Windsor, Wallis Warfield, Duchess of (1895–1986)

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Windsor, Wallis Warfield, duchess of (1895–1986)

American-born wife of Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne of England for the woman he loved. Name variations: Bessie Wallis Warfield (1895–1916); Wallis Spencer (1916–25); Wallis Simpson (1928–36); Duchess of Windsor (1936–86). Born out of wedlock as Bessie Wallis Warfield at the Monterey Inn, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, on June 19, 1895 (many sources incorrectly cite 1896); died in France on April 24, 1986; daughter of Teackle Wallis Warfield and Alice Montague Warfield (1869–1929); married Earl Winfield "Win" Spencer (a navy aviator), in 1916 (divorced 1925); married Ernest Simpson, in 1928 (divorced 1936); married Edward VIII (1894–1972), king of England (r. 1936–1936) and duke of Windsor, in 1937; no children.

King George V of England was a well-loved king, and greatly mourned at his death in 1936. His son Edward (VIII), prince of Wales, was almost universally admired by the British public who expected great things of their new monarch. But between his father's funeral and his own planned coronation, the news broke that Edward was involved in a love affair with an American woman, Wallis Simpson, who was not only a foreigner but also a double divorcée. He refused to give her up; the prime minister refused to accept her, and so, in an unprecedented drama, the king abdicated his throne to marry Mrs. Simpson. Widely billed as "the romance of the century," the 1936 crisis led to a long, childless marriage in exile for the couple, ending with his death in 1972 and hers in 1986.

Wallis Warfield was born illegitimately in June 1895 and her parents, both from Southern families living in Baltimore, married only a year and a half later. Wallis later lied about the circumstances of her birth as about many other details. When her father Teackle Warfield died of tuberculosis six months after the marriage, her mother Alice Montague Warfield took her to live with her sister, who as "Aunt Bessie" would be a lifelong confidante. Poorer than many of her relatives—her uncle was one of America's wealthiest railroad entrepreneurs—Warfield early conceived the ambition to be socially successful and rich. She did not think of herself as a great beauty, but as historian Philip Ziegler notes she had "fine eyes, a radiant complexion, an excellent figure, and a sense of style which was refined with time but apparent from the moment she first took responsibility for her own appearance." Ziegler adds that she compensated for only modest intellectual and artistic accomplishments by deploying "wit, a blazing vitality … and a shrewd perception of masculine weaknesses…. In society she was ruthless and vora cious." Her mother followed her ill-fated first marriage with an equally ill-fated second one in 1908, to a lazy alcoholic who died five years later: Wallis determined to do better.

She attended one of Maryland's most exclusive girls' boarding schools, Oldfields, and, thanks to the munificence of her uncle, had a successful debutante season in Baltimore in 1914. After a string of flirtations she married Earl Winfield Spencer, a Navy aviator, in 1916. He was stationed at Pensacola and during their engagement she witnessed several fatal air crashes, which gave her a persistent fear of flying. Spencer was popular, daring, and rich, but he too proved to be a flagrant alcoholic, so troublesome that, even in the early days of American involvement in World War I, the Navy declined to send him to active duty in France. The couple began spending longer periods apart after an unhappy stay in San Diego during which he also showed homosexual tendencies.

When, after the war, Spencer was stationed in China, Wallis moved to Washington, D.C., and undertook scandalous love affairs with an Argentinean diplomat and Prince Gelasio Caetani, ambassador from Mussolini's Italy, who taught her to admire fascism. In 1924, she was sent to the Far East, partly to be reunited with her husband but also, apparently, to carry confidential military information which the Navy did not want to broadcast by radio. During the later British abdication crisis, a variety of stories circulated to the effect that Wallis Spencer was really, at that point, a Russian spy, that she was selling opium, even that she was studying erotic arts in the Shanghai brothels. The stories emanated from an alleged 1935 "China dossier" which King George V was rumored to have ordered when he realized how serious his son's affair with Mrs. Simpson was becoming. Better documented is an affair she had there with another Italian fascist, Count Galeazzo Ciano. She became pregnant by him, underwent an abortion, and as a result was to suffer for the rest of her life with gynecological complications and infertility. Whatever the truth of the wilder "China" stories, we do know that her attempted reconciliation with Spencer failed and the couple was formally divorced in 1925.

Her second husband, in striking contrast to the first, was Ernest Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping entrepreneur who had served in an English Guards regiment. He was Jewish—the real family name was Solomons—but he kept the fact a secret even from his own daughter by a previous marriage and from Wallis herself. They began an affair in 1925 but his marriage and Wallis' lack of passion for him made it seem no more than another passing liaison at first. Then Ernest's first wife divorced him for adultery and Wallis, finding single life without much money too restrictive, accepted his long-standing offer of marriage. Ernest was a connoisseur of art and architecture, rich, complacent, and well read, and he tried to interest her in his many intellectual diversions. They married in 1928 and settled in London, where she soon became a popular hostess.

