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“You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” — Wallis Simpson
Before she became known as the woman who enticed a king from his throne and birthright, Bessie Wallis Warfield was a prudish and particular girl from Baltimore. At turns imaginative, ambitious, and spoiled, Wallis’s first words as recalled by her family were “me, me.” From that young age, she was in want of nothing but stability, status, and social acceptance as she fought to climb the social ladder and take her place in London society. As irony would have it, she would gain the love and devotion of a king, but only at the cost of his throne and her reputation.
In Wallis in Love, acclaimed biographer Andrew Morton offers a fresh portrait of Wallis Simpson in all her vibrancy and brazenness as she transformed from a hard-nosed gold-digger to charming chatelaine. Using diary entries, letters, and other never-before-seen records, Morton takes us through Wallis’s romantic adventures in Washington, China, and her entrance into the strange wonderland that is London society. During her journey, we meet an extraordinary array of characters, many of whom smoothed the way for her dalliance with the king of England, Edward VIII.
Wallis in Love goes beyond Wallis’s infamous persona and reveals a complex, domineering woman striving to determine her own fate and grapple with matters of the heart.
The Grand Jas cemetery lies to the north of the Riviera resort of Cannes, the nine-hectare site bounded by the road to the perfume-making town of Grasse.
A brief but stiffish uphill climb brings the curious and the grieving to the entrance of the Protestant portion of the 150-year-old cemetery. The stone pillars supporting the stern iron gates bear the legend “I believe in the resurrection of the dead” in both French and English.
Inside is a roll call of the famous, the well-known, and the simply anonymous who were drawn from around the world to make Cannes their home—and their final resting place. The English Square, known also as the cimetière anglais, is dominated by a statue of Henry Brougham, who turned Cannes from a sleepy fishing village into the resort town it is today. Laid to rest among the quiet rows are sculptors, singers, pioneer pilots, dukes, soldiers—including two holders of the Victoria Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest military honour—and Peter Carl Fabergé of the Russian jewellery family, whose eggs crusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and other gems were gobbled up by the last Russian czar. There is a Nobel Prize winner—French biochemist Jacques Monod—a rhyme of poets, including the Irish bard William Bonaparte-Wyse and writer Klaus Mann, son of Death in Venice author Thomas, as well as the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, Pablo Picasso’s first wife.
There are lesser lights, too. Those originally from Camden Town in north London, for example, or Victoria in Australia, and, beneath a stand of cypress trees, ones from Hyde Park in upper New York State. While the Americans are well outnumbered by the British, this grave, with its badly discoloured headstone, intrigues. What an extraordinary story the marble slab covers over, of the three silent inhabitants who lie beneath. It is the grave of Herman Livingston Rogers, his first wife, Katherine Moore, and his second wife, Lucy, or Marie Lucie Catherine as she styled herself in later life. The inscriptions on the gravestone state that the first wife was “beloved,” the second “devoted,” but what of the third woman who also loved the wealthy Renaissance man who counted princes and presidents in his circle? She was born in a wooden shack in a mountain holiday resort and named Bessie Wallis Warfield. She married a Navy pilot, a shipping broker, and a king. She deeply touched the lives of all three occupants of this particular plot in Grand Jas—and many more beyond. Though a king gave up his throne for her, it was Herman Livingston Rogers whom she called “the love of my life.”
He was her best friend, companion, advisor, and surrogate husband. Just days before she married her royal suitor, a man who had prostrated himself and his kingdom in order to win her hand, she seemingly offered to have Herman’s child.
She was an unlikely seductress, more interested in cooking than coitus, her heart under careful control. Nor was this woman who caused so much chaos and commotion in the British constitution and in the hearts of men much to look at—rawboned, square-jawed, outsize hands, and a rasping voice that some found irritating. Yet she enticed men into her orbit, be they single, married, gay, or straight. Women, too, were fascinated by her style and her chutzpah.
