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The Windsors meeting Hitler. Edward adored her. He had met her in 1931 when he was Prince of Wales, and she was married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson. It was not long before they were in love. “My own beloved Wallis”, he wrote in 1935, “I love you more & more & more & more… I haven’t seen you once today & I can’t take it. I love you”.

The Woman Who Could Not Be Queen

American socialite Wallis Simpson became the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward abdicated the throne to marry her, a period known as the Abdication Crisis.

Of all the scandalous women in history, Wallis Simpson is probably one of the most vilified, the most fascinating, and the most misunderstood. The Duchess of Windsor has been accused of being a lesbian, a nymphomaniac, a Nazi spy, and a man.

Since she first made a splash on the international stage in the 1930s, interest in her has only grown, thanks in no small part to the success of films and television shows in recent years.

People have imagined Simpson as everything from a victim to a romantic heroine and fashion icon, and she has even been accused of being a seductress and a Nazi spy.

This American socialite became notorious for her affair with Prince Edward. Edward was not just any old prince: he was the eldest son and heir of his father, King George V, and was thus next in line to the throne of the United Kingdom. His obsession with Simpson did not lessen when he become King Edward VIII in 1936 – he was so besotted with her that he actually went through the trouble of abdicating the throne so that he could marry her.

Known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after Edward’s abdication, the couple captured the public’s imagination. The public saw their love affair as a storybook fantasy, and the couple became the poster children of romance winning out over duty and defying the contempt of the government.

There is no consensus about Wallis Simpson’s motivations or even some details about her private life. But there are enough tantalising, fascinating facts about this woman to keep historians intrigued.

The passionate infatuation of the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII, for Wallis Simpson, has been hailed as ‘the greatest love story of the 20th century’. But how much of a love story was it?

There is no doubt about Edward’s resolve to marry the twice-divorced American socialite. After all, he abandoned his throne, country and reputation to make her his wife, and was condemned to a life in exile as a result. But whether Wallis, who was conducting simultaneous affairs with four other men, ever truly loved the besotted monarch in return is debatable. Was it actually the case that she became trapped into marriage with a man she had come privately to despise?

In spite of his reputation as a womaniser and his numerous affairs with married women, the Empire’s Prince Charming was an unsuccessful lover. Sexually inadequate and far from well endowed, he suffered from premature ejaculation, leaving his partners frustrated and unsatisfied. Wallis, with a sexual repertoire that included techniques variously known as the Baltimore grip, Shanghai squeeze or China clinch, was reputed to be the only woman capable of alleviating this condition. She was well-rewarded for her expertise. George V was aghast to discover from the surveillance that his son had given his mistress jewels costing £110,000 (£7 million today).

Covert surveillance at an antique shop in Kensington frequently visited by the Prince and Wallis confirmed that they called each other ‘Darling’. The antique dealer’s opinion was that ‘the lady appeared to have the Prince of Wales completely under her thumb’. But also reported was that Wallis was ‘very fond of the company of men’ and had had ‘many affairs’.

Apart from her second husband, Ernest Simpson, with whom she was still living during the royal affair, there were at least four other men in her life. In the summer of 1935, the security services shadowing Wallis reported: ‘Although she now spends a great deal of time with the Prince of Wales, it is said that she has another secret lover who is kept by her.’ In a Special Branch report dated July 3, 1935, the ‘secret lover’ was identified as a 36-year-old married Mayfair car dealer, Guy Marcus Trundle, who was described as ‘a very charming adventurer, very good-looking, well-bred and an excellent dancer. He [Trundle] is said to boast that every woman falls for him. He meets Mrs Simpson quite openly at informal social gatherings as a personal friend, but secret meetings are made by appointment when intimate relations take place.’

In due course Trundle was interviewed by Special Branch and admitted that he ‘receives money from Mrs Simpson as well as expensive presents’. A second man intimately involved with Wallis was the German Ambassador to the UK, Count Joachim von Ribbentrop, later Hitler’s foreign minister, who was hanged at Nuremberg in 1946. He was ordered by the Fuhrer to flatter Wallis and become intimate with her as a means of keeping Edward VIII friendly to the Nazi regime. He took to sending her 17 carnations or long-stemmed red roses daily, allegedly to remind her of the number of nights they had spent together. Wallis was also reported to be in a sexual relationship with William C. Bullitt, the allegedly pro-Nazi American ambassador to France in the years immediately before the war, while the fourth man was he was Ireland’s premier peer, Edward FitzGerald, 7th Duke of Leinster,  before his suicide in 1976.

