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The American Duchess

The Real Wallis Simpson

About The Book

Wallis Simpson is known as the woman at the center of the most scandalous love affair of the 20th century, but in this “unputdownable…lively and detailed” (The Times, London) biography, discover a woman wronged by history with new information revealed by the latest research and those who were close to the couple.

The story that has been told repeatedly is this: The handsome, charismatic, and popular Prince Edward was expected to marry a well-bred virgin who would one day become Queen of England when he ascended the throne. But when the prince was nearly forty, he fell in love with a divorced American woman—Wallis Simpson. No one thought the relationship would last, and when the prince did become king, everyone assumed that was the end of the affair.

But to the shock of the British establishment, the new king announced his intention to marry the American divorcée. Overnight, Wallis was accused of entrapping the prince in a seductive web in order to achieve her audacious ambition to be queen. After declaring that he could not rule without the woman he loved, the king abdicated, and his family banished him and his new wife from the country. The couple spent the rest of their days in exile, but happy in their devoted love for each other.

Now, Anna Pasternak’s The American Dutchess tells a different story: that Wallis was the victim of the abdication, not the villain. Warm, well-mannered, and witty, Wallis was flattered by Prince Edward’s attention, but like everyone else, she never expected his infatuation to last. She never anticipated his jealous, possessive nature—and his absolute refusal to let her go.

Edward’s true dark nature, however, was no secret to the royal family, the church, or the Parliament; everyone close to Edward knew that beyond his charming façade, he was utterly unfit to rule. Caught in Edward’s fierce obsession, she became the perfect scapegoat for those who wished to dethrone the troubled king.

With profound insight and evenhanded research, Pasternak pulls back the curtain on one of the darkest fairy tales in recent memory and effortlessly reveals “a host of intriguing insights into a misunderstood woman” (Kirkus Reviews).


Prologue PROLOGUE The Heart Has Its Reasons

Once upon a time, there was a charming, handsome prince. Whenever he visited even the farthest reaches of his kingdom, his people flocked to see him. He was adored the world over. Everyone expected him to marry a pretty, well-bred English virgin who would one day become Queen of England and its vast empire. But, when the prince was thirty-seven years old—having previously shown no sign of wanting to get married—he fell in love with an odd-looking, twice-divorced American. No one thought that the affair would last, so everyone close to him kept quiet about it. When the prince’s father, the king, died five years later, the prince inherited the Crown. Courtiers assumed that the new king would find a suitable young bride. To their horror, he said that he could not continue to be king without the American woman he loved by his side and that he intended to marry her. Everyone in the royal palaces, the prime minister, the government, the Church, were shocked. They accused the wicked witch–divorcée of being a sorceress who had cast a spell over their poor, gentle prince in order to become queen. The king’s ministers told him that if he married this terrible woman, he would have to surrender the Crown.

But instead of renouncing his love, the king sacrificed his whole realm—an empire of over five hundred million people—to be with her. He only ruled for 326 days, making his reign one of the shortest in his country’s history. His devoted subjects were heartbroken. They blamed the ugly witch for taking their beloved sovereign away from them. His family banished him from the land, leaving him free to marry the woman he loved. Denied royal status, the couple spent the rest of their lives in exile, roaming the world aimlessly, sad that they could not return to the king’s homeland and to the little castle that he adored. The world, meanwhile, imagined that this was the Greatest Love Story Ever Told and that husband and wife went on to live Happily Ever After.

The story of the abdication of King Edward VIII and his marriage to Wallis Simpson has been told so many times that it has taken on the character of a fairy tale. Like fairy tales, much of what we are repeatedly told is in fact make-believe. The most scandalous love affair of the twentieth century may have softened into a romantic legend with time, but dark myths still endure. The dashing young prince, whose charisma and glamour ensured him the status of a movie star, gave up “the greatest throne in history,” as Churchill called it, to marry his one true love, an American divorcée. Surely there can be no greater act of sacrifice than to give up such power, privilege and adoration for love? And for a woman whose appeal was such a mystery to most.

Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor was considered the world’s most eligible bachelor. Society hostess Elsa Maxwell first met the Prince of Wales in the early 1920s “at Mrs. Cuckoo Belleville’s house in Manchester Square. He was a gay, golden-haired, blue-eyed, debonair Prince Charming, the most famous celebrity in the world, who seemed a Raphael angel grown up. He projected an aura of glamour that was as unmistakable as it was authentic.”1 To the fashion editor Diana Vreeland, “he was the Golden Prince. You must understand that to be a woman of my generation in London—any woman—was to be in love with the Prince of Wales.”2

Men were equally beguiled. Even the senior palace courtier, Alan Lascelles, known in royal circles as “Tommy” and later a fierce critic of the former king, gushed in 1921 that the heir to the throne was “the most attractive man I ever met.”3 Piers “Joey” Legh, an equerry who remained in the prince’s service for twenty years, accompanying him into exile, said of Edward a decade after the abdication: his “charm was so great that I would thrill with emotion if the duke entered the room just now.”4

When news of Wallis Simpson’s affair with Edward broke from under a media blackout in 1936, what seemed unfathomable was why, when the Prince of Wales could have had any beauty he desired, he was smitten with an unconventional, severe-looking American two years his junior with two living husbands. So much gossip and innuendo have been leveled at Wallis that it has become near impossible to discern the real woman or to hear her authentic voice amid the cacophony of condemnation. As her friend Herman Rogers said of her in 1936, “much of what is being said concerns a woman who does not exist and never did exist.”5 Lady Monckton, a close friend of the Windsors, later concurred: “People were always being nasty about Wallis. You must remember how jealous people felt when the Prince of Wales fell in love with her.”6

Ever since, we have been overfed a diet of fantastical slander: that Wallis was really a man; that she had a perverse psychosexual hold over the prince; that she used manipulation and feminine wiles to lure him into abdicating; that she was a ruthless, cold, ambitious bitch who schemed from the outset to be Queen of England. The well-worn view is that she alone was responsible for almost bringing down the British monarchy, triggering a constitutional crisis caused by her determination to marry the heir apparent. We have experienced her so fully as Machiavellian through others’ projections and prejudices, through misogynistic memoirs, biographies and unflattering portrayals, that she has become a caricature of villainous womanhood. Devoid of warmth, emotional complexity and a beating heart, she remains the brittle victim of salacious chatter and brutal character assassination many decades after her pitiful death.

Instead of simply belittling Wallis and defaming her reputation, we might try to understand this modern, intelligent, remarkable woman and the impossible situation she was placed in. She was, in fact, very warm, funny, irresistibly charming, loyal and dignified to the end. Adored by her many friends, she was written off by a cunning, powerful British establishment that sought to destroy and diminish her; men like Tommy Lascelles—who famously dismissed Wallis as “shop-soiled” with “a voice like a rusty saw”—the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin; and Cosmo Lang, the archbishop of Canterbury.

However, far from being the villain of the abdication, Wallis was the victim. Instead of pushing for Edward to leave the throne, she had tried to prevent it. What most of her detractors fail to acknowledge is that she never wanted to marry Edward. Naturally she was initially flattered by his attention; as an American woman living in London, surrounded by society hostesses and social climbers, she felt giddy to be included in His Royal Highness’s elegant and rarefied circle. What woman would not have been beguiled by the prince’s “unmistakable aura of power and authority?”7 According to Wallis: “His slightest wish seemed always to be translated instantly into the most impressive kind of reality. Trains were held; yachts materialized; the best suites in the finest hotels were flung open; aeroplanes stood waiting.”8 Wallis made no secret of her open-mouthed delight, but she also believed Edward’s interest in her was transitory. She never expected his infatuation to last. In 1935 she wrote to her beloved aunt, Bessie Merryman, in Wallis’s hometown of Baltimore: “What a bump I’ll get when a young beauty appears and plucks the Prince from me. Anyway, I am prepared.”9

The real tragedy for Wallis is that she could never have been prepared for what was to come, for the speed with which events spun so quickly out of her control. Though worldly, she would find herself painfully out of her depth. Unable to juggle her settled, second marriage to Ernest Simpson with the overwhelming and incessant demands of a besotted prince—whom she and Ernest nicknamed “Peter Pan”—Wallis became the perfect pawn. She did not bargain for Edward’s self-absorbed, possessive and stubborn love for her and his absolute refusal to give her up. Although she valiantly tried to break off the relationship prior to the abdication, it would become impossible for Wallis to ever leave his side.

