It’s hardly an obsession. She’s only one of several dead women of destiny in my library – the face of five paperbacks, the biographies, and a hardcover about the Windsor style. I have a small collection of articles about her too, because whenever her name or image appears in print or on-screen, it gets my instant attention.
She wouldn’t mind sharing the shelf with Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great or Anne Boleyn, but would turn a sharp shoulder away from Eva Braun, Hitler’s bride, the former shop assistant with no fabulous jewels to speak of. One of my quieter favourites, Jane Austen, has half a shelf to herself, but it’s a truth not often acknowledged that good, earnest people are less interesting to read about. There’s the odd saint up there, but no sign of a Mother Theresa or anyone evangelical. Lives lived in the orbit of evil or ill-fortune intrigue – because they raise the old, overwhelming question: how would I have behaved in a similar situation?
I’ve never actually wanted to meet any of my anti-heroines, even if we’d moved in the same social circles at the same moment in history, but I’d like to have watched Wallis in action in the vanished world of 1930’s London and then presiding over a perfect dinner table in post-war Paris – the sparkling hostess with sapphire eyes.
The story is well-known enough: the Southern Belle from Baltimore, born in 1896, whose affair with the prince who became Edward VIII triggered the Abdication of 1936. The King-Emperor who renounced the throne to marry her. It was, all the books agree, a true obsession. It was also the spawning of millions of words, may of them sheer speculation: about what she really got up in 1920s China, how far her fascist sympathies really went, even whether she was a real woman at all….
Her own ghost-written memoirs – The Heart has its Reasons – present a polished, curated picture, but the heart has its secrets too and the best-kept of these – biographic gold – are buried with her, perhaps where they belong, and yet it’s in the shadows and the gaps between what is known and not known that something indefinable can grow – glamour. The timeless quality no picture can pin down. It was all the photographs though, that built her icon-of-style status and more traditionally, recorded her part in public events – and of these, I have a tiny selection.
January, 2012, Lichfield, Staffordshire
We wandered into an antiques centre, looking for new year gifts for each other. My partner chose a vintage history of the RAF and drifted off to examine badges and medals, while I flipped through the sepia postcards until something else caught my eye, locked up in a glass cabinet, next to a coronation mug of 1937. A clear plastic envelope, containing seven pictures. One was a large official print, taken in 1940. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are standing on a platform, the Union Jack flying high on a pole behind them. He was now the Governor of the Bahamas, a British colony; she became president of the Red Cross in the islands.
One of the smaller pictures shows her at a garden party, surrounded by other ladies in hats, white gloves and floral dresses. Hers, however, is plain, with a belt in a contrasting tone, one of her trademarks. She’s still on her feet, not in conversation, looking straight at the camera – and now at me. Although the photo’s not in colour, you can tell the scene’s bathed in sunshine, a world away from the horrors unfolding in Europe. She must have touched the snapshot at a later date because it is signed, in unfaded black ink – Wallis Windsor.
Other images, the portraits taken by society photographers, show Wallis in repose in her haute couture clothes. Not a hair would dare stray out of place on that immaculate head. Her make-up looks very harsh to the modern eye – the flat, dark lipstick, the brows in a hard, pencilled line, like those moleskin patches of the 18th century. Her skin was said to be satin smooth, like ‘the inside of a shell’….
But it was the clothes and the way that she wore them that established an alternative identity for someone described as ‘that woman’ – not only despised by the Court and the Establishment, who tolerated her as the king’s mistress but not as his future queen – but also actively hated by his subjects. When news of the situation broke, she became a target…. for rocks thrown through her windows, poison pen letters, death threats. Fashion was something far safer to be famous for – and has its own part to play in history.
Wallis was to spend huge amounts of time and money on her wardrobe – a 100 dresses a year, changing outfits several times a day. Her reward was to enter the lists of the World’s Best-Dressed Women and stay there for years – an accolade that recognised her devotion to detail, like the clean lines of a skirt, not to be perverted by pockets…..
I love her style, especially the divine combination of colours, like a singing blue against a subtle brown and the Art Deco angles – but I’ve never been rich or thin enough to follow it and besides, no item of clothing’s complete without a pocket or two….
The ‘best-dressed’ title wasn’t the one that mattered most, the one she was never to hold. HRH. The brash – or animated- American was never accepted by the Royal Family. She was not, the Duke’s brother, George VI, remarked, ‘ a suitable person to become royal.’