Wallis Simpson was born Bessie Wallis Warfield on 19th June 1896 in a hotel near Baltimore. Her father, a flour merchant who had run for mayor in 1875, died shortly after. Her mother and she depended on wealthier relatives to support them.

Wallis Simpson was born Bessie Wallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. She dropped the Bessie, which she dismissed as a name for a cow, from then on going simply by Wallis. It suited her. The Warfields were well off and well bred, but when Wallis was seven months old, her father, Teackle, died of tuberculosis. In a precarious position financially, her mother, Alice, began sewing to make ends meet. While Alice worked, Wallis spent time with her aunt Bessie, an upright woman with a fondness for severe black dresses, and a formative influence. Alice remarried and there followed a period of stability with Wallis at school, but when she was 16, her stepfather also died, and mother and daughter were back where they started. Wallis was a bit of a wild child growing up, and there’s a story from her mother’s second wedding that she destroyed the wedding cake to try and stop the marriage. It’s not surprising that she got packed off to boarding school after that.

It was thanks to Uncle Solomon that Wallis attended one of the most prestigious schools in America. There she rubbed shoulders with the unspoken royalty of America like the du Ponts, and with a cutlery heiress named Mary Kirk who became one of her best friends. She was the most driven girl there, perhaps because she knew that her future was less certain than theirs, and finished top of her class. It was around this time that she dropped the name Bessie (she’d previously used both her names, in the southen style) because she said, “Bessie is a cow’s name.” She also gained a reputation at school for being “fast,” and she was said to sneak out after curfew to meet boys. As with a lot of her life, though, it’s hard to tell fact from later slander.

In 1916 Wallis was visiting her cousin Corrine, who was married to the commander of America’s first naval airbase. At a party Wallis met a dashing US Navy pilot named Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, a whirlwind romance ensued and, in November 1916, they wed. Wallis aged 20 finally had a handsome husband and the security she craved. Except she didn’t.

Earl Winfield Spencer, known to one and all as “Win.”  Wallis would grow to regret this haste, as she soon found out that By all accounts, the marriage was unhappy for both parties, and Spencer was alleged to be abusive and an alcoholic. The latter was reportedly what led to him crashing his plane the following year, and might be why he was sent to San Diego to train pilots to fight in World War I, and not to the front to lead them.

Spencer was also a “bisexual adulterer” and when they moved to Washington DC they both had affairs. They had crazy fights; he once locked her in a bathroom in a fit of pique. In 1922, he was posted to Hong Kong, where, after a sojourn in Paris, Wallis joined him. There, Together, and separately, they went to high-class brothels, She was fascinated by it all and, being a quick learner, had the girls show her the sensual massage they specialised in. Her husband threw in the towel and succumbed to his more predominant gay side to live with an artist. Rumour has it Wallis worked for a time as a hostess in Shanghai.

The couple separated in 1921, after several years of Win beating and raping Wallis culminated in an attack that left her convinced that if she stayed he would kill her. Though they had a few brief reconciliations when he tried to convince her he had changed, it never lasted.

Wallis and Win Spencer.

In 1924 she travelled to China, where Win was stationed, as he convinced her he had changed. Of course, he hadn’t. Still, Wallis found China fascinating and stayed there for almost an entire year. While there, some claim, she had a grand old time. Some people claim that there is a secret “China dossier” that supposedly chronicles all manner of indiscretions in China – including a sexual education at a Chinese brothel, an affair with the future son-in-law of Benito Mussolini, and a botched abortion that rendered her infertile. Most historians dismiss this “China dossier,” however, and point to it as evidence of a slander campaign against Simpson.

The tamest version of this says that she had become pregnant by an Italian count and had an illegal abortion (which the rumour claims were why she never had children). The most outrageous version claims that she moonlighted in a Chinese brothel and learned a variety of professional sex techniques with names like the “Shanghai Squeeze.” While that’s unlikely, it is definitely possible that someone managed to get some handle on her in Beijing – though who would be an interesting question.

