A newly uncovered cache of notes to Ernest Simpson reveals the anguish she was suffering at the start of her tumultuous royal affair with Edward, Prince of Wales.
I remember how my heart leapt. It was a routine interview with someone who had insisted they had nothing to tell me; a name to be ticked off my list. After a polite chat, describing my work and my findings thus far, my host went out and brought back a packet of blue letters, tied up with ribbon, saying: "You might find these interesting."
Almost immediately, as I struggled to decipher the large, round handwriting of Wallis Simpson, I realised I was holding dynamite. The letters were still in their original envelopes so the postmarks - 1936 and 1937 from various destinations - told me this was Wallis in the midst of her scandalous divorce from Ernest Simpson, a divorce that led to the abdication of the British monarch and nearly broke up the Empire. Edward VIII, formerly the Prince of Wales, had been King for just a few months, and there was turmoil in Europe as Fascists and Nazis seized control where they could.
I took out my notebook and immediately started transcribing.
"I am terrified of the court," jumped out at me from the first letter in the series, postmarked Felixstowe. Wallis had taken up temporary residence in the town in October 1936 so that her divorce case could be heard at nearby Ipswich Assizes. She hoped this would ensure it would go through swiftly before the British press found out about it. (American journalists, well aware of the new King's love for this Baltimore divorcée, had been writing about the royal romance for months and were out in force.) But, extraordinarily, here she was two days before the case, writing not to the man she apparently wanted to marry but to the man she was about to divorce, telling him of her innermost fears and anxieties.
"I feel small and licked by it all," she admitted, begging him to give her courage. She was lonely and did not understand herself, "which was the cause of all the misery". Her new relationship had become a "mess and awakening emptiness".Related Articles
As I read on in utter amazement at the intimate tone of these 15 unpublished letters, written to a man she was supposed to hate, I discovered a desperately unhappy woman terrified of being physically attacked - she was receiving alarming letters threatening her life, including bomb warnings - and full of anxiety about her future.
Another letter to Ernest dated November 30 1936, a day full of portent as Crystal Palace burned down, outlined her determination to escape the country, "perhaps for ever" if she could. She knew she would have to lie to the King about where she was going ("Telling him the old 'search for hats' story"), as he had threatened suicide if she left him. But remaining in England, where she had been dubbed by some "the Yankee Harlot", was intolerable.
Even Prime Minister Baldwin, who had urged Edward to keep Wallis as a mistress (just not to marry her), thought there was a real danger of her being attacked.
Soon after this, Wallis did leave the country - for France - but only because the King had sent her away for her own safety, not for the total escape she craved. Even then her letters to Ernest continued.She apologises to Ernest for not buying him a Christmas present as she cannot escape from her "prison".
Following their divorce in May 1937, Wallis continued writing to Ernest - even on her honeymoon from Schloss Wasserleonburg in Austria, telling him: "I think of us so much though I try not to." There is also a letter to Ernest from her famous trip to Germany, where she shook hands with Hitler. "Wherever you are, you can be sure that never a day goes by without some hours' thought of you," she writes, reassuring her former husband that he is in her "eanum" prayers at night.
Eanum was a word used by Wallis and Edward, part of their invented lovers' language. Yet the fact that Wallis used it to Ernest, along with the reference they both used to the King as "Peter Pan", indicates that they discussed and privately ridiculed the King's childish behaviour.
After two hours of scribbling, I was in another world. Suddenly, I had heard the real voice of my subject, not the one that politicians or the royal family wished the public to hear. She was not necessarily any nicer, but she was much easier to understand as a flawed individual who had made a terrible mistake.
Wallis and Ernest had met in New York in 1927 while Wallis was waiting for her divorce to come through from her first husband, Lt Win Spencer, a US naval pilot. Ernest, although married at the time with a young daughter, was instantly smitten. Wallis didn't feel passionately about him but agreed to the marriage, which took place the following year, because, at 32, she was no longer young and he was, as she pointed out to her mother, kind and good-looking.
Ernest also offered her the chance to live in England and make a new life with some security derived from the Simpson family shipping business. But the newlyweds were far from rich, and the social-climbing couple had to scrimp and save in order to entertain the highest echelons of London society in which they had found themselves, thanks to a number of American introductions - as well as the Prince of Wales's love of all things US-related.
One of the group was Thelma, Viscount Furness, the Prince's mistress. It was through her that the couple first met the Prince in 1931. The Simpsons quickly became part of the Prince's inner circle. In 1934, when Thelma had to go away for a while, she invited Wallis to look after her lover ("the Little Man"), a task that Wallis did rather too well. Her affair with him had begun.
At first Ernest had enjoyed the proximity to royalty almost as much as his wife. Two years later, he'd had more than enough - and now, I understood, so had she.
Throughout the time she was in France waiting for her divorce to come through, Wallis was deeply worried that, although she had been granted the first stage - the decree nisi - the final stage, allowing her to marry again, might never be granted.
Divorce in Britain in 1936 was fiendishly difficult, and, if it could be proved that the woman had also committed adultery, would not be granted. This nightmare scenario, in which Wallis would be left without either Ernest or Edward and with her reputation in shreds, was, I now understood from these new letters, something she recognised only too clearly.
