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07 April 2010

Following in the Duchess of Windsor's Footsteps


On Thursday March 24, a number of personal items that once belonged to the controversial Duchess of Windsor, formerly known as Wallis Warfield Simpson were auctioned at Gardiner Houlgate in Wiltshire.

The size 5 shoes had been the property of David Campbell, valet to the Duke of Windsor in the 1950s. Now deceased, Mr. Campbell had allowed his niece to play dress-up with them, which is how they entered her possession. The brocade peep-toe heels with gold leather embellishment were designed by Andrew Geller; and I seem to recall that my grandmothers wore his shoes as well. As to the size, in British sizing a 5 would be the equivalent of a 7 in the US. Wallis was notoriously thin; after all, she was the woman who coined the phrase "You can never be too rich or too thin."



But when society photographer and fashion fotog Cecil Beaton met Wallis in the early 1930s he acerbically referred to her large hands; "peasant paws" he called them. So my guess is that Wallis's feet weren't quite as dainty as an American size 5 (not that a size 7 is exactly huge).

The shoes pictured above were expected to go for about £250 at the hammer. I am still trying to ascertain the final bid.

On December 10, 1936, Edward VIII famously abdicated the English throne to marry the woman he love, the twice-divorced American Wallis Warfield Simpson. He had been king for only 11 months, having acceded on January 20 on the death of his father, George V. Although most Britons thought that it was Wallis's divorced status that rendered her a Parliamentary pariah, or even that she was American, the real reasons that the English government would not, could not conscience her marriage to their sovereign was her political past. She was a known sympathizer of both the Nazi party and the Italian Fascisti.

Edward shared his paramour's political sympathies; consequently, his abdication was certainly for the greater good. The pair were married in a civil wedding in France on June 3, 1937, after Wallis's [divorce] decree absolute was filed. Edward was restyled Duke of Windsor and his successor, younger brother Bertie, who reigned as George VI, put an ocean between him and western Europe, appointing him governor of the Bahamas.

Bored out 0f their minds, the Duke and Duchess of Windor became the mid-century version of jet-setters. Their empty lives consisted mainly of shopping, golf, and endless sponging off their friends, leaving a trail of unpaid bills and untipped servants in their wake.

The couple spent a considerable amount of time racking up bills in Palm Beach and Manhattan. At one point the duchess's annual clothing budget was said to be $25,000, exponentially more in today's dollars (about $383,000, in fact).

At some point, she bought the pair of shoes at the center of today's blog post.

The Duchess of Windsor continues to be a controversial figure. People do tend either to love her or to hate her.

So, what's your opinion of Wallis Simpson? Love her? Despise her? Why?


25 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

For all the romance of a man giving up a kingdom for the woman he loved, when the couple are known Nazi sympathizers, it’s kind of hard to come out on the “Oh, I just love them!” side of things, isn’t it?

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Rose Lerner said...

I don't have any particular opinions about her as a person, but I hate how, as you say, there's this narrative that he gave up his throne for love and it was just so romantic (and then she wrote that book, The Heart Has Its Reasons, which I see ten copies of at every library book sale I've ever been to), when, no, he gave up his throne for fascism! It bugs me when history gets whitewashed.

She had a fabulous collection of costume jewelry, though. My mother wanted to go and see it when it was auctioned off in NYC after her death, but the crowds were so huge she gave up.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Well, yeah, ladies, that's my point, and you all nailed it, too! So why are people still fascinated with this awful woman and her equally awful husband, even as Jane mentioned, they are pretty cool shoes!

8:46 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

And actually, as I mention in my chapters on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in both ROYAL AFFAIRS and NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, Parliament deliberately stacked the deck against him, fully aware of his political bent. But they were banking on an awful lot. Who knows what the world might have looked like if he had ultimately said "screw it; Wallis take a hike."

Interestingly, Wallis is on record as saying numerous times and to more than one source that she would have been perfectly content to remain his lover as long as he didn't marry anyone else. She'd probably been practicing her "Heil Hitlers" in the mirror. But it was Edward (thankfully a bit dim and exceedingly proper when it came to the issue of matrimony) who insisted on a wedding.

8:50 AM  
OpenID j-e-richards said...

Wallis and Edward are subjects that no one is neutral about, but it is telling that even reading their own autobiographies, one is struck with the boredom and senseless frivolity of their lives after the abdication.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

You're absolutely right, j-e-richards. And even though the couple was more or less banished (to Nassau) by George VI so that they couldn't represent a threat to English foreign policy (and behind the scenes the Windsors had been meeting with high-level Third Reich officials before King George made his brother Governor of the Bahamas), they did nothing constructive with their hours of leisure. They had a tremendous opportunity to be philanthropic, but instead they remained utterly self-absorbed.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

They really did deserve each other and Great Britain deserved neither of them. To whom much is given much is expected and these two, who had so much, delivered nothing. Having sung at memorial services in a number of concentration camps during my years in Germany and Austria, I have an intense loathing for anyone associated with the evil fanatic architects of that dark part of human history.

