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Writer Anna Pasternak on the true legacy of Wallis Simpson

Author Anna Pasternak. Photo/Getty Images

The author of books about maligned famous women risks another backlash with her latest on – as the Queen Mother put it – “the lowest of the low”.

What price love? Anna Pasternak, journalist and author, was possibly born to the task of counting the cost. She’s a great-niece of Boris Pasternak, writer of that three-hanky Russian classic of doomed love, Doctor Zhivago.

Pasternak was 26 when she tackled a less-heroic love saga, Princess Diana’s affair with James Hewitt, in her 1994 book, Princess in Love. “Her need was too much, she was starting to flail. So, with the ease of a dancer performing a well-worn routine, she stood up, walked across to him and slipped sideways on to his lap,” Pasternak wrote, in a story that slid into lurid territory as effortlessly as a princess dropping into the lap of an unsuitable commoner. “I know my own father considered it was rather tabloid and beneath me,” she says, sighing, from her home in the UK.

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It was certainly a scoop. “I met him socially,” she says of Hewitt. “Then he approached me and said that Andrew Morton was doing a second book on Diana. She knew that their affair was coming out and she wanted it sympathetically told as a love story.”

The price of a sympathetically told love story: “Everyone denounced it as Mills & Boon because that was the easiest way to diminish me and the story. People thought I’d made it up.” Well, you couldn’t, really, could you?

The book sold like the scandalous royal bodice-ripper it was, and Pasternak got the last laugh. “Eighteen months later, when Diana admitted in her Panorama interview that the affair was true, suddenly I went from being the villain to being celebrated. At the 20th anniversary of her death, even her sons were saying exactly what I had said 20 years earlier. I could have carved out a career being on the breakfast sofas every morning talking about royal things.”

Diana, Princess of Wales, and her former lover James Hewitt. Photo/Getty Images

Pasternak talks a mile a minute in beautifully modulated vowels, with an admirably unapologetic attitude. But her first book was clearly a punishing experience. The next, Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago, about Olga Ivinskaya, lover of her great-uncle Boris, was a long time in the making. “It took me 20 years to write Lara because I was so terrified of the backlash. I thought, ‘If your name’s Pasternak and you’re writing about Boris Pasternak, god, it better be good.” Luckily it was. “I was absolutely steeled to be kind of flayed alive and quite the reverse happened. I got this critical acclaim.”

For Ivinskaya, the price of love was heavy. Doctor Zhivago, set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, was considered anti-Soviet. Pasternak’s muse was imprisoned, miscarried her lover’s child and spent years in the Gulag. “She was subjected to interrogation about the book that Boris was writing and not once does she betray him,” Pasternak says.

Her loyalty was not repaid. “My family denounced her as this traitor.” Pasternak’s grandmother never sullied her lips with Olga’s name. “She was so contemptuous of this temptress who she felt had dragged Boris off the moral path.”

Wallis Simpson in 1937. Photo/Getty Images

A temptress and worse

Pasternak’s new book takes on another woman derided as a temptress and worse,  but who is a less immediately sympathetic proposition: Wallis Simpson. We know the story. Glamorous, popular King Edward VIII abdicates the throne in 1936 to run off with a twice-married American. The rest is history, books, movies and The Crown. “The common perception is that she was a ruthless, cold, ambitious bitch,” observed Pasternak in Tatler. The couple go on to live a hollow hedonistic life in exile. And as viewers of The Crown were reminded, there was that bit of bother with the Nazis.

Why Wallis, why now? “I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my career rehabilitating women whom history has treated badly, and obviously there was no woman in the royal family who I think has been treated more appallingly than Wallis.”

That’s saying something when you consider the slings and arrows suffered by Sarah Ferguson, Diana Spencer, Camilla Parker Bowles, Kate Middleton – and now Meghan Markle. “There was that line Wallis says, ‘Every day, my life goes to pieces when my breakfast tray arrives’, because of the amount of hate mail that was sent to her. The means of the delivery of the message has changed, but as with Meghan Markle, once you become a member of the royal family, you don’t have a voice to speak back.”

King Edward VIII in 1936. Photo/Getty Images

The gossips have been claiming that Prince William and Prince Harry have been driven apart, casting Markle in the Yoko Ono role. As Pasternak notes in Tatler, “Edward VIII and his brother, Bertie, once close, fell out due to the enmity between their wives.”

