Wallis Duchess of Windsor and the Duke of Windsor.
Prince Harry’s book does have its blind spots, born of passion or convenience. But the Duchess of Windsor (pictured above with the Duke) possessed a truly terrifying commitment to cropping unflattering reality out of the shot. Photograph by Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty 

The Other Blockbuster Royals Memoir

Before there was “Spare,” there was “The Heart Has Its Reasons” (1956), by Wallis Simpson.

On a February evening in 1956, the Duchess of Windsor put on a black velvet Christian Dior suit and installed herself in a mirrored suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. There, the Times reported, she received some ninety members of the press, “and bade them consume six pounds of caviar, 300 clams Casino, and liquid refreshments ranging from pink champagne to milk.” The occasion was the publication of her first and only book, a memoir called “The Heart Has Its Reasons.” In nearly four hundred pages, it detailed her transformation from Bessie Wallis Warfield (b. 1896) to Wallis Spencer (m. 1916), Wallis Simpson (m. 1928), and, finally, after engagement drama of world-historical proportions, the lawfully wedded wife of the royal formerly known as King Edward VIII, who had chucked in the crown after the British government, the Church of England, and his own scandalized family banded together to discourage their union. At the Waldorf-Astoria, Simpson, surer of herself in fashion than in any other medium, wore a valentine-shaped brooch on her left arm. Flanked by the Duke, she explained, “I wear my heart on my sleeve.” (After decades of hard treatment, Simpson was seemingly inured to the obvious riposte that what she was really wearing on her sleeve was fine jewelry.)

The Duke—known to intimates as David, his seventh given name—had published his own memoir in 1947. Despite a mildly seditious title, “A King’s Story,” it contained more tea drinking than tea spilling. Yet it was an immediate hit, earning him today’s equivalent of nearly ten million pounds in the U.K. alone. It was likely with this windfall in mind that the Duchess sought to leverage her own tale. “David had always had a special fondness for the Côte d’Azur, and now decided that in addition to a house in Paris, we should have one there, on the Mediterranean,” she writes, offering an inadvertent statement of purpose. Anticipation was high. One ghostwriter had quit over creative differences, or perhaps moral ones, declaring, “I cannot make the Duchess of Windsor Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” McCall’s was serializing the American edition. As part of their publicity tour, the Duke and Duchess appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s talk show, declaring that they had “no regrets.” This was a selectively confessional, transcontinental, multi-platform happening—in other words, the “Spare” of 1956.

Prince Harry opens his memoir with a Faulkner quote, implying the abiding grandeur, conservatism, and brutality of the family environment in which he was raised. Simpson, by contrast, goes straight to the Confederacy, as a source of both personal and ideological bona fides. “In spite of the accident of my Pennsylvania birth, I consider myself a Southerner,” she writes in the book’s initial paragraphs, identifying her father as “a Warfield of Maryland” and her mother as “a Montague of Virginia.” Both branches, she testifies, supported the Confederate cause “without exception,” “and even four decades after Appomattox ‘the War Between the States’ still supplied an honoured topic of conversation at family gatherings.” The reader is meant to understand Simpson as an American aristocrat, dispossessed of her own birthright to an empire not unlike the one Britain was losing as she wrote. Even after decades of being monstered by the patriarchy, a budding progressive Simpson was not.

After this attempt to establish a genealogy for herself, Simpson recounts a fairly gothic childhood, beginning with her father’s death from tuberculosis when she was five months old. Balmoral has nothing on Baltimore in Wallis’s mother’s insistence that she down a daily “tumblerful of juice squeezed from a large piece of raw beefsteak,” to improve her constitution, nor in her domineering uncle’s insistence that both mother and child adhere to his self-serving moral code in order to continue receiving financial support. Like Harry, Simpson reaches for Shakespearean resonances to valorize her narrative, pointing to her parents’ “not only romantic but star-crossed” marriage as the basis for conflicting strains of gaiety and steeliness in her character. Unlike Harry, Simpson grew up in an apartment house. Her main inheritance was a wry acceptance of life’s vagaries. When she moved in with her mother at the lackluster Woburn Apartments, in Washington, they took to calling the place “the Woebegone.”