Among the Simpsons' circle of friends was Thelma Furness , an American heiress and one of the prince of Wales' many mistresses. Furness introduced Wallis to Edward in 1931, and they met periodically over the next few years, becoming steadily closer friends. The prince was already renowned in high society for his love affairs and his eccentric private behavior. He was obsessed with remaining thin and fit, liked to fly, play tennis, golf, and polo, did daily calisthenics and ate guardedly. His sartorial casualness stood in strong contrast to his father's formality, and his love of jazz transformed the mood of royal entertainments. His love affair with Wallis Simpson seems to have begun in early 1934 when

Thelma Furness was away, visiting New York. Ernest Simpson, fully aware of what was happening, connived in the affair, perhaps because he enjoyed the social distinction of being so regularly in royal company.

Most of the prince's household were appalled by Wallis Simpson, whom they found vulgar, ambitious, and hard-hearted. His equerry, John Aird, wrote in August 1934 that, when the royal party at Biarritz was out of the public eye, the prince "has lost all confidence in himself and follows W. around like a dog." Aiming to make her position permanent, Wallis persuaded the prince to cut off all contact with his former lovers, including Thelma Furness and even Freda Dudley Ward , the wife of a Liberal member of Parliament with whom he had been involved for more than a decade. Wallis herself was amazed at the way she had now become the cynosure of all eyes in high society. As one biographer records: "Wallis was immensely excited by these unfamiliar social attentions; there is something touchingly naive about her delight in them…. In her letters to her aunt that year she writes of her life with the Prince … as a fairy tale which is bound to come to an end sooner or later but which she is determined to enjoy while it lasts…. 'I never had so much fun before or things so easy and I might as well finish up what youth is left to me with a flourish.'" She was then 39.

Never, it was contended, had there been such a human-interest story since Mark Antony sacrificed an Empire for Cleopatra…. On this occasion, American journalists were determined that no leavings should remain to be used by some subsequent Shakespeare.

—Malcolm Muggeridge

Already familiar with Italian fascism, she now found herself being courted by the Nazi German diplomatic corps, which were cultivating the prince and understood the need to welcome his favorites too. These contacts, and the dogged support of the British Union of Fascists which she and the prince enjoyed during the abdication crisis, linked her name with fascism permanently and added to her unpopularity in later years. The Germans, knowing of the prince's horrified reaction to the First World War and his eagerness to avoid all future European conflicts, anticipated neutralizing Britain in the coming era of German expansion—he was the embodiment of "appeasement."

The old king's death and funeral in 1936 brought the prince of Wales to the throne. He now moved into Buckingham Palace, where Wallis was a frequent visitor, and together they made drastic changes in the economy of the royal palace and household. Her high-handedness was beginning to win Wallis enemies, however, and the situation escalated into a political crisis when Ernest Simpson declared that he and Wallis were getting a divorce, and the king told the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that he intended to marry her and make her queen. Her letters throughout the crisis show that, though she was determined to marry him if possible, she did not love him; that indeed she regarded his infantile sex play with her and his perpetual telephone calls as annoying. But even detractors had to admit that the king was far happier with her than he had been at any other stage of his life, that she had moderated his drinking and smoking, and that he was delighted by her brusque and domineering manner with him.

The British press of the 1930s was deferential to the royal family, and gave no hint of the mounting crisis or the prince's improprieties. Edward had to endure none of the glaring exposure of his descendants 50 years later. But the American press showed no such restraint, and began publishing lurid stories about the liaison, which fueled the rumors spreading rapidly through England. H.L. Mencken described the scandal as "the best news story since the Resurrection." For awhile, English distributors actually cut out the pages dealing with the affair from imported copies of Time magazine. Political opposition to her intensified when the government's Secret Intelligence Service began to suspect that official government business, conveyed to the palace in dispatch boxes, was being read by Mrs. Simpson and that she was passing on state secrets to her Nazi friends.

Esmond Harmsworth, one of the English press barons, met Wallis Simpson late in 1936 while the king was visiting south Wales, and suggested to her the possibility of a morganatic marriage, which would give her the title of duchess but exclude her from official functions and prevent any children she and the king had from succeeding to the throne. She listened favorably but, when this compromise was raised with the king, he indignantly refused and repeated that he planned to make her queen.

Baldwin also disliked the morganatic marriage compromise, and arranged in Cabinet that the government must either approve of Wallis as queen or else the king must abdicate. He knew that British public opinion, combined with the indignation of the British Empire (Australia, Canada, South Africa, and India), would not tolerate Mrs. Simpson as queen. Rumors of a plot against her life circulated in London, possibly started by one of the anti-marriage newspaper barons, and Wallis herself fled for the south of France, urging the king not to abdicate. She apparently hoped to be able to return to London some time after his coronation, when the furor had died down, and resume her position as the royal mistress. In letters, phone calls, and a statement to the gathering international press corps, she urged the king not to abdicate, insisting that rather than let that happen she would "withdraw forthwith from a situation which has been rendered both unhappy and untenable."