Having read a few books by and about them I have come to the conclusion that their romantic love story was neither romantic nor a love story (Unless one counts self-love!)

4:37 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Louisa, the fact that the great romantic myth that sprung up about them was not remotely true is indeed why the pair of them ended up in my books on scandalous royals. I covered their relationship first in ROYAL AFFAIRS, but they certainly had one of the most notorious royal marriages of all time, and adding them to NRM afforded me both the time and the opportunity to delve deeper into their lives. I discovered that they were even more awful (and evil) than I'd initially believed. The more one gets to know them, the more despicable they become.

I'm fascinated by your participation at memorial services held at concentration camps. Can you share a bit more about that experience? I can't imagine anything laden with more emotion.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Leslie, it was indeed a very emotional experience. It has been over twenty years and I can still hear the silence after each piece and after people spoke. I think that is what struck me the most - the silence. We were fortunate enough to tour the sites before the performance and it was the stillness of the place, each one, seemed to hold its breath and wait for something - an answer, a promise, perhaps, that it would never happen again. I was fortunate in that I was one of the first sopranos to perform a song cycle for voice, piano and alto saxophone by a brilliant composed named Ellwood Derr. The cycle was taken from poems of children incarcerated in the Nazi-Jewish ghetto in Terezín, Czechoslovakia, and who later died in Auschwitz. It is titled I Never Saw Another Butterfly. I performed it for the first time in one of my doctoral recitals at the University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. Lawrence Gwotdz, our professor of saxophone played for my recital, a great honor for me and was acquainted with Mr. Derr.

It was without a doubt one of the most difficult pieces I have ever performed because the emotional content was so overwhelming.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

What an immensely (and intensely) powerful and moving experience. Louisa. I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes just reading your words. Thank you so much for generously sharing it with us.

6:50 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

The shoes are wonderful. They seem to have survived "dress up time" just fine.
As to the shoes original owner, she sounds like a choice individual. I have not read much about them and generally just knew the romanticized version of their relationship. Leslie, I have both your books on my TBR pile and you can bet tomorrow I'll be reading the chapters on them. What a shame for people who have so much to be so self-centered and stingy.
It sounds like they felt entitled to whatever they wanted with no consideration for anyone else.
Louisa, those performances sound incredible.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Good point about the condition of the shoes,librarypat. Perhaps the little girl had to put them back in tissue paper or something after she finished playing Duchess. My grandmother had a pair of shoes from the 1930s that were a similar brocade, but had a strap that came across the instep, fastening to the other side with a button. I adored them. They were a size 4 and I was the only one in the family with small enough feet at the time (I was in junior high and high school) to wear them. I remember wearing them in a scene in a school production of "On The Town," and felt like I was bringing my grandmother up on stage with me.

It's remarkable how many people give Wallis's appalling political sensibilities a pass (or maybe they just don't know about them) when it comes to her wardrobe. I recall a Metropolitan Museum costume exhibit of her garments and accessories and the exhibition was always mobbed.

I think that most people, if they know anything at all about the personal history of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, were imbued with the romantic myth (after all, that's what was published in the papers, the ultimate in spin-doctoring). Yet another reason why it was so deeply important for me (and being Jewish had something to do with it) to spotlight the real story in my books.

I hope you enjoy them!

5:14 AM  
Anonymous LizA said...

I was always puzzled about the view that Wallis Simpson and Edwared were "romantic". Like everyone else here I could not get past their poliical views, but it seems that many people do not want to hear about that. I noticed the same about the Mitford sisters, by the way. I read a book about them a while ago and thought it was just awful - the author seemed to have fallen prey to the glamour of their lifestyle and found excuses and more excuses why Unity and her sister Diana (who was married to fascist Oswald Moseley) were not really bad. Made me sick. Diana Moseley incidentially became a close friend of the Duchess of Windsor after the war.... neither of them ever saw the error of their views, but they both felt treated badly... go figure!

10:54 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Good point, LizA. I think the Mitford sisters often get a "pass" because they were witty and literate in an oh-so-Noel Coward way. But of course their politics were antithetical to Coward's.

Several years ago I saw a play in the West End about the Mitford sisters and I do seem to recall that any unpleasantness regarding their political bent was completely glossed over. I wish I could remember the name of the play. I'm sure someone out there does and will pop online to contribute it.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh, but you mustn't lump all the Mitford sisters together, Leslie. Nancy wasn't a Nazi, and I think it was she who (brilliantly) called their father "one of nature's fascists."

And then of course there was Jessica, the complete antithesis of her fascist nutcase sisters Diana and Unity. Jessica -- who also had a brilliant sense of humor -- ran off to Spain to to fight fascism in the 30s, lived much of her life in Oakland, California as a beloved, deeply committed leftwing activist, along the way writing The American Way of Death and her utterly delightful memoir, A Fine Old Conflict (yes, the title does come from her childhood misconstruing of the phrase from the "Internationale" -- "'tis the final conflict")

Oh, and here's what J.K. Rowling had to say about her:

'Rowling stated in 2002, "My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father's account. I wished I'd had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life. I think I've read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter [Jessica Rowling Arantes] after her."'