Whether for legal or personal reasons, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have remained mum about her first marriage—to producer Trevor Engleson—almost to the point of its erasure. Simpson, meanwhile, treats hers—to “the world’s most fascinating aviator,” a.k.a. a Navy lieutenant named Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr.—with a gravity that is both comic and pitiable in its insistence that even a brief unhappy union constitutes a capstone of a woman’s life. Simpson leaves her emotions mostly unexplored, while demonstrating a talent for the brutally laconic characterization: “Win also fancied himself a mimic,” she writes, describing his habit of imitating famous vaudevillians. Simpson may be a Montague of Virginia, but it’s evident that she’s been zinging for her supper since childhood, a social labor that no Windsor of Windsor has ever been compelled to undertake. Occasionally, she mocks her own striving, recalling a dinner-party conversation “conducted in at least four languages only one of which I half understood.” In “Spare,” Harry gets off a few sublimely petty lines, including one about his brother’s “alarming” hair loss, but reserves his most scathing commentary for journalists and factotums. His lack of humor, especially about himself, is a real weakness of his otherwise clear-eyed account. Surrounded by absurdity, all he sees is pathos.

In 1917, Spencer was transferred to California, and the surprise move awakened Simpson’s hope for change, even if there was no Tyler Perry figure waiting to deliver her from her sufferings. The couple settled into a two-room apartment provided by the Naval Department. “The rent was a bit higher than we felt we should pay, but I decided to forego a cook to make up the difference,” Simpson writes. “The management provided Japanese houseboys to whom could be delegated the general cleaning and dish-washing.” If Simpson had little tolerance for drudgery, she could, already, withstand superhuman levels of public shaming. In 1924, she joined her husband in China, where he was stationed, for an attempt at reconciliation. Later, she fell ill with “an obscure internal ailment,” about which she says little more. This was the frostnipped todger of its day, the stuff tabloid splashes are made of. Throughout Simpson’s life, and after, speculation abounded. Some observers, fusing misogyny and racism, suggested that she’d contracted a sexually transmitted disease in a Chinese brothel. (Her “Lotus Year,” as she called it, also gave rise to persistent rumors that she possessed some sort of “exotic” erotic prowess.) At least one biographer has claimed that Simpson was born with androgen-insensitivity syndrome, an intersex variation. In any case, she was extremely ill for a while after her China sojourn and, upon recovering, against the wishes of just about everyone in her life, she sought a divorce. An astrologer she consulted at the time told her that she would become famous: “You will lead a woman’s life, marrying, divorcing, marrying again, with several serious emotional crises. The power that is to come to you will be related to a man.”

Her second husband, Ernest Simpson, was a Harvard man and former Coldstream guard. His father had been born in England, and, in 1928, he and Wallis settled in London so he could take up work in the family ship-broking firm. “The shipping business was his primary interest,” Wallis writes, deadpan as ever. At first, their social circle was largely limited to his doughty older sister. Wallis was miserable, but her “strong powers of assimilation” kicked in, and soon she was saying “endive” for “chicory” and modifying her manners (“At the British table, the left hand is brought into play far more briskly and usefully than is the American practice”). Wallis was clearly dealing with a lot less, as a homesick transplant, than Meghan would a century later. Putting her “bone-deep dislike” of London aside, she begins stalking the Court Circular—a sort of royal’s time sheet and “a sinister document,” according to Harry, by which his relatives compete for favor, fudging their way into looking like they work far more than they do.

When David comes into the picture, the book gets both fuzzier and more interesting. One day, Wallis is learning to curtsy in anticipation of a country weekend arranged by her friend Thelma Furness, then the Prince’s mistress; the next thing you know, she’s attending Prince George’s wedding to Princess Marina (this would be the only time she’d meet his parents). The contemporary reader has a particularly difficult time trying to disentangle anachronism from obfuscation. Is it normal to ask the Prince, whom you’ve just met, to your flat for a nightcap? Why is he suddenly giving a birthday dinner party for you “at Quaglino’s, a famous restaurant just off Jermyn Street”? Did you seriously introduce a “three-decker, toasted sandwich at Balmoral”? Is a vignette of him doing needlepoint meant as a phallic reference (“This is my secret vice,” he tells Wallis), or I am just trying way too hard to read between the lines of her mannered telling of a forbidden love affair from a more euphemistic era?

The biggest mystery in the Simpson story is Ernest’s consent and even complicity in Wallis and David’s blooming liaison. At first, the previously undistinguished couple seem mutually dazzled by their luck in landing such a high-placed friend. They are united in, if nothing else, a tendency toward sycophancy, with Ernest fanboying out over the Prince’s kilt, “which Ernest decided must be the Balmoral tartan designed by the Prince Consort.”

Soon, though, the Prince is dropping by the marital flat regularly for “potluck dinners,” and Ernest hones “the art of tactfully excusing himself and retiring to his room with his papers.” Of Ernest, Wallis writes, “Whatever he may have been thinking or feeling, he loyally played his part.” Rarely has subjection been so literally performed.

