Meghan Markle vs Wallis Simpson
Two American divorcées marrying into the British royal family: one was met with disdain, the other with adulation. What a difference 80 years makes
WHEN Meghan Markle walks down the aisle at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on 19 May, listen carefully for a low humming below the singing of the choir. It will be the sound of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who are buried at Frogmore within the castle grounds, furiously spinning in their graves.
While the duchess was the last American to marry into the royal family, her fate was the polar opposite to that of the charismatic Ms Markle.
Their lives stand as vivid testimony to the changes in British society – and the House of Windsor – over the past two royal reigns.
The issue that binds and divides them is that of divorce. How differently they were treated – former actress Meghan, who divorced her film producer husband, Trevor Engelson, after less than two years of marriage, has been warmly welcomed into the royal bosom.
She was invited to spend Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham even though she isn’t yet officially part of it, and she walked arm-in-arm with fiancé Harry, chatting with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they left St Mary Magdalene Church after the Christmas Day service – her place firmly ahead of Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.
By contrast, when King Edward VIII decided he couldn’t reign without, as he said in his famous abdication broadcast, “the help and support of the woman I love”, he and his future wife, Wallis Simpson, were effectively exiled from the realm.
For the rest of their lives they were condemned to roam the earth without purpose or plan – at various times living in Paris, New York, the Bahamas and the south of France – the British government turning a deaf ear to the duke’s pleadings to be given a worthwhile job.
Though the decision to abdicate was his and his alone – “You’re a damned fool,” his future wife told him when the king broke the news – Wallis Simpson was singled out as the primary culprit in the constitutional crisis that gripped the nation in the dying days of 1936.
The king’s mother, Queen Mary, considered her a “sorceress” for luring Edward VIII from his destiny and
his duty. Some senior government ministers thought her a Nazi spy while high-society gossiped that this rather manly looking woman had seduced the sovereign thanks to exotic sexual techniques that she’d learnt in the sing-song houses of Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Fast-forward 80 years and the next American to marry a royal prince is already in danger of becoming a fully certified national treasure.
Her radiating warmth, easy manner and beauty remind me of you-knowwho, while her love of cooking at home in her “cosies” with a glass of wine in hand, and the fact she’s a grafter (as a jobbing actress she did calligraphy to pay the bills) make her seem more down-toearth than any other royal – despite also being a product of Hollywood.
And though she’s only smiled, shaken hands and, at Harry’s instigation, had group hugs at a handful of royal engagements, she’s taken to this malarkey as if to the manor born.
COINCIDENTALLY, both these Americans – Meghan, a California babe, Wallis from Baltimore, Maryland – met their future royal husbands when they were 34. At that time neither had much of a clue about the workings of the royal family – or the country that would shape their lives.
Meghan famously remarked in her engagement interview she didn’t know much about Prince Harry before she met him for their first date at a private members’ club in central London in July 2016.
Her ignorance was captured for posterity in October 2015 when she was asked in a quick-fire quiz filmed for Hello! magazine in Canada whom she preferred, Harry or William.
She looked nonplussed and had to be prompted by the interviewer to choose the unmarried Harry rather than his attached older brother. “I don’t know . . . Err, Harry, sure.”
Around the time she met the man in question, she appeared on yet another televised Q&A – this time, on the comedy channel Dave to promote Suits – and was tested on her knowledge of Britain.
She flunked out, gamely failing to identify the national animals of England, Wales and Scotland (correct answers: lion, dragon and unicorn) and looked bethe wildered when asked what “apples and pears” (correct answer: stairs) meant in cockney rhyming slang.
Wallis Simpson would’ve felt her pain. When she first arrived in London as the wife of Anglo-American shipping agent Ernest, she had no time for English people and didn’t understand the pitch of their humour, their love of military history, their pride in the flag and their passion for dogs and horses.
When she met Edward, Prince of Wales at a house party in Leicestershire, hosted by his mistress Viscountess Furness in 1931, she still found the British a mystery, particularly the national fascination with the royal family.
“That a whole nation should preoccupy itself with a single family’s comings and goings – and not too exciting ones at that – seemed to me incomprehensible,” she would later write in her memoir The Heart Has Its Reasons, published in 1956.
