Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Is it time to forgive Wallis?

Once demonised as the divorcee who toppled a king, a fresh biopic shows Wallis Simpson in a new light and her biographer Anne Sebba asks…

Written by Anne Sebba
Three iconic women are already dominating dinner party conversations this year: Margaret Thatcher (subject of a new film), the Queen (who celebrates her Diamond Jubilee), and Wallis Simpson (revitalised in Madonna's new film, W.E.). But while we're certainly all talking about them, are any of them suitable role models for a modern, 21st-century woman?

The Queen is certainly widely loved and hugely respected. But while we'll all be lining up to bid her well over the course of her Jubilee year, she remains too regal to be a role model for ordinary women. Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, despite being portrayed by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and the late Christopher Hitchens's claim that she was 'sexy' as she smacked his backside, will always be too intellectual, too distant.

Wallis, however, is different. Increasingly, she can be seen as an 'everywoman' in a modern morality play. Flawed, yes, flirtatious, grasping and insecure, too, but surely no longer the incarnation of evil she was once made out to be? For in case you have been asleep, the Baltimore divorcee, long demonised for luring a king from his throne, is undergoing something of a makeover. And with the release this week of W.E., the biopic directed by Madonna, her rehabilitation may continue apace.

In the film, Andrea Riseborough plays Wallis with an interesting mix of brittle ambition and fragility, posing the inevitable question: was Wallis Simpson misunderstood during her lifetime mainly because she was a modern woman unfortunately born (in 1896) before her time?

The real Wallis, after all, was brash, ambitious, stylish and witty – qualities not welcomed in a woman by the 1930s Establishment, but now seen as necessary parts of every young woman's survival kit.

In 1916 she had first married a handsome US naval pilot, who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic, and whom she eventually divorced. Today there are many families in the land who have been touched by divorce in one way or another. It's viewed as making a mistake from which one moves on. Back then, however, it was a very different matter.

Indeed, it was in the vain hope of avoiding divorce that Wallis had gone out to China in 1924. There, as Mrs Spencer – a separated but still married woman – she clearly lived a sexually liberated life, rare at a time when women could not indulge in serious relationships with men for fear of getting pregnant.

Birth control barely existed, abortions were dangerous and illegal and the idea of bringing up a child as a single mother abhorrent. Yet Wallis indulged in what she called her lotus year... where life was not only good but 'too good for a woman'.

Britain in the 1930s wasn't ready for such attitudes. Then, divorce was difficult to obtain, fiendishly expensive and shameful. Even so, many women opposed any relaxation in the law, fearing they would be abandoned with the children and without money. In addition, the Church did not allow the remarriage of divorced people. No wonder when she became the mistress of King Edward VIII in 1936, rumours abounded that Queen Mary had compiled what became known as 'The China Dossier', apparently detailing the various sexual tricks Wallis had learned in oriental brothels.

No one has ever found this dossier and it probably does not exist. But in any case, having sex outside marriage, even lots of it, is hardly 'evil' by today's standards. Indeed, despite being demonised at the time, her struggle could today be seen as an emblem of a broader battle for greater sexual freedom.

But Wallis did have her flaws. By never showing any inclination to earn her own living, deciding from a young age to live vicariously through a man, she appears profoundly and unattractively old-fashioned next to the ferociously industrious Margaret Thatcher, or the Queen, as hard-working as ever in her ninth decade.

Wallis saw her job as pleasing a man, dressing for him, arranging the home for him and even making conversation that would flatter him. This was her great art, one that's rather unattractive in a post-feminist world. It does, however, explain Wallis's love of huge brooches and oversized necklaces. Gifts of expensive jewellery were the corrosive payment that reassured her that she was loved, that her man approved of her.

Indeed, even viewed through modern eyes, Wallis remains neither saintly nor sweet. She may have been lambasted for certain traits that would now be seen as perfectly acceptable, but she will always be a mass of contradictions. She was a coward and an arch manipulator. But she deserves to be understood as an outsider, not only in the elitist Baltimore society where she grew up fatherless – her mother had to run a guest house to make ends meet – but even more so in London where she represented an alien species at the court of George V.

Madonna identifies at a number of levels with Wallis's fight for acceptance. Indeed, in her film, she has given Wallis a modern edge, having her cavort seductively to the Sex Pistols and framing her story with that of a modern New Yorker called Wally Winthrop, who idolises her.

These modern twists may help today's women understand how far Wallis Simpson has travelled in the game of life, even to empathise and admire her. But it's still hard to go as far as Madonna herself, who told me recently that she actually loved Wallis.

PlumeEven so, it's worth remembering that while Edward has always been criticised forfailing to do his duty – and probably always will – Wallis ultimately did do hers. Whatever else she can be criticised for, she did stand by her man.


This magnificent diamond brooch, in the shape of the three Prince of Wales feathers, held together by a crown, has had two iconic owners: Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, and Elizabeth Taylor (left). The actress had admired the brooch when owned by the Duchess and asked for permission to copy it. But although the Duchess agreed, a copy was never made. So, after the Duchess died in 1986 and her legendary jewellery collection was sold at Sotheby's, Geneva, to benefi t the Pasteur Institute, Elizabeth Taylor bought the brooch for $449,625. But it keeps moving on. Taylor died last year and the brooch was auctioned at Christie's, New York, where it fetched a staggering $1.3m – with part of the proceeds going to the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation.

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