On December 11, 1936, Edward VIII of Great Britain made his now famous abdication speech, saying he could no longer continue to fulfill his duties “without the woman I love.” From then on, the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson passed into the history books as the love story of the century. In the seventy one years, tons of books have been written about the couple, including their own memoirs. Even today she provokes a strong reaction when you talk about her. What is it about this story and this couple that has kept us fascinated for so many decades?
This was the biggest scandal ever to hit the royal family of England. Bigger than the Prince and Princess of Wale’s divorce. This was bigger than “Squidgy-gate,” or even the infamous “I want to be your tampon,” recording between Prince Charles and the former Camilla Parker-Bowles. Heck it was even bigger than Princess Margaret and her ill-fated love for Group Captain Peter Townsend, her love affair with the gardener, and her divorce from Lord Snowden.
Unlike the Duchess of Cornwall, Wallis Warfield didn’t come from an aristocratic background. She had no historical connections to the Royal Family, her great-great grandmother wasn’t the mistress of Edward VII the way Camilla’s was. Wallis wasn’t even particularly beautiful but she had what the French call ‘je ne sais quois.” Somehow she managed to captivate the future King of England with her irreverence and domineering manner enough that, like his great nephew with Camilla, he felt that he couldn’t live without her.
She was born Bessie Wallis Warfield in either June 1895 or 1896 in Pennsylvania. There is speculation that she was born before her parents were married. In any event, her father died shortly after she was born. For the first few years of her life, she was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, in modest circumstances, having to depend on the charity of her wealthy uncle, Solomon Warfield.
Wallis married her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer, a naval pilot, at the age of 20, in 1916 after a whirlwind courtship. She soon learned that the man she married was an alcoholic with a reckless streak. They frequently separated and got back together, and Wallis was frequently unfaithful, having affairs with a Argentine diplomat, and Mussolini’s future son-in-law.
By the time, Wallis and her first husband split for good, she had already made the acquaintance of husband number two, Ernest Aldrich Simpson. Simpson was half-English and half-American, mild-mannered and easy going. He divorced his first wife to marry Wallis. They were married on 21 July 1928, at the Chelsea Registry office. Through a friend, Wallis met Thelma Furness, who in turn introduced Wallis to the Prince of Wales. By the time Wallis met the Prince, Ernest was beginning to suffer financial difficulties. The Simpson’s were living well above their means.
"I really feel so tired of fighting the world all alone and with no money," she once wrote to her mother.
So what was the big deal about? Why couldn't Edward marry her? Well, Wallis Warfield Simpson was not married when the Prince of Wales made her acquaintance, but she’d already been married and divorced once already. Divorce was still a taboo; divorced subjects including members of the Queen’s own family for years were not accepted at court. Although there was nothing constitutionally to stop the King from marrying her apart from that whole Defender of the Faith thing as head of the Church of England, Edward also knew that marrying Wallis would topple the government. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had already made clear his views on the marriage. He refused to even countenance a morganatic marriage, whereby the King could marry Wallis, but she wouldn't be Queen.
What Edward did next was extraordinary in English history. While Richard II was forced to abdicate, King Charles I was beheaded, and James II and tossed out of England, no King in English history had voluntarily given up their throne. It’s a wonder that hell didn’t freeze over or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse didn’t come riding up Pall Mall to the doors of Buckingham Palace.
In America, we think of this as a great love story. Heck the King of England fell in love with one of our own. In England, not so much, although given the pro-Nazi sympathies of Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson pretty much did England a favor. Frankly she should probably have gotten a medal. Instead she was denied the title of HRH, something that even Fergie received when she was a member of the Royal Family, and she didn’t dress nearly as well as The Duchess of Windsor. Edward never forgave his brother for not allowing Wallis to have the HRH.
Although Wallis was no beauty, she had charisma, and a belief in her own attractiveness. She knew how to dress to make the most of what she was given. And she apparently treated the Prince of Wales, well not like a Prince. On their first meeting, the King asked her some trivia about being American, to which Wallis replied that she’d been asked the same thing by every English person she’d met. She’d hoped for more originality from the Prince of Wales. Snap! Girlfriend wasn’t cowed by the August presence of the Prince of Wales. Wallis did her homework, when Thelma Furness asked Wallis to look after Edward while she traveled, she had no idea that Wallis would end up replacing her. What do you want to bet that she pumped ole Thelma for whatever information she could about her lover? And then did her one better?
