wallis simpson badass women in history

Badass Women in History: Wallis Simpson

I’m not usually the kind of gal who gets excited about royal scandals. Quite the opposite, I swiftly roll my eyes and move past the headlines. That is until I learned about Wallis Simpson in a film written and directed by Madonna.

A Madonna movie? Yep. I’m a loyal Madonna fan, as anyone who knows me will confirm. I was beyond curious when the “Queen of Pop”—quite out of the blue—chose to make a movie about Wallis Simpson, the two-time American divorcée who became the Duchess of Windsor.

As someone who dabbles in historical fiction writing, I understand just how obsessed you must be about a person, time, or place to have the audacity to take on a project of this nature. Research becomes your life for months, or even years, before you begin to formulate your creative work. A biopic is no different.

Madonna obviously felt a deep connection with Mrs. Simpson. She chose to step out of her comfort zone and commit to telling this woman’s story through film. The movie is called W.E., which stands for Wallis and Edward (aka Edward VIII).

You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” – Wallis Simpson

Two notorious females coming together compelled me to write the second blog in my series, Badass Women in History. This series covers iconic women you may already know, seen through another lens. Last time I covered Nina Simone, so be sure to check that out if you missed it.

Whether you’re into royal scandals or not, there is no doubt that Wallis Simpson was a badass woman. A prince gave up the English throne just to marry her…and here’s why.

Who is The Duchess of Windsor?

An American socialite and divorcée, marked in history as the scandalous woman who stole the heart of Edward VIII, Prince of Wales. How exactly did Wallis lure this man away from the throne? That’s what few could understand at the time.

I have always had the courage for the new things that life sometimes offers.” – Wallis Simpson

It was an intense romance that was doomed from the start. Parliament would never approve the marriage since Wallis was not of English blood…and hello, she had two previous marriages under her Chanel belt.

Hell, she was still married to Ernest Simpson when she started her affair with Edward. The English were not fans of Miss Simpson, especially when they realized this disruptive affair was snowballing right into a wedding chapel.

prince edward wallis simpson
Source: Wikimedia, Courtesy of National Media Museum from UK

Two players executed their roles brilliantly in this royal scandal. And though Wallis is largely blamed for Edward’s abdication of the throne, you have to wonder about his own strategy here. Did Prince Edward ever want to become King Edward? If not, Wallis was a guaranteed way out.

Wallis Simpson, Before Edward

Most of what we know about Wallis is the unforgettable affair that led to Prince Edward abdicating the throne. Yet, Bessie Wallis Warfield was once just a girl like any other.

An only child, she was born in 1896 in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was a baby—Wallis was his middle name. She dropped Bessie early in her youth and became Wallis.

Wallis and her mother depended on handouts from family, and Uncle Warfield paid her tuition at a prestigious private school in Maryland. Always smart and smartly dressed, Wallis was top of her class. She began learning what was to become her superpower, controlling a room with her sense of style and intellect.

A woman’s life can really be a succession of lives, each revolving around some emotionally compelling situation or challenge, and each marked off by some intense experience.” – Wallis Simpson

From a young age, she lived in fear of not being able to afford little luxuries beyond what it took to survive. Being that women had few choices for earning money, marrying well was the only escape for Wallis.

In Search of a Prince

Wallis Simpson was not considered a beautiful woman, but she had incredible wit and charm. To make up for her unconventional looks, she used fashion as her weapon of choice. She once told a friend: “I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”

It was easy to become fascinated by someone like Wallis, the “mistress of reinvention,” whether someone loved or loathed her. The men in her life could not resist her striking presence, from her expert ability to accessorize to her knack for easy conversation.

She once collaborated with legendary artist Salvador Dalí. He designed a lobster print for the Schiaparelli gown Wallis wore in a photo shoot for Vogue.

Never explain, never complain.” – Wallis Simpson

Searching for her prince, at the age of twenty Wallis married an abusive, alcoholic U.S. Navy aviator, Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. Although it was completely taboo in the 1920s, Wallis divorced Spencer and even traveled solo in China for a year in what she coined her “lotus year.”

Husband #2 was Ernest Simpson, an English-American shipping executive. Living in London, Wallis settled into a comfortable life with Ernest as she established notable connections that would lead her into the arms of the Prince of Wales in 1931.

