it—and he didn't know the half of it. Suddenly, in a burst of Windsoriana, two new tell-all books, a stunning TV series probe the world's most provocative love story.

Why have I never before been caught by this drama? I think it's because I never believed the cover story and had no idea of the almost lurid excitement, the operatic scale of the real story below. The cover story, of course, stars these two supposedly romantic figures, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he the former Edward VIII of England, and she the former Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson of Baltimore, Maryland. The plot involves his abdicating the throne to marry her, a “woman twice-divorced,” as the scandalized called her. And they married and lived happily ever after (in the cover story), setting styles, being best-dressed, making appearances, arrivals, etc., and really who cares?

(Here's another reason I was never caught by this drama: I can't say I really related to it. I can't say my fingers have ever been exactly at the pulse of international social life. My background, obvious limits, and biases are such that one of the Windsors' former secretaries was kind enough to say tactful things to me about “peasants, too, having nobility.” She was making a point I did not altogether catch, about royalty and how blood tells, to explain The Duchess's personality. The point was confusing because The Duchess has no royal blood, but informative as a reflection of the fantasies of the Windsor household.)

I didn't believe the cover story because someone I thought sophisticated told me, years ago, that Edward was homosexual and had married Wallis to get himself out of a job requiring the utmost in straitlaced. So much for the romance of the century.

But now comes a burst of Windsoriana, professing to be the real story. I am perhaps being loose with the word “burst.” I count as a burst: One, a six-part television series starting here this month, British-made, superb, even gripping. Two, a strong and dignified biography, Edward VIII: The Road to Abdication,an abridged version of the biography that triggered the Windsor boom a few years ago, by Englishwoman Frances Donaldson, who single-handedly exploded the Windsor myth. Romance ha! she said in effect. He was an irresponsible playboy, eager to escape the burdens of kingship, and she was ambitious to be queen. The lovers were, you see, at cross-purposes: he wanted out of the palace; she wanted in.

Three, a new, juicy, and scathing biography, The Windsor Story, in texture like one of those Lucas Samaras pin-boxes, all bristling and prickling with shocking, stabbing details. The authors, two Americans—Joseph Bryan, who knew the couple socially, and Charles Murphy, who ghosted each Windsor's autobiography—present Wallis as a vicious shrew and Edward as her pathetic stooge. Happily-ever-after au contraire, Wallis tortured Edward for the rest of his life, according to Bryan/ Murphy, for failing to make her Queen. The reviews for this book have tended to compound the attack and give rise to an image of authors and critics as furious people—personally wronged—jumping on the graves of the couple. And the Duchess is still alive, if senile, in Paris.

The force of the reaction to the Windsors is astonishing, prophesied in 1936 by a friend who warned Wallis that, if Edward abdicated, she would become “the most hated white woman in the world.” The vitriol is so intense it is troubling. Could any real woman, with all the ambiguities of a human being, have been so perfect a monster? That's one question. Another has to do with Donaldson's accusation that Edward was “derelict in his duty”: it is premised on a very English devotion to the monarchical system that permits no trifling with the job of kinging. But I, an American, from (noble) peasant stock and all, have no such devotion, and do permit trifling. Isn't it possible that Edward left because he was too modern, too democratic for the puppet role granted him? Isn't it possible, at least, that he left for reasons more interesting—more ambiguous— than mere laziness?

The story became, with these questions, less of an exposé and more of a whodunit, a moral whodunit—the quarry being a glimpse of the real woman, a sign of sincerity, innocence, real motive. It also became great theater: the plot is a tragedy; Shakespeare could have done something nice with it.

Call this: in search of an ambiguity. Begin with Edward as the young Prince of Wales, famous for charm, adored for his blond angelic beauty (“Marmalade-colored hair and blue, blue eyes,“ an Englishman recalls, ”everyone was in love with him”); not only beautiful, but brave. He favors steeplechase riding, dangerous sports in general, and wages his own (losing) battle to fight in World War I. His father, George V, and history in hindsight, condemn his daring as recklessness. He was risking the limbs and life of the future King of England.

Father and son are opposites, continually at odds with each other; and George is, for my money, the heavy—a rigidly conservative family man, a good-burgher King, vastly disinterested in what is called The Arts, vehemently against the new. George is sandwiched between two dandies, rakes: his father, the joyloving, pleasure-taking Edward VII; his son, enthusiastic about jazz, nightclubs, such “caddish” fancies as American cuffed pants (George is appalled, won't permit “turn-ups” in his presence). The son is irreverent about the job he calls “princing.” He sees himself as modern, anti-establishment. He is uncomfortable with kowtowing, and impatient with ritual as though there were other, more important things for him to do.

