The relationship between American divorcee Thelma Furness and Prince Edward, pictured at a London movie theatre in April 1932, was an open secret. Photo: Fox Photos/Stringer/Getty Images
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The Other Woman
Thelma Furness was supplanted by Wallis Simpson after she went to the U.S. to support her twin sister in the custody battle over Little Gloria Vanderbilt / BY Kim Honey
It started with Madonna. First-time novelist Bryn Turnbull was working in communications with a Toronto political consulting firm when she sat down to watch the superstar’s directorial debut in the 2011 biopic W.E. The film, which took its name from the way Prince Edward and his married American lover, Wallis Simpson, signed their names to a gift card, delved into the epic royal scandal that prompted Edward to abdicate the British throne in 1936 so he could marry twice-divorced Wallis. The crown, of course, went to his brother, Bertie, Queen Elizabeth II’s father. Turnbull, 32, watched the scene where Thelma Furness, also a married woman and Gloria Vanderbilt’s twin sister, asks Wallis to look after Edward – then the Prince of Wales and Thelma’s lover – while she steams off to New York to support her sister in the headline-grabbing custody battle over Little Gloria Vanderbilt.
Known as the “poor little rich girl,” Gloria Jr. grew up to be a renowned fashion designer and U.S. journalist Anderson Cooper’s mother. “It just really stuck with me,” Turnbull says in a recent interview from her Toronto home, where she is at work on her second historical novel about another famous royal family, Russia’s Romanov dynasty. “Even if it’s someone who’s a good friend of yours, it’s still a very strange request to make of somebody, to look after your lover while you’re away. ”
After falling down “a Wikipedia rabbit hole,” she discovered that Thelma, the daughter of American diplomat Harry Morgan and his wife, Laura, not only lost Edward to Wallis with that doomed request, she ended up supporting her penniless sister after “the trial of the century” saw custody of Little Gloria – and the management of a $2.5 million trust fund – go to Gloria’s late husband’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.“Thelma was just such an interesting character to be at the nexus of these two really, really important seminal moments in history in the early 20th century,” says Turnbull.
The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal opens with Thelma recalling her lunch at The Ritz tea room in London with Wallis, where she worries about Edward’s wandering eye.“I’ll be gone such a long time – what if someone turns his head?” she asks. “I can’t pretend it’s not a possibility,” Wallis replies. “He will be awfully lonely without you.” Even though readers know how the story ends, Turnbull says she began there because it was her introduction to Thelma. “That was always where the book was going to start, with this moment between them and then looking back on everything that leads up to that moment. ”
The historical novel leans on previously published accounts, but Turnbull has an eye for telling details that make the characters come alive, not to mention a mastery of imputing motives to explain their actions. In Double Exposure, Gloria and Thelma’s joint 1958 autobiography, she learned that Thelma taught Edward needlepoint, while Barbara Goldsmith’s Little Gloria … Happy at Last gave her insight into the courtroom battle. Edward, Wallis and Gloria Vanderbilt Jr. all wrote memoirs, which helped to “get into the voices in their heads and their head spaces.”
The book is a rollicking tale of the British aristocracy in the ’20s and ’30s, a world where women marry for money and status and men marry for arm candy and heirs. Children are raised by nannies and come down from the nursery, freshly scrubbed, to see their parents at tea time. There are couture gowns and diamond-encrusted tiaras, rivers of champagne, shooting parties at country estates and vacations on the French Riviera.
Although the title might lead some readers to believe the book is a love story about Thelma and Edward – and it does delve deeply into her four-year affair with the prince and subsequent divorce from wealthy U.K. shipping magnate Viscount Duke Furness – Turnbull knew early on it wasn’t about a royal romance. “As I went through the research and as I started to get to know Thelma more, I realized that her sister was the great love of her life, and I would say that she was the great love of her sister’s life, too,” the author explains. “It is a story about this unbreakable bond between sisters and what they’ll do for each other and how, when one needs strength, the other will provide it. ” Although she is not a twin – even though they do run in the family – Turnbull dedicated her first novel to her sister. “I’m lucky to have that kind of relationship with my sister, as well. So I knew from the get-go that this book was meant for Hayley.”
In her author’s note, Turnbull recounts how, when Thelma dropped dead of a heart attack on a Manhattan street in 1970, she was carrying a little stuffed bear from Edward in her purse. It was one of a set the lovers used to exchange at the height of their romance, a remembrance for the times they had to be apart. It didn’t take long for Thelma to realize upon her return to England, as she wrote in her memoir, that Wallis had looked after Edward “exceedingly well.”
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