Bryn Turnbull on the Woman Who Preceded Wallis Simpson
In Conversation with C. P. Lesley on the New Books Network
Most modern Americans can identify the names Wallis Simpson and Gloria Vanderbilt. But Simpson was not the first divorced American to win the heart of Great Britain’s future if short-reigned King Edward VIII, known to his family as David. This debut novel explores the life and loves of Thelma Morgan, whose twin sister Gloria married Reggie Vanderbilt and became the mother of the well-known fashion designer.
After the ending of what these days we would call a “starter marriage,” Thelma accepts a proposal from Viscount Duke Furness, who takes her to his country estate and introduces her to his children. He also, in due course, introduces her to David and, when she and the prince fall for each other, steps aside and chooses not to contest their affair. The reality that Lord Furness has not himself practiced fidelity is one of the factors driving Thelma away from him.
Meanwhile, Gloria and Reggie have taken refuge from the twins’ mother in France, where they are raising their daughter, Little Gloria. Reggie dies prematurely, and Gloria becomes involved in the kind of knock-down, drag-out contest over his inheritance that only dysfunctional families can produce. Desperate to support her sister, Thelma abandons the UK for New York City, David’s assurances of love ringing in her ears. Unfortunately, not long before she leaves England, she introduces David to her friend Wallis Simpson…
Bryn Turnbull does a wonderful job of portraying this history, which is in some ways more dramatic than any made-up story could be.
C. P. Lesley: What made you want to tell Thelma Morgan’s and Gloria Vanderbilt’s stories?
Bryn Turnbull: We have Madonna to thank for that. She directed a movie called WE. I think it came out in 2011, and it’s about Wallis and Edward. She references the moment that starts off my novel, where Thelma asks Wallis to take care of the prince while she’s traveling. And that seemed to me such a strange request to make of a friend, even if it was someone you trusted—particularly given the aftermath of that: Wallis stealing Edward out from under her nose. So that was the kickoff for telling her story. I went down a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole, and when I came out the other side, I realized that not only was Thelma integral to what later became abdication crisis in the UK, but her twin sister, Gloria Vanderbilt, was the center of the biggest custody battle in the US up to that time. Those two seminal events of the 1930s had Thelma at their core, and that made it such an interesting time to be and such an interesting woman who had kind of been written out of history.
CPL: What can you tell us about Thelma?
BT: Her father was a diplomat, and he met her mother, Laura Patrick Morgan, who was Chilean. Together they traveled the world; they had four children, including Thelma and her sister Gloria. Thelma’s childhood was a bit nomadic. Her older sister was shipped off to relatives in the States, her brother was sent to boarding school, so they weren’t a close family until later in life. Thelma and Gloria became socialites. Their formal schooling ended when they were sixteen; they moved into an apartment in the city; and they garnered a reputation as the Magnificent Morgans. They were beautiful and vivacious, the Kardashians of their day. They were famous for being famous. Thelma eloped at sixteen with a husband who turned out to be abusive, and my book starts where that relationship ended.
CPL: Tell us how Thelma meets Wallis Simpson.
TB: Wallis Simpson was a friend of Thelma’s older sister, Consuelo, and on a weekend when Thelma was supposed to be hosting a party for the Prince of Wales, Consuelo and her husband weren’t able to join them. Because Thelma was separated from her husband and the Prince of Wales was coming, they needed a chaperone couple. That was a figleaf at the time: if you’re going to have a weekend party, there has to be a respectable married couple there to make sure nothing happens. Of course, at all these parties, the respectable couple would turn their heads at any signs of impropriety. When Consuelo and her husband couldn’t join them, she recommended Wallis Simpson and her husband instead. That meeting was rather nondescript; both Wallis and Edward agreed that was when they met, but that wasn’t when Edward really noticed Wallis. He didn’t really notice her until the annual debutante ball, when he told his friends that all the women looked ghastly in the light, and she called him out on it. Edward wasn’t used to being called out, and he thought it was hilarious. That’s when they became friends.
CPL: What would you like readers to take away from The Woman before Wallis?
TB: This book is billed as a royal romance. It’s not a love story between Thelma and the Prince of Wales. It is a love story between Thelma and her sister Gloria. For me, that’s the strongest relationship in the book, and it’s the relationship that fuels all of the action. It’s the relationship that drives Thelma and the relationship that she ultimately values most in her life. That’s what this book celebrates: the bond between sisters.
C. P. Lesley is the author of ten novels, including Legends of the Five Directions (The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and The Shattered Drum), a historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible. Her latest book, Song of the Shaman, appeared in 2020. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.