I remember how my heart leapt. It was a routine interview with someone who had insisted they had nothing to tell me – a name to be ticked off my list. After a polite chat, describing my work and my findings thus far, my host went out and brought back a packet of blue letters, tied up with ribbon, saying:
“You might find these interesting.”
Almost immediately, as I struggled to decipher the familiar large round handwriting of Wallis Simpson, I realised I was holding dynamite. The letters were still in their original envelopes so the postmarks -1936 and 1937 from various destinations – told me this was Wallis in the midst of her scandalous divorce from Ernest Simpson, a divorce that led to the abdication of the British monarch and nearly broke up the Empire. Edward Vlll had been King for just a few months and there was turmoil in Europe as Fascists and Nazis seized control where they could.
I took out my notebook and, glued to the sofa where I was sitting, immediately started transcribing.
“I am terrified of the court,” jumped out at me from the first letter in the series, postmarked Felixstowe, where Wallis had taken up temporary residence in October 1936 in order that her divorce case could be heard at nearby Ipswich Assizes. She hoped this would ensure it would go through swiftly before the British press knew about it. But American journalists, well aware of the new King’s love for this Baltimore divorcée, had been writing about the royal romance for months and were out in force. Wallis accused them of ‘printing wicked lies’ and always maintained she had to go through with the divorce only because of Ernest’s adultery with her best friend, Mary Kirk Raffray. But, extraordinarily, here she was two days before the case, writing not to the man she apparently wanted to marry but to the man she was about to divorce, telling him of her innermost fears and anxieties -“I feel small and licked by it all”- she admitted, begging him to give her courage. She was so lonely and did not understand herself, “which was the cause of all the misery.”
As I read on in utter amazement at the intimate tone of these fifteen unpublished letters, written to a man she was meant to hate, I discovered a desperately unhappy woman terrified of being physically attacked – she was getting alarming letters threatening her life, including bomb warnings – and full of anxiety about her future. Wallis’s insecurity had deep roots. Her father died when she was just a few months old leaving her beautiful and spirited mother, Alice, forced to take in lodgers, sell needlework and eventually to work as a country club hostess in order to make ends meet. Wallis’s childhood as the poor relation in a well-to-do family had scarred her deeply. A desire to avenge her mother’s poverty was a key motivating factor throughout her life.
Yet she wrote to Ernest on November 30th, a day full of portent as Crystal Palace burned down, about her determination to escape the country, ‘perhaps for ever’ if she could. She knew she would have to lie to the King about where she was going – “telling him the old search for hats story” – as he had threatened suicide if she left him. But remaining in England, dubbed by some as “the Yankee Harlot,” was intolerable. Even Prime Minister Baldwin, while urging Edward to keep Wallis as a mistress just not to marry her, thought there was a real danger of her being attacked.
In fact, soon after this, Wallis did leave the country, but only because the King sent her away for her own safety, not the total escape she craved.
And even then her letters to Ernest continued, apologising for not buying him a Christmas present as she could not emerge from her ‘prison,’ criticising Mary, the woman he was about to marry, for publicity seeking, and apologising on behalf of the King, insultingly referred to by them both as ‘Peter Pan,’ for some childish lapse in his behaviour affecting Ernest. She wrote to Ernest on her honeymoon in 1937, telling him “I think of us so much though I try not to,” and she wrote to Ernest on her famous trip to Germany where she shook hands with Hitler, and she reassured Ernest he was in her “eanum” prayers at night. Eanum was a word used by Wallis and the Prince, part of their invented lovers’ language. Yet the fact that Wallis used it to Ernest along with the reference between them to the King as Peter Pan, indicates that Wallis and Ernest discussed and privately ridiculed the King’s childish behaviour.
Throughout the time she was in France waiting for her divorce to come through Wallis was deeply worried that although she had been granted the first stage, the decree nisi, the final stage, allowing her to marry again, might never be granted. Divorce in Britain in 1936 was fiendishly difficult and, if it could be proved that the woman had also committed adultery, would not be granted. This nightmare scenario, where Wallis would be left in limbo without either Ernest or Edward and with her reputation in shreds, was, I now understood from the new letters, something she recognised only too clearly.
“Wasn’t life lovely, sweet and simple”, she wrote. “I can’t believe that such a thing could have happened to two people who got along so well- at least it never should have been like it is now.”
For once the King’s Proctor had intervened in her case, which he did in early 1937, the probability was, if the law took its proper course and he investigated thoroughly, that the decree absolute would not be granted. But, as documents newly available in the National Archives at Kew make clear, the King’s Proctor decided it would not be proper to interview servants who might have given him reason to disallow the suit.
“If I am put on the spot, Ipswich etc will have been a great waste of time as far as I am concerned,” she wailed to Ernest. No wonder Wallis was both scared and grasping. She had good reason to be terrified for her future when all she once wanted was an adventure, a swansong before she was forty, just to reassure herself she was still attractive to men, and to give Mr and Mrs Simpson a leg up in society. But it had got out of hand as Edward became madly obsessed with Wallis, at any cost.