Wallis returned to America in late 1925. Having made up her mind to divorce Win she had to stay for a year in Virginia, one of the few states in America where that was legal at the time.

What can be said with certainty is that she did something else unthinkable in polite society of the day: she filed for divorce. By the time it was granted, in 1927, she’d already started seeing a married man, Ernest Simpson, in the US.

The few breaks she could take without compromising her residency she spent in New York, visiting her old friend Mary Kirk (or rather Mary Raffray, as she was now). It was there that she met Ernest Aldrich Simpson. Ernest’s mother was an American, while his father was an Englishman from a Jewish family. Ernest’s father had been born as Ernest Solomon but had abandoned his religion and his surname when he moved to America. Ernest (who never revealed his Jewish heritage during his lifetime) had chosen to take British citizenship and served in the British army during World War I before returning to New York to take up a position in his father’s shipping firm. Like Wallis, he was married – and like Wallis, he was already planning his divorce.

With so much in common, the two immediately hit it off. Ernest proposed early on, but Wallis was somewhat wary after her previous marriage. Her divorce went through in December of 1927, and she celebrated with a holiday in Europe. While she was there Ernest moved to London, and that was enough to convince Wallis to accept his proposal. She didn’t love Ernest in the least, but he did have a lot of advantages. He didn’t hit her, for starters – in fact, the two ended up having an “open marriage” where each was well aware of the other’s lovers. He was well off enough to support her, and now he was living in an exciting new city. Like a lot of the American unofficial aristocracy, Wallis was in love with the British official one. So the pair were married in 1928 and set up house in Mayfair. London didn’t know it yet, but Wallis Simpson, like a ticking time bomb, had arrived.

Ernest and Wallis Simpson in 1931, when they were presented to court.

It wasn’t a perfect marriage, despite the easy-going nature of it. Ernest was well off, but maybe not quite so well off as Wallis would have liked. They could afford a maid and a cook, but they did still have to watch their spending. Ernest wasn’t as badly hit by the 1929 crash as some, but he did take a hit. Wallis’ own investments were wiped out by the crash, as was her inheritance. Her mother died towards the end of 1929 and left her nothing. Still, she did at least have some connections in London society. An old friend from her days on the Pensacola airfield was living in London, a man named Benjamin Thaw. He was married to Consuelo Morgan, and Consuelo (despite being a mix of American, Chilean and Irish by ancestry) was deeply plugged into the London social scene. Most notably, Consuelo’s sister Thelma just happened to be the mistress of Edward, the Prince of Wales.

Edward was fairly notorious in England at the time for his affairs with married women like Thelma, something which his father, in particular, was annoyed by. In addition to Thelma he was having a simultaneous affair with Freda Dudley Ward, and in both cases, this was the cause of their marriages ending (after, of course, the Prince had conveniently moved out of the picture). Keeping the royal family’s name out of any scandal was the deep unsaid principle of English law. One of Edward’s earlier mistresses, a French prostitute named Marguerite Fahmy murdered her husband (an Egyptian prince) in the Savoy Hotel. Through a combination of racism and the fact that she happened to still have all of Edward’s letters, she was acquitted of murder. With influence like that, it’s not surprising that Wallis set her sights on the Prince.

The couple, pictured, married at a private ceremony on June 3, 1937, in France and honeymooned in Germany

As the newly remarried Simpson navigated her way through British society, she relied on a network of American expats – including Thelma, Lady Furness, who happened to be the current mistress of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. In fact, it was Furness who first introduced Simpson to the future king in January 1931. Though it may or may not have been love at first sight, Simpson and the Prince did not immediately become lovers. Though he hosted parties in Simpson’s honor – as he did for most of his friends – the Prince and Simpson were simply friends. It was not until January 1934 at the earliest when Simpson supplanted her friend as the Prince’s mistress.

The pair bonded over shared interests – reported as needlepoint, tacky ornaments and fascist politics. Edward had convictions about the need for strong leadership, regarding his father as weak for refusing to exercise the authority of his Throne. Wallis was sympathetic, and also shared his racist views. The pair reputedly consummated their relations for the first time on December 3rd, 1933 in a bathtub. Unaware of this, when Thelma went away to New York to visit her twin sister Gloria she asked Wallis to look after Edward for her. She was worried about his other mistress Freda, but when she returned she soon realised that it was Wallis she should have been worried about. Both she and Freda had been entirely displaced.

