King Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson and the ensuing Abdication Crisis are well known. Mrs. Simpson followed a series of married women who had affairs with Edward during his time as Prince of Wales. She was introduced to the Prince in 1931 by his mistress at the time, Thelma Furness, wife of the 1st Viscount Furness. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Edward’s lover and confidante was Mrs. Freda Dudley Ward, who received numerous letters from the Prince during his commonwealth tours.
Edward’s personal life during the First World War has received much less attention than his high profile affairs during the 1920s and 1930s. In The Woman Before Wallis: Prince Edward, the Parisian Courtesan, and the Perfect Murder, award winning crime writer Andrew Rose reconstructs the Prince’s wartime affair with French courtesan Marguerite Alibert and how their correspondence may have provided Marguerite with leverage during her trial for the murder of her husband, Ali Bey Kemel Fahmy, in 1923.
At the start of the First World War, the Prince of Wales was eager to see action. As he had four younger brothers alive in 1914, he argued that his own life mattered little. Nevertheless, Edward was kept off the battlefield as the British High Command feared that the Prince might be captured by the Germans and used to extort concessions from the allies. (As Duke of Windsor, Edward was appointed Governor of the Bahamas in 1940 to avoid a similar scenario during the Second World War.) Edward’s past biographers focused on the rapport he formed with the commonwealth troops during his wartime visits to the Western front. The Prince formed a particularly close affinity to the Canadian regiments and bought a ranch in Alberta after the hostilities ended.
Rose reveals a different side of the young prince’s wartime activities. Between visits to British and commonwealth regiments, the inexperienced Edward discovered the pleasures of Paris and began an affair with famed courtesan Marguerite Alibert. Setting a pattern for his future relationships, Edward displayed spectacularly poor judgement, writing Marguerite letters that included criticism of his father, King George V, and military intelligence in addition to his own feelings. When the relationship ended abruptly, as most of Edward’s affairs did, Marguerite reminded him that she still had his correspondence, hinting that she intended to profit from their relationship.
Although Rose argued in a previous work, “Scandal at the Savoy” that Marguerite shot her wealthy Egyptian husband in a moment of passion, his views changed while researching The Woman Before Wallis. Rose speculates that Marguerite planned the murder in England because of the leverage provided by Edward’s compromising wartime correspondence. The evidence to suggest that the royal household intervened in the trial, however, is far from conclusive. In a rare display of prudence, Edward wrote little about Marguerite after their affair ended and made an extended visit to his ranch in Alberta during the legal proceedings. Despite the title of the book, the Prince is only a significant figure in the opening and closing chapters, providing the framework for Marguerite’s misadventures after the end of her royal affair. The absence of an index makes it difficult for readers to isolate those chapters about the future Edward VIII within Marguerite’s biography.
Although Rose does not present enough evidence to prove royal involvement in Marguerite’s trial, he provides a well-paced crime story and an evocative portrait how Europe saw Egypt in the 1920s. The murder took place at a time when English attitudes toward the Middle East were shaped by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb and Rudolph Valentino’s onscreen performance as The Sheik. Since Marguerite’s past life as courtesan and royal mistress was unknown to the public, the defense team and the press created a caricature of her murdered husband based on popular stereotypes of about Egyptians as lustful or corrupt. The future Edward VIII may not be the central character in The Woman Before Wallis but Rose presents a vivid snapshot of his times through the trial of his former mistress for “The Perfect Murder.”