The unsuitable person was to lead a life in exile with a weak ‘Peter Pan’ of a man she never actually wanted to marry and could never leave, but one who could at least satisfy her need for bright things of high value. The simple styles she favoured were the perfect setting for another great love affair – with jewellery. A passion rooted, it seems in an early life haunted by fears of poverty. The Prince’s glittering gifts of the 1930s – emeralds, diamonds, rubies – set a trap, luring her away from the comfortable marriage to Mr Simpson into an invisible cage. The jewels she’s remembered for – the large-scale designs, so effective on a narrow frame, also suggest an attempted escape into the wild. The shapes were based on nature: tropical flowers, birds of paradise, a leopard prowling across the front of her dress, a panther circling her wrist. Pieces that combined a brilliant hardness with a playful streak, like the lady herself. Severe dress, savage ornament – worn in deliberate contrast, to happy effect. Other associations sat less well together.
One created lasting suspicion – a photograph still jarring to look at. The new wife of the ex-King of England is shown meeting Adolf Hitler, who is bowing over her outstretched hand. Whether the woman of such style was also an Anti-Semite is an open question, but there she is in 1937, all smiles in the darkest of company.
Private outings attracted little publicity at the time, but still cast her in a murky light. Like the shopping sprees in post-war London that side-stepped the rules of rationing still in force. Clothing coupons were for other people. An attitude hard to forgive; true elegance lay elsewhere, with the ordinary woman ‘mending and making do…’
The contradictions and blind spots in anyone’s life – adding texture to the weave – were often extremes in Wallis-land. The spare aesthetic of the clothes didn’t apply to the décor of the homes she shared with the Duke in France, which were fussy and full of knick-knackery, like golden ashtrays and porcelain pugs, with no space left unfilled, in the Victorian style. Surfaces she didn’t have to dust; there were servants to do that. It was someone’s privilege to iron the sheets after her afternoon nap or to make sure that the salad leaves at lunch were of equal size. Her dinner parties were a banquet served by a retinue in red livery: grapes peeled and stuffed with cheese, caviar with vodka, camembert ice-cream and Southern specialities like bacon glazed with molasses – dishes she barely touched herself. Wallis was a grim, dedicated dieter, who would ‘rather shop than eat.’
Shopping, dressing and entertaining were all unfattening ways to fill the days. The Windsor world, without work – or children – a hall of fame, is often dismissed as aimless and an empty, echoing place – but on the outside, looking in – or back – no one can really know how it felt to inhabit it. I hope she found meaning in all the fine objects around her, the exercise of the taste that chose them and in the successful parties, where she created occasions for other people to display their wit and finery. And in attending other people’s events, she could add that brittle, glamorous edge….
There are so many ways to make sense of someone else’s life. The biographer’s duty is to dig deep, weigh the rumours, put the facts in context and so reconstruct the character – but reader and researcher alike will see her through a subjective mirror, reflecting their own experience… It’s a generous process; the best biographies will gift a greater sense of who you are…
The Duchess didn’t do diaries, but my favourite quote shows a more complex, reflective side than she’s given credit for. It’s one an Eva, Anne or Marie would appreciate.
‘A woman’s life is really a succession of lives, each revolving around some emotionally compelling situation…and each marked off by some intense experience.’
In one of her early lives, three words in a letter to Ernest Simpson are straight from the heart. It was shortly before their divorce, when she was way out of her depth, with no one else to confide in. A confession never easy to make. ‘I’m so lonely!’ In her later life, she seemed to find comfort in the company of people that celebrity sustains – the photographers, the couturiers, her faithful coiffeur and of course the dogs in their. diamond-studded collars.
The lady and I have little and a lot in common. I have my own collection of animal accessories, but prefer bees, owls and giraffes to big cats. Wallis too preferred trains to planes and changed her surname three times. We were both the insecure children of insecure mothers, who moved home more often than we wished or expected to do.
Other archetypal women in my library – witch, diva, devotee – came to sudden, sticky ends, but the last decade of the duchess was a long slow decline, a death no one deserves. So I won’t stay long in the bedroom in the Bois de Boulogne where she lay for years, her mind wandering behind the lifted face, the pale blue walls closing in…
Mercifully, the camera stopped at the bedroom door; it had served its purpose, to keep the legend alive, in pictures. The most well-known of these are the ones with the devoted Duke, but the abiding image for me is of the woman in a restrained, tightly tailored outfit, a tiger with emerald eyes crouching on her shoulder.
It’s hard to know what really survives of such a life. There’s no public museum or monument, no statues to fell. She was the opposite of Everywoman but did no Great Things and there are no direct descendants to cherish her memory. The Wallis-Warfield-Spencer-Simpson- Windsor story has no sequel – but it still informs royal romances, past and present. It’s a tale told and told again, because it shows how a single woman’s life can transform the lives of others for better or for worse – and illuminate a century. This is her legacy – the lasting flowers on the grave.
Note: if you’re interested in unusual, unforgettable women, you might like Posts 9 and 21