Edward fell fast and hard for Wallis Simpson – she was so adept at flirting that her ex-sister-in-law remarked, “She could no more keep from flirting than breathing.” By all accounts, Edward was smitten – so smitten, that he seemed to spend less time on his princely duties. He spent lavishly on Simpson and took her on vacations abroad, acting more like a globetrotter than a duty-minded royal.

An unloved child, Edward had an overwhelming need to be dominated and to adore; Wallis had a need to dominate and found his adulation tiresome. To a certain extent she was used by him to escape from a job he did not want, but the trap in which Wallis found herself during Edward’s lifetime was nothing to the one in which she got herself caught between his death in 1972 and her own in 1986.

The secret of Wallis’ appeal for Edward, it seems, was in her complete lack of respect for him. Edward had been raised from birth being told he was special, and there was an intoxicating power in a woman who didn’t put him on a pedestal. Her willingness to tell him when he was wrong made it more real when she told him he was right. Wallis, for her part, didn’t have any illusions about the relationship. She was married, and Edward had a reputation. She didn’t think there was any future to their relationship, but it did help that Edward was generous and she was able to have a lot more of the nice things she wanted. And the two of them got on really well as well, which helped – they would often just sit and talk for hours.

Criticism of the Prince’s relationship came quickly. Members close to the royal family claimed that Simpson’s strong and direct personality was transforming Edward into her personal slave and that he followed her “around like a dog.” It was entirely inappropriate for a woman, they claimed, to control a man so totally. Indeed, most people assumed what Edward liked best about Simpson was that she could be domineering. Some biographers refute this assessment and offer a more psychological interpretation of the relationship between Simpson and Edward.

They found out early on, from the servants. It’s hard to keep your affair a secret from the people washing your sheets. At first, they thought it was just a fling – as did Wallis and Edward themselves. But by August of 1934, the affair had involved into something more, and things got serious. When Edward introduced Wallis to his mother, it was a clear signal of intent. And scandalous, as well – divorced women, were not well-accepted in British society. The fact that Wallis was still married to Ernest, of course, was also a factor. Wallis was investigated, and every connection she had was scrutinised, every old affair dug up. The royal connection kept all scandal out of the British press, though the American press did come sniffing around. Still, a lid was kept on the affair – for the moment.

The fact that Wallis was still married to Ernest, of course, was also a factor. Wallis was investigated, and every connection she had was scrutinised, every old affair dug up.

Such was the concern about the proximity of Wallis and her then husband Ernest to the future King that at the height of her clandestine affair with Edward in 1935, Scotland Yard detectives were ordered to watch the couple and delve into their private life. It emerged that not only was Ernest hoping for a high honour when the new King took the throne, but his wife was two-timing him and Edward with a third man, Ford car salesman Guy Trundle.

It was also discovered that a neighbour in Wallis’s apartment block, Bryanston Court in Central London, was Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe – a woman who had been monitored by the security services since 1928. They considered her a political intriguer – possibly a Nazi spy, but certainly a woman with direct access to Hitler himself. It was not long before worried Establishment figures wondered if Princess Stephanie and Wallis were working hand-in-glove, and Bryanston Court was a nest of espionage and plotting. Simpson had already been described by Palace courtiers as a witch, a vampire and a high-class blackmailer. Soon she was being spoken of as a Nazi spy. The royal connection kept all scandal out of the British press, though the American press did come sniffing around. Still, a lid was kept on the affair – for the moment.

On the 20th January 1936, King George V of England died. He had been ill for five days and was entering his final decline. The actual cause of death, however, was an overdose of morphine and cocaine administered intravenously by his doctor. The doctor was a supporter of euthanasia and felt that the king should die with dignity. The involuntary euthanasia took place at 11 pm – timed by the doctor to be able to make the morning edition of the newspapers.  The following morning, the whole world knew that Edward VIII was the new King of England. Wallis Simpson must have wondered if this was what would be the end of their relationship. She needn’t have been concerned. According to legend, the first thing Edward VIII did that morning was to abolish “Sandringham time”.  The second thing he did was to phone Wallis and give her the news. Later that day she was by his side as he watched the proclamation of his accession to the throne from the windows of Sandringham.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, sitting in the drawing room of their Paris home, with their four Pug dogs at their feet. (Photo by Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

The criticisms about Wallis Simpson only intensified in 1936 when Edward succeeded to the throne. It quickly became apparent that he did not want to rule without the woman he loved by his side. The problem? The British people would never accept her as their queen.

