The Windsor Story
According to his principal adviser, Walter Monckton, the decision to renounce the throne brought Edward VIII to “the brink of disintegration,” so much so that, three days before the Abdication, Monckton feared the desperate monarch was going to kill himself. Another Mayerling affair? Monckton and the royal valet, Crisp, searched the bedroom at Fort Belvedere. No gun was found. Given the king’s childishly stubborn nature, this was not surprising. Had he ever developed the least inkling of posterity, had he tried to see his dilemma as involving dishonor rather than the reverse, he might have chosen the traditional way out—a bottle of brandy and a revolver—and would have gone down in history as tragic rather than paltry. By living out the full span of their lives, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are now written about as sacred monsters on the café society circuit rather than “the greatest news story since the Resurrection” (H.L. Mencken).
What a world of difference between the Fort Belvedere drama and the Mayerling one. Thanks to their double suicide, the Archduke Rudolf and Maria Vetsera posthumously acquired an aura of legendary romance—Romeo and Juliet as Wedekind might have written it. But then we should bear in mind that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was more intelligent, more adult, and, incidentally, more dissolute than his English counterpart, and that his teenage mistress—a born victim if ever there was one, who spent her last moments willing her feather-boa to an ex-lover—shared only one characteristic with Mrs. Simpson: frivolity.
By contrast, “Bessiewallis” Warfield, to give the villainess of the book under review her childhood name, was a born survivor—one who managed to transform the provincial limitations and genteel pretensions of a southern belle, or belle laide, into the ne plus ultra of stylishness. Thanks largely to miscalculations and political naïveté, she just missed being Queen of England, but she was too full of ambition and nervous energy to spend the rest of her life licking her wounds in the shadows like King Carol of Rumania’s Magda Lupescu. On the contrary, as soon as she became Duchess of Windsor she began consolidating her rule over the brand-new kingdom—café society—that she and her mutinous cohort Elsa Maxwell put on the map. Café society was and indeed still is a kind of third world in reverse, where pleasure, elegance, and status (more to do with money than birth) are the order of the day, where success is mandatory and where want, in so far as it exists, is the pretext for another charity ball. And it is in café society that the Duchess, with or without her Duke, has her historical place.
Just as she merits more gratitude—a statue in every market place, as Churchill jokingly suggested—than the British usually accord her for removing Edward VIII from the throne, the Duchess of Windsor deserves recognition for exemplifying and propagating some of the fancier aspects of the American …