Footsteps biography doesn’t get more real than this. Young Wallis Warfield, barely ten years old and fatherless, lived in this building in Baltimore where I have just spent a night. Many times she walked up the same red brick-edged steps that I just have, with a heart – by her own account – almost as heavy as my suitcase.
It was around 1905 that Wallis and her widowed mother, Alice, moved in to the Brexton lodging house, built in 1891 on a strange corner plot with 58 bedrooms and only a handful of shared bathrooms. The time they spent here was deeply unhappy for them both. Wallis recalled later how she endured meals alone with her mother, bathrooms shared with other tenants “and rather forlorn excursions” to the Warfield family house on East Preston Street, the smartest part of town, that they had just left. Probably they had fled in a hurry because her late father’s brother, Uncle Sol, on whom they depended for money, had made unwelcome overtures to the beautiful Alice. As keen-eyed Wallis noticed, there suddenly descended a mysterious and disturbing barrier preventing discussion of anything connected with the family mansion.
Wallis was living in a world of secrets, where grownups mumbled under their breath, but which she processed later in her life to mean something along the lines of ‘women have to depend on a man but they cannot always depend on a man’. She watched her spirited and feisty mother eke out a living selling needlework to the local women’s craft exchange, but when this did not bring in enough to live on Alice experimented by cooking meals for other lodgers. But that was a disaster and eventually Aunt Bessie, Alice’s sister, rescued the pair and took them to live with her.
Just how worried young Wallis was about her mother’s physical or financial survival is of course impossible to tell but, since she later came to justify much of her adventure with the British prince as avenging her mother’s poverty, I think I can assume a fair bit.
Today the Brexton is a stylish and chic boutique hotel in the heart of “historic downtown” with a mere 29 bedrooms and all with bathrooms ensuite! When I was researching here, several years ago, it was a semi derelict pile, supported by scaffolding with trees growing through the roof. As I wandered around then in my hard hat looking at the oddly shaped rooms I wondered how the developer could possibly make decent sized rooms. But the other night, as I took one look at the long, thin and angular shaped room now proudly named The Wallis Simpson suite I realised how brilliantly it worked; it is long, thin, stylish and angular – a perfect tribute to its namesake. Quite correctly, since Americans know all about observing proprieties, the next door but NOT adjoining room, is the King Edward 8th Suite.
And so, as I tread the front steps of the once again charming Brexton Hotel, I find myself uttering a phrase I hate to read in biographies but cannot prevent myself thinking … Little did she know.