Probably the biggest lie in this fable is that Wallis lured Edward from his destiny. Her detractors claim that if she had never divorced Ernest Simpson, the abdication would not have occurred. Yet the truth is that she had had no intention of divorcing Ernest. It was Edward, then king, who forced her into this untenable position. In the name of his needy love, Wallis paid the ultimate price: entrapment by a childish narcissist who threw the largest tantrum in history when he could not have the two things he wanted most in the world: Wallis and the throne.

When I began my research, keen to strip away decades of grotesque caricature in an attempt to find the real Wallis, I feared that doors might close. The opposite happened: people were keen to talk with me and I found that those close to the story did not hold Wallis in contempt. Many powerful, key players who had led the charge against Mrs. Simpson were now dead. The late Queen Mother, then Elizabeth, Duchess of York, for one, was furious that Edward’s abdication might force her highly strung and physically weak husband, Bertie, onto the throne and dehumanized Wallis as “that woman” and “the lowest of the low.” The spite meted out to Wallis by certain members of the royal family was staggering. Those of Wallis’s friends who are still alive seem to finally feel freer to speak about the injustice they witnessed. Sitting in elegant drawing rooms in London, Paris, Gstaad and Marbella, interviewing those who knew Wallis, I heard the same sentiments echoed: that she was witty and diverting company; that the duke was self-absorbed and less engaging. That Wallis, possessed of perfect manners, behaved with laudable inner strength and dignity, despite the terrible slurs and insults hurled at her. “The world adored him,” Hugo Vickers said of the Duke of Windsor, “yet the people who knew him and worked for him had reservations about him. The world hated her but the people who knew her and worked for her absolutely adored her.”10

None of those with whom I spoke recognized the wicked Wallis of the history books. Repeatedly, I heard of her kindliness, sense of fun and depth of friendship, which contradicted the public image of a hard-nosed, shallow woman. The closer I got to Wallis’s true character, the greater my incredulity and mounting fury that the world has judged her unfairly and unkindly. She certainly was no saint, but she was far from the sinister manipulator depicted in many accounts. Her friends noted in their diaries and memoirs their warmth and respect for Wallis, yet these tender recollections never seemed to gain sufficient attention. “She was so affectionate, a loving sort of friend—very rare you know,” wrote Diana Vreeland. “Women are rarely that sort of friend to each other.”11 Wallis was similarly loyal to male friends. The Conservative MP Sir Henry “Chips” Channon said: “She has always shown me friendship, understanding and even affection, and I have known her to do a hundred kindnesses and never a mean act.”12

Wallis was viciously derided at the time of Edward’s abdication and then kept at a distance, denied the opportunity to change public mistrust and misgivings about her. When the scandal broke in the press, she was, understandably, devastated. “The enormity of the hatred I had aroused and the distorted image of me that seemed to be forming in minds everywhere went far beyond anything I had anticipated even in my most depressed moments,” she later wrote. “I became obsessed by the notion that, in a manner impossible for me to comprehend, a calculated and organized effort to discredit me had been set afoot.”13

She was right. So sensational were the press reports and fevered gossip in 1936—Mrs. Simpson was a “gold digger,” “a whore,” “a sorceress,” “a Nazi spy”—that many of the British and European aristocracy, meeting her for the first time, were taken aback. The woman they encountered was nothing like her vulgar fictional persona. “I was absolutely flabbergasted when I first met the duchess,” recalled Count Rudolf von Schönburg. “She was the complete opposite of everything we had heard about her.”14

Count Rudi became a close friend of the Windsors after meeting them in the early sixties in Marbella, where he ran a fashionable hotel. “The story of the abdication was so shocking,” he recalled, “but the duchess was so much more ladylike than anything we had been led to believe. It was all ‘this loud, twice-divorced American’… yet here was this charming, dignified woman, always well dressed but never overdoing it. Maybe sometimes she laughed too loudly but that was it. I liked her very much and we spent many days and evenings with the couple, so had the opportunity to be treated like close friends and almost family. I have always considered that her position in history is factually incorrect and very unfair.”15