Thus history, in this case fairly farcical to begin with, repeats. The Queen Mother became Queen through the abdication, but “that woman” and “the lowest of the low” were how she referred to Wallis. “She was seen as the nation’s favourite granny in her later years, a pudgy woman in her chiffon dresses, soft and marshmallow, and she was utterly ruthless,” muses Pasternak. “This culture of immense judgment from women to other women is part of what I’m trying to debunk.”

These days, a divorced, retired American actress can be styled Her Royal Highness. Wallis never got her HRH and claimed not to care, but Pasternak is almost as aggrieved about that as the Duke of Windsor was. Her book is titled, pointedly, Untitled. It’s defiantly dedicated to “Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Windsor”.

Pasternak’s publishers weren’t impressed. “In the first draft, it wasn’t in. I had to say if there was any flak, I took full responsibility. And then they put the HRH in quotation marks, I just noticed, in the American edition. It’s utterly incensing.”

The duke and duchess on a visit to Nazi Germany in 1937. Photo/Getty Images

The Nazi connection

She puts one of the Duke of Windsor’s more deplorable episodes down to this slighting of Wallis. In 1937, Edward took Wallis to Germany, where they hung out with Hitler. By some accounts, Edward gave the Führer full Nazi salutes. As an episode of the BBC series The Crown showed, papers were uncovered outlining a plan by Nazi officials to kidnap the Duke and reinstall him as a puppet king after an invasion of Britain.

Was he a Nazi sympathiser? “I watched the Pathé newsreels. He’s waving to the crowd, but you can take one frame and it looks like a Nazi salute.” She consulted historians of the period. “There’s no evidence that they were Nazi sympathisers and certainly there is no complete evidence for this rubbish that Wallis had this affair with [high-ranking Nazi Joachim] von Ribbentrop.”

Oh dear. On that 1937 trip, Wallis was treated like, well, an HRH. “When you see Edward’s woundedness from his family and how desperate he was to show Wallis that this was the life she was entitled to as his wife, it was like he came to it from this bizarre place of hurt and made a very foolish decision.”

And yet the couple were close friends of Diana Mosley, one of the Mitford sisters, wife of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley and a lifelong remorseless Hitler fan. And there’s evidence that even after World War II, Edward blamed Churchill and the Jews for it.

“Yes, I think he did say some ill-advised things, but I think they were probably taken out of context. In his autobiography, he admits that Hitler wasn’t a good man and that it was ill-advised to go on that trip,” Pasternak says. “And remember, Edward was not academically bright or astute. In one sense, he was modern in some ways, but he was incredibly stupid in others. I’m sure after a few drinks he could have said some very stupid and offensive things.”

They were so privileged, so epically useless. If they had some tough times, it’s hard not to think, well, boo-hoo. “Yeah, exactly,” says Pasternak. “They did lead this profligate, rather – in the end – soulless, empty existence. But I firmly believe that if – when he said he was going to abdicate – he had been sat down and told, ‘Right, you will never be allowed to live in England again. You will never have royal status in England. Neither will your wife. And you will never be allowed to go back to the home you loved so much, Fort Belvedere,’ he would have made a different decision.”

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day in 1937. Photo/Getty

A “gentleman’s agreement”

Untitled is a reminder of just how scandalous the King’s abdication for “the woman I love” was. A “gentleman’s agreement” meant the press wouldn’t cover Mrs Simpson’s “friendship” with the King. “The conspiracy of silence was even assisted by newsagents who literally cut out revelations from foreign journals,” Pasternak writes. “Wasn’t that incredible?” she says.

“When Princess Margaret was going out with Captain Peter Townsend, exactly the same thing happened. There was a media blackout which came from the palace until they couldn’t contain it any longer.”

The blackout only served to make news of the abdication more shocking. “The people adored him and then suddenly it was, ‘I’m leaving for this strange-looking divorced woman’.”

The strange-looking divorced woman hasn’t hitherto elicited a lot of support. As Pasternak records, when Wallis biographer Anne Sebba was asked about her view of her subject, she replied, “What’s to like?”

Even the sympathetic Untitled reads like a sort of horror story. Wallis is first flattered, then plagued with doubt as Edward’s “narcissistic neediness” nudges her towards divorce and a marriage.

“She never wanted to be queen,” Pasternak says. “She didn’t actually even want to marry Edward and she certainly didn’t want him to abdicate. She was perceptive enough to realise that she would be blamed in perpetuity.”