The fact is, there is nothing more important for Edward to do. His job, he himself are for show. His role is to be loved by his people; to leave the nasty work-a-day controversies of political life to government. The Prince succeeds at being loved but is compelled to step out of the confines of his position. He is the first royal actually to shake hands with masses of people. As King, he tours an impoverished Welsh mining town, dazzles the crowds with his genuine distress, his hope-giving promise, “I am here to help you. . . . Something will be done for you.”

Even this wisp of activism was going too far. Inadvertently, he was making government look bad, lax and insensitive in comparison with him. His position was frustrating, perhaps impossible for him. It “demanded of him that he should suffer pomposity gladly, and bear the dull burden of authority without the delight of exercising it,” Malcolm Muggeridge has written, “whereas his inclination was to dispense with ceremonial respect and make his own will felt; be both less and more than the King who ruled before him.”

At the start of my search, I read this as sympathy for the King and, by the end, as an indictment.

Edward's personal charm hinged on an unaffectedness, a willingness to be delighted, a wistful, tender expression. “Every woman who saw that sad little face felt she had just the shoulder for him to cry on.” This is Freda Dudley Ward (interviewed in The Windsor Story), who was the Prince's home-base for sixteen years. Edward wanted to marry Freda, she told Bryan/Murphy, but she “persuaded” him that marriage was impossible: she would have to divorce her husband, and that would render her ineligible. (As King, Edward could marry anyone he chose; but, as Defender of the Faith, he was prohibited from making a divorced woman Queen.)

Freda adds that it was not all that difficult to persuade Edward against marrying: “He was very suggestible.” He was, she said, “the kindest, gentlest, most thoughtful man you can picture,” but suggestible, and weak, and humble, very humble. Something in his presence prompted Freda's daughters to refer to him affectionately as “Little Prince.” Something in his manner led his second married woman, Thelma Morgan Furness (halfAmerican, Gloria Vanderbilt's aunt), to call him “The Little Man.” Before she left on a trip back to the States, Thelma had lunch with her new friend Wallis Simpson. “The Little Man is going to be lonely,” Wallis said sympathetically. Thelma urged Wallis to please take care of him. What, after all, are friends for?

By the time Thelma returned, after a flamboyant affair with Aly Khan (this story has an extraordinary motley cast of characters), Wallis had replaced her in the Little Man's life. She was acting as his hostess, making small proprietary gestures like slapping his hand when he reached for food with his fingers. Thelma, not immediately understanding, tried to signal Wallis that the Prince hated being touched familiarly. Wallis' return signal indicated that Thelma could just buzz off.

Freda the Constant was the next to go. The telephone operator at the Palace was given orders not to put her calls through to the Prince. Not a classy way to break off a relationship. “Well you see, love is love,” offers a Windsor defender. “People don't behave well.” That is true.

The Prince, everyone agreed, was gaga with infatuation over “that woman.” “She has him like that,” said Alexander Woollcott and everyone else. What did she have?

Photographs tell us she was not beautiful, though Cecil Beaton claims no picture captured her. “Une belle laide,” he called her. She was “bewitching,” her secretary told me. “She'd make you feel you were just the person she was happy to see.” A visitor recalls her lavender-blue eyes—totally engaging, intimate, attentive. Quick movements, enormous vitality. A social creature. Spicy—on the side of the risqué, the daring, the outspoken. “She'd sit on the edge of a desk, which no Englishwoman would do, and say, ‘Listen, talk American!’—meaning, be direct,” said Cynthia Harris, who plays Wallis on the television series opposite Edward Fox.

“Above all, with her, one laughs,” a friend wrote home. She was a good time.

Wallis—neé Bessiewallis—was, together with her mother, the poor branch of a first family of Baltimore. Her father had died when she was an infant, and she was sent to good schools through the patronage, erratic and difficult, of a rich uncle. Donaldson, empathizing with Wallis, writes that “among her own relations and also among the girls she met at school, she alone knew the pinch of poverty and deprivation.”

I imagine Wallis among those girls their equal but not quite equal, learning that personality was the ticket, that by your style you shall be known, if not by your bank account. “She had the most unbelievably exquisite table manners,” said the secretary; and you wonder how incredibly exquisite table manners can be. Wallis would constantly improve herself all her life. Lady Mendl would become “her mentor,” according to the secretary. In style? In decorating? “Yes, and in behavior, too,” the secretary answered. “The Duchess once said to me, 'You see, I always learn. I listen, I observe.'” How exhausting, this constant hedge-clipping of oneself.

At twenty, Wallis married, probably for freedom's sake. Win Spencer, an attractive naval officer, turned out to be an alcoholic who, when angry, would lock his wife in a room for a few hours. She separated from him, and three years later joined him in China to give the marriage a second try. The reconciliation failed and she initiated divorce proceedings. From the vantage of 1980, she seems quite brave. A tamer woman would have stayed married, if in name only.

