The Duchess of Windsor

Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in 1895 as the illegitimate outcast of a well-to-do family from Baltimore. She died in Paris ninety years later, world famous as the Duchess of Windsor who, as a dark-haired American divorcee, so captivated the debonair Edward Prince of Wales that in December, 1937, after he had succeeded to the throne, he abdicated to be with “the woman I love.”

The English and American public always loved the romantic pair, following their endless cruises and Cote d’Azur vacations avidly and investing their jet-set night-clubbing with vicarious glamour. Yet from the very start of their affair, as Charles Higham now reveals, Wally and Edward were watched with a much colder eye by diplomats and intelligence agents in London and Washington, D.C. When married to an American naval officer, Wallis Spencer was suspected of espionage with aristocratic Italian supporters of Benito Mussolini; when married to an American businessman whose company had extensive German contacts, the then Mrs. Simpson joined a wealthy set who saw Fascism as Europe’s only hope against Communism.

Edward belonged to the same set. Before, during, and after the war, the pro-Nazi sympathies of the Duke and Duchess were only concealed by the determined efforts of American and British officials who feared the couple’s popularity. As Higham tells the story, it was this secret knowledge of the Windsors’ treasonous tendencies, more than Wallis’ questionable status as a twice-divorced American commoner, that led to the abdication and subsequent wandering exile.

Higham’s book is long and damning evidence, much of it drawn from recently declassified documents, but short on perspective. The narrative often becomes clogged with names, dates, and places, and thus THE DUCHESS OF WINDSOR, despite its fascinating revelations, is as much a page-skipper as a page-turner.