Sympathy for the devil-woman
LESLEY MCDOWELL SUNDAY 22 JANUARY 2012 in The Independent
There have been several attempts to demythologise the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. It is variously alleged that she never really loved him and he never really loved her, or that theirs was a great love affair that the establishment tried to destroy. And of course, there is that photograph of the pair shaking hands with Hitler, making them not only a couple who perhaps weren't in love but who were also fascist and treacherous, too.
Simpson in particular has always been demonised. A possible hermaphrodite who learned the ways of prostitutes while in Shanghai, her sexuality has been called into question, never mind what British biographers loyal to the Royal Family consider her "brash" American ways.
But in this commendably restrained biography, Anna Sebba creates some sympathy for a woman who endured a brutal and sordid first marriage before leaping into the comfort of a second, with Ernest Simpson, that, alas, could never save her. Sebba's real coup, though, is the discovery of letters between Wallis and Ernest, dated long after she had become involved with Edward. Indeed, Simpson's genuine sorrow at the loss of Ernest ("the grave of everything that was us") and her terror at the Abdication show an ordinary woman caught up in events she couldn't hope to control, and help to balance the damning indictments written even by some of her closest friends.
That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba
That Woman by Anne Sebba, a new biography of Wallis Simpson, rescues her from the vilification she endured in her own lifetime, says Roger Lewis.
By Roger Lew Sep 2011in The Telegraph
Should Wallis Simpson be awarded a posthumous George Cross? It becomes abundantly clear in Anne Sebba’s biography that the late Duchess of Windsor did Britain an enormous service when she allowed Edward VIII to abdicate so he could run off with her.
The Prince of Wales was more than a liability – he was “a depressed adolescent… worryingly unsafe, he could be certified”, according to Lord Wigram, George V’s private secretary. “Certain cells in his brain have never grown,” murmured another courtier, Sir Alan Lascelles.
Madness was less of a problem, though, than the Prince’s chumminess with the Germans and pro-appeasement politicians. He and Wallis were feted by Mussolini in Venice, stayed at the Ritz in Madrid when Spain was run by Franco and visited Hitler in Berchtesgaden, where they were photographed among the swastikas. The Nazis “were ready to exploit the King’s sympathies”, and even after the abdication there were plans to install him as a puppet monarch should Britain have been successfully invaded.
By August 1940, however, the government had exiled the Windsors to the Bahamas, “the Empire’s most backward-looking colony”. The remainder of their lives was to be spent in an aimless, boring round of luncheons with dressmakers and dinners with jewellers. Nobody of substance would venture near them – and George VI was adamant that Wallis should never be referred to as HRH as it would be “a great mistake to acknowledge Mrs Simpson as a suitable person to become Royal”.
This was spiteful. While we can all agree that the ex-King was a petulant pipsqueak, who would have made a disastrous monarch, it does seem that everyone took it out on Wallis. She was generally vilified as a “prostitute, a Yankee harlot”, “sadistic, cold, overbearing, vain”, “mean and grasping” and, in the words of the late Queen Elizabeth, “the lowest of the low”.
Well prior to the Prince of Wales commencing his open pursuit of her, Wallis was correct to surmise that the Royal family was “filled with an icy menace for such as me”. Part of Wallis’s appeal, clearly, was that she represented the very polar opposite of the stifling Victorian court protocol. She implied freedom. But as Anne Sebba shows, Wallis was cramped by her own “mounting nervous tensions”.
Born in Baltimore in 1896, Wallis’s father was “a charmingly sensitive but melancholy consumptive”, who died almost immediately after his daughter's birth, and her mother, suddenly in straitened circumstances, ran a residential hotel – which meant the family were “branded as boarding-house keepers”. Wallis, for the remainder of her life, was “paralysed by fear” at the thought of being reduced again to such shabby-genteel conditions.
In 1916 she married Lieutenant Winfield Spencer Jnr, who turned out to be a violent alcoholic. Wallis had been “blind to the bitter streak in him”, but it was a streak soon enough discovered by each of his four wives, who divorced him for his “irritability and irascibility, cruelty and abusive behaviour”.
