Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Historical Wednesday - Wallis Simpson

Today's historical personage is Wallis Simpson, aka Wallis, Duchess of Windsor.  A king gave up his throne for her, so she is a subject worth exploring.

Wallis was born Bessie Wallis Warfield 6/19/1896, in Blue Ridge Summit, PA.  Her birth was not registered, so it is unknown if this is the exact date, but it is the date generally given. Her parents’ marriage was also not registered but the accepted wedding date was  November 19, 1895, which means little Wallis was already on the way when her parents married (Wallis herself insisted they were married in June 1895).

Wallis was an only child, since in November 1896, her father died of tuberculosis. For the next few years, her father’s brother supported Wallis and her mother, until her aunt Bessie was widowed in 1901, and Wallis and her mother moved in with her. Wallis’ mother remarried in 1908.  After her second husband's death, Wallis' mother would marry a third time (must run in the family).

Her uncle paid for Wallis to attend Oldfields School, a very expensive girls’ school in Maryland, where she associated with the daughters of wealthy and influential men. Wallis was remembered as being always well dressed and pushing herself to do well in school.

In 1916, Wallis met Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., her first husband, and they were married in November of that year. Win (as he was known) was a U.S. Navy pilot and also an alcoholic, but that didn’t stop him from flying. He crashed his plane once when flying after drinking, but walked away almost unscathed.  When WWI started, they were posted to San Diego, where they lived until 1921. (Edward, Prince of Wales, visited San Diego in 1920, but he and Wallis did not meet.)

Win and Wallis separated and reunited several times over the next six years. When Win was posted to the Far East, Wallis stayed behind in Washington D.C. and had an affair with an Argentine diplomat. In 1924, she traveled to Paris and then to the Far East to rejoin Win. They were together briefly until Wallis became ill and returned to Hong Kong to recuperate. Later, she toured China on her own, and had an affair with an Italian count that is believed to have resulted in a pregnancy. She had an abortion which left her unable to conceive. Companions in China remember her as a brilliant conversationalist and all-around party girl. Rumors followed her about certain sexual skills that she had learned while in China.

The Spencers returned to the U.S. and continued to live apart until they divorced in 1927. By this time, Wallis had already met Ernest Simpson, a Brit who would become her second husband. Ernest and Wallis were married in London at the Chelsea registry office in July 1928.

Wallis was introduced to Edward, Prince of Wales, by his mistress, Thelma, Lady Furness in 1931. Between 1931 and 1934, Edward and Wallis met on a number of occasions, and she was presented at court. Ernest Simpson and Wallis encountered financial difficulties from the 1929 market crash and their own lifestyle, and by 1934, they were living beyond their means.  Sometime in 1934, Wallis became Edward’s mistress (although Edward denied this to his father the king), and by the end of 1934, Edward was in thrall to her. Wallis treated him like a domineering nanny (she thought he had a Peter Pan personality), and Edward soaked it up, showering her with gifts and jewelry. He was so enamored of Wallis that their relationship began to interfere with his official duties.

On January 20, 1936, George V died and Edward became king as Edward VIII. It soon became obvious that he meant to marry Wallis, even though she was divorced from one husband and still married to another. The Church of England prohibited the king from marrying a divorced person, and Wallis was considered to be completely unsuited to be a royal consort. Wallis filed for a divorce from Ernest, which was granted in October 1936. When the scandal of her relationship with Edward became common knowledge, she escaped England to the south of France where she remained for several months. She was pressured to renounce the king, but he was determined to marry her. Edward decided he would rather abdicate than live without Wallis. On December 10, 1936, Edward signed the decree of abdication as his three brothers watched. His brother the Duke of York became King George VI the following day.

Wallis and Edward were married on June 3, 1937, in France. No members of the British royal family attended the wedding. Edward was created Duke of Windsor by his brother, George VI. While Wallis became Duchess of Windsor, she was not addressed as Royal Highness as her husband was.  Edward and Wallis continued to live in France, and in 1937, visited Germany where they met Herr Hitler. After meeting her, Hitler said that Wallis would have made a good queen. Wallis was commonly believed to be a German agent; while this was probably not true, she was undoubtedly a German sympathizer.

Following the outbreak of WWII, the Duke of Windsor was given a military post and stationed in France. The Duchess continued to socialize with her fascist friends and supposedly leaked military secrets the Duke had told her to them. It seems unlikely that the Duke would have been privy to many secrets, since he was still persona non gratis to the royal family.  As German troops advanced, the Windsors fled south to Spain, and later to Portugal, finally taking ship for the Bahamas where the Duke was installed as Governor. Wallis hated Nassau and considered herself to be in exile. They remained in the Bahamas until the war ended, when they returned to France.

The Windsors lived in comfortable retirement just outside Paris for the remainder of their lives, making only occasional visits to London. Both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles visited them in Paris. The Duke died from cancer in 1972 and was buried in England. Following his death, Wallis lived in seclusion as she was becoming frail and suffering from dementia. She died 4/24/1986 at her Paris home. She was buried next to Edward near Windsor Castle in the Royal Burial Ground - she was treated as a royal in death, at least. Her estate was divided between the French government in gratitude for all the help that the French had given the Windsors over the years, and the Pasteur Institute.

Wallis summed up her own life in one sentence: “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”

Tomorrow:  Conspiracy Thursday

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