As Yuri Zhivago says to Lara in Doctor Zhivago, “I don’t think I could love you so much if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret.” For Edward, the forces ranked against them fuelled his obsession. “A boy is holding a girl very tight in his arms tonight …” he wrote to Wallis. “A girl knows that not anybody or anything can separate WE …”

The Duke and Duchess of York and their daughters Margaret and Elizabeth, bending, attending celebrations at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1935 marking the silver jubilee of King George V. Photo/Getty Images

The book paints a vivid portrait of a woman rendered powerless. “… due to the letters [the hate mail] I shan’t live very long,” she wrote to her ex-husband, Ernest Simpson, “and in fact am a prisoner. Four detectives.”

You can see why Pasternak, who endured flak after Princess in Love, might empathise. “When the hate mail started coming and she realised what her fate was going to be, she developed this inner strength – that had to be enough against the backdrop of universal vilification. That takes real emotional intelligence and real dignity and tremendous courage.”

Wallis is hardly a feminist icon, but the story has relevance in a time when women still struggle to be heard and remain more harshly judged for breaking ranks. “There is still a very entrenched view in this country, especially among the Establishment, that Wallis was this dreadful woman who denied the country their popular King,” Pasternak says. “Because of Me Too and the current political climate in not silencing women’s voices, I hope that we will be more open to hearing the truth about Wallis and the old prejudice, which is so almost Dickensian and out of date, will be allowed to fall away.”

Reality bites

Pasternak projects a certain steely resolve but has also worn her heart on her romantic sleeve. She has documented her own quest for love. “I have,” she says brightly. Sample 2010 Daily Mail column: “Can therapy find me love? Divorced, single mother Anna Pasternak tries one last throw of the dice.” In this she describes a “particularly gruelling decade”: “I got married, got divorced, met a divorced American, got into a relationship with him, got pregnant, had an abortion as he was so vehemently against me having the child, later met a younger man, had a planned baby with him and was left a single mother when my daughter was two and I was 38.”

Goodness. Unlike Diana and Wallis, things worked out for Pasternak. See a story in the Telegraph titled, wonderfully, “I met my Wizard in a yurt … sobbing my heart out.” She has described her meeting with yurt-bound therapist Andrew Wallas. “You are a shallow, neurotic, materialistic, posh Russian bitch,” he reportedly told her. It was all on. He answered the phone when I called Pasternak, so a happy ending.

Olga Ivinskaya and her lover, Boris Pasternak, c1957. Photo/Getty Images

Embattled dignity

In her mission to redeem other unhappy women, Pasternak can claim some success. Her father had shared his family’s poor opinion of Olga Ivinskaya. He was reading Lara when he and his daughter were flying to Milan together to see the original manuscript of Doctor Zhivago. “He finished the book,” recalls Pasternak, “and he said, ‘Boris would be very proud.’”

Nice. Wallis Simpson may prove a harder ask. Pasternak’s fascinatingly detailed, always entertaining, sometimes moving book does reveal a certain embattled dignity in her subject. Too bad Wallis can’t know how fiercely she’s been championed after all these years.

Pasternak, a woman unafraid to admit to having smudged herself with sage to enhance her relationship aura, is not having that. “I like to think that she does know in some sort of karmic or spiritual way,” she says. Indeed, Untitled ends with the author visiting the Duchess’ grave on the Frogmore Estate at Windsor, now home, spookily, to that other American divorcée, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry.

Pasternak took flowers, knelt at the grave. “I expected to feel this tremendous sadness,” she says. “As I placed the bouquet on her grave, I felt this rush of happiness mixed with relief come up my body. It was quite extraordinary.”

That other-worldly experience didn’t make the final cut in Untitled. “My editor said, ‘You cannot say that. Your book is so factually correct and then you go into this esoteric New-Age vibe that you felt Wallis’ pleasure.’ I’m sorry, but that is the truth of what I felt.” Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, honorary HRH, grateful from beyond the grave for some good PR at last – fair enough.

And the case of Camilla, another reviled Duchess, gives Pasternak hope. “Yes, there are the Diana fans who are still very against Camilla, but on the whole [the palace has] absolutely reversed her public image with a very strategic and careful campaign. I want the same to be true for Wallis.”

You can only wish her good luck with that.

UNTITLED: The Real Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by Anna Pasternak, (HarperCollins, $35)

This article was first published in the April 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.