In 1969, a young TV reporter from Baltimore got the chance to meet Queen Elizabeth on a press junket to London. On the big day, Prince Philip, the queen’s husband, worked his way down the receiving line. When he stopped in front of the TV reporter, he asked her name.
“I’m Susan White from Baltimore,” she said.
The prince didn’t hear her, so he asked her to repeat herself.
“I’m Susan White from Baltimore. You know, Baltimore. Where Mrs. Simpson was from.”
Shortly afterward, while everyone was mingling in an ornate banquet hall, an attaché approached White, now retired WMAR-TV reporter Susan White-Bowden, and quietly told her that the prince would like to see her. Alone.
Alas, she declined, thus depriving herself, and the rest of us, of a story for the ages. But this much we do know: the mere mention of the name “Mrs. Simpson” aroused Prince Philip’s interest enough to lead him to believe he was being propositioned.
Who was the woman behind that name?
She was Wallis Warfield Simpson, a belle of Baltimore and the woman who would become famous— or notorious, depending on your point of view— for snagging another prince, a future king of England, Edward VIII. In 1936, he gave up the throne to marry her, the first time in history such a thing had been done. It was, newspapers cried, the “Romance of the Century.” It was also an unheard-of breach, a rejection of duty in favor of love. And all for a commoner from Baltimore.
Adored and reviled in equal measure, the twice-divorced American was granted the title of Duchess of Windsor and spent the rest of her life jet-setting around the world with the duke, followed not only by the press but by women everywhere, who tried to emulate her style of dress and sense of fashion. She was a forerunner of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Diana, an independent-minded woman who touched a public nerve and became a legend.
She was born Bessiewallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., a mountain retreat for Baltimoreans seeking relief from tuberculosis. Her parents were Teackle Wallis Warfield and Alice Montague, both from a long line of bluebloods that stretched back hundreds of years to England. She was named in honor of her father and her mother’s sister, Bessie Buchanan Merryman, the two names combined in the Southern style to form Bessiewallis.
“The Warfields were extremely conservative,” the duchess later said. “They were ‘solid citizens,’ staid and religious, whereas the Montagues were just the opposite, irresponsible and lighthearted. The Warfield in me was always trying to put the brakes on the Montague.”
Teackle succumbed to tuberculosis at age 27, leaving his widow and 5-month-old daughter without a means of support, so they moved in with his mother at 34 E. Preston St. in Mount Vernon. Also in the house was old Mrs. Warfield’s middle son, Solomon. An opera lover, man of letters and bon vivant, Uncle Sol supported his brother’s widow and daughter through regular deposits to their bank account.
But things became uncomfortable when Uncle Sol fell in love with the fetching Alice. So she and Bessiewallis, then 5 years old, moved to the nearby Brexton Family Hotel at 868 Park Ave., a grand Queen Anne-style brick building that is now the site of the just-refurbished Hotel Brexton.
The young Bessiewallis continued to see much of her grandmother, especially when Alice began working at the Women’s Industrial Exchange on Charles Street, sewing children’s clothes. The girl still spent time at the Preston Street house and on Sundays accompanied her grandmother to Christ Episcopal Church on St. Paul Street. Years later, in her autobiography, “The Heart Has Its Reasons,” she wrote about her grandmother’s severe black clothes, her erect posture, her devotion to keeping a well-ordered house. These attributes later blossomed in the woman who would become a fashion icon for the simplicity and rigor of her dress, every hair always in place.
In 1902, not long after moving to the Brexton, Alice was invited to live at her newly widowed sister’s house at 9 W. Chase St. It was from there, the fun-loving Aunt Bessie’s house, that Bessiewallis began kindergarten a few blocks away at Miss Ada’s School, run by Ada O’Donnell. O’Donnell recalled that though Alice Warfield had little money of her own, she made sure Bessiewallis was always beautifully dressed. In 1941, when the duchess returned to Baltimore for the first time since her marriage to the duke, she spent a long time reminiscing with her former teacher at a reception at the Baltimore Country Club. “Miss Ada,” said the duchess, “taught me all I know.”
It was at that kindergarten age that Bessiewallis first displayed her sartorial flair. Her mother sewed all her clothes, and for the child’s first party made a white dress with a blue sash. “No!” said the little girl. “I want a red sash, so all the boys will notice me.”