For one, she was a divorcée. In 1930s Britain, women who had been divorced could not be officially present at court, let alone be the queen. The Church of England – the official Protestant church headed by the reigning monarch – did not recognise divorce in the 1930s. So, it was quite impossible for Wallis Simpson to marry the head of a church that saw her as a bigamist. Further, she was still legally married to Ernest Simpson at the time Edward became king – the two could not get married, even if they had wanted to. Wallis and Ernest would not divorce until 1937.

Things did cool off between them for a while though – mostly due to the huge amount of official business that the new monarch had to attend to. Wallis took a holiday to Paris, and while she was away her husband and her lover actually met up to decide what they were going to do about her. By this stage, her marriage to Ernest was in name only, but he still cared about her and he meant to make sure that Edward didn’t plan to mistreat her. Edward made his intentions clear – he wanted Wallis by his side at the coronation. Wallis was annoyed that the two met up behind her back, but she agreed to collude with Ernest on a divorce. The easiest way was for one of them to commit adultery, but obviously, neither Wallis nor Edward wanted the scandal of it being her. So Ernest agreed to take the fall. At the time he was actually having an affair with Wallis’ old friend Mary Raffray (nee Kirk), so the pair checked into a hotel together under their own names. (Despite her own situation, Wallis never forgave Mary for her “betrayal” of falling in love with Ernest.) This gave the evidence, so the stage was set.

The English establishment were all deeply upset by all of this. Under Anglican church law at the time, though divorce was permitted the divorced party could not remarry while their spouse was still alive. This wasn’t national law, so it wasn’t legally binding, but since Edward was now the head of the Church of England for him not to follow church law was considered a huge scandal.  In addition, divorce did still carry quite a stigma in “polite” society. On the other hand, Edward’s glamorous lifestyle and charisma made him hugely popular among the working classes. Papers like the Daily Mail came out to champion him. Another champion was veteran politician Winston Churchill, champion of the back benches. Whether it was because he liked Edward or because he saw an opportunity to shore up his own support, Winston was one of the few in Parliament willing to argue the King’s side.

Tense: Wallis, more used to life in the elegant salons of Palm Beach, seeks solace with her pet pug during a trip to the Florida retreat.

In October of 1936, Wallis filed for divorce from Ernest. In November Edward officially informed the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, of his intention to marry her. It’s hard to imagine this came as a shock to him. Baldwin had been in politics for the last thirty years (he was sixty-nine) and this was his third stint as Prime Minister. He was deeply suspicious of Wallis, more on political than moral grounds. Not only was she known to be sympathetic to Germany (who were at the time the big unvoiced concern of the British government), but Baldwin was worried that she would inspire Edward to reassert royal authority over parliament (which had been gradually slipping over the last century) and trigger a constitutional crisis. Edward’s suggestion that they have a “morganatic marriage”, where she would become his wife but not his queen, did nothing to allay these concerns.  Instead, Baldwin ended the meeting warning the king that the people would not accept Wallis as their queen.

The first most of “the people” heard of the affair was on the 2nd December. The previous day the Bishop of Bradford had given a speech which, to those “in the know,” seemed to allude to Wallis and Edward’s situation. The press took this as a sign that it was now okay to discuss it, though the bishop, in fact, had no idea about the impending constitutional crisis. But now the genie was out of the bottle. Though some papers (such as the Daily Mail) came out strongly in support of the King, the majority of the public seem to have been strongly against her. Those who weren’t scandalised by her two divorces were unwilling to accept an American as queen. Graffiti started appearing declaring “Down with the American whore!” The whole mood seems to have been summed up when Winston Churchill asked Noel Coward at a party why the king shouldn’t be free to marry “his cutie.” Noel replied:

Because England doesn’t wish for a Queen Cutie.

Edward’s friend Winston Churchill believed that Wallis was good for him. “Although branded with the stigma of a guilty love,” he said, “no companionship could have appeared more natural, more free from impropriety or grossness”.

