Winston Churchill once said that every town in Britain should erect a statue to Wallis Simpson, because she saved England from Edward. He meant that insofar as Edward VIII abdicated the throne so he could marry the woman he loved in 1936. He also meant that Edward would have been an absolutely terrible King of England during wartime. Churchill was being a jerk about that. A jerk who was correct.
As Nazi sympathizers, Wallis and Edward both met with Hitler. Here is a picture of Adolf Hitler kissing Wallis Simpson’s hand:
I wanted to get that out of the way early in this story, to make it clear that the meeting happened, because I refuse to do the elaborate dance director Madonna did in W.E. where she tried to explain that really, the notion of Wallis and Edward being Nazi sympathizers was blown out of proportion and nothing was on record. Since I saw W.E. six times – there’s a scene where Wallis Simpson swirls around in a beautiful gown –
I am familiar with that argument, and that argument is wrong. Edward and Wallis were both glamorous, fashionable people who loved parties and who had moral compasses permanently set to “fun.” They probably would have been very poor rulers of England.
Fortunately, Edward was King for a very brief time, because he was forced to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson, as she had been divorced not once, but twice. This governmental decision has to do with the concern about a woman married to a prince possibly carrying another man’s child that has been a part of the monarchy really up until Will and Kate. Edward’s abdication speech is still remembered as one of the most moving in recent history. He said:
At long last I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything, but until now it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak.
A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart.
You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.
But you must believe me when I tell you that 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.
And I want you to know that the decision I have made has been mine and mine alone. This was a thing I had to judge entirely for myself. The other person most nearly concerned has tried up to the last to persuade me to take a different course.
I have made this, the most serious decision of my life, only upon the single thought of what would, in the end, be best for all.
This decision has been made less difficult to me by the sure knowledge that my brother, with his long training in the public affairs of this country and with his fine qualities, will be able to take my place forthwith without interruption or injury to the life and progress of the empire. And he has one matchless blessing, enjoyed by so many of you, and not bestowed on me — a happy home with his wife and children.
During these hard days I have been comforted by her majesty my mother and by my family. The ministers of the crown, and in particular, Mr. Baldwin, the Prime Minister, have always treated me with full consideration. There has never been any constitutional difference between me and them, and between me and Parliament. Bred in the constitutional tradition by my father, I should never have allowed any such issue to arise.
Ever since I was Prince of Wales, and later on when I occupied the throne, I have been treated with the greatest kindness by all classes of the people wherever I have lived or journeyed throughout the empire. For that I am very grateful.
I now quit altogether public affairs and I lay down my burden. It may be some time before I return to my native land, but I shall always follow the fortunes of the British race and empire with profound interest, and if at any time in the future I can be found of service to his majesty in a private station, I shall not fail.
And now, we all have a new King. I wish him and you, his people, happiness and prosperity with all my heart. God bless you all! God save the King!
Or you can listen to it here:
But how did the story start? And why – and this was a question posed by pretty much everyone in England at the time – did Edward not simply take Wallis as his mistress? How did she so captivate him that he would leave the throne of England to marry her?
Though she was exceedingly stylish, she was never considered a great beauty. She was considered to be a bit bossy, domineering and social climbing in her circle. And she wasn’t even English.
She was from Baltimore. She came from a wealthy family who supported her and her mother after her father died when she was five years old, and attended a number of fine girls schools, including Oldfield in Maryland. She gained a reputation for being “fast” during her time there, which mostly meant that she drank, smoked cigarettes, and went out on dates. Anne Sebba, who wrote That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, reports, “Some of the parents at the time believed that there was something extraordinary about Wallis and that her influence was malign.”
I always think that she and that Southern girl Zelda Fitzgerald might have gotten along well.
Wallis was considered something of a tomboy. Her biographer Michael Bloch carries that free-spirited notion further by suggesting that she suffered from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Which would mean that she had been born with male XY chromosomes but with receptors insensitive to testosterone. In essence, she would have developed as female, but lacking ovaries or a uterus. That might explain why she would have had no children during her three marriages; although the absence of children could also be explained by, as she told her good friend Herman Rogers, the fact that her first two husbands had never been allowed below her “personal Mason-Dixon line.”
That is a ladylike way of saying she never had sex with them, so remember that phrase for the future.
Still, she was seen as kind of a fabulous bad girl. In her late teen years, she ran away to marry a sailor named Win Spencer. His sister claimed of Wallis that “she could no more keep from flirting than breathing.”
Win was fiercely jealous and abusive. In their travels, she went to Hong Kong with him in 1924. Then she left him. But she did not leave Asia. She went on to Shanghai for what she called her “lotus year.” She was the first to mention that during that time she had frequented “bars of ill repute” as well as perfecting her social skills. For the rest of her life, rumors would persist that she had learned sexual skills in China, including one that was alternately called “the Baltimore grip, Shanghai squeeze or China clinch”.
I’m sorry, but could someone maybe tell me what this is? I tried Googling it but somehow I ended up with this story about sandwiches, and everything is pretty weird now. I also have no idea how this is in keeping with the fact that her first two husbands supposedly never saw her below-Mason-Dixon places.