A speech by one of the Anglican bishops, hinting that the king was not taking his religious duties very seriously as defender of the faith, finally opened the floodgates of public sensation and details of the situation began to appear in the British newspapers. In London, demonstrations for and against the king gathered outside Buckingham Palace and the prime minister's house, 10 Downing Street. The Labour Party and younger Britons generally favored the marriage while the Conservatives, the Church of England, and older subjects generally opposed it. Winston Churchill, later to be prime minister during the Second World War, was particularly outspoken in his opposition to the marriage but also in his loyalty to the king, with whom he was on terms of close friendship and whom he wanted to preserve from folly. Edward would not be deterred, however, so Baldwin hammered out an abdication agreement by which Edward would get lifelong financial support in exchange for living abroad permanently and yielding the crown to his younger brother George (VI), the duke of York. Edward agreed and, far from being dismayed at the prospect of abdication, showed more signs of happiness, indeed euphoria, than he had in months.

In December 1936, he broadcast from Windsor Castle his decision to abdicate in favor of his brother, and then at once left the country, to stay with his wealthy Rothschild friends in their castle near Vienna, Austria. Ironically, in order for Wallis Simpson's divorce to be finalized without controversy, he was now prevented from seeing her for several months, but they wrote and telephoned daily until they could be reunited. The abdication was for her a bitter disappointment. She had come to believe that all her ambitions might be fulfilled. She had got her man and won from him the supreme sacrifice for her sake, but she had not got the office which had made this otherwise unpromising man supremely attractive in the first place.

The rest of her life was, in most respects, a protracted, 50-year anticlimax. Assured of lifelong wealth and international notoriety, the duke and duchess of Windsor were permanently excluded from Britain. They were married at the Château de Candé in June 1937, once her divorce decree had been finalized, and lived during the next few years in France. They remained on good terms with the Nazi regime in Germany, meeting Hitler at Berchtesgarden the following year. Despite his hopes, however, neither Edward nor his brother, the new King George VI, had any influence over the deteriorating diplomatic situation, and they could do nothing to stop the onset of the Second World War in 1939. Fleeing from France when it fell to Hitler's armies, the couple took refuge for a time in Franco's Spain, another fascist power, where the duke indiscreetly told the American ambassador that Britain ought to consider making a negotiated peace with Hitler. His old friend Winston Churchill, now prime minister, gave Edward a pointedly minor wartime post as governor of the Bahamas, so that he and Wallis spent most of the war years in the Caribbean, which she despised and where she fretted over constant snubs from Britain. They were frequent visitors to America in the postwar years, where they were greeted as social celebrities, members of what came in the 1950s to be called the "international jet-set," but rarely re-entered England.

Relations with the royal family remained chilly for decades. Edward's mother, the widowed Queen Mary of Teck (1867–1953), had disliked Wallis from the beginning and found her son's behavior disgraceful. She wrote him in 1939: "I do not think you have ever realized the shock which the attitude you took up caused your family and the whole Nation. It seemed inconceivable to those who had made such sacrifices in the war [WWI] that you, as their King, refused a lesser sacrifice." She added that any attempt he might make to return to England "would only mean division and controversy." Queen Mary and the rest of the royal family remained implacably opposed to the duchess herself.

The duchess wrote a successful book of memoirs, The Heart Has Its Reasons (1956), which sold very widely and helped to support their lavish way of life. During a brief visit from France to London in 1965 for an eye operation, the duke met for the first time since her accession his niece, Queen Elizabeth II , daughter and successor of George VI, who had been a young child at the time of his abdication. Two years later, the queen formally invited them both to a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Queen Mary's birth and so for the first time, after 31 years, Wallis Windsor appeared in public at a British royal function as duchess of Windsor alongside the queen. The duke died of cancer in 1972, and she lived on, still a famous hostess and international celebrity, until deteriorating health and senility made her reclusive. She died in 1986 at the age of 90 and was buried with full royal honors in Windsor, beside the body of her husband, with the queen in attendance. A subsequent auction of her possessions, chiefly jewelry, raised $50 million. One buyer for some of the more fabulous gems was Elizabeth Taylor , who outbid Charles, prince of Wales, in the auction. The proceeds went to AIDS research.

sources and suggested reading:

Bloch, Michael, ed. Wallis and Edward: Letters, 1931–1937. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.

Higham, Charles. The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Martin, Ralph G. The Woman He Loved. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1974.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. The Sun Never Sets: The Story of England in the Nineteen Thirties. NY: Random House, 1940.

Wilson, Edwina. Her Name Was Wallis Warfield. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1936.

Windsor, Wallis. The Heart Has Its Reasons. NY: McKay, 1956.

Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII: The Official Biography. London: Collins, 1990.


Public Records Office, London; British Museum, London; Captured German Materials Collections in the Library of Congress.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia