These were people caught up in the maelstrom of history,” says British biographer Anne Sebba from her home in London, and the people in the middle of that maelstrom were Edward VIII, heir to the British throne, and that woman, Wallis Simpson. You know the story, and Sebba retells it from a new perspective and with newly discovered material in That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (St. Martin’s Press).
Sebba charmed her Memphis audience in 2008 when she spoke as a guest of the Decorative Arts Trust. Sebba is sure to charm them when she’s the guest again of that organization in a lecture, open to the public, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art on March 31st at 2 p.m. The topic: “That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and the Scandal That Brought Down a King.”
For a preview of that charm, I went, by phone, to Anne Sebba herself. And, no, instead of doing the interviewing, she doesn’t mind being the one interviewed:
“I don’t mind it at all. I love talking about this book. Over the course of my career, I’ve given a lot of talks and lectures. It’s just communication in a different way. It’s so lonely being a writer stuck in libraries and archives and at your desk churning out the words. People ask, ‘What’s your next book?’ I say, ‘I’m not in a rush! I’m really enjoying this part of it.’”
But we should start with the first part of it: how you arrived at writing a new biography of a figure we thought we knew, Wallis Simpson.
The long story is I studied history at university and specialized in the 1930s. So I’ve always been aware that 1936 was a really key year: Hitler had marched into the Rhineland. The fascists were fighting in Spain. Europe was in turmoil. And in England we were worried about the king’s morals! I could never quite understand this, because I’d followed the story from a historical perspective.
When I started writing books years ago, I wrote about women . . . strong women. My previous book, for example, was about Jennie Churchill, an American woman that the English establishment couldn’t understand. Her son, , was even accused in Parliament of having a mother who was a mongrel! But the real American woman whom the British couldn’t understand (and she didn’t understand England) was Wallis Simpson.
My agent said, “There’s your next book.” I said, “Surely people have written so much about Wallis Simpson that there’s nothing new to say.” My agent said, “I bet you’ll find something new to say, because there’s never been a full biography of Wallis Simpson written by a woman.”
So that’s how I got started.
And you have indeed found new things to say, based on at least one major new finding: letters from Wallis Simpson to her second husband, Ernest Simpson, during the period in England when they were seeking a divorce.
A few months into my book, I discovered that Ernest had a son by Mary Kirk, Wallis’ friend since boarding school, and I found letters written in 1936-37 by Wallis to Ernest. The son does not own them, but the son led me to the letters’ owner. I’m not allowed to say who owns them — a private individual who wants to be anonymous. (I wish I could tell you.) And I don’t want to sound arrogant, but the letters do change history.
Yes, I think Wallis is pretty hard to like. She’s brash. She did manipulate her best friend, Mary. But when you understand Wallis, when you understand her insecurity in these letters, the whole story makes sense.
There’s no question she wanted out [of her relationship with Edward]. She couldn’t get out. The king was so needy. He’d threatened suicide. She couldn’t possibly take on responsibility for his death. She’d already had two husbands. But now Ernest was lost to her. He’d fallen in love with Mary. Far too late, Wallis realized, in her letters to Ernest, what she’d lost.
I see that as a very human failing. We’re all flawed. We all make mistakes. But Wallis made a big mistake and had to live with it for the rest of her life. She may have looked on Ernest as a father figure, but she landed with Edward, who needed her as a mother.
In addition to those letters, I also discovered the diary of Wallis’ friend Mary, who later married Ernest. Mary’s bitterness toward Wallis really gave chapter and verse as to how Wallis operated, what a manipulative creature she was. Mary Kirk’s diary was invaluable.
You don’t think Wallis Simpson for a moment was in love with Edward?
She was in love with the glamour, the idea of being loved by the heir to the throne. I don’t think she loved him as an individual. That was the tragedy of the situation. Edward unquestionably adored her, obsessively, and was not prepared to give her up.
In That Woman
you also investigate the possibility that Wallis Simpson was, biologically speaking, “intersexual.”
I’m not the first one on that. And no, I can’t prove it, but I do think it’s more than possible. It helps to explain Wallis. You’re never going to find conclusive proof, but you need to understand why Wallis couldn’t have children. I think the most likely scenario is that she did have some disorder of sexual development. When you look at the diaries of any women from that period, they were terrified of getting pregnant. Wallis wasn’t. She was able to flirt without fear.
I think it makes sense of her personality too. I’ve talked to many doctors and psychiatrists, and if Wallis lacked a womb or had a faulty cervix or some lesser condition, it would make sense of her extraordinary need to confirm that she was attractive to men. That was the case from the time she was at boarding school. She flirted even as a child.
Do you think she was also sexually attracted to women, as rumor had it?
No. I don’t think Wallis was attracted to women. But there was an awful lot of gossip swirling around Wallis and Edward. In my book, I’ve limited myself to facts, not gossip. But I do think she was at times a risk-taker and that she was easily bored in her marriage.
You’ve seen the new movie W.E., directed by Madonna and based on the lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?
I have seen it, and the costumes and settings are visually stunning. Andrea Riceborough as Wallis is stunning. She understood Wallis. She understood the dual nature of Wallis: the fragile ambition and the fear and insecurity — all of that comes across. I liked, no, I loved the historical bit in the movie. The modern bit is less good. It doesn’t ring true. Edward in the film is far too attractive and witty for my liking.
If she were alive today and she agreed to be interviewed, what’s the one question you’d put to Wallis Simpson?
I’d ask if she regretted her life. I’d ask: When was the moment she wishes she’d said stop, enough is enough. And did she really regret not being with Ernest? Because that’s my understanding: that Wallis paid quite a heavy price and recognized too late that she’d lost the man who understood her and could have given her security and comfort.
In addition to That Woman, you’ve written on your website about “That Dress,” a dress you own inspired by Wallis Simpson. Will we see it at your lecture at the Brooks?
You mean that extraordinary gold dress by Roland Mouret? There aren’t many occasions when you can wear a fantastic dress like that. Maybe some black-tie affair. To have a dress designed for you and, as an author, to have it inspired by your subject: It’s an extraordinary feeling. I don’t want to say I’ll wear it and then not wear it. I’d be hoist with my own petard!
Questions about Anne Sebba’s lecture at the Brooks on March 31st? Contact Gail George, events chair for the Decorative Arts Trust, at 753-4060.