June 19, 1896 – Bessie Wallis Warfield:
”You can never be too rich or too thin.”
If you know her at all, it is as Wallis Simpson, the American socialite, two-time divorcée whose engagment to the King Edward VIII caused a constitutional crisis in Britain that led to Edward’s abdication.
Simpson grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father died shortly after her birth and she and her mother were then supported by their rich relatives. Her first marriage was to U.S. Naval officer Win Spencer. Their union was peppered by periods of separation and eventually divorce. In 1931, during her second marriage, to shipping executive Ernest Simpson, she met Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor, at the time, Prince of Wales. Five years later, after Edward became King of the United Kingdom, Wallis divorced her husband to marry Edward.
The King’s desire to marry this American woman who had two living ex-husbands ultimately led to his abdication in December 1936 to marry “the woman I love”. After abdicating, the former king was created Duke of Windsor by his brother and successor, King George VI. She married Edward six months later, after which she was formally known as the Duchess of Windsor, but she definitely was not allowed to share her husband’s endearment of “Royal Highness”.
The wedding, which the royal family avoided, took place in France. Queen Mary shunned her son, years later condemning the betrayal that she and the nation felt, writing:
“It seemed inconceivable to those who had made sacrifices during the war that you, as their king, refused a lesser sacrifice.“
For two years, Wallis and Edward lived in France until the start of World War II in 1939. Before, during, and after the war, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. In 1937, they visited Germany and met and were photographed hanging out with Adolf Hitler against the advice of the British government. During their visit the Duke gave full Nazi salutes. Hitler considered Edward to be friendly towards Germany and thought that Anglo-German relations would have been improved if it were not for the abdication. Hitler:
“I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.”
An embarrassment to country and family, in 1940, the Duke was appointed governor of the Bahamas, just to have them tucked out of sight. They lived there until he relinquished the office in 1945. Next, the couple settled in France.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Windsors moved easily within the upper-crust in Europe and the USA, enjoying a life of leisure as celebrities. After the Duke’s death in 1972, the Duchess lived in seclusion and was rarely seen in public. Her private life has been a source of so much speculation. She is still a controversial figure in the history of Britain.
With her fashion sense, flamboyant flair for jewelry and resolute resolve to make her way to greatness, she shared similar traits with the ambitious, stylish, flaming queer men that she considered to be her true peers.
The Duchess loved her gays. Her favorite fag friends included Cole Porter, Cecil Beaton, and W. Somerset Maugham. Most of her time was spent in the gay circles of great showbiz characters and interior designers.
She was not beautiful; her profile was flat and angular, and for a while there was some suspicion that she was not a woman at all. For decades there was chatter about the Duchess’s gender and sexuality. Some suggested that she may have been born as intersexual, an idea perpetuated by the mysterious surgeries she underwent throughout her life and her chronic suffering from pain.
Others offered a theory she had androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), born genetically male with XY chromosome that produce testosterone. An insensitivity to testosterone has the individual developing outwardly as a woman, although at puberty the testosterone kicks in, making strong muscles. The Duchess was noted for her athletic prowess, long legs and large hands.
Her features ignited much gossip, and the idea that ”that woman”, as she was dubbed by Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (then Duchess of York), was not actually a woman is one of many myths about Simpson used to justify her unprecedented hold over a powerful man.
When Edward gave up the throne to be with Simpson, many derided her as the ”King’s whore”. There were whispers that she was a witch who had possessed Edward, deterring him from his royal duties to be devoted to her instead.
The Duke’s undeniable affection for her bordered on worship, and because she was not a classic beauty and was 40 years old when her affair with the then Prince of Wales began, many in English society refused to believe she might have the natural charm to inspire that much affection.
That outsider status cemented her place as a Gay Icon. She was charismatic, electric and compulsively ambitious. Forced into exile after her man’s abdication, the woman who was nearly queen spent the rest of her life shunned and misunderstood. She received death threats and unaccepted by both peers and commoners alike for nearly destroying the monarchy. Simpson never gave up on her greatest achievement: the reinvention of herself.
During a meeting with the publisher of her memoirs, The Heart Has Its Reasons (1974), the Duchess pleaded:
”Can you tell me who Marilyn Monroe‘s publicity agent is? I have all the newspapers each day and I was generally on the front page. But now I see that Marilyn Monroe is. Well, somebody has pushed me off!”
For a man who gave up being a king for her love, the Duke of Windsor probably expected to live the rest of his life happily married to the woman he adored. But their life together became torture.
Maybe because of her lifelong obsession with being thin (she didn’t appear to have a waistline), through her three marriages she never had children. She told her good friend Herman Rogers, who gave her away at her wedding to the Duke, that she had never had sex with her first two husbands, nor had anyone ever been allowed to touch her below her ”personal Mason-Dixon line”.
Nevertheless, Wallis was a talented and notorious flirt. The private notebooks of his private secretary Anne Seagrim confirmed that the Duchess enjoyed a four-year affair with Jimmy Donahue, a wealthy American who was 19-years younger.
Donahue was an heir to the Woolworth fortune. He was a freewheeling, promiscuous gay man notorious for his outrageous behavior. The affair began in 1950, when they traveled together across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary: she was 54, he was 35. They flaunted their relationship, which took place 14 years after Edward VIII abdicated, and it was not long before he found out. The thing is, Edward was actively bisexual, as were both Wallis’ former husbands. Edward’ tryst with men often included Wallis in the action. They both had affairs with Donahue which lasted until 1954, when the Duke told him:
”We’ve had enough of you, Jimmy.”
The royal family never fully accepted the Duchess. Queen Mary refused to receive her formally. The Duke sometimes met his mother and his brother, George VI; and as portrayed in The Crown he attended George’s funeral in 1952. Queen Mary remained angry with Edward and indignant over his marriage to Wallis: “To give up all this for that“.
In 1965 the Duke and Duchess returned to London. They were visited by Elizabeth II. In 1967 they joined the royal family for the centenary of Queen Mary’s birth. He declined an invitation from Elizabeth II to attend the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969, replying that Prince Charles would not want his “aged great-uncle” there.
In late 1971, the Duke, who was a lifelong smoker was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent cobalt therapy. In May 1972, Elizabeth II visited the Duke and Duchess of Windsor while on a state visit to France; she spoke with the Duke for fifteen minutes, but only the Duchess appeared with the royal party for a photo op. The Duke was too ill.
After the Duke’s death, the Duchess travelled to London to attend his funeral, staying at Buckingham Palace. The Duchess became increasingly frail and eventually, with dementia, she lived her final years supported by both her husband’s estate and an allowance from the Queen.
The Duchess of Windsor died in 1986 at her home in Paris. She was 89 years old. Her funeral was held in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales attended the funeral and the burial.
She was buried next to Edward in the Royal Burial Ground as “Wallis, Duchess of Windsor”.
Their story figures in the film The King’s Speech (2010), where the Duchess is played by Eve Best, and in the Netflix series The Crown where she is played by Lia Williams in seasons one and two and Geraldine Chaplin in season three. Wallis Simpson has also been portrayed by Faye Dunaway in The Woman I Love (1972), Barbara Parkins in To Catch A King (1983), Jane Seymour in The Woman He Loved (1988), Joely Richardson in Wallis & Edward (2005), Gillian Anderson in Any Human Heart (2010), and Andrea Riseborough in W.E. (2011), written and directed by Madonna.
“You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.“