Wallis then went to live an independent life in Shanghai, where, if Sebba is to be believed, “she learnt from Chinese prostitutes some ancient oriental techniques for pleasuring men” and “appeared in naughty postcards”. Poor old Ernest Simpson probably didn’t know what hit him when he invited her “to make up a fourth at bridge”.
Simpson, the grandson of Polish Jews, owned a shipping firm and had “an air of security and breeding” that Wallis craved. They were married in 1928 and Barbara Cartland taught Wallis “the niceties of British etiquette”.
It was parties that Wallis rather lived for – and she used up her docile husband’s resources on couture clothes and giving lavish dinners. The Prince of Wales was soon a grateful guest. As soon as he saw her, he was besotted. Wallis, too, was susceptible, as, with Simpson out at the office, her days, she admitted, “stretched vacantly before me”. The more Wallis dared to “taunt and berate” the Prince in public, the more he relished it. No one had dared treat him like that before. The Simpsons were soon bidden to Fort Belvedere on a weekly basis. “I think I do amuse him,” Wallis told her family in Baltimore. “I’m the comedy relief and we like to dance together but I always have Ernest hanging around my neck so all is safe.”
But not for long. The Prince decided he wanted Wallis as his bride, no matter the consequences. Wallis herself was terrified, as what would happen if Simpson divorced her and the capricious Prince dropped her? She’d have nothing. In any event, says Sebba, Wallis was never in love with the Prince, only with “the opulence, the lifestyle” that he was providing.
Consternation ensued. The press, government, church, the dominions’ prime ministers, even probably the fire brigade, couldn’t conceive of “the idea of a woman with two living husbands consorting with the heir to the throne”. If Wallis felt “every inch the hunted animal”, and if “every day from now on was lived in the shadow of 1936”, then it was a rather pampered “hellish exile” – with a mansion in Paris, liveried servants, a tax-free allowance and offshore investments siphoned off from the Duchy of Cornwall estates. The Windsors were always buying each other trinkets from Cartier, which were auctioned after their deaths for $50,281,887. But better that desiccated and indulgent existence than the alternative – the prospect of a sieg heiling monarch on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. By staying with him, Wallis saved us all from a fascist Britain.
Was Wallis Simpson all woman? There's been always been speculation about her sexual make-up. Now in a major reassessment her biographer uncovers new evidence
By ANNE SEBBA in The daily Mail / Mail online
6 August 2011
The first time the future King of England met Wallis Simpson, she left little impression. After all, she was neither young nor beautiful.
Her face was square-jawed and masculine, with an unfortunate mole.
Her voice had an unpleasant rasp, according to many aristocrats who knew her, and her idea of wit was raucous American wisecracks.
The person responsible for introducing her in January, 1931, to Edward, then the Prince of Wales, was his mistress Thelma Furness.
As her husband was away, convention demanded that one married couple should be present as chaperones at her weekend house party.
Having met Thelma through a mutual friend, Wallis was asked if she and her husband, Ernest, would provide the necessary cover. You bet, they would.
For Ernest, an American businessman of Jewish extraction who’d taken British citizenship and revered the monarchy, meeting the king-in-waiting was close to the pinnacle of his dreams.
For Wallis, the connection promised an important step up the social ladder, with the likelihood of more invitations to fashionable parties.
Extremely nervous at the prospect of meeting royalty for the first time, she spent the whole of the previous day getting her hair and nails done. But whether the Prince even noticed is debatable.
As Wallis confided afterwards in a letter to her Aunt Bessie: ‘Probably we will never hear or see any of them again.’
Yet, just three years later, this homely, twice-married American had displaced Thelma and become the latest mistress of the blond and blue-eyed prince who was a pin-up for millions.
Not only that, but he had fallen so violently and obsessively in love that he was prepared to give up the throne in order to marry her.
Those in the know shook their heads in disbelief. How on earth had a plain woman, in her late 30s managed to bewitch the most eligible bachelor in the world? What sinister hold did she have over him? And what were her secrets?
Naturally, the rumour mill went into overdrive, helped along by the spurned Thelma Furness. The 5ft 7in Prince, she blabbed, was known as ‘the little man’ for another reason — and he was sexually inadequate and prone to premature ejaculation.
