For the 108th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, Ryan Linkof discusses his research on the Prince of Wales, Wallis Simpson, and the Prehistory of the Paparazzi.
Ryan is a curator, educator, and writer. He is currently Curator at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. He is the author of Public Images (Routledge, 2018), and his research has appeared in multiple exhibition catalogues, edited volumes, and scholarly journals.
Featured Image: King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936. (National Media Museum)
Ryan Linkof: Most of the tactics and technologies used by the photographers who had earned the name paparazzi in the 1950’s were firmly in place the generation before.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew – and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Twenty-five years ago in August 1997, Princess Diana died in a car crash with paparazzi stalking her to the very end. More recently, her son, Prince Harry, removed himself and his family from the glare of royal life in part due to concern that history would repeat itself. Yet the troubled history of the paparazzi and the royal family goes back even further to the 1930s when Edward VIII began dating American divorcé Wallis Simpson.
The prince met Simpson in 1931 while she was still married to her second husband. By the time Edward became king in January 1936, Simpson was widely recognized as the royal mistress and they were hounded by photographers. By the end of the year, Edward abdicated the throne over his desire to marry Simpson. On today’s show, Ryan Linkof discusses his research, The Photographic Attack on His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, Wallis Simpson and The Pre-History of the Paparazzi.
Ryan, welcome to the show. Why were you interested in looking at photographic news coverage of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson?
Ryan Linkof: I’m glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me. As someone who studied British history – and I think truthfully like a lot of Americans who’ve never studied British history – I have a certain level of fascination with the British royal family. The Edward and Wallis story in particular is such a rich and interesting episode in the history of the royals.
The brief reign of Edward VIII, it was less than a year in 1936. And his abdication that resulted with a relationship with a woman who was twice divorced and who was – it should be noted – still married when their relationship began. It’s quite a thrilling bit of royal soap opera. And it encapsulates I think so many of the core tensions of the British royal family that we’ve now come to learn through The Crown and many, many other film media properties.
The tension between modernity and tradition; the mortal terror associated with scandal within an institution organized around stability and continuity; and the fairy tale quality of a story of a king who was willing to sacrifice his position and privilege for the woman he loved. And as someone who has long been interested in media culture and the phenomena of celebrity and the role of photography in mediating the public’s relationship to famous people, the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson was kind of everything wrapped into one package: power, privilege, sex, scandal and the consequences of visibility.
When I started researching and writing a dissertation on the origins of tabloid celebrity culture – which I’m happy to report I’ve now published his book on – it quickly – it quickly became clear that this moment really crystallized much of what we still see in the media’s treatment of celebrities. This story represents the role of photography within celebrity culture as a kind of device for seeing beyond the sanctioned and approved façade of the rich and famous.
Photographs promise kind of unvarnished proof of the couple’s controversial relationship. Whether or not photographs actually provide that kind of truth I think is another question. But they were offered as that kind of evidence of the secret activities of this incredibly important and highly public personality. So I saw in a way in this episode and the relationship between these two people in the media coverage of it a germ of what would become a kind of central part, I think, of contemporary media culture, which is this fascination with seeing photographs of celebrities and their private lives.
Teri Finneman: Yeah. So you write that Edward VIII more than any other royal figure before him transformed the British royals into celebrities. So give us some of the history of why that was and what mass communication was like during this time.
Ryan Linkof: Yes. It’s a complicated question in some ways because it requires a few definitions and primarily defining what we mean by “celebrity.”
So scholars, such as Leo Braudy and others, have argued that celebrity is a modern version of the ancient concept of fame, which has historically applied to people of immense power and prestige, usually kings, emperors or figures of great political or historical significance. Fame in this classical sense was a kind of eternal renown.
Celebrity, on the other hand, is more ephemeral, more reliant on image-based media and contingent on popular taste and sentiment. Celebrities are what Daniel Boorstin described as, “People who are famous for being famous.” Or to use his great phrase, “Well known for their well-known-ness.” In many ways, the British royals are kind of both an archaic, ancient form of fame based in inherited power but also figures operating within a media-saturated environment. And of course, royals were subject to public comment and ridicule since medieval times if not before.