Wallis was capable of love, passion, and desire—but not always with the men she married. She liked to say that hers was a simple story. It was nothing of the kind. Wallis was an endlessly complex and intriguing woman, beguiling, infuriating. There is no plaque outside her Baltimore home at 212 East Biddle Street in once fashionable Mount Vernon, but there are those who believe she should be remembered with a statue on the famously unoccupied fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in central London for saving the British from her pro-Nazi royal husband at a critical moment in their island saga as they faced Hitler’s eager battalions, war-weary and alone. This is the story of a most extraordinary American who, single-handed, changed the history of the British royal family and arguably the destiny of the British people.
“All Is Love”
Unkempt, unruly, and untidy, Miss Minerva Buckner was hardly a model teacher. She ignored school bells, bath schedules, and timetables. While she had a brilliant mind and had travelled extensively around Europe, she was feared for her violent temper and mordant wit. The lazy, the slow, and the stupid dreaded her classes, where she taught French and German. “Miss Buckner went on like a crazy person. I want to come home,” one of her pupils wrote plaintively to her mother.
There was one exception. Bessie Wallis Warfield loved Miss Buckner’s classes and adored the somewhat doughy and gangling teacher with a haphazard appreciation of personal hygiene. Miss Buckner was her first love, the besotted teenage schoolgirl sitting at her feet in the wooded grounds of Oldfields girls’ boarding school as she read the love poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start
Indeed, the line from Rilke’s “You Who Never Arrived” could have been the theme for Wallis’s hopeless juvenile enchantment.
Wallis saved her pocket money to buy Miss Buckner presents, on one occasion giving her an enormous fern from a florist in Baltimore, an hour’s steam train journey away through the heavily wooded Maryland countryside.
Wallis later recalled: “She was very appreciative. She was a very ugly woman but a very nice one. I took a great fancy to her. I had a huge crush.”
Wallis was not the only one vying for the attentions of the firmly unmarried Miss Buckner, an outsize personality with the reputation for telling “mildly improper” anecdotes. In the polite language of the day, her “boon companion” was fellow teacher “Miss Alie” McMurran, the two ladies feeding birds in the woods around Glencoe and going for gentle nature rambles together where they looked for the “earliest spring flowers.”
Wallis was fickle with her heart: She also fell madly in love with the ravishing if firm Charlotte Noland, who ran a summer camp for young girls called Burrland. Wallis spent long dreamy days and hot Virginia nights mooning over the svelte, athletic horsewoman and basketball player. In a phrase that could be culled from a modern erotic novel, she described the rangy Miss Noland as a woman with a “mixture of gay, deft teasing and a drill sergeant’s sternness.” She recalled: “I had a terrible crush on Miss Charlotte, of course I don’t know any girl who hasn’t who ever came in contact with her.” She was speaking no less than the truth.
When the divine Miss Noland, who later founded Foxcroft girls’ school in Virginia, paid a brief visit to see her sister at Oldfields all-girls school, half the pupils swooned away. As Wallis’s great friend Mary Kirk, who was more than half in love with Wallis herself, wrote to her mother: “By the time she [Miss Noland] is ready to go back, a dozen girls will have developed a crush, Wallis is already that way and terrifically wild with excitement.” All the more so when Miss Noland, who later became co-master of the Middleburg Hunt, invited Wallis and Mary for a ride in her new car, stopping at a country store for refreshments. On another occasion in the summer of 1913 she and Wallis, now seventeen, went together for a “tiny little” ride together. Such was their intimacy that the boyish Wallis was permitted to call Miss Noland “Lotty,” the teasing sexual ambiguity of their relationship never fully expressed—nor, presumably, resolved. This friendship may have made Mary just a little jealous. As she innocently confessed to her mother: “I cannot help thinking about Wallis all the time.”
That said, Wallis was an equal-opportunity admirer, her passion for Lotty balanced by a crush on her brother Philip, who was more than twenty years Wallis’s senior. Much to the irritation of her mother, Alice Warfield, she spent days wailing and sobbing because he left her love unrequited, never responding to her ardent missives.
