Wednesday, February 22, 2012

That Woman: Wallis Simpson

The Duchess of Windsor, 1945, in a dress by Vionnet, one of her favorite designers.
Photo uncredited,

Following the previous post of The Devoted Classicist with mention of Billy Baldwin, this post features another famous native of Baltimore, Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, wife of the ex-King of England.  Much has been written about the Duchess, one of most famous personalities of her day, but new information is brought to light in a recent book THAT WOMAN: THE LIFE OF WALLIS SIMPSON, DUCHESS OF WINDSOR by Anne Sebba.  The title comes from the Queen Mum's referring to Wallis as "that woman", no doubt wondering how she was able to snare Edward VIII, as "a middle-aged married woman with large hands and a mole on her chin."
Edward and Wallis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Redemption may eventually come to Wallis Simpson, after suffering vilification during her lifetime.  Courtiers worried that the Prince of Wales' depression and stunted mental growth was a liability to the throne, but more serious was the Prince's chuminess with the Germans and his willingness to make concessions to an agressor to avoid war.  The Prince and Wallis were photographed in friendly visits with Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.  It was said that even after the abdication, the Nazis had plans to install him as a puppet monarch after a successful invasion of Britain was complete.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor at Friedrickstrasse Station, Berlin, 1937,
with Robert Ley, head of the German Labour Front.
Photo uncredited,

The British government exiled the Windsors to the Bahamas in 1940 and installed Edward as Governor.  The intent was that the remainder of their lives would be spent in what was then relative seclusion, restricting their indulgences to parties and the creation of clothes and jewelry.  George VI and Elizabeth, adament in their refusal to acknowledge Wallis as HRH, seemed to blame her for the abdication despite knowing that Edward VIII would have made a disasterous monarch.
The Windsors playing cards in Nassau, Bahamas, 1941.
Photo:  David E. Scherman for LIFE magazine.

Born Bessiewallis Warfield in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1986, Wallis' father died very soon afterwards leaving her mother in strained circumstances, eased by running a residential hotel but branding the family as "boarding-house keepers".
Wallis Warfield in an undated photograph.
Photo uncredited,

In 1916, she married Lieutenant Winfield Spencer, Jr., a US Naval pilot who was a violent alcoholic.  After the separation but before the divorce, Wallis went to live in Shanghai.  There, "she learnt from the Chinese prostitutes some ancient oriental techniques for pleasuring men" and "appeared in naughty postcards".  While in New York waiting for the divorce to be finalized, she met Ernest Simpson who owned a shipping firm.  Although he was already married, it is generally acknowledged he did not know what hit him when he invited her "to make up a fourth at bridge".  They were married in 1928 and went to live in England where the prolific romance novelist Barbara Cartland (later the stepgrandmother of Lady Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales) taught Wallis "the niceties of British etiquette". 
Edward VIII giving a radio broadcast, 1936.
Photo:  Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

A highly visible representative of the slowly building trend to reject stifling Victorian protocol, the Prince of Wales was soon a grateful guest of the Simpson's lavish dinner parties.  Completely using up her husband's resources on couture clothes and entertaining, the Prince of Wales, known for his love of everything American, was noted to be immediately enthralled by Wallis, relishing her taunting him and publicly berating him.  Soon the Simpsons were weekly guests at the Prince's retreat, Fort Belvedere, and the Prince wanted Wallis as his bride, no matter the consequences.
The Windsor marriage photo, June, 1937, at Chateau de Cande, France.
The chateau was owned by their friend, naturalized U.S. citizen Charles Bedaux.
In 1942, he was arrested in North Africa supervising construction of a German pipeline and returned to the U.S. on charges of treason.  He committed suicide in prison awaiting trial.
Photo by Bettman/Corbis.

In this book, Anne Sebba contends that Wallis was not in love with the Prince, only the opulent lifestyle.  Based on new archives and letters written by Wallis to Ernest Simpson recently made available, the author re-evaluates the role of politicians in the 1930s and sheds a new light on the character and motivation of this powerful and complex woman.
The Duchess of Windsor arriving in Florida, 1956, with her custom Maison E. Goyard luggage.
See the June 25, 2011, post of The Devoted Classicist blog
 for more about the Goyard luxury brand that continues today.
Uncredited photo from

Although it may have been a "hellish exile", it was a pampered one, with a Jansen-decorated mansion in suburban Paris leased from the French government for a nominal amount, a tax-free allowance, and off-shore investments siphoned off from the Duchy of Cornwall estates.  The Windsors were always commissioning jewelry for each other from Cartier;  the pieces that remained after their deaths were auctioned for $50,281,887.  But this book presents that this indulgent existence was better than the alternative;  Wallis saved Britain from Fascism by staying with Edward.
The Flamingo clip of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and citrine
 set in platinum was made by Cartier, Paris, in 1940.
It is currently in a private California collection.

Author Anne Sebba will present a talk "That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and The Scandal That Brought Down a King" on Saturday March 31, 2012, 2 pm, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art sponsored by Decorative Arts Trust in association with The Royal Oak Foundation.  A book sale and signing will accompany the talk with the public invited to attend free with regular museum admission as part of Decorative Arts Trust's educational programs.  (Upper level Trust members will be invited to a reception following the talk at one of the city's most remarkable private gardens).  For more information, see the D.A.T. website.
Author Anne Sebba is also a delightful speaker.