There was simply no way that Edward could take both the throne and Simpson’s hand in marriage. In Edward’s mind, the problem was clear: love or duty. For him, the answer was obvious: he would give up anything for the woman he loved. So on December 11, 1936, King Edward VIII took to the radio to officially announce his abdication – he stepped down from the throne, and his younger brother succeeded as King George VI.

Edwards speech explained:

“I have found it impossible to carry 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.”

The next day, his brother Albert, now King George VI, granted him the title, his Royal Highness, the Duke of Windsor. For the rest of their lives, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would remain ostracised, and to all intents and purposes banished to France. Wallis was never given the right to refer to herself as Her Royal Highness, and except for a posting in the Bahamas during WWII; Edward was never given an official job, although he craved one.

Military leaders had serious concerns about the Duke of Windsor, right, and his wife Wallis Simpson left.

Edward signed his abdication notice on the 10th December, and on the 11th it was made law by an act of Parliament. He had been king for less than ten months – not even long enough to have his official coronation. His younger brother became King George VI, and he gave Edward the title of “Duke of Windsor”. Edward left England almost immediately, though now that his connection to Wallis was public he could not join her in France. Her divorce had not yet been finalised, and since it was based on Ernest’s adultery it could be derailed if she was shown to be having an affair of her own. Instead, Edward stayed in Austria, at a castle owned by the Rothschild family. On the 4th May 1937, Wallis’ divorce became final and she was reunited with Edward. Just over a week later on the 12th, on the date originally set for Edward’s coronation, George VIII was officially crowned as monarch.

In 1936, Time magazine did something it had never done before: named a woman as “Man of the Year,” or in this case “Woman of the Year.” (The annual feature is now known as “Person of the Year.”) That honour naturally went to Wallis Simpson, the divorced American socialite who dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic and captivated a king so much that he gave up the throne for her. Simpson was a controversial pick to be sure. But it nonetheless speaks to the public’s fascination with Simpson and the fact that she was a badass trailblazer, for better or for worse.

Wallis and Edward were married on the 3rd June 1937. Wallis had not invited her own family to her wedding. Almost all of the duke’s illustrious friends had declined to attend. Precisely no-one from the British royal family was coming. Not Edward’s mother, Queen Mary. Not his younger brother, Bertie, who, two weeks earlier, had been crowned George VI. And not Bertie’s wife, the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, now the new queen, who reportedly loathed Wallis, referring to her as “a certain person” and refusing to have her in the house. The scandalous Mrs Simpson was being shunned.

She became Duchess of Windsor, though due to a specific decree by George VIII she was not to be addressed as “your Royal Highness”. This was one of the things that fuelled Wallis’ resentment of her husband’s family, and most specifically George’s wife Elizabeth. There was a rumour among Wallis’ supporters (spread by Oswald Mosely’s wife Diana) that Elizabeth had engineered the abdication by turning George against Edward because she had originally wanted to marry the elder brother. Wallis gave her sister-in-law the nickname “Mrs Temple,” because she felt that the new Queen used her children like a show-biz mother. (This also led to her giving the future Queen Elizabeth II the nickname “Shirley.”)

The Duke of Windsor chats to Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels at a party in Berlin in 1937.

The British government disapproved of Simpson not only because of her status as a divorced woman; they also feared that she had inappropriate links to the increasingly troubling Nazi regime in Germany. Rumours circulated that, while she was a mainstay in Edward’s bed, she was also engaging in an affair with Nazi official Joachim von Ribbentrop while he had been ambassador to Britain in 1936. Von Ribbentrop even reportedly sent her 17 carnations, one for each time they had sex. So damning were these allegations that the FBI actually opened an investigation to determine if Simpson had supplied von Ribbentrop or any other Nazis were secret information.

Though rumours about a Nazi spy career are most certainly false, Simpson’s visit to Germany with Edward in 1937 probably did not help matters – especially when they met none other than Adolf Hitler.

On this trip, they met several high-ranking German officials including the chancellor, Adolf Hitler himself. This visit was the kernel of the later story that Edward had been hustled off the throne because of his Nazi sympathies. There doesn’t seem to be much substance to this, not least because Nazi sympathies were hardly something that British aristocrats kept secret at the time. But it did make for a good narrative (especially after the war), and so generally accepted history became “the real reason Edward was deposed was that he was a secret Nazi.”

