It’s all Madonna’s fault, really. And Downton Abbey’s. Neil Gaiman shares part of the blame: he was the first author who managed to so completely immerse me in his world that I didn’t notice when I put my foot through a plate-glass window, leaving me with five stitches and a determination to one day craft similarly consuming stories. I’d be remiss not to mention Anderson Cooper, given that it is about his family. And the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, though they weren’t even dating when I started writing.
The list of acknowledgements for my debut novel, which came out this summer, does have a dash of Hollywood flair to it. After all, it’s a book about celebrities, filled with interwar socialites and silver screen princes; champagne corks flying across the moonlit Riviera; glamour and gossip played out beneath the crenellated towers of country homes. That’s what drew Madonna to the tale of the king who gave up his crown for love, no doubt. In rendering Wallis and Edward’s story on the big screen in her 2011 directorial debut, W.E., Madonna makes only glancing reference to Lady Thelma Furness. Played by Katie McGrath, she comes across as sweetness and light, a beautiful airhead who puts her lover, the Prince of Wales, in the hands of her trusted friend while she travels to the States. “Take care of him for me, won’t you?” Thelma purrs onscreen, her long fingers curled around the end of a cigarette holder.
That, for me, was the genesis of my interest in the woman who came before Wallis Simpson. But where Madonna goes forward in time to show the scandalous fallout from Thelma’s request, I decided to go back to learn more about Lady Furness herself. Was she truly blind to Wallis’s intentions? Or was she implicitly giving her friend permission to take a tiresome lover off her hands?
Take care of him for me. Those six words defined Thelma Morgan Furness’s life. Her affair with the future king was enough to warrant a novel, but her connection to the “trial of the century” — the 1934 custody battle over her niece Gloria Vanderbilt Jr. — made her story so much more than a royal romance. As one half of the “Magnificent Morgan” socialite sisters, Thelma grew up as a proto-Kardashian of sorts. Famous first for her beauty, then for her glittering marriage to one of England’s wealthiest industrialists, she reached new heights of celebrity with her involvement in her sister’s reputation-ruining trial. In many respects, hers is a cautionary tale about choosing a life in the spotlight: a lesson that, in Edward VIII, the Windsor family learned only too well.
Of course, in the case of the royals, the decision doesn’t lie in choosing such a life; it lies in walking away from it. Twice now, immediate members of the family have decided to reject what many consider to be their birthright: fame and recognition, power and privilege. The circumstances naturally lend themselves to comparison: the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Sussex both left “the Firm,” seemingly at the behest of their American brides. But while Edward stepped down in December 1936 because he didn’t want to rule, Harry walked away this past year to protect his family from a toxic press. Edward’s decision nearly toppled the monarchy; Harry, sixth in line to the throne, didn’t leave nearly so gaping a hole.
It can’t be lost on the prince that there are lessons to be learned from his great-great-uncle’s abdication; it shouldn’t be lost on us that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have had to grapple with institutionalized racism. But a point that unites the two Windsors is the suspicion that they believed a break from the crown could be accomplished on their own terms: that they might retain the deference afforded to them by the very system they threatened to collapse. For both men, leaving their palaces didn’t result in a withdrawal from public life: it left a lingering fascination with their stories. The spotlight they sought to escape became harsher and brighter than ever before.
And what of Thelma? As a seasoned socialite, perhaps she was better prepared than Edward or Wallis to anticipate the fickle nature of public adoration. Unlike Thelma, who gains a cruel education in the realities of modern celebrity at her sister’s trial, Edward stakes his reputation on the notion that, once won over, the court of public opinion will remain loyal. “It doesn’t matter. Not to people like us,” he says at the end of my book. But then, such is the blinding nature of privilege.