Wallis Simpson Vs Elizabeth.
The warring wives of Windsor
Royal rows are nothing new. Nazi spy, nymphomaniac, lesbian hermaphrodite, versus the sweet English rose who would bloom as Her Majesty and become Queen Mum to a nation. Wallis Simpson and Elizabeth, Duchess of York, married to brothers who were both kings of England, couldn't have been more different in personality, temperament and style. And they would remain bitter enemies all their lives. Justine Picardie chronicles the drama behind their undying feud
By Justine Picardie
Sunday April 10 2011
It is 75 years since the abdication of King Edward VIII, and all the central characters in the drama are now dead, yet the story seems to have lost nothing of its power to fascinate. Indeed, a new generation of audiences has been absorbed by the award-winning re-telling of the tale in The King's Speech, and there will be more to come this summer, with Madonna's take on Wallis Simpson in her forthcoming film W.E..
We have seen Wallis reinterpreted through the lens of fashion -- in Dior's pre-autumn 2011 collection -- and name-checked as a muse by Daniella Helayel, the Issa designer responsible for Kate Middleton's blue engagement dress; while pieces from Wallis's own wardrobe were auctioned in London recently including her scarlet and shocking-pink lingerie and a Dior black crocodile handbag. Then there was Wallis portrayed by Gillian Anderson in the television adaptation of William Boyd's novel, Any Human Heart, and Wallis defended on the BBC by Andrea Riseborough, the star of Madonna's new film ("she was a very good woman"), and the last days of Wallis will be told in a new book by the late Queen Mother's biographer, Hugo Vickers, published last week.
But for all the variations, the essential theme remains as it ever was: Wallis Simpson, the American interloper, chic in little black dress and pearls, thin as a pin and sharp as a knife, black hair like a helmet, red lipstick in a slash across the face, vampiric white skin; Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, soon to be the Queen consort, plump in pastels and matching hat, a sweet English rose who was to bloom as Her Majesty, matriarch of the royal family and Queen Mum to a nation. Wallis had the good clothes, but Elizabeth the kind heart, as reflected by Helena Bonham Carter as the heroine of The King's Speech.
If every generation needs to repeat the old story of the King and Mrs Simpson -- a cautionary tale, among other things, of what might be lost by marrying for love -- then the origins of the myth are increasingly obscured by the accretions of folklore. The Duke of Windsor, demoted from king after his brief reign in 1936, has been variously described as a pleasure-seeking playboy and a spineless masochist, who gave up the crown for a woman of such controversial character that she was forever cast as the wicked witch.
A Nazi spy, lesbian hermaphrodite, man in disguise, nymphomaniac who learnt her sexual tricks in Shanghai: all these lurid accusations have been levelled at Wallis, and much else besides. (According to the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, she had a secret affair with a man named Trundle in 1935, while still married to her second husband Ernest Simpson and already conducting a relationship with the Prince of Wales; and there were suggestions that she was also involved with Hitler's ambassador to London at the time, Joachim von Ribbentrop.)
The twists and turns of the narrative could provide a dozen film plots -- and almost certainly will -- but there is another prism through which to examine this intriguing saga: the costume drama of Elizabeth and Mrs Simpson, in which their clothes provide as many clues as their letters and conversation. Both women had a marked sense of personal style that went further than mere decorum; their identities were made clear by what they wore and how they wore it, in a manner that had more to do with self-definition than passing fashion. Each always looked entirely herself -- and the polar opposite of the other.
That they were rivals, however different in style, is an inherent element of their interwoven stories; the antagonism forming a curious common ground, compounded by their linked destinies through marriage to royal siblings. Indeed, not long before the announcement of the engagement of the Duke of York to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at the beginning of 1923 the papers had carried reports that she was, in fact, to marry his brother, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII). Hence the suggestion, half a century later, by Diana Mosley [nee Mitford] that Elizabeth's enduring antipathy to Wallis was fuelled by jealousy.
In a letter to her sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, written soon after the death of the Duke of Windsor in 1972, Diana (Wallis's friend and future biographer) observed: "the theory of their contemporaries that Cake [the Mitford sisters' nickname for Elizabeth, derived from her sweet tooth and healthy appetite] was rather in love with him (as a girl) and took second best, may account for much."