But political satire is not quite the same kind of thing as celebrity culture that emerged in the 20th century in particular. And – and Edward – is in many ways the first royal celebrity because he came of age alongside the modern press machine – he was a dashing and modern playboy in the 1920’s just as the photographic press was coming into formation.
And he was often described in American papers in particular as a kind of Hollywood matinee idol, his unpretentious demeanor. Um, he was really not rigid and stuff in his public presentation like [laughs] his father and great-grandfather and [Queen] Victoria. That made him kind of attractive to reporters and photographers. He also dressed in current fashions and put a lot of thought into his public presentation.
And so, for all of those reasons, he was kind of custom-made for the photographic press that emerged in the early years of the 20th century. We should note that, by and large, the press that existed in the 1890s when Edward was born was still very much a sober, respectful business with few notable exceptions, of course, especially in the UK.
The turn of the century saw the rise of new models of journalism, in particular what came to be called the tabloid press, which was a – a term actually borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry as a kind of hybrid of tablet and alkaloid and this kind of news in pill form, the tabloids were given this moniker due to their reduced size and simplified language and content. Um, these tabloid newsletters also placed greater emphasis on personality journalism, which focused on the social activities, stylistic choices and private lives of notable people.
And importantly, they privileged photographic images over traditional written reporting. So Edward in a sense grew up alongside this new kind of reporting. And by the 1930s when the scandal of Edward and – and Wallis broke, photographic journalism had emerged as a major cultural force. So that’s all to say he kind of was – kind of came to maturity at the same moment as a lot of the media kind of mechanisms that we now take for granted.
Teri Finneman: Listeners nowadays are very familiar with the role of the paparazzi with the royal family, especially with Diana. And now with Prince Harry’s concerns about safety making even more recent headlines. So tell us more about the early history of the paparazzi.
Ryan Linkof: In many ways in this moment it was – it was very similar. My – my book kinda makes the argument that most of the tactics and technologies used by the photographers who would earn the name “paparazzi” in the 1950s were firmly in place the generation before. So cameramen gathered in large numbers in front of courthouses, at private parties, aristocratic weddings, debutant balls, elite resort destinations and other events that attracted celebrities, and the image of the aggressive, violent mob of photographers was already a caricature by the 1920s and ’30s. So it’s also important to note that most press cameras were medium-format reflect cameras at this time.
So they were not small, which meant that having a camera in your face was – was really quite obtrusive and also, in this period, new technologies kind of changed the field: the advent of the flashbulb, for example, allowed photographers to move in just spaces that would’ve been impossible before because they were just too dark to photograph. Um, and the – the blinding flash of the bulbs was truly [laughs] startling and caused temporary blindness in those who were photographed.
And there were also complaints that the cameramen were discarding their bulbs carelessly. ‘Cause once they made one photograph, one flash, it was useless. They would kind of throw them into these – what were described as these kind of heaps of shattered and discarded glass. In one instance, there was actually like an example of them doing this out of primary school. So there were children around all the broken glass. Some cameramen experimented with telephoto lenses, which were invented as a device for war surveillance.
And one photographer that I wrote about – James Jarché – became famous for his tactics of disguising himself to gain entrance to exclusive parties and then jumping out to take photographs and running away with his prize image. The introduction in the late-1930s of what we call – what were called then miniature cameras.
What we would now call 35-millimeter phone camera – helped push these tactics of so-called invasive photography even further, given that the cameras could be much more effectively concealed. Um, and all of this really led to debates in the press and eventually in parliament and in the courts about the limits of press intrusion into private life, and these debates helped forge some of the modern language of privacy rights, in fact.
Teri Finneman: So tell us a little bit more about the photographers of the time and their strategies for covering Edward. You mentioned a few of them by name – including Stanley Devon, whom you called one of the crafty photographers following the couple around.
