Why we're still intrigued by the duchess from Baltimore

“I don’t think that Baltimore is proud of the Duchess,” say Mark Letzer, the Maryland Historical Society’s chief development officer, says of Wallis Warfield Simpson. “I think Baltimore is intrigued by her.”
“I don’t think that Baltimore is proud of the Duchess,” say Mark Letzer, the Maryland Historical Society’s chief development officer, says of Wallis Warfield Simpson. “I think Baltimore is intrigued by her.” (Dorothy Wilding, Baltimore Sun File Photo)

At a time when much of the English-speaking world is fixated on the royal wedding, it's worth pointing out that if it weren't for the original Baltimore bad girl, Wallis Warfield Simpson, Friday's nuptials might not be taking place.

Without her, there might be no reason to obsess about Kate Middleton's dress. There'd be no gossip about the guest list. (Fergie and Simon Cowell were both royally snubbed.) There'd be no "sweet William" soaps or official royal wedding rose petal jelly for tourists in London to snap up.

"If Wallis Simpson had never been born, King Edward VIII might not have abdicated the throne," says Hugo Vickers, the British-born author and royal expert who will be providing commentary about the wedding for the Associated Press Television News.

"He might have married someone else and had children, and maybe one of their offspring would be the king or queen today."

It's all highly speculative, of course. If, for instance, Edward VIII had been crowned but died childless, the line of succession would be identical to the one that exists.

Nonetheless, when the lovebirds sit down to writing their thank-you notes after the reportedly $48 million bash, they might want to spare a kindly thought for Will's reviled great-aunt, Wallis.

"The Duchess of Windsor was one of the most unfairly maligned women of the 20th century," says Vickers, whose sympathetic biography, "Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor," was published April 7.

"She was a victim from the beginning, and she was a victim at the end. The duchess was quite ambitious and feisty, but she got into a situation where she was completely out of her depth. There's plenty of evidence that she never wanted to marry the king. She wanted to run a mile away, but by then she was in too deep.

"I'm just asking people to look at her in a slightly different way."

Vickers will stop by the Maryland Historical Society on June 23 to explain his findings in detail. Chances are that he'll find, more than 25 years after her death, that the duchess still has supporters in her hometown.

For instance, the historical society owns some of the duchess' belongings: several documents and famous photographs and a few of her gowns.

The star of the collection is undoubtedly the "Monkey Dress" — a flowing, champagne-colored confection embroidered with colorful simians. Mrs. Simpson donated the frock to the society in 1968, along with a photograph of her wearing it.

Baltimore County French teacher Mary Miles was struck by the duchess' elegance when she had tea at her villa outside Paris in 1972. But she was even more impressed by her kindness.

Miles had escorted 10 students from the Oldfields School to France. The tea was arranged by the grandmother of one girl, who was a close friend of the duchess'.

"Even though the duke was ill, she did come down to join us," Miles recalls.

"Some of the girls were nervous about meeting her, but she was a very, very gracious hostess. She asked them where they came from, how they were enjoying their stay in Paris, whether Oldfields had changed much since she went there. She made us comfortable and put us at our ease."

It's anecdotes like that that make Mark Letzer, the historical society's chief development officer, indignant at the way the duchess is portrayed in popular culture.

For instance, in "Any Human Heart," which ran this year on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic," she was the undisputed villain. In "The King's Speech," which recently won the Academy Award for best picture, she was the selfish socialite who plunged England into a constitutional crisis.

And guess how the duchess is depicted in the updated version of "Upstairs Downstairs," which wraps up its first season Sunday night on PBS?

"I was watching the show last night and thinking: 'Oh, that poor woman. Give it a rest,' " Letzer says.

"She has come down in history as a monster, as the woman who dethroned a king. Whether you like Wallis and Edward VIII or you don't, you have to understand that theirs was a love story. When he abdicated in 1936, he gave up his throne for the woman he loved."

When the scandal hit the papers, her hometown was beside itself with excitement. Baltimoreans were agog at the notion that a commoner — one of their very own — could seemingly step into a fairy tale and become the queen of England.

During just one three-month period in 1936, articles chronicling developments in the romance ran in The Baltimore Sun nearly every day.

One article described the gown that the 18-year-old Wallis wore when she made her society debut in 1914. A casual remark by Mrs. Simpson about her Maryland roots was probed for hidden meaning. A New York entrepreneur even tried to buy the rowhouse at 212 Biddle St., where she had lived for several years as a girl, and move the building to New Jersey, where he planned it as the central attraction in an amusement park.

"There are five things that make up the best stories," says Baltimore historian Zippy Larson, who gives a one-hour talk about the duchess to local senior centers: "sex, money, power, religion and mystery. And her life had it all."

But even at the time and despite her celebrity, an odor of disgrace clung to the duchess.

After all, she had been divorced twice. Shameful!

She began her affair with the king while still married to another man. Shocking!

It was whispered that she had bewitched the infatuated monarch with boudoir tricks that she picked up during a trip to Shanghai. Sleazy!

"I don't think that Baltimore is proud of the duchess," Letzer says. "I think Baltimore is intrigued by her."

Later, rumors surfaced that were far more serious, rumors that the couple had made and were being influenced by dangerous friends.

The two were married in 1937 in a villa owned by Charles Bedaux, who later worked actively for Nazi Germany. Later the same year, the Windsors made a high-profile visit to Adolf Hitler.

Vickers concedes that the duke, in particular, was naive and showed spectacularly poor judgment.

"After the duke abdicated, he was eager to find something to do," Vickers says.

"A man from the American Embassy wrote to him and suggested that he meet Hitler and see if he could get him to be more reasonable. The duke wasn't very bright, and he was arrogant. He should have kept his distance. But I don't think he was a Nazi."

As history has yet to issue a definitive ruling on the matter, it's understandable if even the duchess' most passionate defenders hedge their bets.

Larson, for instance, is emphatic about the extent to which the duchess continues to get a bad rap. But when the question is put to her directly, she says:

"I don't know if I find her admirable. I do find her fascinating."

And Philip Baty, a retired Washington investment banker, would have people believe that he and his partner, Ron Peltzer, started the museum in his basement dedicated to the duchess almost by accident, on a whim, because they just happen to live a few doors from her former Biddle Street home.

The museum contains replicas of two dozen of the duchess' famous jewels, along with a pearl necklace and earrings she wore, plus two pairs of her gloves. There's a silver spoon and china from the coronation that never was (production started long before the duke abdicated), and letters to the duchess from her pattern maker.

"We just started up the museum because of the location," Baty says. "We also wanted to make a space available for charitable events."

But few neighborhood residents can boast not one, but two portraits of the duchess hanging in their living quarters. Other Biddle Street neighbors, when asked about the couple's Nazi connections, probably wouldn't begin their reply as Baty does:

"Not everyone has read the file that the FBI kept on the duke and duchess. But I have."

(He goes on to explain that the files contains just four letters, all obviously penned by crackpots.)

As Letzer sees it, Baty's museum is a step in the right direction. So are the commemorative flags — also conceived by Baty — displayed throughout Mount Vernon.

After all, it's not as though Wallis Simpson's memory is going to fade away.

"What interests me about the duchess is that she endures," Letzer says.

"Seventy-five years after the abdication, they're still talking about her. Not about him — about her. She was a commoner, and she changed the course of history."


If you go

The British author and royals expert Hugo Vickers will lecture about his book, "Behind Closed Doors: The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor," at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 23, at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Tickets cost $35 for historical society members and $50 for nonmembers. Call 410-685-3750.