Notice her they did, then and ever after. “She was a honeypot,” recalled one of her cousins at the time of her debut in 1914. “She attracted men the way molasses attracts flies.” She wasn’t considered beautiful, but she had a way about her— dark hair parted in the middle, brilliant blue eyes, high cheekbones and a hearty laugh. She was also outspoken, a rarity for girls at that time. And early on she developed the art of making much out of little, a talent that would stand her in good stead years later when she was presented at court at Buckingham Palace and couldn’t afford a new dress.
Though she wasn’t exactly impoverished in Baltimore, she was well below the level of the wealthy girls at Oldfields, the boarding school in Glencoe she attended as a teenager. Years earlier she had dropped the first part of her name and now just went by Wallis. She hated the name Bessie, she said; it reminded her of a cow.
By then, her mother had moved yet again, first to the Preston Apartments at the corner of Guilford and Preston, and then to a three-story brownstone at 212 E. Biddle St. She had remarried, and considered the Biddle Street house a proper home, her own home. It was a happy period for Wallis, free of financial worry. But it didn’t last long. Her stepfather died suddenly in 1913, leaving Alice and Wallis once again dependent on family money. They moved to a small apartment building called Earl’s Court, at the corner of Preston and St. Paul streets, never far from the orbit of Grandmother Warfield, Aunt Bessie and Uncle Sol.
In 1914, Wallis graduated from Oldfields, and set her sights on the event of the season: the Bachelor’s Cotillon. It was, she later said, “a life-and-death matter for Baltimore girls in those days.” Her mother and Uncle Sol were determined that she should be presented to society along with the 46 other invited girls. But the Warfields couldn’t afford to buy a ball gown. Instead, Alice designed Wallis’ dress, and a black seamstress named Ellen sewed it. It was white satin and chiffon, the style, Wallis wrote, “borrowed shamelessly from a gown in which Irene Castle was at that time dancing to spectacular success on Broadway.”
At the Lyric Theater, on the night of Dec. 7, 1914, to the strains of “Parfum d’Amour,” Wallis Warfield was formally presented to society. But the dancing did not extend through the next year, as was customary for debutantes. World War I and the death of Grandmother Warfield cast a pall over Wallis’ life. She and the family went into mourning.
Not permitted to attend parties during this period, Wallis was surprised when, a few months later, she was invited to visit a cousin in Pensacola, Fla. The Montague love of fun won out over the Warfield sense of duty, and she was allowed to go. The day after she arrived, in April of 1916, she wrote to her mother: “I have just met the world’s most fascinating aviator.”
The pilot in shining armor was Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a naval officer. After a whirlwind courtship, he and the 20-year-old Wallis were married at Christ Episcopal Church on Nov. 8, 1916. The reception was held at the Stafford Hotel on Washington Place. It was a propitious beginning to what would turn out to be a disastrous marriage. Spencer was an alcoholic and after four years, Wallis wanted the unthinkable: a divorce. It took until 1927 for the divorce to go through, at which time Wallis was already having an affair with a married Englishman named Ernest Aldrich Simpson. Simpson divorced his wife and married Wallis in 1928. They set up house in London, where she joined the social circle that would eventually introduce her to Edward, Prince of Wales.
The fateful meeting took place in late fall 1930, during a weekend house party hosted by Lady Thelma Furness. Wallis’ quintessentially American personality— direct, cheeky and utterly lacking in obsequiousness— appealed to the prince. On subsequent meetings, he laughed out loud with her, a most un-princely thing to do. She inspired him to cut loose from his buttoned-up world. “Wallis was, and still remains,” he wrote in his memoirs, “complex and elusive, and from the first I looked upon her as the most independent woman I had ever met. This refreshing trait I was inclined to put down as one of the happier outcomes of the events of 1776.”
As the prince became more brazen about being seen in public with the still-married Mrs. Simpson, as well as showering her with expensive jewels, scandal simmered. He even introduced her to his parents, King George V and Queen Mary, who were not amused. The queen called Wallis “an adventuress.” When the king died suddenly in January 1936, Edward ascended the throne. At his side at St. James’ Palace when the proclamation was made public was Wallis Warfield Simpson.
British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and other government officials finally realized that the king intended to marry the American divorcée. They gave him an ultimatum: her or the throne. In a move that shocked the world, he chose the former. His abdication speech, broadcast live on Dec. 11, 1936, contained these now-famous lines: “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.”
