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Before Wallis
Edward VIII’s Other Women
by Rachel Trethewey

Edward VIII has invariably had a bad press although if the magazine Gentlemen’s Quarterly had existed in his lifetime, he would have won the ‘best dressed man’ award every year. If the writer of this excellent, well researched and entertainingly written book, Rachel Trethewey, had written a book entitled, After Wallis, few would bother to buy it. With his abdication in 1938, The Duke of Windsor’s life amounted to nothing more than a few vignettes in Hello Magazine. But the title of this book is Before Wallis, and here the future Edward VIII demonstrated character, compassion and temperament that, with the right consort, may have made him into a great king. He never fulfilled his potential, derailed like so many men, before and after, by his own Helen of Troy.

Edward VIII’s early years were defined by The Great War and his relationship with his parents, King George V and the austere Queen Mary. Like his great great nephew, Prince Harry, he suffered from the establishment’s wish to keep him out of harm’s way. At Givenchy in March 1915, he first witnessed the ghastly aftermath of a battle. This, and the loss of close friends like Lord Desmond Fitzgerald who was commanding 1st Battalion Irish Guards, had a lasting effect on him. His self-esteem, never robust from the lack of affection and approval from his parents, was profoundly damaged. And yet he was the first member of the Royal Family to acquire celebrity status captured in the popular song, I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales. In the light of all this, it is not surprising that Edward VIII was fatally susceptible to anything, or anyone, who could make him feel good about himself.

The book describes the relationships the Prince had with three women. First, Rosemary Leveson-Gower, the girl he wanted to marry; then Freda Dudley Ward; and finally Thelma Furness, his twice-married American lover who, ironically, paved the way for Wallis Simpson. But the book is much more than a description of the Prince’s loves because it captures an extraordinarily evocative historical era. It was human nature that the hellishness and deprivations of The Great War would give away to the Roaring Twenties and the unbridled pursuit of pleasure. The author, an Oxford historian and talented journalist, paints this period with colour and vivid detail. She also writes beautifully, economic and always engaging.

At an abandoned colliery in 1936, a month before his abdication, Edward VIII famously remarked, ‘Something must be done’. His compassion was genuine and it was borne from his experience in The Great War and his first meeting with Lady Rosemary Leveson-Gower at a field hospital for shell shock where she was working as a Red Cross nurse. She was the daughter of Cromartie, 4th Duke of Sutherland, who owned 1.25 m acres and four stately homes. Rosemary had the temperament, strength of character and ability to get on with people from every walk of life to be, as the author writes, ‘the perfect partner for the Prince’. The Prince certainly loved her.

George V and Queen Mary had, however, a fixed view of marriage material for the future king. And that probably meant a dour European Princess with a convoluted surname. Queen Mary also took the sanctimonious view there was bad blood in the Leveson-Gower family tree. It wasn’t helped that the Prince’s equerries, Joey Legh and Claude Hamilton, both Grenadier officers, had introduced him to an experienced French prostitute in Amiens called Paulette who had taken the Prince in hand and shown him the ropes. Amusingly, she also guided the Prince’s younger brother who was to become George VI. This was referred to in the film, The King’s Speech. After Paulette’s ministrations, sex became The Prince of Wales’s major pastime.

Attractive, single and aristocratic women may have still caught the Prince’s eye but from then on his lovers were all married women. I remember a great aunt of mine telling me how exciting it was to live through an air raid and its equally exciting aftermath. I now know what she meant as the author relates that Freda Dudley Ward, the Prince’s second great love, met him in the darkness of a Belgrave basement during a Zeppelin raid. Freda gave the Prince a semblance of normality and domesticity away from the deathly routine of life at Windsor Castle. King George V didn’t help, shouting at the Prince : ‘you dress like a cad, you act like a cad, you’re a cad, get out’. Freda took a polar opposite view, ‘he was the kindest, gentlest, most thoughtful man imaginable’. On overseas tours, the Prince was cheered to the rafters, particularly by Australian and Canadian servicemen. The Gallipoli narrative of British incompetence was yet to be hijacked for political ends.

The Prince had competition. Freda was more than easy on the eye. Although she was married, many sought her favours and Freda knew they could give her a great deal more than the Prince who, Freda quickly realised, was shackled to Queen Mary’s wishes. ‘Anything to please’, the Prince said of his mother. Freda found love with Michael Herbert, a cousin of the Earl of Pembroke, and it all soon became a mess of tangled relationships. When Freda had an affair with an American, the hilariously named (straight from a 70s porn movie) Rodman Wanamaker, the Prince knew it was time to move on.

Thelma Furness, a twice married American, was the last of the Prince’s loves until Wallis Simpson filled a vacuum that the Prince was barely aware of. George V was particularly critical of the Prince’s affair with Thelma Furness, saying to the Prince, ‘All young men sow their wild oats but at 38 aren’t you rather beyond that’? Again, the Prince’s affection for Thelma stemmed from a need for domesticity and the routine of a normal, albeit rather grand, family life. The author describes this all with great eloquence as though you, too, were at a typical weekend house party at the Prince’s house, Fort Belvedere.
The Prince met Wallis Simpson at Thelma’s house. He remarked to Wallis, who had a cold, that she must miss central heating to which she replied, ‘On the contrary I like cold houses, all Englishman ask that question, have you nothing more original to say’? He was smitten and so began the long, painful road to abdication and the sad frustrations of his life as The Duke of Windsor.

This is a book of great sympathy and understanding for a man that, for all his faults and petulance, anglicised Ich Dien and made I Serve meaningful and much more than an artful phrase.

Paul de Zulueta

Published by The History Press

© Crown Copyright