Wallis Simpson back in vogue ahead of royal wedding
Watch out, Kate Middleton. Another royal consort is in the limelight as the royal wedding approaches.
Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who scandalized Britain and brought down a king in the 1930s, is back in style.
She appears as a character in the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech -- as the interloper who lures Edward VIII away from royal duties, thrusting his stammering younger brother George onto the throne. She turns up trailing glamour and menace in recent British TV series Upstairs Downstairs and Any Human Heart.
She is the subject of two new biographies, and is the central character in W.E., a forthcoming movie directed by Madonna — one powerful woman examining another.
Her striking sense of style continues to inspire designers. Her jewelry sold for £8 million at a Sotheby's auction, and now fans are even buying her lingerie. One of her scarlet chiffon nightdresses with a cape sold for more than £6,500 at auction Thursday, and her Louis Vuitton vanity case went for £48,000.
Style icon, romantic heroine, villain — Simpson is an elusive character. Anne Sebba, whose biography That Woman: A Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, will be published in August, says her enduring fascination rests on that sense of mystery.
"Why and how did a middle-aged woman, not conventionally beautiful, beyond childbearing years and with two living husbands win over a man so forcefully that he gave up not just a throne but an empire to live with her?" Sebba said.
It's still possible to feel a frisson of the scandal Simpson caused in 1930s Britain. The divorcée from Baltimore was still married to her second husband when she took up with Edward, then the heir to the British throne.
Torn between duty and passion
Reports of the affair were censored in Britain. Newspapers did not report it, and American magazines had offending articles cut out before going on sale. That didn't stop rumours swirling that Simpson was a spy, a witch, a Nazi sympathizer, a prostitute — she had lived in licentious Shanghai in the 1920s — and even a transsexual.
Torn between duty and passion for Simpson, Edward abdicated the throne in December 1936, announcing in a radio broadcast that "I have found it impossible ... to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love."
The king's younger brother unexpectedly became King George VI — the story recounted in The King's Speech.
Edward and Wallis, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and suspected by some of Nazi sympathies, were sent to the Bahamas, where he served as governor.
After the war they mostly stayed away from Britain, living a life of nomadic luxury.
Many in Britain never forgave Simpson — including George VI's wife Elizabeth, who became queen and later queen mother.
She blamed Simpson — whom she referred to witheringly as "that woman" — for forcing her husband onto the throne. She felt the stress contributed to his early death from cancer.
George's widow became one of Britain's best-loved royals — the Queen Mum — and died in 2002 at the age of 101. Plump and maternal, she was, in the popular imagination, everything the Duchess of Windsor was not.
"Wallis had the good clothes," author Justine Picardie wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph, "but Elizabeth the kind heart."
Many ordinary Britons shared the Queen Mother's animosity toward Wallis Simpson.
She was, novelist Rose Tremain wrote recently, considered "too ambitious, too ruthless, too greedy, too mannish, too sexual, too cruel, too divorced, too pro-German and too American."
Sebba said that for decades afterward, many people felt "she and the duke had no sense of three old-fashioned words: duty, pluck and responsibility."
"There was a sense that he put his personal happiness and satisfaction above the call of duty. To the older generation that was really shocking."
But there has always been another view. Americans, in particular, have tended to see Simpson more sympathetically and celebrate the romance of their love affair.
British writer Sebba, who has had access to previously unseen archive material for her book, acknowledged Simpson "is quite a hard woman to like," but said she has never been fully understood.
"She was a woman who tried to carve out a life for herself with the cards that history dealt her," Sebba said.
'I'm not a beautiful woman'
One of those cards was a highly distinctive sense of style. "I'm not a beautiful woman," she once wrote. "I'm nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else." This she proceeded to do, cutting a flawlessly elegant figure in clothes by Christian Dior and others.
Designer Daniella Helayel of Issa — who created the much-copied blue dress Middleton wore for her engagement announcement -- has called Simpson "chic and an inspiration."
One of John Galliano's last collections for Dior — shown in January, before he was fired for allegedly making racist and anti-Semitic remarks — evoked Simpson's style with its fur-trimmed tartans and 1940s cuts.
Then there was the amazing jewelry. The besotted Edward showered her with custom-made pieces, the pick of which were sold at Sotheby's in November: an onyx and diamond Cartier bracelet in the shape of a panther; a jewel-encrusted flamingo clip glittering with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds; and a heart-shaped emerald, ruby and diamond brooch with the initials W.E. -- Wallis and Edward.
Even her lingerie has attracted buyers' attention. A scarlet chiffon nightdress, complete with a full length cape, is among items being sold Thursday by Kerry Taylor Auctions in London.
As well as Middleton's dress, the sale has a link to another outsider who scandalized the royal family: Diana, Princess of Wales.
The items, including a Dior crocodile handbag and a Louis Vuitton vanity case, are being sold in aid of a fund set up by businessman Mohammed al Fayed, who bought the Windsors' Paris house and its contents after the duchess died in 1986. Proceeds will go to a children's charity established in memory of his son, Dodi, who died with Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997.