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Badass Ladies of History: Wallis Simpson

So let it be known that Wallis is not a Badass Lady in the same vein as Amelia Earhart or Eleanor Roosevelt or Josephine Baker (though she may have known Jo! They both hung out in Paris during the 30s so it’s highly likely they crossed paths) or other women who actively campaigned for equality and progress. No, Wallis is badass because she lived bravely and openly despite being cast as the Jezebel archetype–a woman scorned, reviled, and hated (by an entire country, no less) for engaging in “mannish” behavior such as divorcing, having affairs, and being “ambitious.”

Despite being American herself, Wallis Simpson is one of those historical figures that American history classes arbitrarily disregard, which is largely why I had never heard of her until a few months ago, when (and this makes me blush a bit) I read that Madonna was directing a biopic about her. Leave it to Madonna to educate the masses.

Then, last weekend, I saw The King’s Speech and Wallis played a significant albeit minor role wherein she was largely demonized as a rude, inconsiderate, manipulative party animal of the flapper-dress-wearing and champagne-swilling variety. Hollywood being what it is, I wondered just how accurate that portrayal was, and took to the Google to find out more.

So much of Wallis’s life is shrouded in secrecy and doubly obscured by rumor and intrigue that it’s hard to parse out much of the fact from fiction, but this is what I got:

FACT: Wallis, born in 1896, grew up a socialite in Baltimore, where she was raised by a widowed mother and attended the finest girls’ school. A classmate said of her, “She was bright, brighter than all of us. She made up her mind to go to the head of the class, and she did.” That determination and a magnetic charisma would define the rest of Wallis’s life, and skew public opinion of her (since neither was necessarily considered a charming, lady-like trait).

FACT: Her actual given name was “Bessie Wallis Warfield,” but she (wisely, IMO) dropped the Bessie sometime during childhood.

FACT: At age 20 she married a Navy pilot named Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr, and their union wasn’t a happy one, likely due in no small part to the fact that they married a mere four months after they met (I believe those whirlwind engagements were more common at that time, but still). In 1921, four years into the marriage, Spencer initiated their first separation, and they would continue an on-again, off-again relationship until their divorce in 1927.

RUMOR: While touring China in 1924 — 25, Wallis supposedly learned “erotic, exotic arts” and “lesbian techniques” at brothels and through various and sundry affairs, the results of which were supposedly collected by British Intelligence into something called simply “the China Dossier.” This is likely baseless scuttlebutt (as my mother would say).

RUMOR: Wallis conducted an affair with Italian Count Galeazzo Ciano, whom she met in China, which resulted in a pregnancy. Wallis opted for an illegal abortion, but it left her unable to conceive. This rumor is more believable than some of the others, simply because many women did get abortions, long before they were legal, but it’s never been definitely confirmed or denied.

HEARSAY: The only Mandarin phrase Wallis ever learned was, “Boy, pass me the champagne.” LOL.

FACT: Wallis married Ernest Aldrich Simpson, “an Anglo-American shipping executive,” so hardly the most interesting fellow, in 1928.

TOTAL LIE: Wallis suffered from androgen insensitivity syndrome, which rumor insinuated she was actually a man in a woman’s body (or a wolf in sheep’s clothing), likely concocted to smear her for acting “masculine.”

RUMOR: Wallis and Prince Edward, who met in 1931, “did it” for the first time in 1933, according to Edward’s servants, I mean staff, who claimed to have caught the pair in flagrante delicto, in addition to discovering “evidence of a sexual act.” Which makes you wonder just how much snooping they were doing.

FACT: The two were pretty much an item after that, but things got dicey when Edward’s father died (January 1936) and he ascended the throne. Long story short–Wallis received a divorce from her second husband in October, 1936, but that wasn’t enough for the British government or the Anglican church, which forbade the king to marry a divorcee. In an attempt to get away from the press, Wallis retreated, alone, to France, where she even went so far as to give a statement to the press saying she would relinquish her relationship with the king. However, the king, who seemed only to grow more dedicated to Wallis the more his family and country reviled her, abdicated his throne in December, 1936, and married Wallace the following June.

FACT: TIME Magazine named Wallis its “Woman of the Year” for 1936, making her the first woman ever to receive the honor, and, decades later, she and Queen Elizabeth II are still the only two women to garner that title.

RUMOR: Edward and Wallis were Nazi sympathizers, and Wallis was actually a German agent who was conducting a secret affair with Nazi official Joachim von Ribbentrop (which sounds like it must be a made-up surname, but it’s not).

FACT: Edward and Wallis visited Germany in 1937, meeting with Hitler, who declared Wallis “would have made a good Queen.” [The Hitler Bump isn’t nearly as powerful, portentous or prestigious as The Colbert Bump. ~ed.]The pair moved in circles containing suspected Nazi/fascist/communist sympathizers, including Spanish banker Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva and Swedish businessman Axel Wenner-Gren, but in my opinion those were complicated and trying times, when virtually everyone suspected everyone of double dealings and ulterior motives, so I tend to take the accusations with a grain of salt.

FACT: After WWII, not much of major import happened with Edward or Wallis. They retired to France, essentially living out the rest of their lives as socialites, with Edward passing away in 1972 and Wallis following in 1986, after many years of suffering from dementia.

It would probably be foolhardy to take Wallis Simpson as a role model [balderdash! ~ed.], but I can’t help admiring her pluck and fortitude in the face of bottomless accusations and truly mean-spirited, salacious gossip. It’s a simple fact that plenty of men of her era engaged in bed-hopping adventures and traveled the world without consorts, but their business was considered theirs alone, not open to the prying minds of any and all members of the public. Wallis could have made the innuendo carousel stop whenever she wanted it, simply by withdrawing from the public eye and, later in life, breaking up with Edward, but she wasn’t the kind of woman to be run out of town on a rail.

In closing, a somewhat-cheesy but appropriate quote attributed to Wallis, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”

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