"That Woman" by Anne Sebba (St. Martin's Press, $27.99)
"That Woman" is Anne Sebba's biography of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the woman who, according to popular tradition, seduced the King of England and compelled him to give up his throne to marry her. Sebba's book offers a somewhat different view: The infatuation of King Edward VIII was real; Wallis' ostensible demands on him apparently were not.
Wallis Warfield was born into a socially acceptable but financially marginal Baltimore family. Only through the intermittent largesse of a wealthy uncle was Wallis able to keep up socially and educationally with her peer group.
At age 19, Wallis visited a friend at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla. Within 24 hours she wrote to her mother, "I have just met the world's most fascinating aviator." He turned out to be Lt. Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., whom Wallis soon married.
Wallis' friends were envious. Her attractive new husband came from a wealthy family. What neither they nor Wallis knew then was that, to quote Wallis, "The bottle was seldom far from my husband's thoughts or hand."
Eventually, Win's drinking led to physical abuse and divorce. In due course, Wallis met Ernest and Dorothea Simpson. As Dorothea said later, "I've never been around anybody like that ... she moved in and helped herself to my house and my clothes and, finally, to everything." The "everything" included Ernest, who had dual British-American citizenship and lived in London most of the time.
Wallis Simpson loved parties and soon became a successful London society hostess. She was determined to meet the Prince of Wales and did so without difficulty via her friendship with the married woman who was at the time (1931) considered "the Prince's girl." When the friend asked Wallis to "look after" the Prince while she was away, she did that and more.
At this point, Sebba takes us down an unfamiliar path. She shows that the marriage demand came from the Prince who, by then, was not only smitten but King. According to letters to her former husband, Wallis often wished she could return to Ernest; the King would have none of it.
The result was a British constitutional crisis. The Archbishop of Canterbury refused to marry Britain's reigning monarch to a twice-divorced American commoner. To marry Wallis, King Edward VIII abdicated his throne in favor of his younger brother (King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth).
What followed seems to have taken the naÃØve ex-king by surprise. No one in his family attended their wedding in 1936. They became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor but Wallis was never granted the title "Her Royal Highness." And they were not welcome to live in Great Britain. The only post offered the Duke during the war was Governor of the Bahamas, an ignominious position in one of the empire's most backward-looking colonies.
For Wallis' irresistible appeal to Edward we can all be thankful. They both sympathized with Hitler and his Nazis. Wallis inadvertently saved Great Britain from grievous embarrassment as World War II loomed.
by John French
"How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain" by Leah Price (Princeton University Press, $29.95)
This new book lives up to its priceless title, according to reviewer Elaine Freedgood of New York University: "Beauti-fully written, a superb study that gives us the social lives of books and texts in the Victorian period: their uses as missiles, doorstops, food wrapping, spouse-ignoring devices as well as vehicles for childlike wonder and delight."
"Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock" by Bob Kealing (University Press of Florida, $27.50)
Coming in September, this study of the formative years of a southern-bred, trust-fund child and visionary, self-destructive musical pioneer ends on Sept. 19, 1973, when Gram Parsons -- who played with the International Submarine Band, The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and directly inspired Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty -- died of a drug overdose in the desert at the age of 26. "I could almost hear the music coming from those now-dilapidated buildings where Gram Parsons received his musical education," writes reviewer Jeffrey M. Lemlich, author of "Savage Lost: Florida Garage Bands, the '60s and Beyond."
"The Beast in Florida" by Marvin Dunn (University Press of Florida, $29.95)
Subtitled "A History of Anti-Black Violence" and set for publication in six months time, this forthcoming book from Dunn, retired chairman of the Dept. of Psychology at FIU, is billed as a "haunting look at the former lynching capital of America." The Beast openly prowled here between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. From the bombing of Harrriette and Harry T. Moore's home on Christmas Day to the Rosewood massacre and the Newberry Six lynchings, Dunn offers an encyclopedic catalog of The Beast's rampages in Florida. "The most original and courageous book of local history since Stetson Kennedy" -- Paul Ortiz, author of "Emancipation Betrayed."