Her schooldays were little different from those of many pubescent young girls cloistered in the febrile hothouse atmosphere of a remote all-girls school where sexual passions were heightened, emotions intense, and every tiny event treated as high drama. When Wallis sang “Dear delightful women, how I simply love them all” at a concert, she was crooning from her heart. Older pupils treated the mooning behaviour of juniors ruthlessly. For example, when Wallis, a school newbie, and another girl were vying for the affection of a senior girl, Wallis was told that she would be chosen only if she bought her gifts or gave her money.
In the top-floor dormitory that she shared with Mary Kirk, whom Wallis described as a “beautiful little partridge,” the two whispered confidences late into the night. However, the chatter between Wallis and the red-haired daughter of America’s oldest silversmith was often interrupted by an irate teacher. Their giggly gossip centred around other girls, their teachers, and people they knew. It was not long, though, before their conversational agenda was dominated by one item: boys. Boys were the great unknown, their ways, their looks, and their activities an intriguing, endless mystery. A mystery that Wallis was determined to solve as soon as possible.
She was at a distinct disadvantage. The woman who one day would be a byword for grand passion and a barely believable love affair between an English king and an American commoner had known very few males, role models or not, in her young life. For the most part they were dead, diseased, or distant figures.
Her young father, Teackle Wallis Warfield, died of tuberculosis on November 15, 1896, just five months after her birth on June 19. The marriage of her father and mother, Alice Montague, was strongly opposed by both families for obvious reasons: Teackle was in the final stages of a disease that was, at that time, highly contagious and incurable. Given the fact that certain strains of tuberculosis cause sterility, it was a miracle that he was even able to father a child.
It seems, though, that social proprieties trumped social disease, the couple marrying on November 19, 1895, when Alice—or Alys as she liked to call herself—was two months pregnant with her first baby. This sense of social disgrace perhaps explains why there was no fanfare or newspaper report, just a quiet ceremony in a side chamber of the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Baltimore. Again when Wallis was born in a roughly built wooden cottage at the Monterey Inn in the resort of Blue Ridge Summit in the state of Pennsylvania, there was no announcement in the Baltimore newspapers, merely an update on Teackle’s declining condition.
He breathed his last at the Baltimore home of his elder brother, Solomon Davies Warfield, known as Uncle Sol, just a few weeks after his daughter’s christening, which was held at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon on October 19, 1896. Such was the fear surrounding tuberculosis that her sick father was not allowed to hold or touch her in case he infected his daughter. The poor man was permitted only to look at a photograph of his baby daughter three days before he died.
The TB epidemic was so severe that trainee doctors at the local Johns Hopkins medical school were instructed to sleep outside during the summer months, where the air was fresher. Even a romantic kiss could spell certain death. When Teackle Warfield was buried at Green Mount Cemetery, the family struggled to find pallbearers willing to carry his coffin.
After Teackle was laid to rest, his destitute widow found little comfort from her own family. Her father, William Latane Montague, a one-time stockbroker in New York, remained 150 miles south in Richmond, Virginia, with his second wife, Mary E. Hazlett. There were no offers of accommodation from that quarter. In the narrative of Wallis’s life, her maternal grandfather plays no part even though he stayed with her mother in her terraced house at 212 East Biddle Street during his final illness, dying in April 1909 when Wallis was twelve.
The one man who did influence her life was her uncle Sol. In her eyes he was a grumpy curmudgeon whose grudging charity barely kept her and her mother afloat. However, he was the only family member who invited mother and baby to stay with him and his mother, Anna, in a three-storey townhouse on Preston Street in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore.
From the beginning it was a socially and physically awkward arrangement. After all, it was Uncle Sol who had led the solemn Warfield family delegation to plead with Alice and Teackle against marriage because of his brother’s terminal condition. They ignored him and other family members.
With her own family seemingly reluctant to help, Alice threw herself at his mercy. He provided shelter, food, and, in time, paid for Wallis’s formal education. Wallis was raised in the bosom of the Warfield family. Just as the infant baby’s first names, Bessie Wallis, represented the two sides of the family, being the names of her father and her mother’s older sister, Bessie Buchanan Merryman, so she often ascribed the contradictory qualities of her character to the contrasts between the two families, the Warfields and the Montagues.