A few years later, Wallis married Ernest Simpson, a good and stable man. They moved to England and, socially on the rise, met Thelma Furness, joined the Prince of Wales's “set”. . . . Time passed. Thelma, as we've seen, buzzed off. The Simpsons and the Prince became inseparable, and Wallis began to achieve a reputation as a stellar hostess.

Reading of the first meal she served the Prince, I must say, really warmed me to her. The menu included black bean soup, grilled lobster, fried chicken Maryland, a cold raspberry soufflé. Shopping for that meal, she wrote cutely enough in her autobiography, she “was bursting to tell my fishmonger and greengrocer . . . that now was truly the time for every Englishman to do his duty.” But even cold raspberry soufflé would not besot the Prince. What did she have?

“You've heard, I'm sure, the rumors of the sexual tricks she learned in China?”

“You must have heard that she was the only woman who turned him on?”

No one in any way suggests the marriage was a cover, that he was less than abjectly devoted to her. The only fact relevant to his alleged homosexuality is his extremely strong feeling against homosexuality. Now, some people say that homophobia is the other side of homosexuality, but that logic can lead to illogic. Edward was also said to be racist and anti-Semitic. Does that mean he unconsciously loved Blacks and Jews? I'm willing to accept him as a man of multiple prejudices rather than a secret homosexual.

But it is curious that all the theories are unflattering to the Prince's sexuality. Donaldson steps in smartly here: “. . . During the whole of his youth the Prince was criticized for overindulgence in the sexual act, while ever since he has been believed incapable of it until he met his wife.” Donaldson's idea: Edward was “actively seeking a dominating, quasi-maternal partner.” Wallis was it.

Wallis catered to Edward's need to be humbled, to the humility, for example, that made him squirm at the homage paid him as a King. That this was both more and less than democratic leanings is suggested by historian Elizabeth Longford, Edward was confused, she says. The homage was aimed at the throne, at the heritage, the burden, and expectations set on the crown. Edward took the homage personally, as a tribute to himself as a man. No wonder he was uncomfortable. The flip side of his humility was a grandiosity, the one a check on the other.

Wallis, his “perfect woman,” was perfectly attuned to both sides. She inflated him: “Remember, you're the King. Fight for your rights,” she chanted during the Abdication crisis. But at dinner parties, she told another woman (who told Bryan/Murphy), she would kick him under the table: gently, to encourage him to continue talking, and hard, to get him to stop—driving him like a car.

(One story from his childhood comes to mind of a nurse so possessively attached to him she would pinch and twist his arms as she sent him to see his parents. He would enter crying, and was quickly returned to his loving tormentor. The nurse was finally hospitalized for “complete mental collapse” but not, perhaps, before she had impressed Edward with a link between love and torment.)

The ex-King's own answer to what he saw in Wallis hits the core of the tragedy. “I was convinced that with her I would be a more creative and a more useful person.” With her, because of her, he removed himself from any chance to be creative or useful. He must have felt less lonely with her. Her lack of obsequiousness (to say the least), her never failing to “advance her own views with vigor and spirit,” he wrote, “enchanted me. A man in my position seldom encountered that trait in other people.”

One is not naturally curious about what Wallis saw in Edward—the answer seems too obvious. But her answer, in her autobiography (The Heart Has Its Reasons) is interesting for its admission of the obvious. “Over and beyond the charm of his personality and the warmth of his manner,” she writes, “I was mesmerized by the aura of splendor . . . of power and authority. His slightest wish seemed always to be translated instantly into the most impressive kind of reality. Trains were held: yachts materialized. . . .” The “effortlessness” of it! The magic! “That I, Wallis Warfield of Baltimore, Maryland, could be part of this enchanted world . . . seemed so incredible that it produced in me a dreamy state of happy and unheeding acceptance.”

It is Wallis herself who ultimately convinces you of the argument against her. She lies, waffles, distorts. Her sweetly honest confession of “happy and unheeding acceptance” is, in effect, her way of passing the buck. The Abdication was all his fault. She was blinded by “misconceptions” of the extent of his power to “fix it,” as he said he could, and he “did nothing to disabuse me of these misconceptions,” she pouts. She is writing this in 1954 or 1955, about her husband, the man she has lived with for almost twenty years. Seems a bit disloyal.

Her other excuse, she offers languidly, is “the fundamental inability of a woman to go against the urgent wishes of the man she loves.” Wallis often writes from the vantage of Eternal Woman. The self-image, in print at least, is of a romantic, impulsive, helpless, feminine flower of the South. This will not wash. She, let it not be forgotten, is the woman about whom Adolf Hitler said, “She would have made a good queen.”

(I can't help noticing that whatever gets into people writing about the Windsors has gotten into me: could it be that the Windsors are simply awful? We'll come back to this profound analysis in a moment.)