Edward himself was initially rather sceptical about his brother's choice: "Little Elizabeth Lyon, the future Duchess of York, I don't think ... " But by the autumn of 1923 their contemporary Duff Cooper reported in his diary that the Prince, in the midst of complaining about "the gloom of Buckingham Palace" and his "bad-tempered" father, was cheered by the presence of his young sister-in-law: "The Duchess of York is the one bright spot there, they all love her and the king is in a good temper whenever she is there."
Not that anyone seemed to take Elizabeth very seriously at the beginning, aside from her devoted husband. At her pre-wedding ball, the British prime minister, HH Asquith, described "the poor little bride" as being "completely overshadowed"; while her wedding dress, designed by Madame Handley Seymour, was -- in the words of her biographer, Hugo Vickers -- "abysmal in its dowdiness".
Virginia Woolf, observing the Duchess of York at the theatre one evening in December 1929, was dismissive with faint praise: "A simple, chattering sweethearted little woman in pink: but her wrist twinkling with diamonds ... "
A little more than a year later, when Mrs Simpson first entered the orbit of the Prince of Wales, she could not have presented herself in a more dissimilar form to his sister-in-law Elizabeth. Wallis was not a beauty, by her own admission: "Nobody ever called me beautiful or even pretty," she wrote in her memoirs. "My jaw was clearly too big and too pointed to be classic. My hair was straight when the laws of compensation might at least have provided curls."
But she was undeniably stylish, as recognised by Cecil Beaton, who also noted that she was "alluring", her skin "incredibly bright and smooth like the inside of a shell, her hair as sleek as only the Chinese women know how to make it". And her effect on Edward was devastating; his equerry, Sir John Aird, lamented that the prince "has lost all confidence in himself and follows W around like a dog".
Elizabeth, however, considered Wallis to be "the lowest of the low, a thoroughly immoral woman" from the start, and did her best to avoid meeting her. "I do not feel I can make advances to her and ask her to the house," she wrote to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, "and this fact is bound to make relations a little difficult."
When the two women did happen to encounter each other in 1935 -- at Edward's country retreat, Fort Belvedere -- it was with disastrous consequences. The Duchess of York walked into a room, only to discover Mrs Simpson doing an imitation of her. Wallis dubbed Elizabeth "the Dowdy Duchess", or "the fat Scottish cook", while Elizabeth simply called her "that woman" or "a certain person". Their mutual antipathy hardened into distrust, bitterness and lasting resentment as the abdication crisis unfolded, following the death of King George V in January 1936.
That summer, while the Yorks took on the duties of public life, Mrs Simpson dominated Edward's life as the new king. In August he set off with Mrs Simpson on a yachting trip around the Mediterranean, where Duff Cooper and his wife Diana witnessed the embarrassment of the king getting down on all fours to release the hem of Mrs Simpson's dress from under a chair, while she berated him for his supposed failings. Diana Cooper wearied of Wallis -- "her commonness and her Becky Sharpness irritate" -- but also believed that "Wallis is bored stiff with the king".
By November 1936, as it became clear that Edward could not be dissuaded from marrying Wallis, Elizabeth wrote to Queen Mary: "I feel quite overcome with horror and emotion ... One feels so helpless against such obstinacy."
She was, she told a trusted friend, "very depressed and miserable", while her husband expressed his darkest fears to his brother's private secretary: "If the worst happens and I have to take over, you can be assured that I will do my best to clear up the inevitable mess, if the whole fabric does not crumble under the shock and strain of it all."
When the king made his abdication speech on December 11, 1936, Elizabeth was stricken with flu in bed, but wrote to him: "We are all overcome with misery, and can only pray that you will find happiness in your new life." The coronation of the new King, George VI, was set for May 12, 1937, and he and his wife made it evident that Edward and his mistress -- by then living in France -- would not be welcome; nor would Wallis be granted the title Her Royal Highness.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- this snub, the arrangements for the wedding of Edward and Wallis continued regardless, though the timing could not have been worse. The decree absolute of her divorce had only come through nine days before the coronation, but Wallis pressed forward with ordering her trousseau, considering designs by Schiaparelli and Chanel, and finally settling on Mainbocher for the wedding dress, which was to be blue -- christened "Wallis blue" by the couturier.
On May 11, the eve of his brother's coronation, Edward held a press conference in a French chateau to announce his formal engagement to Wallis. According to the American author Charles Higham: "On the evening of the 12th, Wallis and the duke listened to King George's hesitant post-coronation broadcast; outside, a heavy rainstorm lashed the chateau while the duke knitted a blue sweater for Wallis, plying the needles busily."