The Warfields were a reputable, somewhat stolid Baltimore family with deep-rooted business and political traditions. Prosperous and distinguished, like many of the Warfield men, Sol was a successful businessman in his own right, a friend to three American presidents, and his financial acumen saw him appointed the youngest postmaster in the city’s history. Described by the Baltimore Sun as a “remarkable man sometimes approaching ruthless in his methods,” he listed big-game hunting, fishing, and golf as his leisure pursuits.
“Ruthless,” though, was not a word that found favour in the Warfield clan. It touched a raw nerve. For they had built their various fortunes on the back of slave labour. Until slavery was abolished in 1865, the family had been slave owners and occasional slave traders, keeping their unwilling flock in order by threatening to sell them South, where conditions were more brutal and inhumane than in Maryland. While there is an 1837 agreement with regard to selling a “Negro slave girl named Sally” in the Warfield family papers, they considered themselves benign and enlightened masters. Not that many families keep albums of pictures showing a lynching, as the Warfields did.
Wallis’s third cousin Edwin Warfield, who was elected forty-fifth governor of Maryland in 1903, gave several speeches on “Slavery as I knew it.” Edwin himself was raised on the Oakdale plantation in Howard County, where the family’s slaves were housed in a long oak cabin. His tolerance went only so far. When he stood for governor, Edwin, a Democrat, did so on a platform of white supremacy, believing that poorly educated blacks should be denied the franchise.
As governor he was involved in an attempted lynching that was as farcical as it was grotesque. In July 1906, shortly after Wallis’s tenth birthday, a Negro named William Lee was due to be hanged after being found guilty of assaulting two white women. Such was the outcry that Governor Warfield had the culprit kept in Baltimore jail so as to escape a lynch mob intent on burning him alive. The condemned man was spirited away by steamboat to nearby Somerset County, followed by an angry armada of boats filled with outraged local men. The law narrowly won, and Lee was hanged on a gallows hastily erected on an island in Chesapeake Bay, before the mob were able to land. As the whole city of Baltimore was in excited tumult, Wallis would have been aware of the episode, especially as it involved cousin Edwin.
By contrast the dramas on the maternal side of Wallis’s family were entirely domestic. The Montagues were devil-may-care in this life and rarely worried about the devil in the next. The men exuded typical Southern charm, which did not, as Wallis tartly observed, “put money in the bank.” As she would later describe, they lived a “more hazardous, more adventurous” life, which was a polite way of saying that they were feckless. As for the women, they were noted beauties, particularly her mother, her aunt Bessie, and cousin Corinne, who didn’t take life or themselves too seriously. As Wallis’s uncle, Major General George Barnett, observed of the Montague clan: “They are wonderful, witty, intelligent people—and they will tell you so themselves.”
While the contrasting fortunes and characters of the Montagues and Warfields explain Wallis’s background, the real emotional dynamic of her life was between Alice, her mother; Anna, her paternal grandmother; and, in later life, her mother’s older sister, Aunt Bessie. It is noticeable that in her bowdlerized memoir, The Heart Has Its Reasons, her grandmother takes early centre stage. Prim, proper, upright—she trained Wallis to sit with a ramrod-straight back—she always had the well-thumbed Warfield family Bible on a table next to her rosewood rocking chair. In her early sixties and still in her widow’s weeds after the death of her husband twenty or so years before, she cut a striking and self-possessed figure, sitting alone in the shadows, rocking back and forth, watching and wary, her tongue as sharp as her eyes.
Though her grandmother seemed to have stepped out of one of Charles Dickens’s brooding Gothic novels, Wallis had, for the most part, fond memories of her, feeling an emotional kinship with a woman of unbending principle and chilly control, aristocratic both in her demeanour and her bearing. She even named her life-size doll, Anna, after this indomitable lady.