"Wasn't life lovely, sweet and simple," she wrote. "I can't believe that such a thing could have happened to two people who got along so well - at least it never should have been like it is now."
Wallis's insecurity had deep roots in her background. Her father had died when she was just a few months old, leaving her beautiful and spirited mother, Alice, forced to take in lodgers, sell needlework, and eventually work as a country club hostess in order to make ends meet. Wallis's childhood as the poor relation in a well-to-do family had scarred her. A desire to avenge her mother's poverty was, therefore, a key motivating factor throughout her life.
This would certainly explain her fear - evident in the letters - of losing everything with this divorce. For, once the King's Proctor had intervened in her case, which he did in early 1937, the probability was that, if the law took its proper course and he investigated thoroughly, the decree absolute would not be granted. But, as documents newly available in the National Archives at Kew make clear, the King's Proctor decided it would not be proper to interview servants who might have given him reason to disallow the suit.
"If I am put on the spot, Ipswich etc will have been a great waste of time as far as I am concerned," she wailed to Ernest. No wonder Wallis was both scared and grasping. She had good reason to be terrified for her future when all she once wanted was an adventure, a swan song before she was 40, just to reassure herself she was still attractive to men - and to give Mr and Mrs Simpson a leg-up in society. But it had got out of hand as Edward became madly obsessed with Wallis, at any cost.
The more I read, the clearer it became that this divorce was entirely illegal or, in the parlance of the day, collusive. Matters had been agreed between the protagonists - as many such divorces were at the time, at least for the rich - whereby Ernest was "discovered" in a hotel bedroom with a woman. Although he had agreed to this, he had tried to keep the woman's identity out of the papers until the King's Proctor advised him it would be better to provide a name. He came up with Mrs Buttercup Kennedy, almost certainly Mary Kirk, the nickname deriving from a hat she had once worn.
Mary Kirk was another example of Wallis's arch-manipulation. When Wallis had found herself so deeply entangled with the Prince that even the "angelic" Ernest (Wallis's term) was losing his patience, she had urged Mary, one of her oldest friends, to come over to London to entertain him. But the plan went wrong when Mary and Ernest fell in love. They married six months after Ernest and Wallis were divorced. Wallis never forgave Mary. In the letters, she describes her husband's new romance as leaving "a wound that will never heal".
In Simpson family lore, Queen Mary "conveyed" to Ernest her thanks for being the one man who had behaved in a gentlemanly fashion throughout the crisis. Winston Churchill also believed Ernest should be thanked and did so by arranging, in 1941 when Mary Kirk was dying, a government plane to help her get her infant son back from America where he had been evacuated.
As I stopped to take breath and consider what I had read, I could not help reflecting on how nearly this interview had not happened. More than a year beforehand, I had flown out to the Mexican desert to meet the son of Ernest and Mary, then in his late sixties. He had never known Wallis - her name was never mentioned while his father was alive - and almost everything about the story was abhorrent to him. But he provided me with a wodge of addresses - friends of his mother, family of his aunt and others around the globe. Most tried to be helpful but could add little to what was already known. But I made one last phone call, and now I was handling letters that Wallis herself had handled, folded and perhaps even cried over.
"Oh my very dear, dear Ernest," I read. "I can only cry as I say farewell and press your hand very tightly and pray to God."
There were, fortunately for me, to be subsequent visits when my host - who wishes to remain anonymous - revealed an astonishing collection of cuttings and other papers, including a batch of letters from Ernest to his mother in New York in which he corroborated the collusion of the divorce proceedings. His mother, understandably upset that her son was cast as the wrongdoer, was reassured by Ernest that that was how things were done here, "especially where members of the Royal Family are concerned" since the King could not be named in court.
Ernest, the dry-as-dust mari complaisant as history would have it, was, I now learned, not without a sense of humour, reminding his mother, four days after the abdication, that she should be more careful in picking daughters-in-law who go about wrecking the British Empire. "After all, we have not got Kings to hand out left and right."
In the same archive, I later discovered a poignant blue leather diary belonging to Mary Kirk in which she bravely recounted her valiant struggle against cancer, her deep love for Ernest and their baby son, and how cruelly she believed Wallis had used her. "Ernest turned to me in his great unhappiness," Mary wrote, "and even then, tho' she loathed and despised having me there, it served her purpose so she could say that E was having an affair with me and she would have to get a divorce."
Taken together, the new letters reveal Wallis in those months after October 1936 as a woman drowning, thrashing around and blaming everyone and everything for her predicament, especially the "stuffy British minds" and Mary.
Finally, however, Wallis had to acknowledge there was no going back to her peaceful life with Ernest, which, she had realised too late, offered her a deeper kind of contentment, albeit one without excitement or riches. Her future life would be with a demanding and wilful former king in exile. She clung to what she had left, made the best of it, and behaved as a loyal, deeply supportive wife for 36 years of marriage.
Yet, this archive shows for the first time in 75 years how, far from being seen as the most romantic love story of the last century, the story of Wallis and Edward is really a tale of gothic darkness with a Faustian pact at its core. And, as with all such pacts, the Devil eventually claimed his reward.