This is a fascinating book in which the vanities of the main players are set against the self-interest of the newspaper barons and the manoeuvrings of politicians, in a crisis caused by a king who failed to distinguish between the private and constitutional aspects of a monarch. The desire of different parties to record their own version of their involvement in and the handling of the abdication continued for decades until 1985, when the royal family’s position was presented in Royal Feud. Phillips blends wide research with a pacy story that brings the past into the present. When the Duke of Windsor (with a ghost writer) published A King’s Story in 1951, ‘a precedent had been set for royals openly to engage in public discussion on controversial aspects of their lives.’ The genie was out of the bottle.
Jane Dismore, author of Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II
Adrian Phillips’ fascinating new offering provides a lively (and perhaps timely) account of the First Royal Media War, namely ‘the drama of the abdication crisis and the fight to control its memory’. The actual story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson takes something of a back seat, therefore, to a rigorous and entertaining analysis of the story of the story of this most infamous royal romance, the direct constitutional ramifications, and the bitter battle to direct the narrative in the years that followed. Concentrating primarily on the mid-1930s through to the early 1960s, the actions of a wide range of interested parties on both sides of the Atlantic are forensically dissected, from politicians to media barons, courtiers, lawyers, historians and ambitious journalists.
The author pulls few punches in his assessment of the contrasting motives of the major players in this affair. Thus, for Phillips, far from being the starry-eyed, detail-averse drifter he is often characterised as, Stanley Baldwin emerges as a deft and decisive calculator, unafraid to authorize the covert use of MI5 agents as well as wiretapping in an effort to shroud sensitive royal matters in a cloak of secrecy – then to smear Edward, ‘Mrs Simpson’, and their various supporters once swords were drawn and the crisis peaked. Figures like Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, John Reith, Director General of the BBC, and even Alec Hardinge, Edward’s Private Secretary (he of the famous letter), are all pawns manipulated in a chess game played by a savvy Prime Minister desperately fighting his corner and trying to conduct the business of government free from clumsy royal intrusion.
Less surprising, perhaps, is Edward himself, presented here as the petulant, litigation-hungry Nazi-sympathiser, convinced of his own ‘divine right of celebrity’, and never backwards in exploiting an opportunity to undermine the Prime Minister. As King – and then former King – Edward is utterly dominated by Simpson and remains bitter for the rest of his life over their treatment by the Windsors, particularly on the vexed question of royal titles. Thus, the busy couple seek to court a string of useful allies for their own egotistical ends, from Lord Beaverbrook and the Rothermeres (proprietors of the Express and Mail, respectively) in the UK, to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in America. This is done, first, in an attempt to secure a virtual news blackout around matters relating to the divorce in Britain and to promote the dream of ‘Queen Wallis’ in the US, then, second, to garner sympathy for their position during the abdication itself and the apportioning of blame thereafter.
Perhaps most enjoyable is Phillips’ examination of Beaverbrook, seen as an Ahab-like fantasist, motivated throughout the crisis with an ‘obsessional hatred of Baldwin’, determined to oust his rival from power and supplant him with Churchill. In the long years that followed, Beaverbrook exploited any opportunity to meddle in the presentation of the royal couple, largely for his own amusement, and with the primary motive of settling old scores. Thus, in the unseemly scramble to write the first ‘historical’ accounts of this period – heavily briefed by the main players from each side – interesting characters like Compton Mackenzie, Walter Monckton and Philip Guedalla are all discussed. Beaverbrook then dominates the post-war historiographical playing-field, sticking his fingers into various literary pies (as well as the BBC), seeming almost at times to relegate Edward and Wallis to secondary actors behind his insatiable desire to dance on Baldwin’s grave.
What emerges from all this is a great read, dripping with intrigue, throwing new light onto a fascinating period, sure to be regarded as an essential source for anyone interested in the royal scandal – as well as politics and the press in the UK (and wider) during this tumultuous era.
Andrew Stedman, author of Alternatives to Appeasement: Neville Chamberlain and Hitler’s Germany.
Once again Adrian Phillips has combined meticulous historical research with consummate story telling. This book gives a fascinating insight into how much has changed (and how much hasn’t!) in the Royal family’s relationship with the media. I would suggest it should be required reading for any Royal Press Officer!
Sally Page, author of The Keeper of Stories