Kind, peaceful, and full of common sense was Wallis’s assessment of her grandmother. Her advice, though, was straight out of a censorious Never-Never-Land: “Never let a man kiss your hand. If you do, he’ll never ask you to marry him. Never marry a Yankee. Never drink coffee, it will turn your skin yellow.” Her continuous stream of warnings and counsel bred in Wallis a timidity and caution about the world that lay beyond the thick oak door of 34 East Preston Street.
For all these constraints, Wallis felt that she belonged within this conservative, comfortable, and socially significant milieu. The Warfields stood for stability, safety, and, most important, status. In Baltimore, a Warfield was somebody. Wallis, prudish and particular, is much more critical of her mother. Even though she acknowledges Alice’s endless sacrifices on her behalf, she disapproved of her haphazard values and rackety lifestyle. The sense of disappointment with her mother, who danced and skipped her way through life, is palpable.
Small, blonde, with striking blue eyes which Wallis inherited, Alice had a sharp tongue and a quick wit. She had a way of saying something amusing and then looking amazed that her comment made others laugh. Such was the endless flow of bons mots, that her friends encouraged her to have her witticisms published. She followed their advice, sending her efforts to the weekly magazine Town Talk. Sample: “Why do leaves turn red in the fall? Because there are so many bare limbs around.” The editor chuckled, sent her five dollars, and asked for more. It helped pay the bills.
Wallis, though, was not amused, believing that her mother’s wit was so pungent and caustic that she lost friends and soured relationships, leaving those at the receiving end of her sarcasm feeling inferior and belittled. As her sister, Bessie, acknowledged, she had a vindictive tongue, a quality her daughter inherited.
Wallis had cause to feel the sting of her mother’s waspish barbs. “Nobody is as ugly as Wallis when she is bored,” her mother would comment, a phrase calibrated to hurt her daughter.
As light-hearted and gay as she seemed, Alice clashed frequently with her daughter, the two women fundamentally differing in desire and ambition. Alice was content with her poor Southern background, her daughter never satisfied with her lot, always seeking the next rung up the social ladder. Her first words, recalled members of her family, were not “Ma, Ma” but “me, me.”
As a little girl she named dolls after two of the wealthiest and most glamorous women in America, Mrs. Astor of Virginia and Mrs. Vanderbilt of New York. She would leaf through her mother’s magazines looking at pictures of beautiful women dressed in jewels and furs and point to them with a long hatpin. Then she would make up stories of balls, banquets, and billets-doux, populating this glamorous make-believe world with princes, princesses, kings, and queens.
Wallis had two other paper dolls, whom she named ABC and Gubby, two men-about-town. They were members of the exclusive men-only Maryland Club, where only the most prestigious and prosperous could enter. “She would sit in a corner quietly having imaginary conversations and then fly into a rage if anyone interrupted her,” recalled Aunt Bessie. “She had the greatest imagination of any child I ever saw.”
By a strange twist of fate, Wallis’s neighbour, who literally lived across the street in Baltimore, was another future luminary: Gertrude Stein, an expressive dreamer who captured the zeitgeist of the Jazz Era. Stein, who would become the muse to what she called the “Lost Generation” of American writers and artists, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound as well as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and others, would one day imagine seeing the young Wallis at play across Biddle Street, Baltimore, the street of terraced houses where they both lived.
During her days in Baltimore, Stein, who later lived in Paris with her lover, Alice B. Toklas, was a student at Johns Hopkins medical college. Even then she was a controversial character who challenged the male-dominated faculty while learning to smoke Havana cigars and how to box. In 1903 she wrote Q.E.D., one of the earliest lesbian coming-out stories, based on a triangular female relationship and set at Johns Hopkins.
Once Wallis became famous, Stein was reminded of those days in Mount Vernon, the novelist penning a story called Ida, in which Wallis was sketched as an example of modern celebrity, of being famous for being famous. The ultimate irony of this relationship by literary association is that, while there is an official city plaque recognizing Gertrude Stein’s stay in Baltimore, there is nothing to commemorate the presence of the woman who upturned a royal dynasty.
