RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Kate Middleton is not the first commoner to marry British royalty. And getting plenty of press in her day was American socialite Wallis Simpson, who wed Edward VIII after he abdicated the throne. Now Madonna is making a movie about Mrs. Simpson and there are two new biographies about her. Vicki Barker reports from London.
Unidentified Man: Today the American press is filled with rumors of royal romance: of the possibility of King Edward marrying Mrs. Wallis Simpson.
VICKI BARKER: The notorious Mrs. Simpson: in the words of one writer she was too ambitious, too sexual, too divorced, too pro-German and too American. Yet, faced with the choice of either marrying his twice-divorced mistress or keeping his throne, King Edward famously chose Mrs. Simpson.
King EDWARD VIII: I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
BARKER: Edward the eighth became the Duke of Windsor. And in the eyes of his former subjects, his bride became that woman, the title of an upcoming biography by Anne Sebba.
Ms. ANNE SEBBA (Author, "That Woman"): She was a figure of hate in England, really loathed. Some of the walls were painted with graffiti that read: Down with the American harlot.
BARKER: But historians are reassessing the woman and the part she played in what remains the only voluntary renunciation of the British throne.
Ms. TANYA GOLD (Journalist): She was a very sexually-threatening, dominant, rather vulgar and ambitious woman. And this is everything that the value system of the time despised.
BARKER: British writer Tanya Gold, suggesting Wallis Simpson's antics lose some of their sulfurous luster when seen through 21st century eyes. The newlyweds did visit Adolf Hitler in 1937. But documents supposedly proving they were Nazi collaborators were later found to be forgeries. And historians say there's growing documentary evidence that Edward, himself, never wanted to be king, whereas Wallis never wanted more than to be a king's mistress.
Tanya gold argues the scandal exposed the inherent weakness in a constitutional monarchy; what happens when you get a monarch constitutionally incapable of being one?
Ms. GOLD: In Edward VIII we had a man who didn't want to be king, and who wasn't fit to be king. And so rather than accept that this is a weakness of the system, it threw up a man who was essentially a mistake, an anomaly, a man who couldn't fulfill his duty. Far better to say that he was stolen away by this evil woman.
BARKER: Step forward the then-duchess of York, and mother of the current queen - Queen Elizabeth the queen mother, played by Helena Bonham Carter in "The King's Speech." It's long been said she blamed Wallis for her husband Bertie's early death, by forcing her shy, stammering husband onto the throne.
Now some historians float a second motive: the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had been the beauty of her generation, considered Britain's most marriageable young lady. Isn't it just possible she, herself, had once hoped to bag Britain's most eligible man? Hugo Vickers is the author of a new Wallis Simpson biography, "Behind Closed Doors."
Mr. HUGO VICKERS (Author, "Behind Closed Doors"): My theory is that the Queen Mother was really rather in love with the Duke of Windsor and probably would have quite liked to have married him. It must've passed through her mind. And I think it suited her very well to present the Duchess of Windsor as the person who stole the King. And people rather swallowed that line.
BARKER: The rehabilitation of Wallis Simpson may take time. As recently as 2008, the historical landmark organization, English Heritage, refused to put one of its famous blue plaques on the London building where she was courted by a king. Mrs. Simpson, it said, was unworthy of that kind of recognition.
For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.
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