On a rainy morning a few weeks ago, I wandered into the Metropolitain Brasserie off Sussex for the Ottawa International Writers Festival first literary luncheon of 2015. It was perhaps one of the most exciting lunches I have attended because earlier that week I had attended a Literary Café at York Street Public School that showcased the work of the grade three class we have been running a pilot project with for the last ten weeks. The desks were lined up to showcase the comic books and short stories the children had created in the workshops. The students sat before a roomful of parents and siblings ready to read their group short stories and share what they had learned.
Over the last year that I have been working for the festival and I have attended several of our in-school author visits, but our Write On! pilot project was the first time I got to see what students can produce if they are given the opportunity to let their imagination run wild and work with professional writers and artists. So, attending our literary luncheon with Andrew Morton, I was full of hope knowing this event would not only be fascinating but would help give back to Ottawa students.
When I arrived Andrew Morton was sitting at the bar talking with Development Director Neil Wilson, but their quiet chat didn’t last for long. As our lunch guests began to arrive, many of them recognised Morton and took this pre-lunch opportunity to snap a photo of themselves and the acclaimed journalist and writer. Morton was charming and looked pleased to pose with the women as they came in and to sign books.
The Morton luncheon was a sold out even and the tables were bustling with chatter. Among the guests were many members of The Monarchist League of Canada, including the head of the Ottawa Branch Mary de Toro, and acclaimed journalist Don Newman. Over salad and wine, Morton dished about his research for 17 Carnations with host Jayne Watson, as the last few guests arrived.
As the salad plates were cleared away, Morton and Watson took centre stage and launched into the story of the abdication of Edward VIII. Edward was a reluctant king, Morton explained, who probably never wanted to be king. The story behind his abdication is his poorly regarded love affair with Wallis Simpson. Simpson was an American socialite who was not only a divorcée, but still married while she was courting Edward. When Edward became king he insisted on marrying Simpson, but Parliament and the Royal Family would not hear of it. Edward was headstrong though and when he abdicated before his coronation his love for Simpson was cited as the reason.
There is no reason they could not have been together, Morton explained, if Edward had waited until after his coronation; when he could have quietly ushered Simpson into his life, as one such royal has done in recent years. A chuckle went around the crowd.
The shadowy part of this story of course, is the Nazi connection. Simpson was not simply a lover who fell into Edward’s path but a woman put in his way by Hitler. For years, Morton recounted, Hitler had been looking for ways to win the sympathies of Britain and he saw that in Edward. Simpson was sympathetic to the Nazi cause before she met Edward, having previously a member of the Nazi Party, Hitler saw her as an ideal partner to woo Edward. And Edward was wooed. After abdicating he spent time with Hitler in Germany until he was pulled out of the region by Churchill.
The story of their marriage, of their strange demands and attempts to stay in touch with Hitler make for an interesting narrative, but the most enlightening parts were when Morton shined a light on the real Edward. He recounted a visit Edward took to Canada in his late teens, before he was king. It was probably one of the only times Edward was free, Morton suggested. He didn’t have to think about his duties, or conform to expectations. Canada was in this instance an idyllic land where Edward could truly be himself. Morton also noted that Edward had been quite close to Churchill, though he did not take Churchill’s advice about Simpson, they inevitably began to grow apart.
Throughout the talk, the crowd laughed and I could tell that many of them were familiar with the history and relationships within the Royal Family. This became even more apparent during the questions and answer period where a few men in the audience chimed in to provide further insight into the goings-on of the clan.
After the chat and the meal, I was pleased to talk with one of the men who had been keen on providing such insights. I asked him what had attracted him to this event and to my surprise he hadn’t come because of the Royal Family but because of Wallis Simpson. “She knew what she was doing,” he told me, “she plotted her life and marriages out very carefully. I just find her to be a fascinating person.” And so the saying goes, behind every great man there is an equally great woman.