Wallis, too, adopts a posture of passivity. She is the narrator of the book, but not of her life. “The spring advanced; Ernest’s life and mine were by now almost completely caught up and submerged in the Prince’s private world,” she recalls. (This is just after she’s assured Furness, the Prince’s mistress, that he is not in love with her.) By the time David and Wallis are holidaying on Lord Moyne’s yacht Rosaura, Ernest is fully sunk. “Perhaps it was during these evenings off the Spanish coast that we crossed the line that marks the indefinable boundary between friendship and love,” Wallis writes. Fade to black. This is not a moment we will be reliving on Netflix. Less than two weeks later, Wallis has a new diamond-and-emerald charm for her bracelet.

Harry’s book has its blind spots, born of passion or convenience, chief among them a failure to recognize the fundamental incompatibility of social justice and a hereditary monarchy. Simpson, however, possesses a truly terrifying commitment to cropping unflattering reality out of the shot. The abdication is treated, basically, as a big misunderstanding: the couple figures they can ride out their bad press with the collusion of the news magnates Lord Beaverbrook and Esmond Harmsworth; they get a letter warning them that Stanley Baldwin’s government won’t back them up; Wallis makes up her mind to leave the country but finds herself unable “to go against the urgent wishes of the man she loves.” If “Spare” set American readers to Googling “Opal Fruits” and “biro,” the vocabulary word that animates “The Heart Has Its Reasons” is “morganatic marriage,” describing a union in which a royal’s title does not pass to his spouse of lesser status. David thought that, by this device, he might be able to marry Wallis and remain on the throne, but the government never even seriously considered the proposal. As Harry discovered at the Great Malfunctioning Printer Summit of 2020, you’re either in or you’re out.

The filter of self-preservation overlays Simpson’s recollections with a dodgy, ahistorical sheen. Not long after the abdication, she and David, with little else to do, are yachting again—this time toward Albania, “putting into little Adriatic ports at our leisurely whim.” In Dubrovnik, an adoring crowd greets them: “through the cheerful uproar I distinctly heard the cry, ‘Zivila Ljubav’—Long live love.” The reader is left to wonder how Simpson, self-proclaimed speaker of half a language, became fluent in Croatian. Of a grand tour of Hitler’s Germany, in 1937, she explains that “David was anxious to see the developments in low-cost housing.” There’s tea with the Görings and an audience with the Führer at his Bavarian lodge (“the room was decorated with the dark, rather heavy modern furniture that had recently made its appearance in Germany”), but not a word of shame or regret, even from the vantage of a decade after the end of the war. Reading Simpson, you realize it’s no surprise that Harry turned up in Nazi uniform at a costume party, but it is something of a miracle that he took seriously the need to repent.

Even dear David eventually gets his devastating thumbnail sketch: “It is said that no man is ever a hero to his valet. I decided that it is almost impossible for a Prince to be a hero to his wife without a valet.” But the couple endures, with Wallis offering herself up to her dispossessed royal as a one-woman Commonwealth: “I sometimes used to say to myself that today I have to be Canada, tomorrow I shall have to be New Zealand, and perhaps the next day the Fiji Islands.” She and Harry come across as very different people, but they and their partners made a similar choice upon finding themselves bereft of any real alternative. Both seem genuinely chilled by the “cold, serried resentment” of the courtier deep state. They are most aligned in their testimony of “something steely and inhuman in the monarchical principle,” as Simpson memorably puts it, explaining that “no form of discipline can be more repressive of the simpler instincts of the heart.”

Put forth as human sacrifices to the crown’s perpetuation, they ran, but reaching safety they stopped short of full-on liberation. Wallis and David never got over her being denied the title of Her Royal Highness: “On the very eve of my marriage the King, his brother, would, by an unexpected excise of his historical prerogative as the Fountain of Honour, exclude me as a member of the family,” she writes. Like the Windsors before them, the Sussexes remain at least partially in thrall to the system they forsook. For Harry, what was lost was both his security force (though his book’s success should go a long way toward guaranteeing his financial independence) and the military finery. (“I’d no longer be the captain of the Royal Marines, a title handed down by my grandfather,” he complains in “Spare.”)

The British diplomat Duff Cooper once told the Windsors, “You . . . have none of the advantages of royalty and all its disadvantages.” This pronouncement was hardly true, judging by Wallis and David’s lavish social life and real-estate holdings, but the Sussexes have managed something like its opposite, with few of the constraints to which their old life subjected them and almost all of its luxuries. Writing a blockbuster book is one of them. The ex-royal author can tell his story. He can take a paycheck. One hopes that Harry and Meghan will soon figure out what David and Wallis never quite did, which is that the monarchy needs its members more than its members need monarchy. Let the Fountains of Honor and epaulets go. Fuck it—you’re free! ♦