Gradually, the word spread: between the sheets, Wallis Simpson was in fact a femme fatale with legendary talents. She had, according to one speculative study, ‘the ability to make a matchstick feel like a cigar’.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrive at Southampton from New York
Charles Higham, one of her early biographers, went into greater detail, describing an ancient Chinese skill at which she was apparently adept, involving ‘a prolonged and carefully modulated hot oil massage’ and various arts to delay gratification.
Indeed, it was known that Wallis had spent a good deal of time in China, where she was later to admit that her first husband had taken her out for drinks in bars of ill-repute.
There was even rumoured to be a China dossier, which detailed the intimate techniques she’d perfected, variously called the Baltimore grip, Shanghai squeeze or China clinch.
None of these rumours, however, has ever been conclusively proved, even if they do seem to explain why a king might forsake his birthright in order to possess her.
Still, whether Wallis ever mastered the Shanghai squeeze or not, there’s no doubt that she was unusually experienced for a well-brought-up young lady in the early 20th century.
Boy-mad while still at school, she’d married a U.S. Navy lieutenant at 20, and had at least one affair and countless flirtations before her second marriage, to Ernest Simpson.
Indeed, the likelihood is that she knew about a variety of sexual techniques, including oral sex, which would not have been standard education for most British or American girls of the day.
Wallis Simpson, pictured in 1931, had a very active interest in the opposite sex from very early on
But Wallis almost certainly had a far deeper and darker secret.
Recent research suggests that she might well have been born with what’s currently called a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD) or intersexuality, which affects about 4,000 babies annually in the UK.
Some of its effects are so subtle that, even today, doctors delivering babies with ambiguous genitals cannot be immediately certain if they are holding a boy or a girl.
This does not mean that Wallis was a man, and she was certainly not a freak. In fact, it’s unlikely that she’d have known that anything was wrong, at least for many years.
Yet the diagnosis is more than wild conjecture because there’s strong circumstantial and psychosexual evidence that Wallis was not wholly female.
The writer Michael Bloch, who lived and worked in Wallis’s house in Paris for years during the later years of her life, claimed that he’d discussed her sexuality with doctors.
He came to the conclusion that she may have been suffering from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, or AIS, which is at the milder end of the intersexuality spectrum.
A girl with AIS is born genetically male as she has the XY chromosome.
But because her body’s receptors are insensitive to large amounts of testosterone she produces, she develops outwardly as a woman.
At puberty, however, the build-up of testosterone can result in long legs, large hands and strong muscles that aid athletic ability — all of which Wallis possessed.
Another possibility is that she was born a pseudo-hermaphrodite, with the internal reproductive organs of one sex and the external organs of another.
Was this the case with Wallis? It certainly makes sense of an extraordinary remark she once made to a friend.
She had never had sexual intercourse with either of her first two husbands, she confided; nor had she ever allowed anyone else to touch her below her personal ‘Mason–Dixon line’ — the name given to the border between the Southern and Northern parts of the United States.
Without the benefit of a full ultrasound or scan, which hadn’t yet been invented, the condition could not have been diagnosed at her birth.
So although Dr Lewis Allen, who delivered Wallis in 1898, might have noticed the baby had slightly strange-looking genitalia, he would have done his best to reassure her parents.
‘She’ll grow out of it,’ he would have told them.
And, indeed, until puberty, such girls easily pass as normal pre-pubescent females. After puberty, however, there can be a noticeable drift towards the external features of a male — such as a masculine bone structure, accelerated muscle development and a deep voice.
Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were married on 3 June 1937, at Château de Candé, near Tours, France
On the face of it, at least, Wallis fits the bill. The biographer James Pope-Hennessy, who met her in 1958, commented in his journal that Wallis was ‘one of the very oddest women I have ever seen’.
‘She is, to look at, phenomenal,’ he added. ‘She is flat and angular and could have been designed for a medieval playing card. I should be tempted to classify her as an American woman par excellence were it not for the suspicion that she is not a woman at all.’
It wasn’t just her physical characteristics that had masculine tendencies.
A well-known German graphologist, who was given a sample of her hand-writing but not her identity, concluded that the writer was ‘a woman with a strong male inclination in the sense of activity, vitality and initiative.