Ryan Linkof: Yeah. So as Prince of Wales – and remember, Edward had many titles: Prince of Wales, Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor. So as Prince of Wales, before he became king, he was getting constantly swarmed by photographers, really as early as the 1920s in public settings.
And this really became part of his daily experience and one that he wrote about with a considerable amount of frustration and even pathos. And when it came to covering the relationship of Edward and Wallis, photographers did basically everything they could to get photographs of the pair together.
The news of their relationship was widely known by at lest 1934. The abdication was two years later, and photographs from the UK but also from around the world – uh, photographers, sorry, from around – from the UK and also from around the world, tracked them down in their various excursions together to capture images for publication. A number of press photographers of the era published memoirs and autobiographies in which they bragged of their achievements, which often including hunting down images of Edward.
He was a kind of key subject for most photographers of the moment. While these photographers may have exaggerated to some degree, their stories are corroborated in the reports of members of the royal family and the security detail.
Stanley Devon – who you – who you mention was responsible for some of the most daring photographic feats really on assignment from the tabloid The Daily Sketch, he chartered an airplane that he used to fly above a yacht in which Edward and Wallis were vacationing, circling above and swooping down to get close enough to capture photographs. And these were reported to security and were commented at the time.
Devon also disguised his camera and his coat to get close to the couple and snap the photograph that was later widely reproduced. And other photographers dressed up as local fishermen when they were in these Mediterranean locations to find ways to get closer to them without alerting them to their presence, and not all instances, of course, were quite so dramatic.
In some cases, the couple came to the photographer, as was the case with a photographer named A.V. Swaebe, who made a career photographing high society figures at night clubs around London. And he captures images of the couple that he later was able to sell when the scandal broke.
And it – also in my research, they also uncovered a really remarkable photograph taken outside of the castle in France where the couple was eventually married. It shows this huge phalanx of photographers and film cameramen attempting to take photographs through the bushes and trees of the property. So people were really using every resource they had to – to kind of find images and go to great lengths to find them.
Teri Finneman: You note in what seems almost unbelievable today – given the notoriously rowdy and invasive reputation of the British tabloids – nearly every British newspaper refrained from reporting on the relationship until a few days before the abdication was announced. Why was that? Why did the British newspapers hold off on this even though photographers were gathering all of these photos?
Ryan Linkof: That really is one of the most remarkable aspects of the entire scandal. A conspiracy of silence kept news of the relationship out of the British press until the abdication itself. So this – remember, the relationship had ben kind of ongoing for a couple years and was fairly widely known. Most of the magnates who ran the local newspapers were deferential to the royal family.
In part because they were often in high political circles where good connections to the royal families carried significant weight, so they didn’t wanna disrupt that relationship. The king actually contacted the major press barons directly, imploring them to remain silent while the matter was addressed within the royal house.
An agreement to keep silent was largely brokered by Lord Beaverbrook who ran the most popular daily newspaper, The Daily Express. And some stories did surface in the British press, but they were few and far between and did not receive much attention. The American press, on the other hand, was quite assertive in its coverage, making bold claims about their relationship between the king and Wallis Simpson and showing photographs of the two together as far back as the mid-1930s.
These newspapers even, really, ridiculed the British press for their silence and kind of laughed at their deference. The fascinating thing about this silence was that newspapers still sent their photographers into the field to capture images of the couple together. So as far back as 1934, British press photographers sought out images that showed the budding relationship between Edward and Wallis. This is often done – it should be noted – on assignment from their editor.
So clearly editors and publishers knew that these photographs would be useful and worth the investment and resources to track them down. These were often kind of international trips once the news broke. So finding photographs of Wallis Simpson was particularly crucial because she really was not a famous person up to the point and few photographers – photographers – photographs, I’m sorry, of her really existed.
And in order to have fresh images to show, editors put special emphasis on capturing her photograph. She actually fled England to France when the scandal broke in an effort to avoid publicity, but it really followed her there. And – and in one instance, she was forced to climb out the back window of where she was staying to avoid a siege of photographers.
Teri Finneman: Wow. So, I mean, going off of that, you wrote something that feels particularly eerie today: the need for photographs of Simpson was particularly acute and she quickly became the most coveted photographic subject on Earth. It’s – it’s really troubling to think that nothing improved in that Diana suffered as a result of the same obsessive media behavior, and now Meghan Markle has continued to feel the consequences into the present day to the point that Harry removed them from royal duties.
Again, you wrote this about Edward, but it feels like it could be written about Harry when you wrote, “The press photographers prove to be a constant source of anxiety in the prince’s life and he never adapted to the camera’s invasive eye.”
What do you think should be the red line for photographers covering the royal family since this history is just not changing almost 100 years later?
Ryan Linkof: It’s such an important question. And I think a tricky one in certain ways. Because I’m of two minds about this. In part because I do feel that these images, for all of their cruelty at times, truly – you know, accurately describe them – really do play an important part in modern democratic societies. It is the job of the press, and a photographer, is to keep social elites accountable for their actions.
I think current political realities have shown that the press does really play that role. And photographers also, as kind of the apparatus of the press, play the role of holding social elites’ feet to the fire. In that way, we do need a certain amount of liberty for photographers to do this kind of work, even if we personally think it’s distasteful.
And that’s sad, of course. Really, there aren’t ethically moral and legal limits that are and should be in place. And I think the conversations are ongoing in terms of the limits of those, and those are necessary and reasonable and important conversations to have. Violations of people’s personal property for one and behavior that puts anyone at risk of physical danger should be effectively addressed and regulated without a doubt – and are in many instances. It is important to note that the examples that you cite I think illustrate a gender imbalance in press coverage.
Female celebrities have often paid the highest price for public visibility. We see that in the case of, you know, many examples. Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan and, of course, Princess Diana. And more recently Meghan Markle. The reasons for this are legion, I’m sure, and people who deserve their own kind of podcast rooted in part in misogyny in the ease with which the media objectifies women and commodifies their private lives. And many female celebrities have expressed their feelings of terror when facing down a hoard of larger, almost exclusively male photographers who have very little respect for personal space.
So those are all really important concerns to keep in mind. And I think the way in which gender inflects these concerns is important. And I think Markle’s case is particularly significant in the ways in which it shows how race and gender interact within the space of media coverage and photographic attentions.
The vile ways in which the British tabloids treated her and reported about her family life and racial background certainly compounded the anxieties and fears that all royals have faced in the – in the face of the press and the paparazzi. So there are many concerns and there’s been a number of ongoing discussions in British political discourse – in parliament even – kind of looking into these behaviors and tactics and starting to formulate more rigid rules around the limits of access.
Teri Finneman: And then you’ve mentioned a book a few times. Go ahead and tell us the name of your book and a little bit more about it.
Ryan Linkof: Yeah. So, um, it started as a dissertation It came out in 2018. It’s now available as a paperback through Routledge. It’s called Public Images, Photography Celebrity and the Birth of the Tabloid Press.
Uh, so it really looks at the origins of – of tabloid reporting: specifically tabloid photographic reporting around celebrities and the kind of tensions between public life and private life.
Teri Finneman: And then this is a question that we ask all of our guests. “Why does journalism history matter?”
Ryan Linkof: It’s a very important question and one that – and this might be too easy of an answer [laughs]. Um, but I’d say that it matters in part because in many ways journalism is history. Right? Journalism – journalists are reporting and commenting on events, and in the process they really are kind of making history and making the kind of record that historians use.
And – and as historians, we often look to the press for perspective on the past and also to help us understand how certain events or public figures were understood in their moment. Its’s not an overstatement to say that journalism encapsulates the cultural moment and provides an endless well of information for future generations interested in the past.
And I think this is even more true in a certain sense in the present moment when the boundaries between journalism and personal expression are increasingly blurred on social media channels, like Twitter and other places.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Ryan Linkof: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R Murrow: good night and good luck.