Ever since Winston Churchill referred to Wallis Simpson’s “erotic sexual techniques beyond polite imagination” in the movie “The King’s Speech,” I’ve wanted to know more about the divorced Baltimore woman who influenced a king. Anne Sebba’s biography – That Woman – has all the gossipy drama of a soap opera with provocative facts to bolster interest – from the possible conception of the Duchess before her parents married to her long final years alone and in exile.
Although Sebba uses her research to try to balance perceptions of Mrs. Simpson, the person labelled “that woman” by the Royals maintains her image of a greedy American who manipulates anyone she can to promote herself. So much has already been written and filmed about how Mrs. Simpson insinuated herself into the right circles, learned how to dress and act her part, spending “her life on a man for security…” But Sebba offers a different perspective on the woman who “diverts the course of history.”
Through her first husband, a Naval officer, Wallis has the opportunity to travel to China, adding to her mystique (and possible sexual prowess) with her solo jaunts to Shanghai while her husband is in Peking. She steals her second husband from a good friend, and later uses him as a foil for her affair with the Prince of Wales.
The future king is portrayed as an insecure frivolous man, who drank too much, had no moral fiber, and who was “not a thinker…he never reads.” Having the reputation as a playboy did not preclude his possible sexual problems, which Sebba infers that Wallis may have solved. Sebba frames his persistent pursuit of Wallis as a stalker who demanded all her time and attention, and concludes that the marriage was his idea – not hers. Until she found herself boxed in with an offer she could not refuse, Wallace vacillated, often wondering if her steady husband, Ernest, might be a better future than the dependent king she often “nannied.”
The story outlines the “WE” (Wallis and Edward) affair through the abdication, forlorn marriage ceremony, and exile in the Bahamas during the war, and finally to France (England would not have them). The furor over the HRH designation is reminisscent of Diana, with the eerie feeling that history is doomed to repeat itself. Jewels, clothes, parties all mixed with names in society and government…with Wallis maintaining her best-dressed, pencil-thin, “rather masculine-looking physique and her brash, irritating snobbery.
Sebba spends some time discussing Simpson’s “ambivalent sexuality,” implying a genetic disorder that may have given her male organs, and often returns to this theme to justify her behavior – acknowledging that her theories are based on conjecture. Sebba also offers the theory that the marriage and subsequent abdication saved the country and the world from an ineffectual king with questionable alliances with the Nazis and “whose intimates at times questioned his sanity.”
The storyline is fast-paced and sometimes has the quality of a suspense thriller. You may know the history, but Sebba inserts revelatory pieces that remake the puzzle of how “a middle-aged, not especially beautiful, rather masculine-looking woman…exerted such a powerful effect on a king that he gave up his throne in order to possess her…”
The story had me fascinated throughout; the pictures are good too.