Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, known as Wallis Simpson, was an American socialite and wife of the Duke of Windsor, the former King-Emperor Edward VIII. Their intention to marry and her status as a divorcée caused a constitutional crisis that led to Edward's abdication.
Wallis grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father died shortly after her birth, and she and her widowed mother were partly supported by their wealthier relatives. Her first marriage, to United States Navy officer Win Spencer, was punctuated by periods of separation and eventually ended in divorce. In 1931, during her second marriage, to Ernest Simpson, she met Edward, the then Prince of Wales. Five years later, after Edward's accession as King of the United Kingdom, Wallis divorced her second husband to marry Edward.
The King's desire to marry a woman who had two living ex-husbands threatened to cause a constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom and the Dominions, ultimately leading to his abdication in December 1936 to marry "the woman I love". After abdicating, the former king was made Duke of Windsor by his brother and successor, King George VI. Wallis married Edward six months later, after which she was formally known as the Duchess of Windsor, but was not allowed to share her husband's style of "Royal Highness".
Before, during, and after the Second World War, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were suspected by many in government and society of being Nazi sympathizers. In 1937, they visited Germany and met Adolf Hitler. In 1940, the Duke was appointed governor of the Bahamas, and the couple moved to the islands until he relinquished the office in 1945. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Duke and Duchess shuttled between Europe and the United States, living a life of leisure as society 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 much speculation, and she remains a controversial figure in British history.
An only child, Bessie Wallis (sometimes written "Bessiewallis") Warfield was born on June 19, 1896, in Square Cottage at Monterey Inn, a hotel directly across the road from the Monterey Country Club, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. A summer resort close to the Maryland–Pennsylvania border, Blue Ridge Summit was popular with Baltimoreans escaping the season's heat, and Monterey Inn, which had a central building, as well as individual wooden cottages, was the town's largest hotel.
Her father was Teackle Wallis Warfield, the fifth and youngest son of Henry Mactier Warfield, a flour merchant, described as "one of the best known and personally one of the most popular citizens of Baltimore," who ran for mayor in 1875. Her mother was Alice Montague, a daughter of stockbroker William Latane Montague. Wallis was named in honor of her father (who was known as Wallis) and her mother's elder sister, Bessie (Mrs. D. Buchanan Merryman), and was called Bessie Wallis until, at some time in her youth, the name Bessie was dropped.
According to a wedding announcement in the Baltimore Sun (November 20, 1895), her parents were married by C. Ernest Smith at Baltimore's Saint Michael and All Angels' Protestant Episcopal Church on November 19, 1895, which suggests she was conceived out of wedlock. Wallis claimed that her parents were married in June 1895. Her father died of tuberculosis on 15 November 1896. For her first few years, she and her mother were dependent upon the charity of her father's wealthy bachelor brother Solomon Davies Warfield, postmaster of Baltimore and later president of the Continental Trust Company and the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Initially, they lived with him at the four-story row house, 34 East Preston Street, that he shared with his mother.
In 1901, Wallis's aunt Bessie Merryman was widowed, and the following year Alice and Wallis moved into her four-bedroom house on West Chase Street, Baltimore, where they lived for at least a year until they settled in an apartment, and then a house, of their own. In 1908, Wallis's mother married her second husband, John Freeman Rasin, son of a prominent Democratic party boss.
On April 17, 1910, Wallis was confirmed at Christ Episcopal Church, Baltimore, and between 1912 and 1914 her uncle paid for her to attend Oldfields School, the most expensive girls' school in Maryland. There she became a friend of heiress Renée du Pont, a daughter of Senator T. Coleman du Pont of the du Pont family, and Mary Kirk, whose family founded Kirk Silverware. A fellow pupil at one of Wallis's schools recalled, "She was bright, brighter than all of us. She made up her mind to go to the head of the class, and she did." Wallis was always immaculately dressed and pushed herself hard to do well. A later biographer wrote of her, "Though Wallis's jaw was too heavy for her to be counted beautiful, her fine violet-blue eyes and petite figure, quick wits, vitality, and capacity for total concentration on her interlocutor ensured that she had many admirers."
In April 1916, Wallis met Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a U.S. Navy aviator, in Pensacola, Florida, while visiting her cousin Corinne Mustin. It was at this time that Wallis witnessed two airplane crashes about two weeks apart, resulting in a lifelong fear of flying. The couple married on November 8, 1916, at Christ Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which had been Wallis's parish. Win, as her husband was known, was a heavy drinker. He drank even before flying and once crashed into the sea, but escaped almost unharmed. After the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Spencer was posted to San Diego as the first commanding officer of a training base in Coronado, known as Naval Air Station North Island; they remained there until 1921.
In 1920, Edward, the Prince of Wales, visited San Diego, but he and Wallis did not meet. Later that year, Spencer left his wife for a period of four months, but in the spring of 1921 they were reunited in Washington, D.C., where Spencer had been posted. They soon separated again, and in 1922, when Spencer was posted to the Far East as commander of the USS Pampanga, Wallis remained behind, continuing an affair with an Argentine diplomat, Felipe de Espil. In January 1924, she visited Paris with her recently widowed cousin Corinne Mustin, before sailing to the Far East aboard a troop carrier, USS Chaumont. The Spencers were briefly reunited until she fell ill, after which she returned to Hong Kong.
Wallis toured China, and while in Beijing stayed with Katherine and Herman Rogers, who were to remain her longterm friends. According to the wife of one of Win's fellow officers, Mrs. Milton E. Miles, in Beijing Wallis met Count Galeazzo Ciano, later Mussolini's son-in-law and Foreign Minister, had an affair with him, and became pregnant, leading to a botched abortion that left her infertile. The rumor was later widespread but never substantiated and Ciano's wife, Edda Mussolini, denied it. The existence of an official "China dossier" (detailing the supposed sexual and criminal exploits of Wallis in China) is denied by historians and biographers. Wallis spent over a year in China, during which time—according to the socialite Madame Wellington Koo—she only managed to master one Chinese phrase: "Boy, pass me the champagne". By September 1925, she and her husband were back in the United States, though living apart. Their divorce was finalized on December 10, 1927.
By the time her marriage to Spencer was dissolved, Wallis had become involved with Ernest Aldrich Simpson, an Anglo-American shipping executive and former officer in the Coldstream Guards. He divorced his first wife, Dorothea (by whom he had a daughter, Audrey), to marry Wallis on July 21, 1928, at the Register Office in Chelsea, London. Wallis had telegraphed her acceptance of his proposal from Cannes, where she was staying with her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers.
The Simpsons temporarily set up home in a furnished house with four servants in Mayfair. In 1929, Wallis sailed back to the United States to visit her sick mother, who had married legal clerk Charles Gordon Allen after the death of Rasin. During the trip, Wallis's investments were wiped out in the Wall Street Crash, and her mother died penniless on November 2, 1929. Wallis returned to England and with the shipping business still buoyant, the Simpsons moved into a large flat with a staff of servants.
Through a friend, Consuelo Thaw, Wallis met Consuelo's sister Thelma, Lady Furness, at the time the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. On January 10, 1931, Lady Furness introduced Wallis to the Prince at Burrough Court, near Melton Mowbray. The Prince was the eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary, and heir apparent to the British throne. Between 1931 and 1934, he met the Simpsons at various house parties, and Wallis was presented at court. Ernest was beginning to encounter financial difficulties, as the Simpsons were living beyond their means, and they had to fire a succession of staff.