From the moment that Meghan Markle became engaged to Prince Harry, similarities have been drawn with Wallis Simpson. History seemed to be repeating itself, as another American divorcee captured the heart of a British prince and went on to become a royal duchess in exile (albeit self-imposed).
Since explosive clips of the Duke and Duchess’s interview with Oprah Winfrey first broke last week, comparisons have only escalated further, with hyperbolic suggestions this could be the biggest crisis to face the monarchy since Edward VIII abdicated in 1936.
Meghan’s look in tonight’s Oprah Winfrey interview does seem to be a nod to the Duchess of Windsor: her black Armani dress with white flowers and centrally-parted dark hair reminiscent of Wallis’s style in a portrait taken in the year Edward gave up his throne to marry her.
And as we wait to see what further incendiary bombshells the Sussexes lob at the monarchy in their interview on American television tonight, we might well remember that we have been here before.
Over 50 years ago, the nation was similarly agog at the blockbuster watch of its day when, on March 27 1970, the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor gave a 50-minute “tell-all” interview to esteemed BBC journalist, Kenneth Harris.
Then, as now, the Palace took a dim view of this first ever sit-down interview with a royal, lifting the lid on a once-regal life – which seemed equally electrifying and scurrilous at the time, making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
Certainly, as the brouhaha over the Oprah circus inflicts untold damage on monarchical optics, the Sussexes, with their accusation against The Firm of “falsehoods” and “unsurvivable” experiences, seem hellbent on further alienating themselves from the royal fold in the manner that Edward VIII did after the abdication.
The Duke of Windsor never recovered from his family’s treatment of his wife; that they refused to meet her and would not accord her the HRH title to which she was entitled, festered deeply. His once close relationship with his beloved brother, Bertie, disintegrated to such a low that sadly, there was no way back for the regal siblings.
How will Harry bridge the already widening rift with his once beloved brother, after he and Meghan have had their unvarnished bleat on Oprah? What might Meghan say or hint at towards the Duchess of Cambridge, with whom, it has been rumoured, considerable tensions exist? It’s a direct echo of the Windsors’ situation decades earlier when the brothers were caught between icy sister-in-law relations. The late Queen Mother despised Wallis, unfairly blaming her for the abdication, dismissing her as “that woman.”
Where comparisons clearly end between Meghan and Wallis, however, is that while the Duchess of Sussex appears to want to up the ante against her in-laws, suggesting she has little to lose by “speaking her truth” because “there is a lot that has been lost already”, the Duchess of Windsor tried to build bridges to the last.
Wallis, who adored her own mother, Alice, found it unfathomable that due to their exile, her husband was estranged from his mother, Queen Mary. In August 1942, when Edward was Governor of the Bahamas, his brother, the Duke of Kent was tragically killed in a plane crash in Scotland. Edward was consumed with grief. Wallis watched his suffering helplessly. She later admitted in her memoir that she had attempted, without her husband’s knowledge, that year to make “one last try to reach his mother and heal the breach between them.” She wrote to Queen Mary, expressing her regret that she had been “the cause of any separation that exists between Mother and Son,” and offering news of the Duke’s wellbeing. Her touching missive received no reply.
When the Windors spoke to Kenneth Harris from the silvery grey drawing room of their Parisian home, given the myriad of falsehoods that the Royal family had levelled against the Duchess for the previous 34 years, you might have imagined that Wallis would seize the opportunity to settle scores against her frosty in-laws. Or that the Duke would finally get his deep-seated grievances against his family off his chest. Possibly the public anticipated this, too. When it was screened by the BBC, the viewing figures for this episode of the Tuesday Documentary series rose from the weekly average of four million to twelve million.
Just as Oprah is said to have had Meghan in her sights to interview for years, it had taken many years for Kenneth Harris to persuade the former king of England to speak out. Apparently, the night before the interview was recorded in October 1969, when all the crew were already gathered in Paris, the 75 year-old duke got cold feet and tried to back out. But it was too late. His reservations are evident throughout the interview, which is an exercise in his discomfiture. Slumped in a yellow chair, in a pale grey suit, he is constantly looking down at his hands, studying his nails, fidgeting. With his hangdog eyes and stutteringly slow delivery, clocks chiming in the background, it makes for occasionally awkward viewing. It is the duchess, elegant in a cream dress with pale blue scarf who radiates humour and natural warmth.
From the clips we have seen of Meghan interviewed by Oprah in a lush Californian garden, her sphinx-like poise smacks of artifice. You sense her containment and self-control. In contrast, Wallis appears relaxed and self-deprecating. When she is asked by Harris, who addresses her with the regal ‘Ma’am’, “Can you remember the first thing [the Duke] said to you?” she responds with comedic timing: “No. I don’t remember the last things he said to me.” Later, when asked: “what is the secret to looking young?” Wallis shoots back “I haven’t found it yet.”
Perhaps the most touching moment comes when Wallis further considers that the key to looking and feeling young is happiness. “We’ve been very happy,” she says at one point. The Duke awkwardly grabs her hand in confirmation. Looking at her adoringly, he agrees “we have.” In that moment, the most important aspect of the interview is revealed. What everyone wanted to know about the century’s most discussed royal couple, was: was the abdication worth it? The Windsors convey that what bound them together for over 35 years of marriage was, as the Duke’s former equerry Fruity Metcalf witnessed, writing in 1940 of their union “it is very true and deep stuff.”
When Harris addresses the thorny issue of the Duke’s role, or lack of one, in exile, the couple’s response is textbook diplomacy. Harris asks the Duke: “Why didn’t you get a job, do you think?” The Windsors both laugh and exchange the most telling look of the interview. One of the major gripes that the Duke held against his brother and sister-in-law was that no royal position was ever found for him after the abdication by his unyielding family, who were threatened by his star quality and his public’s adoration. They could not risk him overshadowing his shy, less charismatic brother.
Yet the Duke responds: “You’d have to ask….(there is a pause). Most of the people, I’m afraid, are underground now who prevented me. Oh, I don’t know, it is hard to say.” This tactful response is unstintingly generous to his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who far from being underground at the time, was probably watching the interview at Clarence House.
When Harris enquires of the couple if they have any regrets, Wallis replies “about certain things,” with exquisite understatement the Duchess of Sussex might have done well to take note of. “I wish it could have been different. Naturally, we’ve had some hard times. Who hasn’t?” she asks. There is no hint of bitterness, rather a sanguine acceptance of what must have seemed her own unsurvivable moments, when, during the abdication crisis, she became the most hated woman in the world.
At the end of the interview, Harris asks the Duke if he has any regrets about not having remained king. After another pause, the camera moves to a dramatic close up of his sad face and pale watery eyes. “No,” he says. “I would have liked to have, but I was going to do it under my conditions. So I do not have any regrets. But I do take a great interest in my country – my country which is Britain – your land and mine. I wish it well.”
Watching this poignant interview now, through the prism of the Sussexes’ explosive offering, which even Oprah concludes is “shocking,” the Windsors could not seem sweeter, or their stance more quaint. The saddest thing is that Wallis and Edward, despite being banished, were dutiful and patriotic to the end. The Duke, who died two years later, never once succumbed to public carping about his family. What a pity that from the teasers we’ve seen, Meghan and Harry, who took it upon themselves to leave Britain, seem unlikely to display similar loyalty to the Crown on Oprah tonight.