Material Girls

by maxmosher

I feel for Madonna, I really do. Not exactly young and spritely, it isn’t easy jockeying for attention with theatrical pop princesses like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. It can’t be good when even the gays have stopped talking about you. So, to the perennial question ‘Can she act?’ (short answer: no) Madge is about to add ‘Can she direct?’ when her first feature film is released early next year.

Awkwardly titled ‘W.E’, the movie tells the story of Edward VIII, who was King of England for a few months in the mid-thirties before giving it up for the woman he loved, a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson.

Abandoning the throne to his stuttering younger brother Albert (father of the current Queen), Edward and Wallis were free to marry. Wallis became a Duchess by default, but was denied the title Her Royal Highness and would never be officially accepted by the family. To make up for this, her husband gave her a lot of jewelry.

It will be a tad too easy for critics to draw a connection between the would-be Queen and the Queen of Pop: Madonna, another ambitious American divorcee who’s had her morals questioned on more than one occasion, knows a thing or two about gate-crashing Buckingham Palace. Indeed, in the last decade she has pilfered from the moribund world of the British aristocracy in the way she used to from inner city black drag queens, trading black lace for tweed and Vogue-ing for curtsies.

Somewhat embarrassingly, in some interviews she has gone so far as to adopt the clipped English sounds of the tongue of Rupert Everett.

“It was easy to get swept up in the historical relevance and epic romance of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII,” Madonna told Vanity Fair. “The fact that they were also the fashion icons of their day added to their allure for me.”   The film’s costume designer turned to Dior, Cartier and Dunhill for Wallis’s 60 outfit changes, and remarks that “Wallis and the Duke both made a lifestyle out of presentation.”

But the glamorous couple comprise only half the film, as the plot also concerns a young woman called Wally Winthrop (a contemporary New Yorker, despite the Dickensian name) who becomes obsessed with the Duchess after a Sotheby’s auction of her belongings (presumably, a lot of jewelry). A little ‘Julie & Julia’, yes, and also very meta: Madonna being inspired by Wallis for a movie about a young woman who is inspired by Wallis.

And while I won’t scoff at the idea of identifying with cultural figures and relating them to your own life (that is one of the themes of this very blog) I can’t help but think there’s a better story to tell about Edward and Mrs. Simpson.

For instance, they were probably Nazis.

Not long after their wedding in 1937, (Wallis wore a cinched-waist Mainboucher dress in light blue, to match her eyes) the lovebirds went on a trip to Obersalzberg, Germany, to meet Adolf Hitler at his mountain retreat. During the visit the Duke, who earlier had been in favour of an alliance between Great Britain and the Third Reich, gave the full Nazi salute.

No less of an insider than Albert Speer, the designer of Hitler’s monumental, imposing architecture, a very good metaphor for Fascism’s rejection of the individual human life, said of Edward, “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.” Decades after the full extent of the Holocaust came to light, the Duke reportedly remarked to a friend, “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”

Two years later, war was declared and the British government, worried that they could be used as spies, sent the couple down to the Bahamas, where Edward was installed as Governor. He won some praise for attempting to fight poverty, while still making patronizing, racist remarks about the country’s people. In 1945, the war ended, the Duke resigned and never held another official position.

To supplement his stipend from Buckingham Palace, he wrote articles and a few books, mostly about his sense of style and his family’s history. (Wallis’s bejeweled brooches didn’t grow on trees, after all.) The couple, who bounced between Paris and New York, were regulars on the dinner party circuit, although Gore Vidal once described the “vacuity” of their conversation.

Just as the recent allegation that Coco Chanel was a Fascist spy during Paris’s occupation undermines the heroic romance of the French resistance, remembering the Duke and Duchess’s unsavory ties is a useful reminder that, for all the Churchillian resolve of some British leaders, others were not convinced Hitler was altogether such a bad chap.

Madonna’s largest filmic contribution up to this point was ‘Evita’ (1996), playing yet another glamorous and controversial official’s wife, one who also has been accused of being Nazi-sympathetic (probably unfairly).

One hopes that this time around the Material Girl has done her research and recognizes that the most truthful retelling is, in this case, also the most interesting. But with her preoccupation with tweeds and jewelry, I suspect her film will be a vacuous as the couple’s conversation.