Whatever they thought of the American divorcée he was to marry or of his abdication as King of England after just ten months on the throne, Britons and millions of others around the world were deeply moved when King Edward VIII spoke on the radio in December 1936. The King's voice swelled with emotion as he made his declaration: "You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love."
Besides being the climax of the romance of the century, that famous speech marked the beginning of the public reign of Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, the dark, angular, citrus-tongued siren for whom Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David had set aside his crown. She swiftly became the most discussed and written-about woman in the world, fawned over by fashion designers for her "perfect elegance," gushed over by gossip columnists and probed endlessly in tabloid serials, books and, eventually, TV dramatizations. The final chapter of her star-crossed love story--Or was it merely the tale of a woman who happened to snag the world's most eligible bachelor?--closed last week when Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, died in Paris at 89.
The duchess, née Bessie Wallis Warfield of Baltimore, came from two of those old Maryland and Virginia families that like to trace their ancestry to William the Conqueror. But the Warfields' relative social prominence was not matched by wealth, especially after Wallis' father died when she was only a few months old. She married her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a Navy officer, in 1916. Intensely jealous, he occasionally locked her in her room; they were divorced in 1927 after years of separation. The following year she married Ernest Simpson, a quiet, scholarly, American-born Briton, also recently divorced, whose family had a prospering shipping firm.
The Simpsons became social mainstays in smart, young London. He was moneyed; she was witty. She liked to say that one can never be too thin or too rich, and she lived by that dictum. By the fall of 1930 the Simpsons were introduced to King George V's slim, somewhat dandyish son David, the Prince of Wales. Three years later, they were good enough friends that the future King was host of a party for Wallis' 37th birthday.
Early in 1936, when the Prince was 41 and Wallis was 39, George V died, and David ascended the throne as Edward VIII. Later in the summer, Mrs. Simpson accompanied the King on a Mediterranean cruise. Although the American press was avidly chronicling these goings-on, the English press, in deference to the royal family, printed not a word about the burgeoning romance, even after Mrs. Simpson made a scandalous marriage possible by applying for a divorce.
The restraint soon ended. In November, even before Wallis Simpson's second divorce was final, the King informed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin of his intention to marry her. Baldwin vowed to resign rather than allow an American divorcée to become Queen; he also argued that tradition did not permit a morganatic marriage, in which she would not assume royal prerogatives.