Wallis’ second divorce was granted the following May. She and the former king, now the Duke of Windsor, married one month later, on June 3, 1937, at a chateau in France. Her wedding gown was made by Chicago-born designer Mainbocher. It was a high-necked floor-length sheath of silk crêpe cut on the bias, with covered buttons on the bodice, accompanied by a fitted jacket, all in a sapphire color that quickly became known as “Wallis Blue.” The gown was simple, restrained. It’s now in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, faded from age. “I began with my own personal ideas about style,” Wallis later said. “I’ve never felt correct in anything but the severe look I developed then.”
Little more than a week after the wedding, copies of her gown appeared in New York stores: $25 at Bonwit Teller, $16.95 at Lord & Taylor, $8.90 at Klein’s. A few months after that, versions of the dress were being sold all over America. Women followed Wallis, reported Life magazine, not England’s new Queen Elizabeth. Time magazine put her on its cover as “Woman of the Year,” in an austere black dress with two diamond dress clips. Celebrated artist and set designer Cecil Beaton, who painted and photographed Wallis many times, termed her “as compact as a Vuitton traveling case.” Fashion writer Suzy Menkes summed up the Wallis style in three words: “cocktail shaker chic.”
“They all wanted to know what she was ordering,” said the couturier Hubert de Givenchy. “Even women who didn’t have her figure or style wanted to dress as she did.” Givenchy, who also designed memorable clothes for his muse, actress Audrey Hepburn, created a gown for the duchess in 1954 that is now owned by the Maryland Historical Society: the “Monkey Dress”— layers of white silk organza embroidered with delicate green and teal tracery and half a dozen monkeys playing musical instruments. The dress combines simplicity with a sense of fun, perfectly in keeping with Wallis’ personality. Once, when she and another woman showed up at a party in the same striped Givenchy dress, Wallis just laughed it off.
Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Elsa Schiaparelli— all designed clothes for her. She was consistently named to the International Best Dressed List. In the 1950s and ’60s, she collaborated with the American sewing company Spadea to create pattern designs. Costume jewelry companies all over the world sold replicas of her jewels: Kenneth Jay Lane, Carolee, Butler & Wilson, Le Vian, Harrod’s, even the Franklin Mint. In the frenzied auction at Sotheby’s in 1987 after her death, her jewelry collection alone brought in more than $50 million, about seven times the original estimate. Elizabeth Taylor phoned in a bid on a diamond brooch and won it for $600,000.
When the duchess returned to her hometown four years after her royal marriage, in 1941, she stepped off the train in Timonium wearing a suit of Wallis Blue. Accompanied by the duke, she was feted throughout the city, with 200,000 people lining the streets to see her. She and the duke returned several times after that, staying with friends on the Eastern Shore or at the Mount Vernon Club, lunching at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, drinking cocktails at the Belvedere Hotel.
Rumors of Nazi sympathies, however, plagued the Windsors, in the wake of a 1937 visit to Germany. They had gone because of the duke’s interest in affordable working-class housing, a concern of his since his military service during World War I. But they were photographed, smiling, with Hitler, the pictures widely published. Whether it was from genuine fascist leanings or blundering naiveté, that visit dogged the Windsors for the rest of their lives. They were banished to a sinecure in the Bahamas during the war, to keep them out of Europe and avoid potential embarrassment to the Crown. Afterward, they settled in France and lived a life of frivolity, flitting from one party, one city, to another. Edward continued to buy stunning jewels for Wallis, often collaborating with designers to create them. One of her signature looks, a jewel-encrusted panther brooch, is still made by Cartier to this day.
The duke died in 1972, the duchess in 1986. Though they had bought plots at Green Mount Cemetery, they are both buried in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore, on the estate of Windsor Castle.
Wallis’ old Baltimore haunts are still here, but there is no plaque marking 212 E. Biddle St., as there is for the house across the street where Gertrude Stein briefly lived, and the old brownstone has fallen into disrepair. There are a few banners on lamp posts that read “Historic Biddle Street 1896-1996” with a picture of the duchess holding her beloved pugs. The banners are thanks to a private citizen named Philip Baty, who maintains a small Duchess of Windsor Museum just down the street at 206 E. Biddle.
There, you can gaze at Windsor memorabilia and even attend an annual birthday celebration that benefits local animal shelters. The casual attire indicated for it on the invitation is so unlike Wallis Warfield Simpson, whose idea of casual was a cashmere cardigan with linen pants, an Hermès scarf tossed over her shoulder. But the other party requirement is pure Wallis: eye-popping jewelry. And if it’s sapphire blue, so much the better.