Edward VIII had been a man starved of a mother’s affection. His own mother, Queen Mary, was a pretty cold fish, who left Edward in the hands of a pretty sadistic nanny. His youngest brother who was mentally handicapped was shunted aside, and treated as if he didn’t exist. He was completely scared of his father George V, who boasted that he’d been afraid of his father, and he was damn sure that his children would be afraid of him. All of Edward’s affairs had been with older married women.
There were rumors that Wallis had worked in a brothel in China while her first husband had been stationed in the Far East, where she learned Ancient Asian sex secrets that she used to bind Edward to her. Another rumor was that she was a hermaphrodite, and that Edward was attracted to her for her manly qualities.
Whatever it was, Wallis was smart. While dangling the King on a string, she apparently also had another lover, although this information has now been disputed. Files released by the Government in Britain in 2003 suggested that a man named Guy Trundle was Wallis’s secret lover. Guy was a handsome charmer, a vicar’s son, and a dashing Air Force pilot. He was also an engineer and a car salesman for the Ford Motor Co. He apparently received gifts and money from Wallis. There is a question as to whether this secret lover was working for the intelligence services in a bid to test Wallis’s character which she surely failed. The question is why wasn’t this brought to the Prime Minister and then to Edward? And even if it had been would it have mattered? The King was madly, passionately, devotedly in love. It would probably have taken a crowbar to end the relationship.
I’ve always felt that Wallis enjoyed the attentions of the Prince of Wales, and the social cachet that it gave her to be his intimate friend. I don’t think that she expected initially that he would want to marry her, but when he made it known, she cautiously jumped at the chance. She would be rising higher than any American woman had before or since, not even Consuelo Vanderbilt or Mary Curzon had risen as high. It must have been so tempting. Although in many ways, being a royal mistress was more advantageous than being a royal wife.
In fact she tried to renounce the King. A few days before the abdication, she signed a paper saying that “she has abandoned any interest in marrying His Majesty.” Apparently she found Edward’s dependence on her burdensome and just a tad claustrophobic. She wrote to her uncle, “How can a woman be a whole empire to a man?” But it was too late, the die was cast and Edward had made up his mind. Wallis had no choice now. If she hadn’t married him, after he’d made such a great sacrifice, she really would have been raked over the coals.
The Duke and Duchess were married in June of 1937, in France. An ill-advised trip to Germany after their marriage led them to be suspected of being pro-German. The Duchess was even plagued by rumors that while they were in France before the Germans invaded, she had passed confidential information onto the Germans, through a German lover. During the war, the Duke was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, where George IV felt that he could do the least damange. Wallis bitterly referred to the island as their “Helena,” a reference to the island that Napoleon was exiled to after his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo.
They spent the rest of their lives after the war shuttling between a home in Paris and an apartment in the Waldorf Towers in New York, becoming part of the International jet set, denied any useful role in life other than idleness, a life of parties and making the Best Dressed List. Scandal continued to plague the Windsors. While in the Bahamas, Sir Harry Oakes, a Canadian gold tycoon and the richest man in the islands was murdered. The Duke was suspected of participating in a cover-up, blocking the investigation at every turn. Ann Woodward shot her husband Billy after a dinner party for the Windsors in the 1950’s. And for five years, the Duke and Duchess formed a bizarre ménage a trois with Jimmy Donahue, a Woolworth heir who was gay. In France, they became good friends with Sir Oswald Moseley, leader of the British fascists, and his wife the former Diana Mitford.
Although the Duke had hoped to retire in England, his brother, George VI threatened to cut off his allowance if he set foot in England without an invitation. The King was still steamed that Edward hadn't revealed the extent of his finanical worth when they informally agreed on the amount of sinecure the King would pay him. He was allowed to return for the funeral of George VI in 1952 and again for his mother, Queen Mary in 1953. Wallis didn’t accompany him to either funeral but she was allowed to return for Edward’s funeral in 1972. She outlived him by thirteen years, living alone in their Paris home under the watchful eye of Maitre Suzanne Blum, their lawyer until her death at age 90 in 1986 when she was buried beside her Duke at Windsor. Their home was bought by Mohammed Al-Fayed, who owns Harrods in London who started calling it Villa Windsor. In fact, Dodi brought Diana to the house just before she died. Diana apparently wasn't impressed, she told a journalist that she felt the building was "full of old ghosts" and "more like a museum." In 1998, Fayed put the entire contents of their mansion on the block raising $14 million dollars for charity.
The Duchess summed up her life succinctly in one sentence, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”