Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Wallis Simpson Or The Queen Mother?

Part of a series: Two choices—which do you choose?

Two years ago I read William Shawcross’ immense official biography of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother of England and became enamored of the story of lady who had a front-row seat to the entirety of the 20th century (and a little bit beyond).

Of course, along the way, I learned about the part Wallis Simpson played in Elizabeth's life. Now, as any good ladyblog reader knows, it is Total B.S. to pit two women against each other in the way that Wallis and Elizabeth have been (and as I am about to do). And yet, the Queen Mum probably wouldn’t be the Queen Mum without the woman who convinced Edward VIII to abdicate the throne, thus making Albert, Elizabeth’s husband, king. The two women couldn’t seem more different: Elizabeth, warm, demure and family-minded; Wallis, angular, sexually intimidating, social-climbing. They had their similarities, of course (both could be sharp-tongued and enjoyed their fashion and baubles) but let's examine where they contrast.

Here’s what I came to love about Elizabeth from Shawcross’ book (which, being her “official” biography, was probably forgiving. I'm not going to do a completely character analysis of her; like anyone she surely had her flaws—her lack of interest in formal education comes to mind—but this isn’t what this is about): she was patriotic and sympathetic (her parents’ home was turned into a military hospital during World War I). She didn’t fall for the first guy, or even the first royal guy to come her way (she made Prince Albert propose to her several times before she accepted). She was fun (the lady liked to drink, even at a time when nice ladies weren’t supposed to like to drink). She was an adventuress and she was brave (she stayed in London during the Blitz, declaring "The children won't go without me. I won't leave the King. And the King will never leave.") And she didn’t hunger after the crown: while born into nobility, she chose a husband who was, at the time, not next in line to the throne. She always saw royalty as a liability, not an asset, of Bertie’s.

The impression I formed of Wallis Simpson from reading Elizabeth’s biography was of someone ambitious (in the bad, old-fashioned greedy way, not the positive “I’m gonna make something of myself!” way we think of today), selfish, rude (she made plenty of crappy comments about Elizabeth), materialistic woman who, oh yeah, was also a Nazi sympathizer. Boo.

That Madonna made a movie about her, W.E., only confirmed this view. When it came out, it was one of those movies that instantly joined the pantheon of Moves I Don’t Even Need To Watch To Know I Hate. It seemed fitting that Madonna would sympathize with Simpson: both women seem to fall into the category of Yeah So What If I’m A Bitch. I love strong, powerful women, but I happen to be of the mind that you can be a strong, powerful woman (or man!) without being a total dick about it. There is no doubt that Madonna has worked her tiny, hard ass off lo these many years and has gone through the mill for it, but you’d be kidding yourself if you thought she’d be a fun gal to have a cocktail with. She doesn’t have time, she wouldn’t want to waste the calories and she’d probably think you were boring.

But then Anne Sebba came out with That Woman, her biography of Simpson, earlier this year, and I figured that I should read a version of her life that sprang from neither someone with an axe to grind or over-identification. What if Wallis was truly misunderstood? Plus, Nazi fancier or not, there’s no getting around the fact that the lady was interesting as hell.

Did That Woman make me come around to see Wallis in a more sympathetic light? Somewhat. The book explores the possibility that Simpson suffered from some health issues that may have included sexual/gender confusion, which must have made her life difficult. She wasn’t a popular lady, either in terms of the public, press or even in her personal life, and that must have been painful, too. And she seemed like she’d be pretty fun to sit next to at a dinner party (as long as you didn’t mind sitting next to someone who didn’t eat—she was a notorious weight-watcher—and who probably would have talked shit about you after the fact.) Plus, it’s misguided criticism if she’s faulted for remaining a free-wheeling fashionable childfree lady as opposed to taking on the title of “Mum” and embracing a cozy grandma identity.

But the confusion and isolation she suffered still doesn’t diminish the impression that Wallis was still something of a shitty person. Skipping the whole argument regarding who is at fault when couples cheat or break up, she did set up her best friend Mary Kirk and husband Ernest Simpson to spend time together while she dallied with King David and then dropped Mary for “stealing” Ernest. Joke’s on you, Mary and Ernest.

While Wallis was the victim of bad press, it can’t be said that she didn’t seek out the press in general; she was jealous of Marilyn Monroe for stealing newspaper headlines from her. Plus, while many regard her relationship with David as one of the greatest love stories of our time, I see it as a coupling more strange than romantic. He relied upon her as a mommy figure at times, and she often played it, sometimes in the sense of humiliating him in public. Considering how much public scrutiny she endured, I don’t necessarily believe she sought out David in order to receive a royal title, but that didn’t mean she didn’t yearn for it after they were married: she was embittered until the end of her life for not receiving recognition or a title from the British monarchy. It’s perhaps fitting that she threw shade at the Queen Mum (for being fat, for being mumsy) because Elizabeth received a title she never sought while Wallis never got the one she desired.

