Royal biographer Anna Pasternak on why she is backing the 'interlopers'.
Anna Pasternak is posh. The kind of posh that uses words like "jolly" and "gosh" and calls the evening meal "supper". The kind of posh that decorates her Oxfordshire home in tasteful shades of Farrow & Ball paint, and has a muddy labrador snoring in front of a roaring Aga (actually, I made that bit up because Pasternak doesn't have Skype, so we're chatting by phone).
If the British author is also the kind of posh that can't understand my flat Kiwi vowels, she isn't letting on. But then I don't need to say much: the 51-year-old Pasternak has gale-force opinions on everything from Meghan Markle to marriage, which she hurries to get out, her cut-glass accent tripping over itself.
Not surprisingly, she has a lot to say about her latest book Untitled: The Real Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. Of all the books written about the Duchess and that tumultuous time in history (around 40 at last count), Pasternak believes hers is the first that's "wholly positive".
She says, "History painted Wallis as a frigid, cold dominatrix, an evil woman who caused King Edward VIII to abdicate the throne to marry her. But she was actually a sweet, deeply feminine and vulnerable woman, who remained charming and dignified to the end. She was silenced by the unholy trinity of the church, Parliament and the palace, and the public believed the horrible things they said about her — that she was a Nazi sympathiser, a traitor and a sinister manipulator. But the more I found out about her, the more I was surprised at how lovely she really was."
Having been a journalist for, among others, Vanity Fair and Vogue, Pasternak knows the value of a timely "hook". In this case, the parallels between Meghan Markle and Simpson. Both were 34 when they met their princes, both were American divorcees, both were lashed by the sharp sting of public criticism.
"Wallis paved the way for Meghan and, yes, it is 80 years later but it saddens me that Meghan was given the HRH title, the whole royal family attended her wedding and 29 million people around the world watched it but poor Wallis was denied all of that."
In fact, Pasternak describes Simpson's marriage to the former king as "a tight, tense affair in a French chateau, with only seven British guests present. The palace would never give Wallis the HRH title that Edward so desperately wanted for her, or let the couple live in England. It was unbelievably sad."
If her surname rings any bells, it's because Pasternak broke the story of Princess Diana's affair with Captain James Hewitt in 1986. Although slammed at the time for her book, Princess in Love, Pasternak says that at the 20th anniversary of Diana's death in 2017, people came round to her account of the clandestine affair between the Princess of Wales and "Hewitt the Cad", as he became known. "I felt totally vindicated," she says with a sniff.
It was also alleged Pasternak slept with Hewitt to get the story, a claim she's always denied. I think about asking her but chicken out; it doesn't matter, though, because she's already moved on.
"The media storm didn't put me off writing about royalty and, in fact, I've grown into my role as a biographer. I was 26 when I wrote Princess in Love in 4.5 weeks. I'm older and wiser now and I had two years to write this book, which is a very different book."
Shake the Pasternak family tree and out will fall her great-grandfather Leonid, the impressionist painter, her great-uncle Boris, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who wrote Doctor Zhivago, her grandmother Josephine, a philosopher, and her father Charles, a revered Oxford biochemist. (This is where I'm supposed to say Pasternak is as icy as her lineage suggests but she's not. In fact, if she wasn't so firmly on message, I get the feeling she'd be a right laugh.)
Pasternak has always been Team Wallis, a passion that started when she was studying at Oxford and her mother gave her a book of Wallis and Edward's letters. Thirty years later, while watching The Crown, she was shocked at the way Wallis was inaccurately portrayed.
"I was tired of history painting her as the villain instead of the victim. The time was right to do something about it."
That something was two years of meticulous research, of spending time in elegant homes from London to Marbella talking to Wallis' inner circle.
"Many of them are dead now but I was lucky enough to be introduced to people in their 70s and 80s who were very helpful and generous with their memories."
An essential part of the dot-joining process also involved unearthing books from the 30s written by people such as Diana Vreeland, who described Wallis as charming, stylish and loyal.
"Oddly, no one had bothered to seek out these old books," says Pasternak. But it's how she was able to glean details such as the first meal Wallis cooked for Edward (black bean soup, grilled lobster, fried chicken maryland and a cold raspberry souffle) or that the drawing room of Edward's home, Fort Belvedere, had eight canary yellow leather chairs in eight corners.
Thanks to the Duke of York, Pasternak was also granted permission to visit Wallis' grave at Frogmore, a month after Meghan and Harry held their wedding reception there.
"I was extremely privileged to be able to enter the Royal Burial Ground, where the Duke and Duchess' graves are together. It was a stifling hot day but I dressed up in a silk dress and my mother's pearls, as though I was going to Royal Ascot and laid a bunch of flowers on her grave. I expected to feel sad but I was actually relieved, that this couple were finally accepted in this unique realm when in life they were driven from it."
Although Pasternak believes the book won't change some people's opinions, she hopes it will chime with those interested in hearing a different narrative.
"Many people have no idea that Wallis didn't want to marry Edward but assume she forced him into marrying her, which is absolutely untrue. Or that Edward slept with a gun under this pillow and threatened to kill himself if she left him. Wallis knew that if she didn't marry him and he killed himself, she would have been even more hated and she didn't want to risk that."
It's a conversation that cycles back, eventually, to Meghan Markle. Pasternak admits she feels "very anxious" for the Duchess of Sussex, believing she could "well be a victim of her own popularity".
She says, "It happened to Diana and to the Duchess of York and it could all go terribly wrong for Meghan. At the beginning, we were all so awed by this bi-racial beauty and were impressed at how far the royal family had come in accepting her. But in nine months we've seen that change with the palace leaking negative stories to erode her popularity. And now we've just seen Meghan's baby shower in New York, which looked more like an A-list celebrity party, which the establishment won't like."
Meghan would do well, she says, to heed Diana and Wallis, her great-great-aunt-in-law, to understand that the monarchy is run by the courtiers, or the Grey Men as Diana called them, and that she will have to toe the line.
"The monarchy has only one instinct and that is survival. Harry isn't going to be king so they don't want anyone to take the limelight away from William."
For her next book, Pasternak is taking a welcome break from royalty and turning the biographical spotlight on to 19th century English novelist/poet Thomas Hardy. Or, more specifically, his two wives.
"Hardy has never been seen through the lens of his wives — his muses — and what they suffered. I've found some manuscripts from the 1930s, which should provide a fascinating insight into his life."
Untitled: The Real Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (William Collins, $35).