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October 12, 2012

Lee Duran: Tragic royal romance highlighted in biography

JOPLIN, Mo. — Bessie Wallis Warfield had a hard row to hoe. According to a new biography, she got on the royal roller coaster in the 1930s and couldn’t find a way to get off.

I can hardly blame her for dropping the “Bessie” and going forward as Wallis Warfield, then Wallis Spencer, Wallis Simpson and finally Wallis Windsor.

But to the British royal family she was, and would remain, “that woman.” She was blamed up one side and down the other for the abdication of King Edward VIII -- unfairly, it seems.

“That Woman” is the name of the book by Anna Sebba, a British author who’s written several previous biographies. The contents are supported by copious notes and an extensive bibliography. The tale it tells is not a pretty one, especially for Wallis, who never expected nor intended to marry the king.

‘Love’ story

The romance of Wallis and the king was supposed to be the love story of the century. In fact, it wasn’t a love story at all. It was a story of the prince-king’s obsession and Wallis’ inability to extricate herself with the least damage possible.

She begged him not to abdicate, for she knew, among other things, that she would become even more of a pariah than she already was. She even wanted to remain married to her ever-patient second husband, Ernest Simpson. Despite everything that happened, they remained friends through it all. He would even help her and she often turned to him for advice.

It began in the ’30s when she was in her 30s. She was not that pretty, but she was flirtatious, despite a voice that grated ears. She was always on the lookout for excitement and interesting people.

She started out as a poor girl from Baltimore. By the time she met the prince, she had one broken marriage behind her, an English second husband by her side and a rapid rise in London society ahead of her.

What on earth did he see in her? A mother, perhaps, because he was shallow, self-absorbed, childish and, some thought, mentally unbalanced. He quickly became utterly dependent on Wallis, who kept telling her husband not to worry, the prince would get over it.

He didn’t. He informed the royal family and government officials that he would marry Wallis, come hell or high water.

They informed him that was impossible. Not only was she American, she had two living husbands -- in Britain the only grounds for divorce was adultery. Her divorce from an alcoholic who abused her was not recognized there.

But how is a socially ambitious woman to resist a prince who would be king?

When the situation threatened to explode publicly, the prince sent Wallis out of the country for safety. Even so, she continued to urge him by telephone and letter not to abdicate. Warned that he risked the destruction of the monarchy, the king replied “She is beside me ... the most wonderful woman in the world.”

The king was judged long ago to be “devoid of any sense of duty or service.” Now, a government official said, “There simply was no moral struggle, and it appalled me.”

In December 1936, the king made his famous speech about stepping down “for the woman I love.” That woman “was now desperately trapped,” which was made clear in the letters she wrote to her second, now ex-, husband.

She had believed her relationship with Edward would last only a few years. When his fixation led to abdication, she feared she was “doomed to a life as exile as despised consort to an ex-king.”

And that is exactly what happened. The royal family never softened and neither did Edward. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived like wealthy gypsies, moving from country to country somewhat aimlessly. The duke showered her with jewels and she wore them with designer clothing -- which in the long run, doesn’t sound very fulfilling.

The duke died in 1972 and Wallis in 1986. Those years without him were horrible for her -- she faced a desperate lingering death without family or friends to support her -- a sad end to an extraordinary life.

The book is loaded with details beyond this cursory report. I finished not liking either the duke or the duchess as people but fascinated by their story. I recommend the book highly as a fascinating read.

But how times have changed! It seems that most of the family of Queen Elizabeth II is divorced or remarried, even Charles, who will supposedly be king someday. The queen was Princess Elizabeth when her uncle abdicated.

I wonder if the horrible chill between the family and the duke influenced her handling of her own family problems. At least they’re speaking to each other, last I heard.

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