A huge thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
I had no idea that Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor was such a rebel. I had no idea that having a diplomat as a father granted you access to the glittering world of the Vanderbilts. This story absolutely fascinated me. The main charcter of the story has been painted by historians as a grasping socialite who leveraged her tenuous connections and beauty to survive. Long before the rise of the paparazzi culture, her name was synonymous with scandal.
Wallis Simpson was not the first divorcee to catch the eye of the prince. As the sister of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, Thelma was not a stranger to the lures of the polo set. When Edward singles her out, she becomes the paramour of the moody prince, spending less and less time with her husband. The extramarital affair is not uncommon in the social circles she moves in, and does not irreparably damage her reputation.
When a tragic death leaves her sister Gloria in an untenable situation, she vows to support her twin. As the world is rocked by a court battle that aired all of the tawdry laundry of the upper class, Thelma becomes a liability to the pristine outward appearance of the royal family. Wallis Simpson supplants Thelma in Edward’s affections.
You won’t regret picking up this tightly woven expose of the world of wealth and privilege in Depression-era America, or its sympathetic treatment of a family that was villainized by the press of the time.
October 9, 1934
RMS Empress of Britain
THELMA CONSIDERED MANHATTAN HER HOME, though she hadn’t lived there for over ten
years. To her, it was a city of firsts: she had smoked her first cigarette there, a Lucky Strike
stolen from a nun’s desk drawer at the convent and passed around the dormitory after bedtime.
She and her twin sister, Gloria, had rented their first apartment on Fifth Avenue: an attic
brownstone, which, at sixteen years old, they were far too young to live in unchaperoned but did
so anyways, stuffing the living room with flowers and leaving the icebox empty. Her first
encounter with the society pages had been at New York Harbor: she was eight at the time,
mobbed by reporters at the behest of their diplomat father in an attempt to turn the tone of a
negative press scrum. The next day’s papers would run pictures not of Harry Morgan on his
recall to Washington but of his twin daughters, Thelma and Gloria, walking down the gangplank
in matching pinafores.
First marriage, thought Thelma, gripping the sable collar of her coat more tightly around
her neck. First divorce. She stayed on deck long enough to watch the ship slip past the redbrick
buildings of Southampton before seeking refuge from the chill air.
Though Thelma felt uneasy at the prospect of being away from David for nearly six
weeks, she knew that she had little choice: Gloria’s trial had become a media sensation,
chewing up columns on front pages across America and Europe. The custody battle, dubbed
the “Trial of the Century” by reporters who squeezed onto the courthouse steps each day, was a
nightmare for her sister, forced to defend not only her right to raise her own daughter but also to
preserve her own good name. Thelma still rankled at the letter Gloria had sent her: For Reggie’s
sister to believe what’s being said about me is bad enough, but to know that the rumors came
from our own mother is too much to bear…
Thelma knew that the stories would continue long after the trial concluded—it was
inevitable, given that it revolved around a Vanderbilt daughter with a Vanderbilt fortune. She had
received the letter five days ago and booked passage on the earliest steamer bound for New
York. If it had been either of her other siblings—Consuelo or Harry Junior—in this situation,
Thelma would have offered what help she could, but as her twin, Gloria held Thelma’s
allegiance the strongest. It was how it had always been: one supporting the other.
There was only one consideration weighing on Thelma’s mind which made it difficult for
her to focus on what she would find in America.
“Shall I come, too?” David had asked days ago at Fort Belvedere. Dismal weather had
driven Thelma, David and their guests indoors, an afternoon of weeding David’s gardens
mercifully replaced by card games and needlepoint round the drawing room fire. David laid his
embroidery hoop to one side, the half-finished rose pointing sightlessly at the ceiling.
Across the room, Wallis Simpson, perusing the contents of the bar cart, turned.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. From a club chair in the corner, Wallis’s husband, Ernest,
folded down the corner of a newspaper. There was a momentary silence as Wallis’s long fingers
trailed delicately along the crystal tops of several heavy decanters before she selected one.
“You can’t possibly think it’s a good idea for him to get caught up in this mess,” she said,
glancing at Thelma as she poured a neat scotch. “You’ve seen the papers. Can you imagine the
sort of froth they’d work themselves into if the Prince of Wales stuck his oar in? I don’t mean to
offend you, Thelma,” she said, “but it’s just not seemly for him to get involved, don’t you agree?”
David’s brows knitted together as Wallis handed him the whiskey. “I feel so terrible about
it all,” he said. “Gloria’s a decent sort. She doesn’t deserve all this…surely there’s something I
can do?” He looked up at Thelma, his spaniel eyes imploring.
Wallis sat down. “You can let Thelma go to support her sister,” she said. “Gloria needs
her family, sir, not the distraction of a royal sideshow.”
“Wally’s quite right, sir,” said Ernest, resting his newspaper on his lap. “You’d be
hindering more than you’d help. Couldn’t fix me up one of those as well, could you, darling?”
David exhaled, but didn’t look convinced. “Perhaps,” he said, as Wallis returned to the
cart. “I wouldn’t want to add any more controversy to this ghastly business, but I hate the
thought of you going on your own.”
Thelma sat beside him, smiling at the thought of what David’s advisors would say if he
so much as commented on the Vanderbilt trial, let alone sailed to America.
“They have a point,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “I don’t think there’s much for you
to do. But thank you for wanting to help.”
He smiled, worry carved into the lines of his face. “Of course,” he said, and kissed
Thelma on the cheek. He picked up his needlepoint, lifting the embroidery hoop to inspect the
stitching more closely. “Just don’t stay away from me too long. I don’t think I could stand it.”
Perching herself on the armrest of Ernest’s chair, Wallis caught Thelma’s eye. She
smiled, red lips curling in a wide, reassuring grin.
Excerpted from The Woman Before Wallis by Bryn Turnbull, Copyright © 2020 by Bryn Turnbull.
Published by MIRA Books