Such a flirt, the Duchess of Windsor would have made a beeline for my husband
According to the pop superstar Madonna, the late Wallis Simpson, the woman for whose love the besotted Edward VIII forfeited his throne and empire, was truly a romantic heroine.
That is how the scorned American divorcee, who thrust the British monarchy into the crisis abdication of the King, is portrayed in Madonna’s film, W.E, the first movie she has ever written and directed.
But ask Anne Sebba, author of the first full-scale biography by a woman writer of the girl from Baltimore who bewitched men, whether she would have invited the celebrated Duchess of Windsor into her own home, and you receive a surprising response.
“If she were my friend who I met occasionally at a party then I’d be amused by her sharp wit and banter,” says Anne, one of the stars of this month’s Marlborough Literary Festival.
“But I’d be sorry not to be able to discuss books and culture and music with her as she was not interested in any of that – she and the Duke never read proper books and several people commented on how their homes lacked all trace of a library or single book.”
“But inviting her to my home? Well I’m quite sure she wouldn’t want to come but, if she did, I’d have to make sure she did not make a beeline for my husband.”
“She’d be bound to flirt with him so perhaps a ladies lunch would be safer. And I’d ask her ‘If you did it all again, what would you do differently?’”
Anne, who spent four years delving into the life of That Woman –- the title of her biography -- probably knows more about the Duchess than anyone alive today, which is what makes her visit to Marlborough so exciting.
For it was undoubtedly the search for the truth that provided Anne with electric moments, none more so than when she unexpectedly found letters from Wallis to her second husband Ernest Simpson, the grandson of Polish-born Jews.
“Being handed the package of 15 letters from Wallis to Ernest tied up with ribbon never before made public still in their envelopes …so unexpected yet dynamite,” Anne tells me. “Wallis was not meant to be corresponding with Ernest at all during these months -- she was meant to hate him and was divorcing him. She was certainly not meant to be telling him how she missed him, loved him, thought of him and prayed for him.”
“And how the King was Peter Pan, who would never grow up and how she wished none of this mess had ever happened. Every biographer hopes to find some little new nuggets but this was a vast great treasure trove with real historical importance.”
Indeed, Anne, Reuter journalist turned biographer of Enid Bangnold, Mother Teresa and Jennie Churchill, dates her interest the royal saga that shook the nation to her own university days studying the history of the 1930s when Hitler came to power.
She also remembers visiting Schloss Enzesfeld, the fairytale castle outside Vienna where the Duke of Windsor stayed immediately after his abdication in 1936, waiting nervously for the woman he loved to arrive.
That, together with her researches into the life of Jennie Churchill, mother of Winston and another American who shocked the establishment, kept her switched on to the subject of iconic women like Wallis Simpson.
Yet, in those early days, she explains: “I had no idea what I would find, although I was convinced there must be another side and, after the Queen Mother’s death, there must be many who would talk more freely.”
“But it was just after a lot of detective work and digging that I found the new letters and diaries…I did not know of them when I started. I also knew that I would see things differently as a woman and ask different questions so I was confident it would produce something new but not sure what - four years ago when I started.”
In particular, she reveals that between her first and second marriages, her enemies claim, “she learnt from Chinese prostitutes some ancient oriental techniques for pleasuring men.”
So did Edward VIII forsake his throne for sexual satisfaction?
“No absolutely not,” insists Anne. “Wallis was an enigma and, at over 40, not especially beautiful or clever and twice married, no-one could understand what it was that Edward found in her that made him throw up a kingdom, a throne, as well as respect.
“So people assumed it must be sex and turned her into a sex demon. It was part of the whole process of making Wallis into a hate figure so that the next King and Queen -- George V1 and Elizabeth -- were seen as paragons of virtue compared with the American brash she-devil who had lured Edward to abdication.”
“Now we can see that Wallis was the hunted, not the hunter, it is time to re-evaluate all of this.”
However, she performed one tremendous task for which we can all be thankful. Her love of powerful men, her fascination with Mussolini and Hitler, did prevent England ending up with a King willing to capitulate to Fascism.
Anne Sebba, author of That Woman – The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), speaks at Marlborough Town Hall at 5pm on Sunday, September 25.
Tickets priced at £10 at 01249 701628 and www.marlboroughlitfest.org