Wallis Simpson has often been portrayed as the ultimate man-stealing social climber, whose ambition to wear a crown nearly brought down the British monarchy. She’s up there with Cruella de Vil and Snow White’s evil stepmother in the panoply of female villains – but does she deserve the bad press, or was she just a victim of her era? Author Gill Paul investigates.
Young Wallis was anxious about money from her early years. Her father died when she was five months old, leaving her mother dependent on family handouts. An uncle paid for Wallis to attend a prestigious private school but sometimes left it till the last minute to pay the rent, and the fear of destitution stayed with her for life.
She was also insecure about her appearance: her hands were too big and her jaw too masculine. “I’m nothing to look at,” she told a friend, “so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” The problem is that stylish clothes cost money. Women of her station didn’t work so she would simply have to marry well.
At the age of twenty Wallis made a catastrophic mistake when she wed a glamorous pilot, Earl Winfield Spencer. It wasn’t long before she discovered he was an alcoholic bully, who hit her and hogtied her to their bed to stop her talking to other men. Eventually she had to confront the huge social taboo of getting divorced in the 1920s. Women who took this step usually became social outcasts, but Wallis’s sharp wit, lively conversational skills and elegant style meant hostesses were still willing to welcome her.
In the years after her marriage ended, Wallis fell head over heels for a suave Argentinian diplomat named Felipe de Espil, but he broke her heart when he chose a younger, wealthier bride. It must have been a bitter blow on many levels. Wallis was still struggling for money, so when a friend introduced her to the half-English Ernest Simpson, whose family part-owned a shipping company, she decided he represented exactly the kind of security she desired. Only problem: he was already married.
Within weeks of meeting Ernest, Wallis was having clandestine lunches with him, and less than two years later, having seen off the first wife, she married him in London. It was hardly a match of soulmates: Ernest was a quiet culture buff who loved reading and visiting sites of architectural interest, while Wallis’s hobbies were fashion and parties. She launched herself into English society, and enjoyed zipping over to Paris each season to pick frocks from the designer collections. But then the Wall Street Crash damaged Ernest’s business and money became tight. Alarm bells must have rung for Wallis.
The solution was at hand: her friend Thelma Furness was having an affair with the Prince of Wales, the blonde pinup boy for their generation. Wallis piqued his interest by refusing to show the deference he was used to as a royal. When he asked whether she missed central heating, she chided: “Every American woman who comes to England is asked the same question. I had hoped for something more original from the Prince of Wales.”
Thelma didn’t see the danger looming; she even asked Wallis to look after the Prince when she went to New York for a holiday. On her return she found Wallis had looked after him better than she’d intended. A lot better. The Prince was kneeling to fasten Wallis’s shoes, fetching her nail file when she broke a nail and generally running round after her. Needless to say, he was happy to subsidise her taste in designer clothes and fancy jewellery.
Did Wallis hope to become queen? Some contemporaries thought so, but the British constitution forbade a divorcee taking the throne. Perhaps she would have been happy as a royal mistress, but Edward was too besotted and determined to marry her. She offered to walk away, but he wouldn’t let her. Instead he gave up the throne, forcing his younger, more introverted brother Bertie, who had a chronic stutter, to take his place.
The financial settlement Edward received was generous but he and Wallis were not allowed to return to Britain without permission from his brother. They became international socialites, based in Paris, destined to wander the globe shopping and supping cocktails with the rich and famous for the rest of their days.
Was it what Wallis had wanted or did events spiral out of control until she couldn’t escape? “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance,” she wrote in later life. They sound like the weary words of a woman who married for money rather than love, then found there was a price to be paid.