She must dominate, she must have authority, and without sufficient scope for her powers can become disagreeable. She is ruled by contradictory impulses.’
Few who knew Wallis would argue with the accuracy of that analysis.
Of more weight is the opinion of Dr Christopher Inglefield, a plastic surgeon specialising in gender surgery today.
Through his clinical practice, in which he advises patients on corrective surgery, he has considerable experience in assessing whether an individual is predisposed to survive as one sex or the other.
According to him, Wallis’s known physical and behavioural characteristics clearly fit the stereotype for intersexuality.
She didn't have sex with her first husbands
He points out that her angular, almost square-jawed face indicates a lack of the female hormone, oestrogen.
Her masculine traits become even more obvious, he says, when you look at photographs of Wallis posing with her girlfriends — such as her best friend from school, Mary Kirk.
‘Oestrogen is very softening. You can see Wallis’s condition clearly next to the very rounded face of Mary. Today, a course of oestrogen therapy can transform facial features. Had it been available in Wallis’s day, it would have dramatically changed her appearance.’
It’s well-known, too, that a lack of ovaries affects body shape and breast development.
Indeed, several successful models with an impossibly lean, rangy look are known to be women born with Disorders of Sexual Development.
Wallis, for her part, was whippet-thin as a child.
Thereafter, she became obsessed with maintaining a slim silhouette, which is of critical importance to intersexual women who want to avoid a masculine, solid appearance with no discernible waistline.
There are yet more clues in Wallis’s behaviour. Dr Inglefield explains: ‘The problem for these individuals is: how do you confirm that you’re female if your biological responses are not like other girls?
‘Often, for a female lacking female organs, being boy-mad is one typical response; another is to get married as quickly as possible, thereby telling your peers you are a normal female.’
Not only is early marriage often the norm, but so is the urge to dress in a feminising way because of the need to fit into society — and Wallis, of course, first married at 20 and later became famous for her jewels and couture clothes.
‘Look at me, I’m a woman,’ she was saying, in effect. ‘I’m not the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but I am so elegant. I’m the epitome of womanhood.’
Wallis Simpson looking out her window during Trooping The Colour in 1972
Often, women with an intersexual condition believe that one of the most powerful ways to reaffirm their womanhood is by giving men intense sexual pleasure. Vaginal intercourse is often possible, even when the vagina is shallow.
The ultimate confirmation of womanhood, of course, is to get pregnant — a clear impossibility for those born without a womb. So it seems significant that Wallis avoided the subject of reproduction entirely in her own memoirs.
This is not normal. Almost all childless women writing reminiscences born more than a century ago, when birth control wasn’t readily available, manage in some way or other to refer to their deep longing for a child.
Or else they insist that a decision was made not to have one.
In Wallis’s case, with no career of her own during either of her first two marriages, she would certainly have been expected by her husbands, family and friends to start a family.
So when she failed to become pregnant, it’s quite possible that she consulted a doctor and underwent an examination.
At that point, the doctor may have been suspicious if he couldn’t see a cervix.
Her inability to conceive — or difficulties she may have encountered having intercourse — were probably a contributory factor in the disintegration of her first marriage.
Wallis’s mother Alice apparently said on her deathbed that her daughter could never have children. If that is the case, and if it was something Wallis always knew, she may have steeled herself very early on to the idea of being childless.
At all events, she seems by her 20s to have resigned herself to the idea that she couldn’t conceive and concentrated on using her sexuality to attract men instead.
'I will marry for lots of money,' she announcedEven her apparently robust self-confidence is a typical feature of certain women with gender disorders, who cope with the hidden, humiliating part of themselves by nurturing the belief that they’re special.
‘It’s not only a way of over-compensating,’ explains consultant psychiatrist Dr Domenico di Ceglie. ‘It’s also a way of managing the sense of inadequacy which would otherwise have been there.
‘If a woman knows that she possesses a secret which makes her a unique person, she can live with this by believing that she has something which makes her stand out against the rest. It’s like having a special gift.’
That gift became apparent when Wallis was still very young.
Although she lived with her widowed mother in straitened circumstances in Baltimore, Maryland, she was remembered by all her schoolfriends as both exceptionally flirtatious and one of the most popular debutantes of her season.
