Not-quite-so-royal wedding, circa 1937 -- thank you, Wallis Windsor!
The royal wedding kerfuffle has, as my London colleague Henry Chu writes, revived interest in the less felicitous royal wedding plans made public about 75 years ago in Britain, when King Edward VIII made it clear he wanted to marry his mistress, the American divorcee Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson.
Even today, Britons might find this engagement hard to swallow, so imagine the reaction in 1936, at a time when most divorced people were non grata at the court; that didn't really change for 40 years, until Princess Margaret, the queen's sister and the daughter of King George VI -- who had wanted to marry a divorced man and could not -- ended up divorcing the man her family did allow her to marry. (The royals' record abounds with such ironies.)
It wasn't the fact that Wallis Simpson was American, nor even that she was 40 and unlikely to bear an heir. The Church of England opposed divorce, and here was a woman who would come to the altar with the king, the head of the Church of England, with not one divorce in her past but two. If she had married the king against the wishes of the British government and the officials of the empire, the prime minister would have quit and the monarchy would have been plunged into the political fray -– a constitutional nightmare.
If Wallis Simpson was a non-starter in the queen stakes, Edward VIII wasn't much of a king. I think of him as the royal version of New Coke. As the promising young Edward, the Prince of Wales, he was the best salesman in the empire, modern, boyish, dapper and game, traveling the world and posing with anyone (and anything, judging from the props and costumes he posed in). He broke the physical barriers between subjects and princes, plunging into crowds and shaking hands with a vigor, if not a sincerity, that endeared him to the mobs. Girls cut his picture out of the newspaper and saved it to dream on -– among them his future wife.
What may be charming in a prince turned out to be all wrong in a king. Unlike his parents, Edward was unable to separate the idea of his person from his role and destiny, which may be why he thought he could charm his way past the political and constitutional obstacles that lay ahead, much in the fashion that Diana, the Princess of Wales, would try decades later. Protocol and duty, the alpha and omega of royal life, were anathema to him. Yet if the monarchy is to be anything but just another set of celebrities with better jewelry, the role had to distinguish itself from mere popularity.
After years of romancing married women, he was already 41 and still unmarried in January 1936 when his father, King George V, died, and the fairytale prince became king.
His reign wasn’t nasty and brutish, to use Thomas Hobbes' phrase, but it was short. King Edward, already something of an anti-Semite, was quite taken by the burgeoning Nazi state (in this he was not alone; some British aristocrats shared his affinity, and even more his distaste for the prospect of another war). He hated the drudgery of paperwork that is a king's lot, and, most of all, he was besotted with Wallis Simpson and deaf to almost anything that did not exalt her. The love that made him happy as a man paradoxically made him less suited to be king.
As Shakespeare wrote of an executed nobleman in "Macbeth": "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it." The Commonwealth, if not the U.S., felt pretty much the same way about Edward: His 11-month reign ended in December 1936 with his famous radio address about finding it impossible to stay on without the help and support of the woman he loved.
As his royal highness the Duke of Windsor, he and his wife --the Duchess of Windsor -- were a nettlesome and embarrassing presence for the royal family for decades. But I'll give the Windsors this: They were justified in their displeasure, if not in the volume and frequency with which it was expressed, over the royal family's denying Wallis Windsor what every other married woman in the empire had -- the right to share her husband's rank, in this case as Her Royal Highness, with all the curtsying and bowing and scraping that go along with it. (The title ''Her Royal Highness" was stripped from Diana, Princess of Wales, and from Sarah, Duchess of York, after their divorces.)
The abdication remains the monster under the bed that frightens the royal family to this day; it explains a lot about its choices and decisions. Abdicating from the throne made the crown look like just another line of work, to be taken up and dropped at will. If the job isn't hereditary, and isn't for life, what's the point of the monarchy, and the sovereign? (Not much blessed with a sense of irony, the royal family still cannot have overlooked the fact that the Windsor marriage lasted for 35 years; the marriages of the queen’s three eldest children combined didn't endure too many years longer than that.)
Back to the Windsors: The gleam of romance of trading a throne for a wife has long since worn off. The Windsors could be remarkably self-absorbed, self-indulgent, extravagant, petty and unpleasant; my late friend Cleveland Amory, who had been tapped to ghostwrite the duchess’ autobiography, told me that he gave it up as a bad job, and even a dishonest one (Marilyn Greenwald’s biography of Cleveland has a long account of this episode).
I bring this all up now because, as Henry Chu’s story notes, yet more books about Wallis Windsor are in the works, and in some quarters, attitudes are still divided between the romantic-sacrifice school of thought versus the wastrel-abdicator thinking.
Put me in the "good riddance" category. Edward VIII was a weak king at a critical moment. For spiriting him away, Wallis deserves the thanks of a nation. One American's statue -- Abraham Lincoln's -- stands in Parliament Square in London; here’s my ten bucks to start the collection to put up another one, a bronze likeness of Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor, who, once upon a time, and without intending to, saved the kingdom from the king.
Meghan Daum: Her Royal Blandness
Prince William should put a ring on it
Don't mock us because we're obsessed
-- Patt Morrison
Photo: Edward VIII, known as the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the throne, with Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, in 1937.