Higham, it must be said, offers a lurid account of the duke as a bisexual fascist with a penchant for crocheting; his report of the lead-up to their wedding may be uncorroborated, but it is undeniably intriguing: "Representatives of Van Cleef and Arpels arrived from Paris with trays of jewellery, followed by a case of gems, an inscribed gold box from Hitler ... and costly gifts from Mussolini."
Cecil Beaton arrived to take photographs the day before the wedding ceremony on June 3, and wrote in his diary that "I find her intelligent within her vast limitations ... She has obviously a tremendous admiration for the duke ... and is determined to love him, though I feel she is not in love with him".
Beaton had also been in London for the coronation, less than three weeks previously, where he had watched the arrival of the royal glass coach. "Inside, sitting high on crimson satin cushions sat their majesties, white and waxen, the king slightly deathlike with cadaverous face leaning forward with an ermine cap on his head.
The queen looked much lovelier than any of her photographs and her unaccustomed pallor was moving."
While the Duke and Duchess of Windsor seemed somehow reduced in their subsequent exile abroad -- she thinner than ever, he more shrunken than before -- the king and queen appeared strengthened by their crowning. Reports of Elizabeth's previously frequent bouts of flu lessened (a precursor of her robust good health in later life, and apparent impatience with those who complained of ill health around her). And her wardrobe choices became more confident, with a new choice of couturier, Norman Hartnell, who designed the queen's famous all-white wardrobe for the state visit to Paris in July 1938. Her mother, Lady Strathmore, had died the previous month, but black was deemed too funereal for Elizabeth to wear to Paris; the choice of white, however, had some precedent for royal mourning (le deuil blanc of French queens).
The French were unusually impressed by her dignity and elegance; Duff Cooper, the future ambassador to Paris, observed: "Everyone says that the queen has something magnetic about her which touches the masses as well as the lucky few who know her." But the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were nowhere to be seen, having been advised that the royal couple would not receive them in Paris or elsewhere.
The rift had been deepened by the Windsors' trip to Germany the previous year, when they met Hitler and other Nazi leaders. The ostensible reason was for the duke to study the working conditions of the German labour force; but his official biographer, Philip Ziegler, writes that the visit was more likely inspired by the desire to impress Wallis: "He wanted to prove to the duchess that, even though she had not married a king, she was at least the wife of someone who commanded the respect of a major power ... In Germany at least he could be sure of a proper welcome and, more significantly, so could the duchess."
By October 1939 Elizabeth was open (at least in a letter to a family member) in associating Edward with the Nazi leader. "Odd creature, he is exactly like Hitler in thinking that anybody who doesn't agree with him is automatically wrong." But still, according to a senior British diplomat who had discussed the Windsors' embarrassing foreign activities with the king and queen, "she had not a word to say for 'that woman'".
It was a phrase that was to have a curious echo over half a century later, when as Queen Mother she was known to refer to Diana, Princess of Wales simply as "that Spencer woman"; perhaps as a shrewd recognition of the risk she posed to the stability of the monarchy, or possibly because of the faint reminder she saw in Diana of the glamorous, chic adversary that Wallis had once represented.
By this point the Duchess of Windsor had departed, after a lingering living death in Paris; and Elizabeth's husband was long dead, too (gone to an early grave in 1952, for which she blamed the stress of his unsought reign, brought about by the actions of the Windsors). But the implacable enmity seemed finally to yield to a code of civility: when the Duke of Windsor was suffering from terminal cancer in 1972, the Queen Mother visited him and the duchess at their house in Paris, for the first and last time. Ten days later he was dead. His funeral took place at St George's Chapel, Windsor, on June 5 -- just after the Windsors' 35th wedding anniversary -- and the duchess stayed at Buckingham Palace, although she only met the Queen Mother on the day that Edward was buried.
Both women wore black, Wallis bird-like in Givenchy, Elizabeth stately with a veil over her head, her expression unknowable, and her words to Wallis unheard ...
Source: Sunday Independent, Ireland.
On the cover of "Living", supplement of Irish newspaper
"Sunday Independent" - April 10, 2011.
En couverture "Living", supplément du journal irlandais
"Sunday Independent" - 10 avril 2011.
Wallis Simpson and Elizabeth (above)
The Duke and Duchess of York (Wallis Simpson and Edouard)