She had a cold when she met Edward at an event, but that didn’t stop her from making an impression that would change their lives forever.

1935 wallis simpson
Source: Wikimedia, Courtesy of Unknown English Photographer

Unhappily Ever After with an ex-Prince

Gold digger. Social climber. That woman. These were just a few of the names Wallis Simpson endured throughout her life.

Wallis became Prince Edward’s mistress by 1934. A year later she was presented at court, and his family was outraged. When the king died in early 1936, Edward was all set to take the throne—except that he could not marry “that woman” and make Wallis his queen.

Ultimately, he chose Wallis. He was succeeded by his younger brother, George VI, the same King George from the movie, The King’s Speech. George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, despised Wallis and said: “The two people who have caused me the most trouble in my life are Wallis Simpson and Hitler.”

There was no happily ever after for Edward and Wallis, who became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in exile. They lived in the Bahamas for several years and spent some time in Cuba. After WWII ended, they returned to Europe. France…not England. In 1953 the couple moved to Bois de Boulogne, just outside Paris. Edward died in 1972.

For a gallant spirit there can never be defeat.” – Wallis Simpson

Without the Duke by her side, sadness and loneliness took over the Duchess’ life. A rich widow, frail with age, can easily fall victim to someone who has no qualms about taking advantage of another. This was the case with Wallis’ lawyer, Suzanne Blum, who took control of her estate as she began suffering from early symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

Blum did as she pleased, selling jewelry from the Duchess’s expansive collection without her permission and publishing secret love letters between the Duchess and the Duke. Wallis lived a lonely life until her death in 1986. Wallis and Edward were buried next to each other.

1936 wallis simpson
Source: Wikimedia, Courtesy of Unknown English Photographer

10 Intriguing Facts About Wallis Simpson

  1. Her real name was Bessie Wallis Warfield.
  2. Before Edward, she was married to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. and Ernest Simpson.
  3. She got pregnant when she had an affair during her first marriage. She experienced complications with an abortion that left her infertile.
  4. In 1936, Time honored Wallis as “Woman of the Year.” This was the first time a woman took over the “Man of the Year” award.
  5. Allegedly, Wallis and Edward were Nazi sympathizers. The couple stayed in Hitler’s guesthouse in 1938. They were labeled fascists, and many suspected Wallis was a Nazi spy.
  6. Because of growing distrust of their political preferences, Edward was reassigned to the Bahamas in 1940 where they lived for five years.
  7. After WWII, Wallis and Edward returned to Europe but not to England. They lived out their remaining years in France together.
  8. She owned a pack of pugs, and had a whimsical obsession with this breed. After her death, her collection of pug-shaped pillows sold for $13,800.
  9. She died at the age of 89 in Paris of pneumonia, after suffering from years of dementia.
  10. She was buried next to Edward in the Royal Burial Ground.

Nerding Out with Wallis

W.E. – This is the film I have been secretly obsessed with. I know it by heart, because I watch it a few times every year. I love the storytelling, the music, the fashion, the history, the character study, and the acting—it’s my perfect movie. W.E. received mixed reviews, with most leaning toward the “Nice try, Madonna” sentiments. Could this unfair bias be because Madonna made the film? Perhaps. I’ll let you watch and decide.

Wallis Simpson: The Secret Letters – This is a documentary I watched recently that is based on the book “That Woman” by Anne Sebba. Newly discovered letters by Wallis Simpson reveals more about her unhappily ever after story with Edward VIII. Many of these letters were written to her second husband, Ernest, and they are filled with regret. It’s an interesting take on one of the greatest romances of the century.

The Duchess of Windsor – This is a biography that seems to have more of a sympathetic slant towards Wallis’ side, but I have not read it personally.

Duchess of Windsor Museum – There was a Duchess of Windsor Museum in Baltimore, but the collector recently sold off the memorabilia on eBay. This was the only museum that I could find that covered the life of Wallis Simpson. The other was a special presentation that took place five years ago at the International Spy Museum. Many believed Wallis was a Nazi spy.

Hope you thought this tribute to a badass woman in history was interesting. Tell me: what do you think about “that woman?” Was Wallis Simpson a villain, victim, or vixen?