It was the fact neither American was marinated in the minutiae of the monarchy that was half the attraction for their future husbands.
In Wallis’ famous – if dubiously accurate – account of her first meeting with Prince of Wales she recalls his opening conversational gambit concerned the dismay American visitors felt about the lack of central heating in English country houses.
She retorted, “I’m sorry sir, you’ve disappointed me. The same question is asked of every American woman who comes to your country. I’d hoped for something more original from the Prince of Wales.”
In the eyes of the future king, her sassy, irreverent response was a refreshing antidote to the deference he normally encountered.
Decades later, Prince Harry admitted he had to up his conversational game when he first met Meghan.
On the surface she’s a sunny and uncomplicated California girl who claims to live by the ethos that “most things can be cured with either yoga, the beach or a few avocados”, but beneath that she’s a successful, even steely, career woman in her own right.
As Meghan herself has said, “I never wanted to be a lady who lunches – I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works.”
MEGHAN would’ve been a rare bird in Wallis’ day. In that era the only pedigree that counted was family and finance. With an African-American mother and ancestors who worked as slaves on the cotton plantations of Georgia, the biracial actress would probably not have been countenanced by the snobbish socialite Wallis Simpson.
Until abolition in 1865, Wallis’ family, the Warfields, had built their various fortunes on the back of slave labour. Her third cousin, Edwin Warfield, who was elected 45th Governor of Maryland in 1903, gave several speeches where he discussed “Slavery as I knew it.”
Though Wallis was a poor relation of the Warfield clan – largely because her father had died from tuberculosis when she was a baby, leaving her and her mother, Alice, reliant on a Scrooge-like uncle – she was still surrounded by black butlers, maids and other staff.
In correspondence and in conversation, she used what would be considered highly racially offensive language to describe African Americans.
As far as she was concerned they were downstairs staff. She later confessed the first time she’d shaken the hand of a person of colour was on a walkabout during the Second World War, when the Duke of Windsor was Governor of the Bahamas.
On the subject of race, Meghan has been candid about some upsetting expehusband, riences in her past. When she was a baby, her mother, “caramel in complexion with a light-skinned baby in tow”, was often mistaken for a nanny. And once when Meghan was in college she heard her mother being called the N-word during a road-rage incident.
“We were leaving a concert and she wasn’t pulling out of a parking space quickly enough for another driver. My skin rushed with heat as I looked to my mom. Her eyes welled with hateful tears,” she wrote in an essay about race for Elle magazine. Later, as an actress, she says she “wasn’t black enough for the black roles and I wasn’t white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn’t book a job”.
Nonetheless she flourished in her acting career, just as she’d done earlier on in her education – studying theatre and international relations at the prestigious Northwestern University.
But in Wallis’ day it was an oddity for a woman to attend college, and a positive rarity for a woman of colour to gain a degree as Meghan did.
EVEN though Wallis had, in her own words, a 24-hour photographic memory and sailed through school exams, the height of her ambition was to marry – and marry well. She spent her early adult life racing to find a husband, then rushing to divorce him. As her uncle Sol solemnly informed her in 1927 when she divorced her first Spencer – who had turned out to be a moody alcoholic – Wallis was the first Warfield in 300 years to divorce. Ten years later she divorced a second time after a nine-year marriage to Ernest Simpson.
By contrast in Meghan’s family short marriages and quick divorces seem to be the norm. Her father, Thomas (73), already had two children from a previous marriage when he met Meghan’s mother, Doria, on the set of a soap opera where they both worked. He was a lighting director and she a temp 12 years his junior.
They went on to have their daughter and they too divorced when she was six. Then in August 2013 Meghan ended her own two-year marriage to Engelson.
Where Wallis and Meghan would recognise each other is in their unquestioned ability as networkers.
Wallis’ social triumph was to import the American tradition of the cocktail hour, where her growing circle of mainly American friends dropped in to the apartment near Marble Arch for drinks and conversation in the early evening.
Word got around and her salon attracted businessmen, journalists, lawyers and eventually a smattering of aristocrats and minor royalty.