The more I read the clearer it became that this divorce was entirely illegal or, in the parlance of the day, collusive. Matters had been agreed between the protagonists – as many such divorces were at the time, at least for the rich – whereby Ernest was “discovered” in a hotel bedroom with a woman. Although he had agreed to this, he tried to keep the woman’s identity out of the papers until the King’s Proctor advised him it would be better to provide a name. He came up with Mrs Buttercup Kennedy, almost certainly Mary Kirk, the nickname deriving from a hat she had once worn. When Wallis found herself so deeply entangled with the Prince that even the angelic Ernest (Wallis’s term) was losing his patience, Wallis urged Mary to come to London to entertain him. But the plan went wrong when Mary and Ernest fell in love and Wallis never forgave Mary for that.
After two hours of scribbling I was in another world. Suddenly I had heard the real voice of my subject, not the one that politicians or the royal family wished the public to hear. She was not necessarily any nicer but she was much easier to understand as a flawed and weak individual who had made a terrible mistake. Wallis and Ernest had met in New York in 1927 while Wallis was waiting for her divorce to come through from her first husband, Lt. Win Spencer, a US Naval pilot. Ernest, although married at the time with a young daughter, was instantly smitten by Wallis who did not feel passionately about him but agreed to the marriage, which took place in July 1928, because at 32 she was no longer young and he was, as she pointed out to her mother, kind and good looking. In addition he offered her the chance to live in England and make a new life with some security derived from the Simpson family shipping business. But they were far from rich, and in the event Wallis had to scrimp and save in order to entertain the highest echelons of London society in which she found herself thanks to a number of American introductions and the Prince of Wales’s love of all things American. One of the group was Thelma, Viscount Furness, the Prince’s current mistress, and thanks to her an introduction to the Prince was effected in 1931. In 1934 when Thelma had to go away for a while she invited Wallis to look after the Little Man, which Wallis did rather too well. At first Ernest had enjoyed the proximity to royalty almost as much as his wife. Two years later he had had more than enough and now, I understood, so had she.
As I stopped to take breath and consider what I had read, I could not help reflecting on how nearly this interview had not happened. More than a year beforehand I had flown out to the Mexican desert to meet the son of Ernest and Mary, then in his late sixties. He had never known Wallis, her name was never mentioned while his father was alive, and almost everything about the story was abhorrent to him. But he provided me with a wodge of addresses – friends of his mother, family of his aunt and others around the globe as one contact led to another. Most tried to be helpful but could add little to what was already known and I thought the dreaded time had come when I must start writing my biography. But I made one last phone call and now I was handling letters that Wallis herself had handled, folded and perhaps even cried over. “Oh my very dear, dear Ernest,” I read. “I can only cry as I say farewell and press your hand very tightly and pray to God.”
There were, fortunately for me, to be subsequent visits when my host revealed an astonishing collection of cuttings and other papers, including a batch of letters from Ernest to his mother in New York in which he corroborated the collusion of the divorce proceedings. His mother, understandably upset that her son was cast as the wrongdoer, was reassured by Ernest that that was how things were done here, “especially where members of the Royal Family are concerned” since the King could not be named in court. Ernest, the dry as dust mari complaisant as history would have it, was, I now learned, not without a sense of humour reminding his mother four days after the Abdication that she should be more careful in picking daughters-in-law who go about wrecking the British Empire… “After all we have not got Kings to hand out left and right.” In the same archive, I later discovered a poignant blue leather diary of Mary Kirk in which she bravely recounted her valiant struggle against cancer, her deep love for Ernest and their baby son and how cruelly she believed Wallis had used her. “Ernest turned to me in his great unhappiness,” Mary wrote, “and even then, tho’ she loathed and despised having me there, it served her purpose so she could say the E. was having an affair with me and she would have to get a divorce.”
Taken together the new letters reveal Wallis in those months after October 1936 as a woman drowning, thrashing around and blaming everyone and everything, especially ‘stuffy British minds’ and Mary, whom she had tried to manipulate. Finally however Wallis acknowledges there is no going back to her calm and peaceful life with Ernest, which she realised too late offered her a deeper kind of contentment, albeit one without excitement or riches. Her future life would be with a demanding and wilful ex-King in exile – and plenty of jewellery. She clings to what she does have left, making the best of it and from now on behaves as a loyal, deeply supportive wife for thirty six years of marriage. Yet, this archive shows for the first time in seventy five years, how, far from being seen as the most romantic love story of the last century, the story of Wallis and Edward is really a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core. As with all such pacts, the Devil eventually claimed his reward.
That Woman a life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20.00
Wallis Simpson the Secret Letters Channel 4 August 24th 9 pm