Oh, also, Madonna may claim that Wallis’ interactions with Hitler were misunderstood, but you can never claim this photo was doctored. Meanwhile, Wallis was still besties with Diana Mitford, who was married to Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists. Those two got married at the home of Joseph Goebbels, with Adolf Hitler as guest of honor.

You could probably best compare the two women’s lives by looking at the end of their lives. Simpson died terrified and alone whereas Elizabeth enjoyed a long and spritely seniority, surrounded by her beloved family. Simpson may have been the more mysterious and inscrutable of the two, but Elizabeth seemed like the happier one, and that, not the crown or title or children, is why she wins.

Previously: Angela Lansbury Or Betty White?

Claire Zulkey lives in Chicago. You can learn so much more about her here.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

Bittersweet (#765)

Yep. What you said. However fascinating the Wallis-Edward story is, you can't escape the fact that they were both giant a-holes. Cute pugs, though.

Allie J (#236,275)

@Bittersweet True, true. I love how David Rakoff calls her "one of the world's worst people, ever."

However, I don't think you can make the argument that the Queen Mum wouldn't be so without her. Wallis and David never produced an heir, so the throne still would have passed to Bertie and then to Elizabeth (I love how I'm calling these people by their personal names like I know them or something.) But yes, thank heaven he wasn't on the throne during WWII. Who even knows what shenanigans he might have caused?

scrooge (#2,697)

Apparently, the Queen Mum liked a cocktail, probably a lot more than That Woman did.

Claire Zulkey (#6,639)

@scrooge There was a cute story in her biography about how she and another lady were part of this "drinking society" that was memorialized in portrait but since ladies weren't supposed to drink in public, the ladies were portrayed as, I think, portraits in the room that the men were portrayed in.

LondonLee (#922)

The best thing to say about Wallis Simpson is that it was thanks to her Edward wasn't King during WWII.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@LondonLee Hear, hear.

They were both terrible. But Mrs. Simpson was a thousand times more terrible. And the Queen Mum is maybe even the least-awful royal. Which ain't saying much, but still.

@LondonLee And the worst thing you can say is that inspiring Madonna to direct a fawning paean is only about middling on the scale of her awfulness.

La Cieca (#1,110)

I'm not in agreement with describing Her Majesty with the word "adventuress," i.e., a woman oman who seeks social and financial advancement by unscrupulous means. She was brave and had a strong sense of duty, and relative to her position she did enjoy a bit of adventure.

Mrs. Simpson might be accused of being an adventuress, though I'm inclined to take the more charitable view that she had a rather narrow and self-centered view of life. I mean, most of us, given a suave ex-King as a husband and a comfortable income for life, might spend a lot of time shopping for clothes and sipping cocktails too.

Outoftowner (#235,745)

Although I did read a Diana bio that told a very cute story of how much Di and Fergie LOATHED the Queen Mum, chortling things like "And of course WE ADORE the Queen Mum, may she live forever!" at each other down the phone in case their conversations were bugged.

So there's that.

griffy (#236,283)

I don't remember the author,but some years ago I read an account of the couples later years as seen by that author. He told the story of approaching Wallis while she was standing waiting on an elevator in her home. When he suprised her she turned and punched him in the gut as hard as she could! She was apologetic on seeing the author saying "Please forgive me, I thought you were the Duke" THE WOMAN I LOVE indeed

Wallis was my Grandmother's cousin. My Grandma refuses to talk about her, and threw a fit when the paper included Wallis' relation to my Great Aunt, when she passed away. No one liked her. But I'm absolutely fascinated by her.

Lyra Smith (#6,190)

@annie murphy Hey!

Wallis was my great-grandmother's cousin and she adored her.
It sucks I'm only related to people I only hear terrible things about — my dad's side has some doozies as well.

Kirsten Hey@twitter (#236,288)

I wouldn't say the Queen Mother "made" Bertie propose to her several times. That reads to me as if she refused him out of a wish to see him beg or something. As I understand it, she had a lot of reservations about joining the royal family, and she refused him several times because of that, not because she wanted him to keep proposing.

Whimsy (#230,004)

@Kirsten Hey@twitter
I got the impression the author was trying to show how Queen Mum wasn't interested in Albert because he was a royal and was willing to refuse him because something wasn't right… I don't think she insinuates why she made him propose several times, although not wanting to join the Royals is quite an excellent reason!

Laura Rog@twitter (#235,108)

"The Queen Mother of England"? What a charmingly inaccurate American way of putting it. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions), thank you very much indeed!

If you're at all interested in this, I highly recommend the late '70s British miniseries "Edward & Mrs. Simpson" available on Netflix:

planmywedding (#236,297)

a cute story

Post a Comment