(I found it today on Wikipedia)

8:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful blog, Leslie, and great follow up conversation. Louisa, thank you for sharing the moving story of singing at memorials in concentration camps.

I never found the Duke and Duchess of Windsor particularly interesting, and the more I learned about their politics, the more troubling I found them. The story of the maneuvers that led to his resignation is interesting though (much more interesting than their romance imo).

Pam, thanks for the wonderful words about Jessica Mitford. I remember being terribly impressed at hearing she had called my dad for information once (I think to do with prison research). She and Nancy are both fascinating.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Pam, thanks for the reminder about the Mitford girls who ran as far from Fascism as it was possible to go. The family was truly a house divided, like the famous theatrical Booths where half the siblings were abolitionists and the other half were secessionists.

Tracy, how fascinating that Jessica Mitford once contacted your father in the course of her research!

7:37 AM  
Anonymous Rose Lerner said...

I love Jessica Mitford too! I've read almost everything by her I could get my hands on--some of her stuff is hard to find these days. She's just such a hilarious, engaging writer! I think my favorites are Hons and Rebels and the short biography she wrote of that lighthouse keeper's daughter who saved guys from drowning and then became a celebrity...Grace Had an English Heart, I think it was called?

And Tracy, how weird is this, I think she contacted my father once too! I should ask him to make sure I'm remembering properly, but I'm pretty sure I remember begging him to go through his files to track down the letter once in high school when I first got into her. It was something to do with his work on mental patients' rights.

I had no idea JK Rowling loved her too!

8:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Actually, Jessica Mitford once also phoned our San Francisco bookstore (in a thrillingly posh voice) to get some resources. She was clearly a very energetic researcher.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's so cool that Jessica Mitford wrote to Rose's father and called Pam and her husband's bookstore! As Pam says she was obviously a very dedicated researcher. And like Rose I'm very intrigued to kow what an influence she was on JK Rowling!

9:47 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I'd loved to have met Jessica Mitford, I'm such a fangirl of hers.

About the D/D of Windsor, lord, what a pair of despicable fascist wastrels. But here's a funny story about their, ahem, legacy. There is actually a magazine devoted to them and their fabulous lifestyle (ugh). Tom Gabbay, my brother in-law (he's the brother of my sister-in-law, so does that make him my brother-in-law-in-law?) had them appear as minor characters in one of his books, The Lisbon Crossing (I think, sorry Tom). His publisher sent a copy to the magazine, who gave it a glowing review, despite the fact that he'd portrayed Wallis as a coke-snorting nympho (with great shoes)!

10:35 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Yes, the shoes are really primo. But it turns out that Jessica Mitford (or Decca Treuhaft -- baby nickname and married surname) had a good eye for clothing too.

This from A Fine Old Conflict, about her days of door-to-door Communist Party organizing in the late 1940s:

Our ed. director, Daisy Rossman... and I, armed with pamphlets and leaflets, often went door-to-door in the... working-class district trying to drum up attendance...

Daisy, a learned Marxist scholar and economist, was a very snappy dresser. She had a vast and enviable collection of hats -- chic porkpies, floppy straws, velvet berets, silk toques, flowered chiffon turbans -- and always appeared in one of these superb creations when we set forth on our neighborhood visits. She was also horribly shy....

"Good evening," she would say in low, trembling tones to the householder who answered....

I would then spring to her rescue and start rattling on about the forthcoming meeting. "It's going to be absolutely marvelous and frightfully interesting.... our county chairman has just got back from a terrifically important meeting of the Party's Central Committee in New York, and she will report on the whole thing.
Do come; I'm sure you'll simply love it"....

We were generally received politely enough... although often with a degree of astonishment...


Oh, what I wouldn't give, just once to open my front door to Jessica Mitford urging me to do come to an absolutely marvelous meeting.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Pam, what a marvelous snippet; and a writers' clinic as well. So much of the woman's personality comes blazing through in those few paragraphs in both voice and description.

Janet -- that is indeed a marvelous anecdote; clearly all the fan mag cares about is the fab shoes.

Well, whatever Rowling came away with in her admiration for Jessica Mitford, she (J.K.) certainly demonstrates tremendous brio with her writer's voice as well.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the Windsors. But I think the Duke was as Gay as they come,and Wallis looks like a man. She was about 2 steps from a ugly well dressed drag queen. But I heard that the Dutchess learned different sexual techniques while growing up in China. I think she stuck her finger up his ass and he lost his mind and gave up the throne.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1975 I was a cooking student at La Varenne in Paris and the young woman who did the translations of the chef's lectures into English, was also the night nurse for the Duchess of Windsor...She said that the duchess was kept under sedation and was only revived for occasional visits to the American Hospital in Paris...There was a personal assistant who had total control and ran everything...The duke was long dead, and the duchess had a really miserable final years.

6:38 AM  

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