What if Wallis Simpson wasn’t the real reason for Edward VIII’s abdication? Historian Ted Powell, Edward’s most recent biographer, writes about the playboy prince’s greatest love affair.
Years before he met Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII had fallen in love with America.
As a young Prince of Wales he was captivated by the energy, confidence and raw power of the USA as it strode onto the world stage at the end of the First World War. “I’m liking the Americans more than ever,” he wrote excitedly after visiting American troops in January 1919. “I’m just longing to go to the States… but we just must be closely allied with the USA, closer than we are now, and it must be lasting and they are very keen about it.”
Edward’s tours of North America only served to strengthen that affinity. After a triumphant North American tour in 1919, Edward paid a number of visits to the States. We see him surfing in Hawaii, dancing with an American shop-girl in the Panama Canal Zone, and partying with the cream of New York society on Long Island. America was equally fascinated by the Prince, especially by his love life, and he became an international media celebrity through newsreels, the radio and the press.
Much has been made of Edward’s Nazi associations, but in fact his ties with America were much closer. In 1935, as war threatened Europe once again, he told an American journalist: “The peace of the world depends upon the friendly association of the two great English-speaking peoples. Only the United States and Great Britain working together and in perfect harmony can prevent the world from drifting into helpless anarchy and barbarism.”
Edward was not just a fervent advocate of the ‘special relationship’ between America and Britain, however. Like the thousands of immigrants welcomed to New York by the Statue of Liberty, Edward, weary of the constraints of the old world, was “yearning to breathe free”. He was seduced by American culture, language, music, dancing, consumerism, and of course by American women.
It was his tragedy that, as heir to the throne of the British Empire, he was himself the embodiment of the old order. In the 1920s, for Edward Prince of Wales and for British society in general, America was the template of modernity. For better or worse, America was the future.
From the first, Edward was transfixed by his experience of the USA. Being one of the few places he visited which was not part of the British Empire, America gave him a special sense of freedom. He was greeted by a tickertape welcome in New York, admired the engineering miracle of the Panama Canal, and made a speech with loudspeakers for the first time in San Diego. On his journey through western Canada he was so impressed with the grandeur of the prairie that on impulse he bought a cattle ranch in Alberta.
In America he caught a tantalising taste of a life of freedom, opportunity and modernity which was denied to him by the accident of his birth. As he wrote in his memoirs, “America meant to me a country in which nothing is impossible.” By contrast, Britain was a place where many things were impossible for Edward, Prince of Wales, not least his wish to marry the woman he loved. His encounter with America was one of the formative experiences of his life, and it shaped his destiny.
On his departure from New York in November 1919 Edward promised to return to America, and described himself as proud to be a New Yorker. Given the opportunity, he would certainly have made regular visits to the States in the 1920s, as he did after his Abdication from the throne. After completing his Empire tours, he managed to fit in a holiday trip to New York in 1924 on the way to his Canadian ranch.
On this visit Edward’s reputation as a party-loving playboy was truly sealed. He devoted himself to his favourite pastimes: polo, parties, jazz and dancing. He had a passionate holiday romance with a Hollywood starlet, Pinna Cruger, the wife of a New York millionaire. Accompanied by Pinna, he regularly attended several functions in one night, the hours he kept inspiring the notorious headline ‘Prince Gets In With The Milkman’.
That was to prove Edward’s last visit to the US for many years. A projected tour of the industrial cities of the American mid-West in 1926 failed to materialise, probably because of opposition of Edward’s father, George V. The King was unsympathetic towards Edward’s love for the USA. He disapproved of what he saw as the undignified way in which Edward behaved in America, and was appalled at the effrontery of the American press in pursuing the Prince so aggressively. For the remainder of his life he blocked attempts by Edward to return to the USA.
Edward responded by withdrawing both physically and emotionally from the rest of the Royal Family, setting up a weekend retreat at Fort Belvedere, near Sunningdale in Berkshire. He cultivated American friends and took American lovers. He adopted American modes of speech and acquired American products.
Edward’s first serious affair with an American lover was with Thelma Morgan, Lady Furness, the twin sister of Gloria Vanderbilt and the wife of a wealthy British shipping magnate. It was through Thelma Furness that Edward met Wallis Simpson. Forceful, irreverent and sassy, Wallis personified everything that he admired about modern America. Their love affair completed the process of Americanisation which Edward had begun fifteen years before.
The divide between the public and private lives widened until it became unbridgeable. In the two years before King George’s death in January 1936 the Prince’s isolation from his family and the royal court became almost total.
The causes of the Abdication have long been debated, and continue to rouse controversy. Did Edward simply give up his throne for love, or was he the victim of an establishment plot to remove him? Was he temperamentally unsuited to kingship and seeking a pretext to resign the throne?
Whatever the short-term causes, there can be no doubt that Edward’s personal Americanisation from 1919 onwards created the preconditions for his abdication, shaping his personal relationships, transforming his attitude to monarchy, and alienating him from the rest of the royal family.
The seismic events of 1936 – the only voluntary abdication by a monarch in British history – were the direct result of Edward’s abiding fascination with the people and culture of the USA. Long before he fell in love with Wallis, Edward had fallen in love with America; if not for America, King Edward VIII would never have abdicated.
King Edward VIII: An American Life by Ted Powell is available now from Oxford University Press, priced at £25 in hardback, and as an ebook.