First, because there are many contemporary love stories – nearly everyone has or knows one -- but we only hear about those involving celebrities. Second, because the more contemporary the event, the more people there are with personal knowledge who will leak or, more important, write about the truth or a version of the truth. Details and differences of opinion make situations overly complex. Third, given enough time, everyone knows how the story ends.
Case in point is the story of Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson, which is considered by many as one of the greatest contemporary love stories. After all, Prince Edward gave up the throne of England to marry the woman he loved because the monarchy would not accept her as queen.
When I started my research, I expected this love story to have a somewhat happy ending in spite of the many sacrifices made -- but nothing in life is what it seems.
Bessie Wallis Warfield was born in June of 1896. Her father, who came from an affluent and distinguished family, died shortly thereafter, and for the first few years, she and her mother were supported by her father's wealthy bachelor brother, the post master of Baltimore. Then, they moved in with her mother's recently-widowed elder sister, until they could get an apartment, and later a house, of their own.
As a small child 10 years old As a young woman
In 1916, she married Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., a U.S. Navy aviator. He turned out to be an abusive drunk, and after several long, unavoidable separations, they divorced in 1927. Her second husband, Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive, divorced his first wife and married Wallis in July, 1928, and they moved to England.
First Wedding Earl Spencer, Jr. Second Wedding Earnest Simpson
It was not love at first sight. They exchanged a few polite words, and didn't have anything to do with each other for the rest of the party. Over the next several months, Wallis and her husband ran into Prince Edward at other parties, and eventually he became their friend.
Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, was born Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David [Whew!] in June of 1894 to the Duke and Duchess of York [the future King George V and Queen Mary], their first child and heir to the throne. He was followed by four brothers [one of whom died at 14] and a sister.
As a Child About 12 As Young Man About Age 23
At the age of 12, he was shipped off to the Naval College at Osborne and then attended Dartmouth. He later wrote that during those years he wanted desperately to be treated like every other boy his age. [Francis Wilson May 25, 2011, from book Behind Closed Doors.]
Denied a military commission during WWI because he was heir to the throne, he argued his case with the Secretary of War. Ultimately, he was commissioned in a position under Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Although stationed far from the front, he did witness some of horrors of war and gained the respect of the common Brit simply because he wanted to be there.
By the age of twenty-three, Edward had the reputation of being a playboy who preferred married women. Mrs. Winifred (Freda) Dudley Ward was his mistress for 16 years. He also had a long term relationship with Viscountess Thelma Furness, the sister of a friend of Wallis Simpson.
In 1931, the prince met Wallis and Ernest Simpson at one of Thelma's parties, but was not particularly impressed. Four months later, they met again at another party. Seven months after that, he was invited to the Simpson's house for dinner. The Prince and the Simpsons became good friends, and they exchanged invitations for two years, until 1934 when Thelma Furness took a trip to the United States. It's not clear if Thelma asked Wallis to look after the prince while she was gone, or Wallis suggested it. Each said, later, it was the other's idea.
THE PLOT THICKENS
During her absence, Prince Edward invited Wallis and Ernest on a cruise. Ernest had prior commitments, but Wallis accepted. She wasn't alone with him, of course, and even her own Aunt Betsy was among the group. Chaperones or not, that was when their friendship crossed over the line to love. The fling was kept under wraps, but when Thelma Furness returned to England, she had been replaced by Wallis.
Ernest, himself, considered the affair as a coup and had reaped economic and social rewards, such as being admitted into the Prince's mason's order. He and Wallis both expected Edward to become King soon and knew the affair would have to end.
The royal family abhorred Wallis, particularly Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Duchess of York and wife of the prince's brother Albert, who moved in the same social circles as Wallis. There are indications that at one time Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was romantically interested in Edward, even that she was in love with him.
It's hard to guess whether or not Wallis understood what the Prince was really like. For years, he suffered from undiagnosed anorexia nervosa — an illness often related to a wish to remain eternally childlike, exemplified by his letters in his teens to his mistress Freda.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen ties the Prince's dependence on a mother figure, and some of his other quirks, to typical characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. Several other people who were close to Prince Edward [such as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Lord Wigram, and the Archbishop of Canterbury], believed he was abnormal psychologically and possibly physically. More important, the Royal Family's doctor, Lord Dawson of Penn, believed his moral development had been arrested in his teens.
His fixation on Wallis was more likely his mental condition than true love. Regardless, Edward became obsessed and showered her with clothes, jewelry, and other expensive gifts. He also expected her to devote all her time to him. Instead of calling it off, she tried, with no luck, to manipulate him to back off a little by taunting him and reducing him to tears in front of others. As the emotional drama escalated, with the royal family and public opinion in the mix, Edward retaliated with emotional blackmail and warned if she left him, he would kill himself. [Somehow, this isn't sounding like a great love story to me!]
THE KING GEORGE V DIES
Just to complicate matters, King George V died in January 1936, and Prince Edward became King Edward VIII of England. Rather than becoming bogged down by royal responsibilities, Edward ignored them and continued to court Wallis. His major focus, instead of being on ruling, was on how to make Wallis queen … although she was still married to Ernest. King Edward VII
Edward was King of England for 326 days. During this time, he threatened to abdicate unless Wallis could be queen. Wallis begged him not to abdicate and to just let her go. According to biographers, she had no desire to be queen and wanted Ernest back.
The whole thing became an international scandal. Everyone crucified Wallis and called her every ugly name in the book. It was clear the royal family, the public, and the Church of England would never allow Wallis Simpson, a woman divorced twice with both ex-husbands still living, to become queen. For her protection, Edward sent her to France. After one year, Edward VIII abdicated, giving up not only the crown but his privileges as a member of the royal family. He was exiled from England. He married Wallis Simpson in France on June 3, 1937, in a subdued ceremony which was not attended by anyone in the royal family.
AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Shouldn't a Great Love Story either end in tragedy [as did most great love stories in myths, legends, and ancient history] or Happily Ever After?
Yeah, well, that's the problem with contemporary stories. TMI. Like I said, we know how the story ended.
Their wedding day 1937
After Wallis and Ernest divorced in 1937, Wallis continued to correspond with him, even on her honeymoon. It was clear he had been the love of her life, and she regretted losing him.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor remained married for the rest of their lives [thirty-six years], but whether or not it was a happy marriage is highly debatable.
They lived in France, traveled some, and commuted between France and New York, entertaining in both locations and participating in charitable events. During World War II Edward was appointed as governor of the Bahamas, which Wallis considered a punishment.
Biographer Seeba paints a dreary picture of the last thirty years of their marriage. "Their lives were defined by each other, the past, and aesthetics: decorating, shopping, holding formal dinners, being noticed by the newspapers. They were bitter toward the royal family, and Wallis was eternally frustrated that she no longer held the interest of people at high levels of society, government, or the arts."
“Nothing else in his [Prince Edward's] life gave him any sense of achievement other than his marriage to Wallis,” Sebba writes. “For her, the slavish devotion was at times claustrophobic, and she was not afraid to show it. But love is impossible to define and in their case especially so."
"Few who knew them well described what they shared as love." Bummer!