At first glance, it was one of the most romantic events of all time: the king who gave up his throne for the woman he loved. It certainly occasioned what we'd now call a media feeding frenzy - except in Britain, where the press lords, in collusion with the powers-that-were, for a long time kept it under wraps.
When the news broke, it sounded like a modern-day fairy tale: Britain's handsome young king, Edward VIII, announced he would abdicate in order to marry the woman he loved: a twice-divorced American socialite named Wallis Warfield Simpson.
Their story, not surprisingly, has been retold many times: in biographies, memoirs, even in an excellent British television mini-series "Edward and Mrs. Simpson." It is not an entirely pretty story, and certainly a complicated one, full of unanswered questions.
Wallis Simpson's latest biographer, Greg King, dedicates his book to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, another woman who married into Britain's royal family and who, many people feel, was treated badly by them. It is, however, hard to imagine two women less alike than the nave, inexperienced, soft-spoken Diana and the sophisticated, worldly, brittle Wallis.
Yet merely because Mrs. Simpson was no ingenue does not prove she was the manipulative monster her detractors deemed her. "I make no apologies," declares her new biographer, "that the Duchess of Windsor, herein described, is a generally sympathetic character, in contrast to the usual depiction of a scheming, vulgar, and flamboyant woman so often featured in previous works."
King does indeed present a sympathetic and believable portrait of Wallis Simpson. But he is hardly the first to do so. And, although he promises he is not going to dwell on the more scandalous rumors, he does in fact include many of the lurid stories even while telling us there is no reason to believe them. His biography is largely stitched together from previous works on the subject: interesting enough, but not exactly groundbreaking. Nor is it especially well written, or brimming with shrewd analysis or keen insights. King knows his subject, but he doesn't always seem to grasp the nuances of the social milieus in which her story unfolds.
Wallis Simpson's life is indeed a fascinating one. As a biographical subject, her story has a great deal to offer. One might say that this biographer takes more from the story than he gives to it.
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.