It may be impossible for Americans to grasp the impact of Abdication. A politician is like a husband, Malcolm Muggeridge has said; a monarch like a lover. The real romance here was between Edward and the English people, whom he jilted for “that woman.”

The political drama itself pitted Edward against the government in the person of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, a man of the generation and antipathies of George V. Baldwin did not like Edward and he was not going to let that playboy set dangerous precedents for kingly power.

On the other side of the generation gap stood Edward, grandiosity on the rise, assuring Wallis (“almost gaily,” she wrote) that he could “fix it.” He believed—so he writes in his autobiography, A King's Story—that he was acting from honor. His grandfather, Edward VII, may have been content with a series of mistresses: not Edward VIII. No hypocrisy, for him, no lesser mistress-status for his perfect woman. The government's suggestion that he send Wallis away to cool the crisis was an outrage: “They had struck at the very roots of my pride. Only the most fainthearted would have remained unaroused by such a challenge.” His Kipling-esque phrases might be lyrics in an operetta, The Merry Lives of Windsors, perhaps.

And at the end, when Baldwin invites him, one last time, to think if he could not choose his country over that woman, Edward's reaction was: “For me to do what he asked would mean abandoning, in the full view of the watching world, the woman whom I had asked to marry me.” He was cornered. Poor little man.

“All that matters is our happiness,” he said repeatedly to his horrified mother. (“Really! This might be Romania!” sniffed Queen Mary, who had all the best lines.)

For all the drama, the Abdication was a gash quickly stitched closed. The new King, George VI, sacrificed his deep happiness in private life with his wife Elizabeth and two daughters to repair the damage to the monarchy. (In his fine new biography of the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, British journalist Anthony Holden reports that a poll taken in December 1936 “showed that half the British people wanted to seize the chance to do away with the monarchy.”)

The lovers, in exile, began their afterlife with a series of blunders. On the day of the Coronation, the Duke was seen playing golf. On the day that would have been his father's birthday, he was marrying Wallis in France. The site was a château owned by a man who turned out to be a Nazi collaborator. Before their marriage, the couple had shown a worrisome hospitality to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's special envoy, and in 1940, masterminded by Ribbentrop, the couple would visit Germany, and have tea with Hitler. The Führer, apparently finding a kindred spirit, plotted to return Windsor to the throne once England accepted peace with (under) Germany. Living in Paris before the war broke, the Windsors regularly entertained German diplomats, and the Duke publicly called for a “negotiated” peace— appeasement—with Germany.

“She would have made a good queen,” Hitler said

“It's a good thing for the country he packed it in, isn't it?” Anthony Holden said mildly.

It is anticlimactic, and unimportant, and certainly presumptuous even to wonder whether the life Edward went on to was a happy one for him, for them. They both claim the romance went on and on. But there are those pictures of them, petrifying with age, her face tightening, eyes widening—the constant astonishment of the frequently facelifted, the obsessive diets whittling flesh to the bone. (“You can never be too rich or too thin” was stitched on a pillow in her bedroom.) And he, a step behind her in all the photographs, looking more and more puzzled as the years go by. And there are those stories about them, obscene, of her brutalizing him. There are the stories she herself tells in her book, sharing the small humiliations of his life with us, about his incompetency, sloppiness; about her “duty” to keep him occupied, protect him from himself—the ex-King as the bumbling, ineffectual husband. This, from the woman who was dazzled by the splendor and power and authority. Imagine falling in love with the Wizard of Oz and ending up with the little man, behind the screen, who only worked the lights. Poor little man, to go down in history as the Little Man.

“'Pathetic' really is the word, isn't it,” said an English friend of the Windsors from the early days in Paris. “It seemed to us, when we were young, very simple and romantic. We were all a bit glamorized.”

One last word, re: the possibility of the Windsors being simply awful. Whatever else they were, they were not simply awful. Let us say: it is challenging to try to maintain sympathy for them. Their own voices, in their autobiographies, defeat the attempt to respect them. Their friends and defenders inadvertently confirm the worst—snobbisms, obsessions with trivia, with the props of life, a shocking meanness about money, their life a folie à deux unrelieved by any real conversation with the outside world—no family, no intimate friends: just servants, guests, and all the strangers who loved the myth of the merry lives of Windsors. Those strangers would fill the Windsors' apartment with flowers to welcome them back to New York after a stay in Paris, the secretary told me. On one of their frequent Atlantic crossings, she remembers, a woman approached her and introduced herself as the representative of two thousand women from Texas who wanted the Duchess for president. Of what? asked the secretary. Of the United States, answered the Texan. The Duchess “roared with laughter,” reports the secretary reverently, implying that a lesser woman would have taken the proposition seriously.

I don't know—is pathetic the word or not?