The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal

Written by Bryn Turnbull
Review by Janice Ottersberg

The real-life socialites Thelma and Gloria Morgan are the twin daughters of American diplomat Harry Morgan. Thelma became the mistress of the Prince of Wales, while Gloria married into the Vanderbilt family. Turnbull travels between Paris and America as she reimagines the tangled lives of these two famous women during the 1920s and ‘30s.

When Thelma’s second marriage to Viscount Furness begins to fall apart, she starts a long-term affair with David, the future Edward VIII, who is next in line for the British throne. When Gloria’s husband Reggie Vanderbilt dies, she oversees their young daughter’s inheritance. Her sister-in-law, Gertrude, sees Gloria as an unfit parent and irresponsible in handling Little Gloria’s money. This begins a long and nasty custody battle for Little Gloria. The press has a feeding frenzy over the secrets revealed during the trial, including the scandalous accusations of her mother’s affair with another woman. Thelma rushes to America to support her sister during the trial while her relationship with David falls apart. Wallis Simpson steps into Thelma’s place by David’s side, setting off the events that lead to his abdication of Britain’s throne.

The novel jumps between the Vanderbilt trial in 1934 and Thelma’s and Gloria’s lives in the 1920s. Although this dual-time narrative is the trend now, it does not work for this novel. The two close timeframes make the narrative confusing. Despite this drawback, I enjoyed the book because of the glimpse into a very different, exclusive world: the royal life of the Prince as he and Thelma socialize with his friends and family, and the childhood upheavals Little Gloria went through before becoming the famous fashion designer, Gloria Vanderbilt. I recommend this juicy read about the scandals and lives of the rich, famous, and royal.