Many years ago, in December 1936, my mother had me by the hand as we went Christmas shopping in Robinson's department store in Los Angeles. Carols were loudly playing from speakers all over the store. Suddenly the music stopped abruptly and all the shoppers stopped what they were doing as though they were playing "statues." Everybody gazed at the silent speakers. Presently a man's melodious voice broke the silence. It was Edward VIII renouncing the throne for the woman he loved. My six year old heart was thrilled and I became an Anglophile on the spot. I had to grow up to be disillusioned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor but I am still an Anglophile.
"That Woman" is the first biography of Wallis written by a woman but author Anne Sebba does not get closer to the real Wallis than the men. At the beginning of the biography the author plunges right in by defining what Wallis was all about. What made her tick. She also describes in detail the outfits and jewelry the Duchess wore which will appeal to women readers more than to men, I think. But the dress instincts of Wallis defined her. For her appearances were everything.
Her father died just five months after her birth and although her mother remarried the family was often living in near poverty in Baltimore. Wallis, however, had a sugar-daddy, her Uncle Sol who sent Wallis to an exclusive girls' boarding school called Oldfields. Wallis thirsted after the trappings of wealth, of society and the company of men. She was boy-crazy at a very young age. She wanted to pull herself up by her bootstraps if necessary and enter a higher social plane. Ambition to be somebody was a driving force in her character.
Author Sebba suggests but in no way proves that Wallis might have had some form of DSD, a Disorder of Sexual Development. There are many variations of the syndrome and in the future Duchess' case, she may have been lacking a uterus although perfectly normal-looking on the outside. Wallis did what many girls of this disorder do- tried to be as alluring to men as possible, to be as ultra-feminine as possible to compensate. And part of that compensation would be to give sexual partners world class orgasms. At the same time they would have a manipulative hold on their lovers. However fitting the character of Wallis into this syndrome is not justified by the facts.
Many observers have commented on Wallis' appearance- flat and angular, with large hands and feet and a strong male-like jaw. Persons with DSD have to fit themselves into a world where social order clearly defines the two sexes . A person not clearly male or female had a "dangerously disruptive presence." Wallis would compensate by being ultra-enticing to men, and marrying very young. If Wallis did, indeed, have some form of DSD, she was driven by her genes to behave exactly as she did. But again creating the character of Wallis to fit a mold is not justified. That Wallis was abnormal in any way is very unlikely.
The character of Edward is revealed throughout in the book. The author speculates that the Prince may have been autistic or have the lesser malady, Asperser's Syndrome but this seems far- fetched, as autistic individuals have trouble with verbal communication, and Edward spoke well. There is no substantiation whatever for Edward's being autistic. The Prince, however, seemed to have stayed as emotionally immature as an adolescent when he was well into his thirties. He appeared to require his girlfriends to be mother-figures or to dominate him. Many samples are given of Wallis' humiliating him before guests, bossing him around like a lackey. At a party he would follow her around like a dog. Edward was very likely sadomasochistic according to the author.
Edward's refusal to give up Wallis created a constitutional crisis and the atmosphere in England at the time is well described in the book with members of parliament in a dither. Wallis was frequently threatened but finally, after the abdication, the couple was married in the Chateau de Cande near Paris. The rooms of the chateau were filled lavishly to the brim with peonies and other spring flowers but precisely seven English people attended the marriage ceremony. Seven, for the ex- king of England. Although the title Her Royal Highness was refused to be awarded to Wallis, in their future homes the Duchess was addressed by the royal title and visitors were obliged to curtsey.
Most of the book, however, takes place before the couple is married and the result is an unbalanced picture of the Windsor's lives. After the wedding the pace is fast-forward.
On returning from Nassau where Edward was sent as governor to get him out of the way of World War II, the Windsors spent the rest of their lives attending parties and entertaining. Wallis was fully aware of her celebrity and once complained that Marilyn Monroe had pushed her off the front page and who was Marilyn's publicity agent? They could have done so much for the world but chose a vacuity that is staggering.
Author Sebba had access to many unpublished letters and private conversations that peg the Windsors and their world but there is very little new in this biography. What people thought of the royal pair is revealed in many quotes throughout the book such as: [Wallis] was "an evil force... full of animal cunning" and [the Windsors] were" tiny twins with large bottles of drink." It is an irony that the highly sociable Duchess became a bedridden recluse the fourteen years left to her life after the Duke died. But she will not be plowed under by the bulldozer of history. People will speculate forever just what Wallis did in the bedroom to capture her Prince. It's hard to like her but the whole world should be grateful to her for removing Edward from the throne."That Woman" is interesting enough but there are better biographies of the Windsors out there.