Juliana Chatard Alexander talks about her three week experience in 1972 as the night nurse of the former King Edward VIII, who had given up his throne to marry Baltimore divorcee Wallis Simpson. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)
A Mays Chapel woman remembers the long-ago night in Paris when she cradled the former King of England in her arms as the dying ex-monarch rasped his final breath.
“Poor old man,” Juliana Chatard Alexander said. “He was very sweet.”
Though it has been nearly 45 years, Alexander’s affection for the erstwhile King Edward VIII — later re-titled the Duke of Windsor, the man who abdicated his throne to marry the woman he loved — still warms her voice.
On May 28, 1972, as Edward succumbed to throat cancer, he was tended by Alexander, then his 26-year-old night nurse. The duke’s wife, Wallis Warfield Simpson, was sleeping in another room. Alexander remembers thinking: “The poor Duke of Windsor died in the arms of the wrong Baltimore woman.”
She’s just one surprising source that British celebrity biographer Andrew Morton tracked down for his new book, “Wallis in Love: The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, the Woman Who Changed the Monarchy.” (After initially relating her story to Morton, Alexander repeated it to The Baltimore Sun.)
Simpson was the original Baltimore bad girl. From a notoriety standpoint, she ranks with Betsy Bonaparte, who wed Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome. Both women married royalty against the wishes of their grooms’ respective families, and both were pilloried by respectable society. It was even rumored that Simpson snared Edward with boudoir tricks she picked up in Shanghai.
Morton acknowledged that it’s a fortuitous time for a book about Simpson, given the popularity of the blockbuster Netflix television series, “The Crown” and Prince Harry’s engagement to the biracial American actress Meghan Markle.
“The whole royal family is having a moment right now,” Morton said. “Their stock has risen to dizzying heights. They are the bitcoin of celebrity.”
The biography was released Tuesday; on Saturday, Morton reads at the Enoch Pratt Free Libray’s Light Street branch.
Perhaps the book’s most gossip-inducing claim is the title, “Wallis in Love,” which refers not to Simpson’s feelings for her third husband, but for another man — Herman Rogers, the darkly handsome World War I vet and businessman who was married to Simpson’s friend, Katherine Moore.
“There was a very odd triangular relationship between Wallis, Herman Rogers and the Duke,” Morton said. “She told Herman’s second wife [Lucy Wann, ] that he was the only man she had ever truly loved. Herman acted at times more like Wallis’ husband than her friend. And Edward acted more like her little boy than her husband.”
Not all historians agree with Morton’s conclusions. They fault him partly for lack of transparency; he doesn’t always immediately identify his sources or indicate when he segues from generally accepted facts into opinion. In constructing his version of long-ago events, Morton relies heavily on the accounts of people who are dead and can’t be interviewed, people with their own prejudices, jealousies and agendas, people who never intended to write for posterity.
So do most historians. But Morton rarely qualifies his sources’ observations. Instead, he presents them as gospel truth.
“There’s a fine line between hypothesis and fact when it comes to reading people’s diaries and mail," said Mark B. Letzer, president and CEO of the Maryland Historical Society. “Is what Andrew wrote tabloid, or is it history?”
Even Morton’s critics acknowledge his thoroughness and tenacity. They give him credit for one whopping scoop — “Diana, Her True Story,” his 1992 tell-all biography of Princess Diana. Morton was widely excoriated until he released tapes after the princess’ death that proved she was his main source.
During his visit to Baltimore, Morton delved into the Historical Society archives. He made a trip to Oldfields School, the girls’ boarding school in Sparks Glencoe that the young Wallis attended. (Morton writes that the teenage girl shinnied out of her bedroom window at night to rendezvous with boyfriends.) He visited the Duchess’ former home at 212 E. Biddle St.
Other resources included diaries, letters and even home movies.
“I reference very few books in this biography,” Morton said. “I mainly reference original material, which is quite remarkable given that Wallis is one of the most written-about people in history.”
“Wallis in Love” makes the startling revelation that Simpson’s first two marriages were never consummated, and that her relationship with the Duke was similarly chaste until their wedding. Morton portrays Simpson as a social climber who flirted with the then-monarch because she aspired to be Queen of England. And he argues that the Duke, while deeply enamored of his bride, wed her because her status as a twice-divorced woman provided him with the escape hatch he’d been seeking his entire life.
“Edward never wanted to be king,” Morton said. “He and Wallis were tragically at cross purposes.”
Morton can be hard on Simpson. He makes no attempt to gloss over what he perceives as her cruelty and calculation, racism and “polite anti-Semitism.” But, the book isn’t entirely unsympathetic — and makes the case that Simpson changed world history. Edward’s pro-German sympathies have been well documented, and Europe and even America might look very different had he been England’s king during World War II.
Genuine outrage entered Morton’s voice when he complained that Baltimore has neglected the Duchess’ legacy. He was incredulous to find there’s a plaque commemorating the author Gertrude Stein’s former home at 215 E. Biddle St. — but none for Simpson, who lived literally across the street.
“In the guidebook, they’ve got the address of the house where Wallis lived wrong,” Morton said, “and the church where she was christened lists a date that’s off by 30 years. I can’t believe Baltimore treats one of its most famous women this way. It’s kind of disgraceful, really.”
If you go: Author Andrew Morton will read from his biography of the Duchess of Windsor at 2 p.m. Saturday Feb. 17 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Light Street branch, 1251 Light Street. Free. Visit calendar.prattlibrary.org or call 410-396-1096.