Born Bessie Wallis, she had ditched the first part of her name as fit only for cows and, according to one of her friends, brazenly announced that she wanted to marry for ‘lots of money’.
At the time, this aspiration seemed wholly within her grasp, as she appeared to have a magnetic power to attract men.
Many who knew her have commented on her sex appeal, her contagious laugh and — in the words of a friend — ‘beautiful dark sapphire blue eyes, full of sparkle and nice mischief’.
The story of Wallis Simpson is due to be the subject of a film directed by Madonna, out later this year
A bridesmaid at Wallis’s first wedding described her later as a typical Southern belle, who could no more keep from flirting than from breathing.
‘She could come into a room full of women and you wouldn’t pay any attention to her — but the minute a man came in, she’d sparkle and turn on the charm.’
It was certainly a matter of pride to Wallis that she was one of the first of her friends to marry. But her good-looking husband, a naval aviator called Win Spencer, turned out to be a drunk with a violent temper.
She struggled to make the marriage work, staying with him for eight years.
But when he locked her up once for hours in the bathroom, it was the last straw and she demanded a divorce — to the horror of her extended family, who prided themselves on their respectability.
After an affair with an Argentinian diplomat, who ditched her for another woman, she spent what she described as a ‘lotus year’, visiting friends in China. There, according to her friend Diana Angulo, Wallis was ‘infamous for arousing bouts of passion among adoring males’.
But none of her flirtations with the bedazzled expats resulted in a proposal, and she was horribly aware that she was approaching 30 and could not live forever on the charity of friends.
Just in time, through her schoolfriend Mary Kirk, she met a businessman called Ernest Simpson.
Despite being married with a child, he started falling for Wallis over games of bridge and was soon taking her out to lunches, dinners and art galleries.
Wallis, naturally, always insisted that the four-year Simpson marriage was on the rocks long before she met Ernest. But Dorothea Simpson suggested otherwise.
‘From the moment I met her I never liked her at all,’ she said later. ‘I’ve never been around anybody like that — she moved in and helped herself to my house and my clothes and, finally, to everything.’
Ernest, who worked in shipping, was moderately well-off and not bad-looking. Having enlisted in the Coldstream Guards during World War I, he had remained in love with everything British and was now keen to move to London.
Wallis Warfield, pictured aged just ten years old
Along with his air of dependability, this was a key attraction for 30-year-old Wallis. Still bruised by the shame of her divorce, she was just as eager to make a fresh start in a city where she wasn’t known.
At first, all went to plan. They found a temporary house in the West End, and Ernest’s much older sister Maud, who’d also settled in Britain, threw luncheon parties to introduce Wallis to her friends.
Among them was the young Barbara Cartland, then a society hostess and fledgling novelist, who recalled that Wallis was not only ‘badly dressed but aggressively American.
She also told us rather vulgar stories and I was shocked to the core’.
But Maud’s friends were mostly respectable elderly aristocrats who did good works, and Wallis quickly grew bored.
A new flat where she could entertain proved to be the answer, and she started collecting a circle of her own — most of them rich Americans, such as Benjamin Thaw, newly-appointed First Secretary of the U.S. Embassy, and his glamorous wife Consuelo.
Quickly, Wallis established a reputation as a successful and unusual hostess who could mix a mean cocktail — or KT, as she called it. Her parties were small, but her attention to detail was second to none.
‘Wallis’s parties have so much pep no one ever wants to leave,’ commented one guest. It was Consuelo who introduced Wallis to her sister, Thelma Furness, the much-gossiped-about lover of the Prince of Wales.
Then 37, he was one of the most famous men in the world, adored for his boyish good looks and radiant charm.
But like Wallis, he had dark secrets of his own.
Several of those closest to him had already expressed the opinion that Edward was mentally unbalanced. Not only that, but it was even whispered that the future king was actually insane.
Intriguingly, as we shall find out on Monday, there is indeed evidence to support this.
Did Wallis sense this? Contrary to popular opinion, it now appears that his androgynous American mistress was not keen to marry him.
She was far from being the instigator of the 1936 Abdication crisis, but had to learn, slowly, to live with the consequences.