The Duke of Fragnito had similar preconceptions when he met the duchess in Palm Beach in the early 1960s. “I didn’t want to like her because of everything I had heard about her,” he admitted. “But I was taken aback by her grace and impeccable manners. To my great surprise she behaved like a real royal. She was just as captivating as the duke. They both had this ability to produce an electric charm which I have never forgotten.”16

Vogue editor Diana Vreeland noted of Wallis: “There was something about her that made you look twice.”17 The duchess’s private secretary, Johanna Schutz, accompanied Wallis to New York by boat shortly after the duke died. The duchess did not put her name on the passenger list and usually ate in her room. Occasionally, she would enter the dining room to keep Miss Schutz company. “Some people recognized her, others didn’t, but they knew she was special,” said Hugo Vickers. “She was somebody. She had a hypnotic effect.”18

“I can’t say that she was sexy but she was sassy,” remembered Nicky Haslam. “She walked into the room and it took off. The only other person I knew who had that quality was Frank Sinatra.”19 Haslam, an interior designer who met Wallis in New York in 1962, said: “Wallis had innate American style. But to be an American was against her then, almost more than the divorce.”20 Wallis described the archaic snobbery she encountered when living in London: “The British seemed to cherish a sentiment of settled disapproval towards things American.”21

I was sitting with Nicholas Haslam in a Chelsea restaurant when he produced an envelope, saying that he had something special to show me. It was a handwritten letter from Wallis to her friend Elsie de Wolfe. Elsie, who became Lady Mendl in 1926 on her marriage to Sir Charles Mendl, a press attaché to the British embassy in Paris, was an eccentric who practiced yoga and underwent plastic surgeries years before both became de rigueur. Credited with inventing the profession of interior decorating, she was famed for her elaborate parties, and in particular the Circus Ball at the Villa Trianon in Versailles in 1939. Attended by over seven hundred guests, including the duke and duchess, the ball was held in a green-and-white dance pavilion and featured a fabulously jeweled elephant. Circumstances would force Wallis to adopt Elsie’s favorite motto, embroidered on taffeta cushions strewn throughout the Villa Trianon: “Never Complain, Never Explain.”

About The Author

Photograph by Pippa Hart

Anna Pasternak is the New York Times bestselling author of Princess in Love and Lara, which revealed the true story of the love affair behind her great uncle Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s BazaarTown & Country, Tatler, and every major British newspaper. She lives in England.

Why We Love It

“It really delivers what fans of shows like The Crown love—romance, family, drama, and high-stakes political treachery against the backdrop of palaces and pageantry. It’s delicious and will break new ground.” —Trish T., Executive Editor, on The American Dutchess

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (April 14, 2020)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501198458

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Raves and Reviews

“Pasternak seeks to ‘strip away decades of grotesque caricature’ about Wallis Simpson (1896-1986). The author offers a variety of thought-provoking arguments to counter the accepted wisdom about Simpson… Pasternak's most illuminating point is that she knew how to soothe [Prince Edward] and helped him understand the necessity of his duties; unfortunately, she was unable to curb his obsession with her. The author provides a host of intriguing insights into a misunderstood woman. Those who have read other accounts will want to look at this other side.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“Pasternak's mission here, accomplished with style and discernment, is to give appropriate balance to how history has proffered Mrs. Simpson's character and motives (many have viewed her as a gold-digger) and recorded her role in the abdication crisis. What Pasternak poignantly reveals is that both the king and Mrs. Simpson demonstrated incredible naïveté about the consequences of their marriage.”

– Booklist

"The book does have the Desert Island Discs effect of making you take notice of and see the compassionate, vulnerable sides of someone you’ve subconsciously compartmentalised all your life as too rich, too thin and, let’s be frank, too American....What makes the book unputdownable is Pasternak’s lively and detailed (and thankfully not Mills & Boonsy) retelling of this ever-fascinating, ridiculously poignant love story."

– The Times

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