For those not able to attend the event, THAT WOMAN: THE LIFE OF WALLIS SIMPSON, DUCHESS OF WINDSOR may be ordered at discount here.


  1. And does it square with W.E. - which shows the gilded cage of Royalty just as taut as a bridle's bit.
    I see the Courtiers/Politicians really did and still pull the Royals out as the ultimate Ornaments to dazzle, and David was trained as the Last Emperor with worldwide travels unbeknownst beforehand. He truly sought SOCIAL change for the less fortunate of his subjects not just the DUTY as expected. She was brilliant and stylish enough to know as Mistress she wielded greater influence, to placate him she went as far as accepting a Morganatic marriage thru Churchill's intervention to no avail....why take the the one who wishes change when one can opt for the quiet one unschooled since birth in the training of King, while a very British wife was in the wings awaiting Glory!

  2. Redemption may not eventually come to Wallis Simpson; she suffered vilification during her lifetime, and most of it seemed fully deserved. But not because she was married to someone else (Mr Simpson). She seemed shallow, manipulative (of the king), disinterested in Britain and the British Commonwealth, greedy, a social climber and way too sympathetic to Nazi leaders.

    That didn't let Edward off the hook. As you noted, the Prince of Wales' depression and stunted mental growth were a liability to the throne, but far more serious was the Prince's extraordinary closeness with the Germans.

    It may well have been a disaster, had Edward NOT abdicated and not married Mrs Simpson. But I suspect the author went too far in proposing that Wallis "saved" Britain from Fascism by her actions.

  3. It's a topic that for all the discussion in the world, will never be fully comprehended.
    Your comment, "George VI and Elizabeth, adament in their refusal to acknowledge Wallis as HRH, seemed to blame her for the abdication despite knowing that Edward VIII would have made a disasterous monarch." is very apt, because their attitude never made
    any sense to me. The Duke and Duchess may have been superficial people, but they
    were treated shabbily by the Royal Family~in fact, quite vengefully given all that we
    now know.

  4. Over the past forty years, I've heard the charge "tutored by Chinese prostitutes" thrown at half a dozen women of inexplicable allure, and only in one case was it ever remotely plausible. So I guess I'm gratified to see that the charge is now a staple of a certain sort of fiction. Because unless and until someone comes up with one of those naughty postcards -- which would undoubtedly sell for a Cartier-level price -- that's all it's ever going to be: fiction.

    (This is not meant as a defense of either one of these dreadful people.)

  5. Swan and Hels, these are conversations that will, no doubt, continue for a while. As interesting as the social and political sides of this story are, fans of The Devoted Classicist know that my interest in the Windsors focuses more on their patronage of the decorative arts. More on the latter to follow.

  6. Toby, I think sometimes the British royalty have been too influenced by what they thought was "right" rather than what was logical. One cannot help but see some parallels with Charles-Diana-Camilla, no?

    1. Hi John!!!

      I agree with you in that I see the parallels with Charles-Diana-Camilla. These woman who calculate and manipulate men who cannot think for themselves to get in a higher position with the Royal House.

      I look at Camilla now and you can tell how proud she is in getting to the position of Queen in waiting. So many people showed their love for Diana when she passed away and I cannot believe how the people have embraced Prince Charles and Camilla. I also found out that Camilla's great grandmother, Alice Keppel was mistress to King Edward the XII. The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree!!!

      I have no respect for Camilla or her Prince. Camilla must be very proud in ensnaring Prince Charles, as, with Wallis Simpson ensnaring her Prince.

      I guess skullduggery never goes out of fashion!!!!!

      Thank you for your information concerning Wallis Simpson!!!


  7. Ancient, I didn't even go into the whole realm of her physical sexual make-up. There are many who believe Wallis had male DNA and the great focus on fashion was an attempt to counterbalance her masculinity. About any of this, I do not know. But it is evident that Edward enjoyed her dominant personality.

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  9. A person with an interesting history, and a person with a beautiful taste in jewellery and fashion.

    I had lots of problems with commenting, and I have found out that sometimes it works better with Explorer than Firefox.

  10. Dahhling what an interesting book...the title certainly is intriguing & the event you describe sounds exciting. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I watched Anne Sebba's British TV programme on Wallis's secret letters to her husband Ernest immediately before and after their divorce, showing that she actually remained in love with him, and was trapped into the marriage to Edward. This rather diminished any sympathy I may have had for her. As a person of great strength, she should have exercised her wish not to marry Edward more forcefully. I think it is wrong to suggest that the subsequent sovereign, and Queen Elizabeth, refused to acknowledge Wallis as HRH. The title was withheld from Diana and Sarah Ferguson after their divorces from Charles and Andrew respectively because they, like Edward were no longer members of the Royal Family. Edward's was a "birthright", and a courtesy title if you like, but one that could not be accorded to his wife after he ceased to be a member of the RF.

  12. Bessiewallis Warfield Simpson will always elude and interest us excitedly I might add. Puritan like mindedness will feign to recognize her power and plight in the world. Most noted of her should be the taking of a man that perhaps none wanted having to do with.

    Edward VIII appeared to be the ultimate snobbery and something not to be had.


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