While this imaginative young girl dreamed of being a little princess—and was treated as one by the whole family—Wallis’s mother was the Cinderella, cleaning, cooking, and sewing, wearing her fingers to the bone to make clothes for her daughter and to sell to neighbours and friends. Wallis later admitted that she happily allowed her mother to sacrifice her health and her energy in order to give her the best. “I had great control over her because she adored me so much. Anything I did was right. I was a poor child and a spoilt child, terribly spoilt.”
Theirs was an odd kind of penury. They lived rent-free courtesy of Uncle Sol, they never went hungry—Sunday lunch was invariably roast beef and Yorkshire puddings followed by meringue and ice cream—and had a small army of servants to care for them. In the hot summer months, when Baltimore was unbearable, Wallis had the pick of handsome working farms or country estates owned by her wealthy relatives, places where donkey rides or visits to the icehouse to pick out chilled watermelons were always on the menu.
Though Wallis and her mother never lived in poverty, their burden was living as the patronized poor relations. For longer than they cared to recall, they depended on the sporadic and casual charity of Uncle Sol—and Alice’s sewing ability—to pay for the little extras in life. Wallis came to hate springtime, that period of bursting buds and hedgerow bustle, as it was a chirpy reminder that while her school friends went on family excursions, Wallis was left hoping that she would be invited, knowing full well that she could never reciprocate. She remembered spring as a “hideous” time of year.
For a girl who was all about control, her dependence on her uncle stained deep into her psyche. Half a century later, when she was reviewing this time in her life, she remembered how difficult it was for her proud mother to ask for charity—and what she described as her “granite faced” uncle’s peculiarly “sadistic” behaviour when he handed out his largesse.
During this ritual he would pass Wallis what she called a tip, crunching up his money into a little ball before sliding it into her hand. “You didn’t know if you had five dollars or five thousand,” she recalled. “You could hardly wait to get out of the room, you almost ran, to open your hand to see what he had tipped you.”
She insinuates that her “ice cold” uncle had thawed towards her mother to the point where he had declared his love. Beneath the stony visage was a man with a secret appreciation for female opera singers, ballet dancers, and chorus girls, whose signed portraits decorated his bachelor apartment in New York. Understandably, Alice could not tolerate living in such a sexually charged atmosphere with a man she disdained. “A subtly disturbing situation seems to have helped precipitate the separation,” recalled Wallis. “She was young and attractive, living under the same roof, and she and Uncle Sol were inevitably thrown much together.”
Wallis was all for this possible marriage, feeling that her mother should have sacrificed herself so that Wallis could enjoy the lifestyle of the rich and locally famous. That she spurned his advances perhaps explains why Uncle Sol supplied only the bare financial necessities for Wallis and her mother. “He hated to do anything for me. He did the minimum,” she complained. It is an unjust charge, Uncle Sol funding Wallis’s education and social life until she married. Certainly he did more, much more, that her mother’s family.
At the same time, the vivacious widow was increasingly at odds with her disapproving mother-in-law. Both were strong women who did not hesitate to speak their minds. Alice would have found living under another woman’s roof—and rule—frustrating and irritating. That she wanted to make a new life for herself and began seeing suitors merely complicated matters. Eventually, Alice packed their bags and took rooms, first in the Brexton residential hotel just a few hundred yards away and then at the nearby Preston apartment house.
- "The best account so far of the most notorious woman-and most dangerous threat to the British royal family-of the twentieth century. Andrew Morton presents a convincing picture of Wallis Simpson's rip-roaring sexual and social adventures and her curious marriage to the Duke of Windsor."—Sarah Bradford, international bestselling author of Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen and Diana
- "Remarkable. Supersedes and surpasses all previous Wallis biographies with its wealth of new detail and insight. Andrew Morton's crowning achievement."—Christopher Wilson, author of Dancing with the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue
- "The best known chronicler of the Royals, Andrew Morton provides tantalizing new details about the scandalous life of Wallis Simpson."—Meryl Gordon, New York Times bestselling author of Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend
- On Sale
- Feb 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing