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Wallis Simpson

Wallis Simpson

The romance between Wallis Simpson (1896-1986) and the Duke of Windsor caused one of the biggest scandals in the history of the British monarchy. She was a twice-divorced American, and "David," as she called the man who briefly reigned as King Edward VIII, was forced to abdicate his throne in order to marry her.

Simpson was born Bessie-Wallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, a spa town where her parents had gone to help cure her father's tuberculosis. It was a futile attempt, for Teackle Wallis Warfield died just a few months later, leaving Alice Montague Warfield an impoverished widow. Both families hailed from the Old South, but the Montagues of Virginia had lost their fortune after the Civil War. Ironically, Wallis Warfield Simpson's genealogy gave her technically more English blood than members of the British royal family, who later shunned her. Until World War I, the House of Windsor had actually been called the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a line created by several intermarriages between English and German royal cousins.

An Impoverished Childhood

Teackle Warfield had been an unsuccessful Baltimore businessman. After his death, Alice and Bessie-Wallis moved in with her mother-in-law in Baltimore. Hostilities between the women quickly escalated and they were forced to relocate to a dismal section of the city, where Alice Warfield was the proprietress of a boardinghouse for a time. In the end, however, the women were supported by the charity of Teackle's wealthy brother, Solomon Warfield. It was this uncle who paid the tuition for the private schools that Wallis attended.

By the time she was eighteen, Wallis had become an attractive young woman, known for her poised manners and vivacious personality. On a visit to Florida in 1916, she met a young naval lieutenant, Earl Winfield Spencer, and the two quickly fell in love. A native of Chicago, Spencer was one of the first twenty men in the U.S. Navy to earn pilot's wings. They married in November 1916. The brief courtship had not revealed Spencer's fondness for drink. The couple lived on the Pensacola naval base, which Wallis, as she was then known, detested. A deafening crash gong would sound whenever one of the base's planes had gone down. Once it tolled for her husband, who was fortunately unhurt when his aircraft dove into the bay. From these experiences she acquired a hatred of planes, and would suffer from a lifelong fear of flying.

Lived in Asia

Wallis eventually separated from Spencer and settled in Washington near her mother. Her uncle forbade her to petition for divorce, which was a very scandalous legal act at the time. When Spencer was posted to the Far East, she conducted an affair with a dashing Argentinean diplomat. After he tired of her, she was brokenhearted, and joined Spencer in China in 1924. Though the marriage soon disintegrated once more, Wallis remained in China for over two years. She lived with some friends, American raconteurs by the name of Herman and Katherine Rogers, and supplemented her meager income as a naval officer's wife with poker-game winnings.

In 1926, Wallis defied her family and moved to Virginia for a year, in order to obtain a divorce. When her uncle died, she inherited a small trust fund that yielded $60 a month. She had probably counted on a more generous sum, since it was nearly impossible for a woman of her well-heeled, but unskilled and uneducated status to earn any income on her own in 1927. Instead, her disapproving uncle had directed that the bulk of his fortune be used to establish a home for "aged and indigent gentlewomen," where, according to the terms of his will, a room was to be reserved permanently for his niece, should she need it.

Second Marriage

Before her divorce became final, in late 1927, Wallis had already met Anglo-American businessman, Ernest Simpson. This well-to-do, cultured Harvard alumnus had also extracted himself from an unhappy marriage. He moved to London to run his family's shipping business, while she stayed with friends in the south of France. Before long, she accepted Simpson's proposal of marriage, having few other alternatives. They married in July 1928.

In London, the Simpsons fell into a circle of well-connected American expatriates, and became friendly with Thelma, Viscountess Furness, who—though married—was also the mistress of the Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne. Simpson was known for her scathing wit and clever banter as a dinner guest. She and the prince probably met in January 1931. "David," as the prince was known, was a charming, affable man two years her senior, described as the world's most eligible bachelor. Though perhaps not in possession of a keen intelligence, the future king was a good soul who enjoyed gardening, bagpipe-playing, and charming women.

Hand of Fate Forced Resolution

The prince soon became a frequent dinner guest at the Simpson home on Bryanston Square, and even bestowed upon Wallis a cairn puppy as a gift, after noticing her fondness for his own dogs. They began traveling together. Buckingham Palace courtiers were becoming distressed by the affair of the king's eldest son with a married, once-divorced American woman. The prince appeared to be deeply in love with Simpson. When she learned that her husband was having an affair in New York, Simpson hired a lawyer recommended by the prince.

Their blithe romance suddenly became a critical matter when King George V died on January 20, 1936. The Prince of Wales ascended to the British throne as Edward VIII, but the coronation would not take place until the spring of 1937, after an appropriate period of mourning. Despite his new duties as ruler of 486 million subjects, he and Simpson continued to be inseparable. In late 1936, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, confronted the new king over the affair. Edward firmly declared his intention to marry Simpson once her divorce was finalized. As rumors began trickling out in the British press, public and conservative clerical furor escalated. A constitutional crisis was feared. If the king disregarded parliamentary "advice" regarding suitable spouses for the royal family, there was the possibility of the entire government resigning in protest. Parliament would then have to be dissolved, and a general election called. The very end of the monarchy itself was predicted.

As word of her impending divorce leaked, Simpson began receiving abusive letters. Crowds gathered outside her London apartment. Her divorce would be final in April 1937, and the coronation was slated for May 12. The new king planned to boycott the ceremony unless he was allowed to marry Simpson, since no actual statute barred him from marrying anyone of his choosing, except a Roman Catholic. The king's surprising new sympathies toward millions of unemployed Welsh miners further alienated him from the ruling Tory government. Simpson departed England and tried to dissuade him from placing his throne in jeopardy.


A firm display of political opposition finally drove the exhausted and distraught king to abdicate his throne. On December 10, 1936, Edward announced his intentions in a radio broadcast to the nation. He declared: "I have found it impossible to carry out the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love." This concluded one of the most heavily reported media stories of the decade. The former king was given the title Duke of Windsor, while his brother "Bertie," ascended to the throne. The new duke agreed to never return to England without permission of the reigning sovereign, in exchange for a generous annual income.

After a separation of several more months, before her divorce was final, Simpson and the Duke were wed at a chateau in France. The terrier that the duke had once given her, was sent to Simpson as their day of reconciliation neared. Shortly after the dog's arrival in France, he was bitten by a snake and died. Simpson considered it an ominous sign and wept profusely.

Simpson and the duke were married on June 3, 1937. The Anglican cleric who performed the ceremony was formally reprimanded. No member of the royal family attended the festivities. The duke received a letter from his brother, the new king, stating that any children resulting from his marriage to Simpson would not be royal and that his new bride would be denied the title of "Her Royal Highness (HRH)."

Fear of Abduction

After their marriage, the Windsors toured Nazi Germany and were received by Adolf Hitler, a trip which further eroded popular support. When war erupted between England and Germany in 1939, the duke was immediately recalled to England and given a military commission in France. When the German army invaded France, they fled to neutral Spain and then Portugal. Winston Churchill, now prime minister, offered the duke a government post, but he dallied before accepting it in an attempt to win the "HRH" title for his wife. British leaders were concerned that the couple's previous display of Nazi sympathy made them vulnerable. The Germans, it was feared, could abduct the Windsors and re-install the duke on the British throne after a successful invasion of the British Isles.

The duke was safely ensconced as governor of the Bahamas in August 1940. He and the duchess lived there for five years and very much disliked the heat. Her only consolation was the occasional shopping trip to New York or Palm Beach. In 1941, it was reported that she and the duke visited a Canadian ranch with 146 pieces of luggage. This incident sparked a period of negative publicity about the Duchess of Windsor and her extravagant tastes in clothes and jewelry.

A Life of Glamorous Leisure

Following the war's end, the Windsors lived primarily in France, eventually settling several miles outside of Paris at a home on the Bois de Boulogne. They each penned autobiographies in the 1950s (hers was titled The Heart Has Its Reasons) and she regularly appeared on lists of the world's best-dressed women. By the late 1960s, the duke had reconciled somewhat with his family. In 1967, he and the duchess returned to England for a formal visit. The duke had been a lifelong smoker, and was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1971. Queen Elizabeth visited the couple at their Paris home. The duke died on May 28, 1972 and his widow was invited to stay at Buckingham Palace for the funeral. A telephoto lens captured her watching the annual Trooping of the Colors, always held on the queen's birthday, from a window at the palace. She looked utterly bereft.

Back in Paris, the duchess rarely entertained after her husband's death. She began to suffer increasing health problems, including coronary artery disease. In the 1980s she lived in near-total seclusion, rarely seen in public. She died at home in Paris on April 24, 1986. The bulk of her estate was left to the Pasteur Institute, a leader in HIV/AIDS research. She is buried alongside the duke in the royal mausoleum at Frogmore.

Further Reading

Birmingham, Stephen, Duchess: The Story of Wallis Warfield Simpson, Little, Brown, 1981.

Dictionary of National Biography, 1986-1990, edited by C. S.Nicholls, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Garrett, Richard, Mrs. Simpson, St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Martin, Ralph, The Woman He Loved, Simon & Schuster, 1973. □

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