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.