After meeting the Prince of Wales, he too became a regular there, often staying for dinner.
The modern-day equivalent to the sa-
lon is Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the personal blog – and Meghan often used social media to speak to and post pictures of her famous friends – Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Serena Williams among them.
A voracious networker herself, she also used her lifestyle blog, The Tig, to communicate with other women she admires.
Her blog posts also conveyed her passion for food, travel, beauty and fashion, combined with her advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality, and give glimpses into her inner life.
By the time she closed down her internet portals following her engagement last November, she’d accumulated three million followers on Instagram alone.
Where Wallis, Meghan and indeed Diana, Princess of Wales, reign supreme is in the power of fashion.
The so-called revenge dress worn by the princess for a charity event at the Serpentine Gallery on the night the Prince of Wales admitted his adultery on television will go down in history as an iconic moment that defined their marriage and revealed her liberation as an independent woman.
Wallis also used her wardrobe as a weapon – her sleek, crafted style in sharp contrast to the homely fashions preferred by her enemy, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, whom she called “Cookie” since she said she resembled a cook.
What became known as the Windsor style – a neat but fluid silhouette – ensured she was able to elegantly display the diamond bracelet, flamingo brooch covered with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, and other jewellery showered upon her by her husband.
The extravagance of her wardrobe and her lifestyle – the Windsors employed around 25 full-time staff dressed in royal livery at their mansion in the south of France – was in marked contrast to the utilitarian ethos of the House of Windsor.
Living well and living graciously was her best revenge on the royal family.
For Meghan, her induction into the royal family is an opportunity to influence her new army of fans by wearing the labels of ecologically and ethically minded designers, as well as companies that have a philanthropic element in their business ethos.
Careful and considered, Meghan is completely aware anything she wears – be it make-up, clothes or jewellery – has an impact. This is why during her visit to Cardiff last month she carried a bag by DeMellier, a British label that funds life-saving vaccines through its sales, and a cruelty-free coat by Stella McCartney.
As she once noted on her blog, “It’s good if you’re fabulous but great if you do something of value to the world.”
IN THEIR markedly different ways Wallis Simpson and Meghan Markle have changed the monarchy – or at least the way the monarchy is perceived.
The presence of Wallis arguably saved the country from a pro-German monarch during Britain’s darkest days at the beginning of the Second World War.
Edward VIII’s decision to abdicate so he could marry the twice-divorced American placed the burden of kingship on his younger brother, George VI, who together with the Queen Mother proved to be stalwart and steady.
Meanwhile the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sniped from the sidelines, secretly asking the Nazis to look after their homes in Paris and Cannes during hostilities. In the end Wallis’ life was a frivolous and ultimately vacuous counterpoint to the House of Windsor, the victory of style over substance.
Yet while the first American duchess divided the nation, Meghan, simply by being herself – biracial, divorced and American and certainly not from the upper classes – is a uniting figure.
Her very presence in the royal ranks demonstrates that the monarchy has become a more inclusive and down-toearth institution than arguably at any time in its history.
CHILDHOOD MEMORIES LEFT: Meghan as a baby with her mom, Daria Radlan. RIGHT: Baby Wallis, the future Duchess of Windsor held by her mother, Alice Montague.
Snooty socialite Wallis Simpson triggered a constitutional crisis when Edward VIII adbicated the throne so he could be with her.
HUSBAND NO 1 Winfield Spencer
HUSBAND NO 2 Ernest Simpson
HUSBAND NO 3 King Edward VIII
The ease with which Meghan Markle has been accepted by Prince Harry’s family has surprised many royal watchers.
INFLUENTIAL WOMAN LEFT: Meghan – back when she was still a social networker – regularly shared lifestyle tips with her social media followers. ABOVE: She also often posted pictures of famous friends – Serena Williams among them.
SARTORIAL ELEGANCE LEFT: There was no love lost between Wallis Simpson (left) and Queen Elizabeth II (right), seen here during a during a visit by the royal party to Paris in 1972. ABOVE: Wallis Simpson used fashion as a weapon and regularly rubbed it...