When the inevitable war against those Nazis broke out in 1939, Wallis and Edward had settled down in the French Riviera. They were persona non grata back in Britain, and though they’d considered moving to America the prospect of press attention made them decide to stay put. So they found themselves on the frontline of a war against the people they considered among their few international allies. The outbreak of war did lead to their first return visit to England since 1936, though by now the Duke (seen as a Nazi sympathiser) was much less popular than he had been. Edward did volunteer to serve though, and he was attached to the British military mission in Paris. There were rumours that his indiscretion there led to plans for the defence of Belgium, though nothing was ever proven. When Germany invaded France the Windsors fled south to Spain. Wallis met the US ambassador there and gave him her opinion that the reason for France’s abrupt collapse to the Nazi forces was because it was “internally diseased.”

Duke, centre, meeting with Adolf Hitler.

The Windsors then became the targets of a German plot. “Operation Willi” was the blanket name for a plan by Joachim von Ribbentrop, former ambassador to the UK during Edward’s reign and now foreign minister of Germany, to somehow bring Edward into the Nazi fold for use against Britain. Spain was officially neutral, but its ruler Franco was a fascist and thus not unsympathetic to Germany. The Spanish foreign minister was brought in on the plot, which mostly consisted of trying to convince Edward that the British people had turned on him and the OSS planned to liquidate him to prevent him turning. Stones were thrown at his house as a false flag operation, and false warnings from “British sympathisers” were passed on. The plan was derailed when Edward decided to leave Spain, and though the agents tried to use a bomb hoax to delay him and persuade him, he was not convinced before he left for Lisbon.

The British authorities were aware of the threat Edward posed, so they decided to get him out of the way by appointing him governor of the Bahamas. Edward was well aware of the nature of this appointment and deeply resented being shipped off to a “third-rate colony”. (Especially one populated by black people – Edward, like Wallis, was deeply racist.) It might have been this frustration that led to him giving an infamous interview to Liberty Magazine in which he praised Hitler and said that President Roosevelt should mediate a peace settlement in Europe. Churchill wrote to Edward to complain about his “defeatism”. Many in England saw the Duchess’ hand behind this, and her reputation as a Nazi sympathiser increased. She also gave an interview to a reporter named Adela St. Johns, where she made the somewhat indiscreet comment:

I would much rather have been the mistress to the King of England than the wife of the Governor of the Bahamas!

When the war ended Edward resigned his position as governor. It would have been traditional for an ex-Governor like Edward to have been received at court, but both his mother and sister-in-law vetoed this. The Windsor’s moved to New York where they became part of the “jet set”. Even a tarnished pair of British royals lent a cachet to any party, after all. They spent most of their time in America, though they did make a few visits to England to see old friends. On one of these visits, Wallis’ jewellery was stolen. It’s a sign of how unpopular she was that most were convinced she’d done it herself in order to claim the insurance money, though the real thief eventually confessed in 1960.

Honoured guests: Edward and Wallis depart Hitler’s mountain retreat in October 1937, after meeting the Fuhrer.

That wasn’t the only scandal from this period of their lives – they became involved with a noted American socialite named Jimmy Donahue. If you believed the rumours about Donahue he was a murderous homosexual rapist who used his family wealth to keep himself out of jail. Most of these stories are probably exaggerations, of course, though he was pretty flamboyantly homosexual. Despite that, rumours abounded that he and Wallis were having an affair – some people claiming this was how Jimmy’s mother persuaded the ex-royals to attend her parties. In reality, the real reason Wallis hung around with Jimmy was probably just because Edward was getting too old to be bothered with all-night partying, and the flamboyant Jimmy wasn’t going to make him jealous. The friendship did end abruptly after an argument at a party. Reportedly Wallis remarked on Jimmy’s bad breath, and he kicked her a little too hard under the table – enough to draw blood. Edward threw him out of the party, and that was it.

While Edward maintained contact with members of his family, it was clear that Wallis Simpson would always be a black sheep. After their wedding, Edward and Simpson received the titles the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But, though Edward’s title included “HRH” – His Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor – Simpson was forbidden from using “HRH.” Edward never forgave his family for this slight. From the moment she stepped into Edward’s life, Simpson was subject to rumours and allegations that sought to vilify her – she was seen as the conniving seductress who was manipulating a weak prince. She has been accused of everything from being a Nazi to being a man – she was too mannish and too domineering over Edward to be a real woman, some insisted. Indeed, one recent biographer has even taken that claim seriously and speculates Simpson might have been intersex.

It was Wallis’s task to keep him entertained for the next 35 years. She recreated a miniature court in exile for him, turning herself into the perfect Royal Duchess – elegant and well dressed.

Country retreat: Edward relaxes alone at the Florida hideaway he adored – but Wallis perched on a shooting stick) detested.

King George died in 1952, and Queen Mary (mother of George and Edward) died in 1953. The funerals seem to have given Edward a chance to form a truce with his family, possibly because Wallis was wise enough to stay away.

Queen Mary never forgave her son for neglecting his kingly duty, and he returned, briefly, to attend the funeral. “My sadness was mixed with incredulity,” he wrote to Wallis who, still persona non grata, “that any mother could have been so hard and cruel toward her eldest son for so many years … I’m afraid the fluids in her veins have always been as icy cold as they are now in death.” With no palace to inhabit or official duties to perform, Wallis turned her talents to creating the illusion of a regal existence through style.

Hiring the best decorators, she filled their houses at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie in the Chevreuse valley, and in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, with elegant antiques, while the walls were hung with imposing royal portraits. Her wardrobe was chic with exquisitely cut suits and pieces by Balenciaga, Chanel and Givenchy. She dieted obsessively and had her hair dressed by Antoine of Paris. All of this set off her jaw-dropping jewels. Edward had made a habit of ordering elaborate pieces from Cartier, sometimes resetting old family stones. Working with Cartier’s chief designer, Jeanne Toussaint, became a passion. At Cartier, at least, the duke and duchess might carry on like proper royals.

The pair moved from New York back to France, where they had a house in Paris and a country home next to their old friends Oswald and Diana Mosely. They were to live out their days in an endless loop of dinner parties, shopping and golf, adored by an army of pug dogs, but no children, and no subjects, with only each other to blame. Over the years, gossips said all sorts of things about Wallis – she was a gold-digger, a brash American, a manipulative seducer who ensnared the king with sexual tricks she’d learn from a Chinese prostitute, even that she was really a man –but rarely was Wallis charged with being happy.

(Edward did also blame the war on “Roosevelt and the Jews,” of course.) The tentative truce with Edward’s relatives forged in tragedy held up, as when the Duke returned to London for eye surgery Queen Elizabeth II visited them in hospital. She also visited Edward in 1971 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer.

The Duke died of throat cancer in May 28, 1972, in Paris. Wallis became increasingly paranoid that the royal family, led by Lord Mountbatten, planned to spirit away her husband’s possessions and leave her destitute. While she still ate like a bird, she upped her drinking, and a series of falls saw her in hospital. At one point, she broke her hip.

By prior agreement with the Queen, the Duke was buried in the Royal Burial Ground, the traditional resting place of members of the royal family who were not sovereigns.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles visited the Duke and Duchess in Paris, who continued to dress impeccably and live in the uppermost echelons of society.

In 1972, the Duke of Windsor died of cancer. Wallis returned to England for his funeral and lived off of Edward’s estate and an allowance from Queen Elizabeth.

After Edward’s death, Wallis became a recluse. She developed dementia and suffered from various falls and ailments. She gave her legal authority to her French lawyer, Suzanne Blum. Towards her end, she was bedridden and received no visitors bar her doctors and nurses.

Wallis died in 1986, and was buried, according to Edward’s wishes, by his side at Windsor Castle, embraced in death by the country that had never welcomed her in life. Her final decade was one of misery and mystery. If the couple had been fairly isolated in exile, in widowhood the duchess was reportedly forced to be a complete recluse.

After her death Blum auctioned Wallis’s huge jewellery collection, giving the $45m proceeds to the Pasteur Institute. Mohammed Al-Fayed bought much of her non-financial estate, including the lease to the Duchess of Windsor’s Parisian mansion.

Wallis Simpson – Duchess –

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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Wallis Simpson | Mental Floss

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