THE WINDSOR'S KNOT; It's Almost 70 Years since Edward VIII Ended His Short Reign, Giving Up His Throne for 'The Woman I Love'. WALLIS SIMPSON Was Blamed for His Abdication and Labelled a Schemer. but, Says SARAH WILLIAMS, Author of a New TV Film in Which Joely Richardson Plays Simpson, Edward's Lover Was the Victim of One of History's Great Smear Campaigns
Byline: SARAH WILLIAMS
As a screenwriter, you must always be on the lookout for ideas for the next film or TV project. So, when I was browsing in a bookshop in California and came across a new biography of Wallis Simpson, I picked it up. And put it straight back down again, dismissing it as a hackneyed old story about a rather unappealing woman. So much for my highly tuned writer's antennae.
Several days later, sleepless on the night flight home, it hit me: in the picture on the book jacket, Wallis looked attractive - she was smiling softly and her eyes showed warmth and vulnerability. I had never seen such a flattering picture of her before. Photographs in the press always show her as a hatchet-faced stick-insect, making it hard to see why Edward VIII gave up his throne for her.
I started canvassing opinions of Wallis among friends and colleagues. They were uniformly unfavourable: 'cold', 'ambitious', 'manipulative', 'hermaphrodite', 'Nazi spy', and even 'prostitute' were the words I heard.
Finally, my antennae started twitching - surely she must have had some good qualities?
As I did background research on her, from her autobiography and her letters to Edward and her family and friends, a very different picture of Wallis emerged. Here was a modern, independent woman, witty and well-informed, who, far from trying to steal away a king, had, in fact, begged and pleaded with him not to abdicate. Hmm. Could it be that Wallis was an early victim of spin? And, if so, who was behind the plot to do her down?
Perhaps now, with another future king passionately in love with a divorced woman, it was time to take a fresh look at her story.
Wallis was born in Baltimore, in the U.S., in 1896. Her father died when she was only five months old and she and her mother had to fend for themselves.
At 19 she fell in love and married a dashing naval officer who turned out to be a violent drunk. She stayed with him for five years before travelling alone, first to Europe and then on to China. Returning to New York in 1926, she met London businessman Ernest Simpson, who proposed to her the minute her divorce became final.
She wrote to her mother, 'I have decided, definitely, that the best and wisest thing for me to do is to marry Ernest. I am very fond of him and he is kind, which will be a contrast... So I shall just settle down to a fairly comfortable old age...' Little did she know. At 32, she moved with Ernest to London where, through other American expats, she eventually met Edward, then Prince of Wales.
What was it about Wallis that caught the Prince's eye? Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the American aviator, described Wallis as 'Honest... and one of the few authentic characters in a social world... She is not beautiful and yet vital and real to watch.' Photographer Cecil Beaton 'liked her immensely.
I found her bright and witty.' Above all - and here was her secret - she treated Edward like an ordinary man. She teased him, told him off and was generally undaunted by his royal status. In his autobiography, Edward called her 'the most independent woman I had ever met... she never failed to advance her own views with vigour and spirit. That side of her enchanted me. A man in my position seldom encountered that.' Edward had a difficult relationship with his distant, disapproving parents, and the strains of living in the public eye had made him prone to depression. Wallis wrote, 'I sensed in him something that few around him could have been aware of - a deep loneliness, an overtone of spiritual isolation.' She was able to offer him genuine advice and comfort - rather as, I suspect, Camilla does with Charles. He soon found her support indispensable.
Edward's friend, Winston Churchill, who also suffered from depression, noted, 'He delighted in her company and found, in her, qualities as necessary to him as the air he breathed.' Churchill added, 'I saw him when she'd gone away for a fortnight. …