19 thoughts on “Badass Women in History: Wallis Simpson

  1. Interesting… Talk to me about a movie and I’ll try and watch it as soon as you mention it. Talk to me about love stories and intriguing characters and I’m head over heels for them! Google is my best friend today to learn more about Wallis and Edward and I sure hope to stumble upon the movie Madonna made, because the trailer is beautiful.
    Thanks for the introduction! Love learning new things and discovering “new” badass women who can show me their way.

  2. My mother was a huge fan of the Royal Family, so I grew up with the story of Wallis Simpson. I don’t recall my mother making any judgement of her, although the impression I was given was that the story of W & E was a great romance (better than any Mills and Boon!). And for everyone, except W &E, the story ended happily ever after because we eventually got to be ruled by Queen Elizabeth. I wouldn’t have missed that, for all the world. So perhaps I should say Wallis was the best thing that happened to the Royal Family. 😀

    1. The royal family was never much of an interest in my family, unless you go WAY back…to the Tudors and that Queen Elizabeth. Always found an interest there! This was my first time exploring some of the royal family historic happenings from the 20th century. Since I love the era between 1920 and 1960, the story of W.E. was a natural fit.

  3. From what I have learned about Wallis Simpson I find it difficult to garner sympathize for someone who intentionally ruined so much for her own gain, not matter how artfully it is presented.

    1. I hear ya. The end of her relationship with Ernest (husband #2) was really sad for me. Especially when I watched the documentary about Wallis’ secret letters and learned that she stayed in touch with him. Seemed like a happier ending might have been possible had they stayed together…but who knows?

  4. I really liked the movie…not so much the real people upon which is was based 🙂 Great post though, full of information for anyone interested in follow-up. For instance, I want to read the book, That Woman, and watch the documentary about her secret letters.

    1. The documentary about her secret letters kind of blew me away. Definitely smashed my initial romantic perspective about Wallis and Edward having one of the greatest romances of the 20th century. Although, with everything that happened, I suppose it was “great” just not in a good way.

  5. The most complicated people make for the most interesting characters. Wallis is indeed character-worthy, novel-worthy. I wouldn’t have enjoyed knowing her in real life, I think. Seems her motives were transparent, so I’m not surprised at her tragic end. Still sad though. What a terrible person Suzanne Blum was!

    1. Complicated people are the most interesting characters, I totally agree! I knew Wallis wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea when I decided to feature her on this series. But, there is no doubt that she shook things up and was a force in royal family history. The Suzanne Blum story was tough to hear about, for sure!

    1. Oh, really? I was worried I would have some sort of historical inaccuracy in here with Wallis Simpson—and you might be the one to alert me. Ha! It is a fascinating story, and the transition on the throne led right into WWII. So, of course, the time period was right up my alley. 😉

      By the way, I was thinking of you and Jersey when I watched “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” film recently. It reminded me of Tess of Portelet Manor and all of the WWII history I have learned from you about Jersey. I’m off to read this book now! Assuming you’ve read the book or seen the movie…pretty popular stuff.

      1. Thanks Britt. No, that Guernsey book was taking up a whole section in the bookshop on the day I enquired unsuccessfully if they’d stock mine 😦 Still, I’m sure it’s good 🙂

  6. I’ve always had the impression of Wallis as the ‘bad guy’ but it must have put enormous pressure on her to have a king give up his throne for her – and then to end up lonely and exploited – it’s very sad.

    1. A lot of people have had the same impression of Wallis, that she was the “bad guy.” Obviously I can’t speak from personal experience since I never knew “that woman,” but I do think it’s worth looking at both sides here.

      I did love how that concept was explored in the film W.E. There is some great dialogue when the modern day Wally, who is obsessed with uncovering the truth about Wallis Simpson says: “People seem to only focus on what he gave up for her. But what about what she gave up?”

  7. I remember this lady from The King’s Speech. I was so fascinated with the British royalty after I watched the movie that I did a bit of research on Edward and the love of his life. It’s such an amazing story you can hardly believe it’s real, but then again… truth is always stranger than fiction, isn’t it?

    1. I loved The King’s Speech! Fantastic movie. The Wallis / Edward story is pretty amazing. I think it’s interesting to look at some things from her perspective and not just blame her for what happened. It takes two to tango.

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