In 1936 the king of England abdicated his throne for “the woman I love.” That woman was Wallis Simpson.
In 1936 Britain’s King Edward VIII abdicated his throne for “the woman I love.” That woman was Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite whose name prompts strong reactions more than 28 years after her death 24 April 1986 at age 89.
“Love or hate her, the world is still obsessed by that woman,” fashion designer Roland Mouret told British Vogue in 2011 after he debuted a collection with a dress inspired by Simpson’s style.
On the anniversary of Simpson’s birth 19 June 1896 in rural Pennsylvania, Legacy offers 10 things you may not have known about the Duchess of Windsor.
1. She grew up poor and fatherless. Simpson’s father “died of tuberculosis when she was a baby, and Wallis and her mother became dependent on the charity of Wallis’ Uncle Warfield,” according to Biography.com’s entry on Simpson. “Wallis became the poor relation, which led to an insecurity that followed her into adulthood.”
2. She met Edward through his mistress. In 1931 Edward’s mistress, Lady Thelma Furness, introduced him to the Simpsons — Wallis and her second husband, Ernest. Furness hoped the American-born couple would provide cover for her to continue her relationship with the prince while her husband was out of town. Three years later, Wallis Simpson had left her husband and taken Furness’ spot in Edward’s heart.
3. She was no great beauty. The relationship baffled those around the couple and completely mystified the British public. Simpson herself acknowledged she was no great beauty: “I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”
4. She dressed for success. Simpson “wore fashion like a kind of armour – with her sense of style becoming more sophisticated the more notorious she became,” British Vogue noted in 2011. “Simpson’s witty disdain towards British stuffy attitudes and rigid class system … were never more apparent than in her sense of style.” Many of her contemporaries replicated her style.
5. She coined the phrase, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” One biographer noted that Simpson was fixated on her weight and her wealth.
6. Edward was her third husband. When King George V died in January 1936, eldest son Edward ascended to the throne. In December of that same year, Edward gave his famous radio broadcast in which he said, “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.” Edward’s brother, George, replaced him. Edward and Simpson married in France 3 June 1937, the day that would have been the late king’s 72nd birthday.
7. She begged Edward to give her up instead of the throne. British author Rose Tremain wrote, “What few people remember was that, as the storm broke in the press, Wallis begged the King to tell his people he was giving her up. She then left for France. Before her boat sailed, she scribbled a note to him: ‘…tell the country I am lost to you.’ A few days later, her solicitor Theodore Goddard called Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to say that his client was willing to ‘do anything to prevent the King from abdicating.’ She even offered to disappear to China.”
8. She was Time magazine’s first Woman of the Year. In 1936 Time magazine dubbed Simpson its “Woman of the Year.” It was the first time a female had received such an acknowledgment. For the nine years previously, the award had been known as “Man of the Year,” recognizing only men. Simpson was “the most-talked-about, written-about, headlined and interest-compelling person in the world,” according to the magazine. It also noted that Simpson was part of a tide of people and events that was shaking up the more staid United Kingdom and introducing it to a “more or less hectic and ‘American’ future.”
9. Duchess, yes. Her Royal Highness, no. Anne Sebba’s biography, That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, notes that after Simpson’s marriage to Edward, King George VI denied her the title of “Her Royal Highness.” That decision angered her husband, who sarcastically noted, “This is a nice wedding present.” “It was in this mood that he returned a wedding present—a Faberge box—from his other brother, the Duke of Kent. Henceforth, he confided … he was through with his family. He would be loyal to the Crown, but not to the new King,” Sebba writes. “George VI … was never to change his mind about granting the status of HRH to his brother’s wife — despite many pleas over the years. His own wife, Elizabeth—later to become the Queen Mother—was similarly intractable.”
10. History has not forgotten—nor forgiven—Wallis Simpson. British author Tremain, who wrote a radio drama titled, The Darkness of Wallis Simpson, noted that “History has never forgotten Wallis Simpson. It has also never stopped blaming her,” according to a 2010 article on telegraph.co.uk. “She was the woman who ‘killed’ King George VI by bringing about the abdication of his elder brother, Edward VIII, thereby forcing the poor stammering George (Bertie) to take up a role for which he was far too frail,” Tremain wrote. But King George VI led the nation through the Blitz and World War II, and his daughter, the current Queen Elizabeth II, is well-regarded by her countrymen. “So, things didn’t turn out so badly, then,” Tremain wrote. “Yet history’s verdict on Wallis has never shifted.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”