Speaking of husbands! Her second husband’s name was Ernest Simpson. She met him in New York, where she returned briefly after her time in Asia. He wasn’t very glamorous, but, by all accounts, he seemed like a really nice guy, and he was well born. He was also half British, and the couple moved to London shortly after their wedding. Oh. Here is Wallis in her wedding dress:
It was with Ernest that Wallis met Prince Edward for the first time. At the time, Edward was having an affair with Wallis’s friend, Thelma Furness. Thelma and Edward wanted to spend the weekend together, and, since Thelma’s husband was out of town, propriety demanded that a married couple be around to chaperone. Wallis was fully aware of Thelma’s affair and offered herself and Ernest as their weekend companions. Ernest, a lifelong fan of the royals, was thrilled.
Something must have been amiss because after that weekend, Wallis wrote her aunt that “‘probably we will never hear or see any of them again.”
Wallis was very wrong about that.
Prince Edward quickly became captivated with Wallis. It’s worthwhile, perhaps, to have a little more information about Edward to explain this fascination. One psychiatrist said, “Edward’s moral development seemed to have been arrested in adolescence.” Biographer Anne Sebba explains:
“His extremes of behaviour—including a refusal to eat adequately, violent exercise and obsessive concern about the thinness of his legs, verging on anorexia, arranging his myriad clothes in seried rows, his unusual speech, social insensitivity and nervous tics such as constantly fiddling with his cuffs—are just some of the characteristics that come under the broad spectrum of autism and or its sometimes less virulent cousin, Asperger’s Syndrome.”
He also loved parties. And sleeping with women who pretty much threw themselves at him. And teddy bears.
Those close were very, very worried about him becoming monarch. He didn’t have much interest in it himself. He once wrote that, when considering the prospect, he felt suicidal. Even his father, King George V, said, ““I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet [the future George VI and Elizabeth II] and the throne.”
His prayers were answered.
In 1936, Time magazine attempted to explain Edward’s fascination with Wallis, saying:
In her London circle she has the reputation of holding Edward VIII by her wisecracking, hard gaiety in the most adverse or intimate situations. He has carried fairly heavy pieces of her luggage in railway stations. She has called him ‘Boysy’ to his face in brilliant London ballrooms, spoken of him to their British hostess as ‘the little man’ when he was King and Emperor, kept him waiting two hours in her car outside her dressmaker’s. When relatives of hers from the U. S. have been in town, she has taken His Majesty around to their London hotel bedrooms and he has shaken and served the cocktails. That realistic Mrs. Simpson ever thought she could be Queen of England without a tremendous struggle is unlikely, and there is no reason to think she ever believed her ‘Boysy’ would fight rather than run away to have more or less fun the rest of their lives. Englishmen bore her, English women him.
I mean, what I’m taking away from this is that you should call men Boysy.
Meanwhile, Sebba says:
“Psychologists may have an explanation for her behavior: the ideal partner for her personality would be one who allowed her to appear the perfect one, the other (him) as the inadequate one and the one who carried the flaw.”
In less savory publications her sexual charms were also supposed to play an important role. Again, the Baltimore grip (What is it? No, really, someone please tell me. Is it kegels?) was supposed to be a factor, especially as Prince Edward was known to be poorly endowed and prone to premature ejaculation.
I don’t know how many of the sex stories are true, but she was supposedly adept at “a prolonged and carefully modulated hot oil massage” that was supposed to help with the premature ejaculation. And, unlike many women in the 1930s, she claimed to be adept at oral sex.At the time, people said she had “the ability to make a matchstick feel like a cigar’.
But maybe Edward might just have liked the fact that she wasn’t afraid to boss him around. Wallis seemed to have a uniquely American sense that she was equal to anyone. There’s a line in my father’s favorite musical Oklahoma that says “I’m not saying I’m no better than anybody else/but I’ll be damned if I’m not just as good” that always seems to sum up a certain American notion that would not have existed in England, and certainly would not have existed at that time.
After Edward’s abdication and their marriage, Edward and Wallis entered an exceedingly glamorous life as cafe aristocrats. Edward was briefly appointed Governor of the Bahamas during World War II, but they spent most of the rest of their lives until Edward’s death in 1972 (from throat cancer) and Wallis’ in 1986 (from Alzheimer’s) traveling the world, dressing extravagantly and entertaining famous friends. In New York they took up residence at the Waldorf; on the Cote d’Azur at the Chateau de la Croe. In their private life, Thierry Courdet in Cafe Society states that Wallis “set obsessively high standards. Every detail of a dinner party had to be just so, from the decoration and the standard of the food and drink to the introductions and service – all of which, though impeccable in every way, lent their style de vie a starchiness that was perhaps in their view almost royal.”
Wallis and Edward, romantic though they were, would not have been terrific rulers. And his brother George VI and his wife Elizabeth were. There is a wonderful story about Queen Elizabeth. When she was informed that she should leave London for Canada during the war, when the air raids began, she replied, ” I cannot go without the King. And the King will never leave.” After every bombing, the King and Queen would dress in their finest clothes and visit those in the devastated areas. After her own home, Buckingham Palace was bombed, the Queen acknowledged, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the [people of the] East End in the face.”
But then, the Queen Mother (as our generation came to know her) was a paragon of dignity and virtue.
I am not saying that living a gay and glamorous life is a bad thing, necessarily. There is nothing wrong with loving parties. Wallis and Edward were much better as international bon vivants than they ever would have as hard-working, responsible monarchs. Their role was to provide a fabulous and colorful love story for the rest of us. Which they did exceedingly well.
And, to my initial question, how did she convince him to leave the throne? Well, for that, I think we can turn to the poet-philosopher Harry Belafonte: