THE DUCHESS OF WINDSOR
WALLIS SIMPSON ON ROMANCE, CLOTHES AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.
Byline: Keitha McLean, April 1974
Today, at the venerable age of anywhere from 78 to 82 (depending on which report you believe) and having generated enough excitement in her life to keep her name in print for 50 years, Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, is not a woman to be critically reviewed. Simply to announce her is sufficient.
Interviewing a legend is a risky, disconcerting business. It’s much easier, and more comfortable, to rely on the stories and the research and the pretty pictures of the past than to cope with the genuine article — age, good temper or bad, warts and all.
And when the legend is a beautiful woman who captivated international society for nearly half a century; who during the span of three marriages, lived and traveled to every remotely interesting country in the world; who lured one of the world’s most powerful monarchs off his throne (and kept him happy for 35 years); who had the ear at the same time of such world-shapers as Adolf Hitler and Sir Winston Churchill; who was the continuing thorn in the royal side of her royal husband’s unrelenting, unaccepting family, and who, today, answers to the name Aunt Wallis for the future King of England, the job of legend-revisiting is complex indeed.
It is, therefore, a joy to find the Duchess of Windsor sparkling as the diamonds she sports when she sets aside an hour from what seems to be a jam-packed, non-stop life of luncheons, parties and shopping to talk about her life today.
The setting, in New York, is the Duchess’ sunny little apartment in the Waldorf Towers…rooms jammed with the plants, objects, flowers and pug dogs (named Diamond and Ginseng) that she carts with her wherever she travels. She has spread leopard-printed throws over the sofas, and a big chocolate Easter egg and a green St. Patrick’s Day balloon add charmingly incongruous accents.
The Duchess enters the room a little after 6 p.m., erect and graceful. She is startlingly radiant in a bright rose crepe dress, diamonds and pearls at her ears and pearls at her throat. Her makeup and hair are professionally perfect.
For the next hour, she fields all questions with wit and candor, those famous piercing eyes almost glittering with challenge. And, for this interlude, she completely dispels rumors of her increasing forgetfulness and senility.
She says she is nervous, and it shows. she constantly twists the many rings on her little finger and clasps and unclasps her hands as she talks.
She says she is lonely, and it shows. Her eyes grow soft as she remembers her husband. “Adjusting to being alone is most difficult. I don’t think I will ever not be lonely.”
To other questions, her answers are spirited.
Mention the new book by Ralph Martin on her life with the Duke and you get an impression of flat dislike. “I don’t like him. I don’t like his style of writing. And I don’t like what he wrote…he made most of it up.”
Ask her about that alleged quote of hers about how, looking back, she’d rather have been the Duke’s mistress than his wife, and you get an adamant denial. “It’s absolutely untrue. I never said it. Why would I settle for mistress when I could be his wife?”
In fact, to this woman who was a wife to three men, the role of the woman is clearly defined, and it’s a definition not calculated to endear her to lib ladies. And yet her feelings about women seem ambivalent.
She admits that greater independence and a stronger sense of career might better prepare a woman for loneliness in later life, but “…in my day, women had more protection. I feel it was much more advantageous for a woman in those days. Life was more solid.”
Some friends who know her well insist the Duchess has a view on love that is sentimental and sometimes downright soppy, and the Duchess’ comments seem to bear this out.
She calls her long marriage “My Romance” and says it could never happen today. “People don’t give as much in love as they used to. Love doesn’t get the respect it deserves…and I believe it is the fault of the woman.
“Today, women give in too easily. I think they should play harder to get.”
Marriage is a playground, according to the Duchess. “You may have to work in order to have a successful marriage, but it shouldn’t look like work. In any case, marriage is an experiment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
In marriage, the Duchess believes, “a woman must learn to be a good listener.”
And even in the marriage of the century, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. “We definitely didn’t get along on some things — like golf, for instance.”
Mention men and the Duchess brightens. Girlishly, she twiddles her pearls and props her foot on the coffee table.
“When you’re old, you find that good men are so scarce,” and when it’s pointed out that good men are scarce for women at any age, she exclaims, “but just imagine at my very uncertain age!
Talking about men seems to put the Duchess in a good mood and, apropos of a remark about a male Lebanese friend, she launches with great giggles into a story about a woman friend who thinks that a person from Lebanon is called a Lesbian.
Talking about clothes also makes her happy, especially French ready-to-wear because of the good prices — an important fact because money, a close friend insists, continues to be one of the Duchess’ lifelong obsessions.
“She always used to say she envied Estee Lauder because she had so much money,” confided the friend, who didn’t want to be identified.
And of the look and style she’s made famous for decades: “I think I look far too old-fashioned and too neat. I’d like to have my hair long and on my shoulders.”
The Duchess’ smile fades, however, when talk turns to England. “I don’t mind going there anymore,” she remarks evenly. “I go to make sure the Duke’s grave is kept in order.
“However, the children,” she continues, referring to her royal nieces and nephews, “always telephone and come visit me when they’re in Paris.” Whatever royal names are omitted from her conversation, Prince Charles, she makes it plain, is a favorite. “All he ever wants to know is what the Duke did and how he acted as King.
“It’s all a bit difficult for me,” she adds with a grin. “I wasn’t exactly in the position to know what was going on.”
Does she think there’s a possibility that the present Prince of Wales might marry as his great-uncle did? The Prince’s Aunt Wallis pauses, muses. “I think he will probably marry an English girl,” then with a flash of the famous Wallis wit, adds the zinger: “But if he does marry an American, let’s just hope it’s not a divorced one!”
These days, the Duchess of Windsor passes her days trying, she says “to keep happy.”
“Coming alone to New York was very difficult, and it took me a long time to decide. But I seem to be having a good time, thanks to my friends.”
The Duchess’ friends mean a lot to her. They keep her little apartment filled with flowers, keep her appointment book filled with things to do, take her shopping for the lingerie she still loves and even hang her walls with paintings.
“This is the first time I’ve had this apartment, 40F. The Duke and I always had 28A, and when I moved in, my friend Nate Cummings said he couldn’t bear for me to look at bare walls. So he hung these,” she says, pointing to an impressive Renoir and an equally impressive Sisley.
“And, occasionally, I make myself do unexciting things, such as attending political lectures. I feel it’s good for me and it keeps me interested in life.”
By now, the late-day sun is slanting through the window, and the Duchess seems to fade a little. Inadvertently, she repeats a story twice, then lapses into a little silence, a far-away almost wistful look in her deep blue eyes.
The interview is over, but there is one more question that must be asked, one that never seems to appear in the countless articles on her. Regardless of what the Duke wanted, what the British government wanted, what the English people wanted, did she, Wallis simpson of Baltimore, ever really want to be Queen?
Once more, the eyes flash with fun. “I certainly don’t mind being part of British history, but I never thought I was remotely capable of being Queen. I simply don’t think an American has the education for that sort of thing.”
And to this day, Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, considers herself very much an American.