Reviewed by Jeanne
Andrew Morton is a British journalist best known for his celebrity biographies, most notably of the current British Royal Family. His best known book is arguably Diana: Her True Story which caused quite the sensation when it was published in 1992. Now he has set his sights on Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in 17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis, and the Biggest Cover-up in History.
Morton begins his story with an account of Edward, Prince of Wales’ youth in the staid and stuffy household of his father, George V. The young prince was the pin up boy of his day, dreamed about by ladies young and otherwise, trend-setter, global sex symbol, and charmer. Edward (called David by his family) chaffed under all the restrictions. He wanted to be free to do as he pleased, and not weighed down by Duty. As with many princes before him, part of this freedom had to do with the ladies and he engaged in a series of affairs that were open secrets in high society, though the British press of that era kept a discrete silence on the matter.
Then enter Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee who captured David’s attention. The fact that she was currently married to her second husband just made her all the more enticing. And to the shock of most, this infatuation showed no signs of waning. Things came to a head after George V died. David became Edward VIII but showed no signs of giving up on Wallis. In fact, he wanted to marry her, which was totally unacceptable at the time. Neither the government nor the new king would yield on that point, and so David gave up the throne for the woman he loved.
Of course, there was more to the story than that. For several years there had been concerns about the prince’s attitude toward Hitler and the Nazis. He seemed fairly sympathetic to them, in fact, and was not at all in favor of war with Germany despite growing provocation from Hitler. Mrs. Simpson had a number of pro-German contacts as well, including her association with Joachim von Ribbentrop who sent her 17 carnations (or roses) on several occasions. Many in government heaved a huge sigh of relief when Edward abdicated, but the now Duke of Windsor was still able to create difficulties for England. He and Wallis embarked on what amounted to a state visit to Germany in 1937 and met with Der Fuhrer. Even after World War II began, there were rumors that the Windsors were in contact with the Germans and the release of various official papers after the War showed that concerns about the couple were widespread at certain levels.
Morton does a relatively good job with illustrating the Prince’s charisma and strong appeal. His affairs and courtship of Wallis is also serviceable. There were some interesting perspectives presented; at a few points Morton even seems somewhat sympathetic to Wallis, seeing her as someone who wanted to be a powerful mistress but not a wife entrapped by the confines of Court. However, Morton clearly portrays them both as being utterly clueless at times (best interpretation) and totally self-absorbed, petty, and childish at others. The Royal who, in my opinion, comes off particularly badly is Elizabeth, the present queen’s mother. She detested Wallis and made no secret of her disdain for the couple, and seemed prone to tantrums. It crossed my mind that some of Morton’s view may have been influenced by his connection with Diana but I have no proof of that.
However, the last third of the book is an attempt to justify the subtitle of the book (“the biggest cover-up in history”) and what had been an entertaining book turned very dry. This rather sordid little episode was too well known to be a real cover-up and while Morton finds many people who believed that the Windsors bought into Hitler’s plan to install them as King and Queen after conquering England, he doesn’t find the smoking gun proof. The big cover-up? That the U.S. and other countries turned over documents to England that could have proved been considered embarrassing or worse. To paraphrase Casablanca’s Captain Renault, “I’m shocked, shocked to learn that governments don’t always make public potentially compromising documents!”
The first part of the book is interesting. Morton does an especially good job at conveying how popular and influential the Prince of Wales was prior to the abdication. I hadn't realized quite how charismatic he was, a virtual rock star of the era. The sections concerning Winston Churchill are also well done: Churchill was both fond of and admiring of Edward, despite the young man’s views on Germany and the approaching war. Where the book fails is in producing any great revelations. Even a casual reader about the Royal Family would know most of the story already, except perhaps for some specific anecdotes. What the book lacks is perfect proof: while various German official documents indicate Duke and Duchess would be interested in becoming monarchs, there’s nothing from the couple themselves. Other German sources indicate they may kidnap the Duke and Duchess, which certainly doesn’t sound as if the authors are certain of the Windsors. Even the main title is vague. While it is known that Von Ribbentrop sent Wallis seventeen flowers, the significance of the number or flower isn’t known. There’s a bit of speculation but that’s it.
For those who have read little or nothing about the Royals and the Nazis, this book can be informative. However, I didn’t find that it had much new to offer, and that may have been my problem: I kept waiting for some amazing revelation which never came.