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Duchess of Windsor -- love story of the century

Wallis Warfield Simpson, the American-born duchess of Windsor who died today in Paris at the age of 89, changed the course of the British monarchy and world history when the king of England gave up his throne for 'the woman I love'.

A frail figure, with angular features and a pulled-back hairdo, she did not in any sense fit the image of a femme fatale. She was twice divorced, 40 years old -- and in her own words not beautiful 'or even pretty' -- when Edward VIII, king of Great Britain and emperor of India, surrendered the most powerful throne in the world because the government would not let him marry her.

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Their marriage was to last 35 years, ending with the duke's death from cancer in 1972. But it was not a life that taxed or demanded the most of either of them.

Except for a stint as governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945, there were no official jobs for the prince, the first English king to voluntarily surrender the throne -- and for a twice-divorced American.

'My husband has been punished like a small boy who gets a spanking every day of his life for a single transgression,' his wife once said.

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The duchess, a perennial member of the best-dressed list, devoted herself to charities.

Coveted guests on the dinner party and social circuits, the pair moved from one glamour spot to another, emerging as familiar figures in Palm Beach, the Bahamas, Capri, Venice, Rome and other luxury watering holes.

In later life they lived in a splendid mansion outside Paris, where the duchess spent her last years -- after her husband died -- a frail, lonely and bedridden recluse, too weak to receive visitors and reportedly not always aware of her surroundings.

But neither seemed to have any regrets.

About a year before his death, the duke told UPI he had been a supremely contented husband.

And the duchess said, 'Any woman who has been loved as I have been loved and who, too, has loved, has experienced life to its fullness. To this I must add one qualification, one regret. I have never known the joy of having chidren of my own.'

The romance that shook the world began in the most mundane fashion - at a dinner party in London in November 1930. Seated next to each other, the then-married Simpson and the prince of Wales spent the evening discussing the differing British and American attitudes toward central heating.

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Months later, Simpson dropped in on a friend and found the prince there. He gave her a ride home and she invited him up for a nightcap.

'That was how it all began,' the duchess later recalled. 'To lead in five short years to a terrible conclusion of which I had not and could not have had the slightest intimation.'

It was, in many senses of the word, a fairy tale romance: the handsome king who could have any woman in the world, renouncing all for the svelte, dark-haired Baltimore divorcee, vowing that 'I shall never give you up.'

She publicly offered to disappear from his life -- and withdraw the divorce petition that would allow her to wed him -- in order to preserve the British throne. But he held firm, promising that 'On or off the throne, I am going to marry you.'

But there were thorns along the path, as well -- most related to the fact the twice-divorced American was granted no royal status.

'A man and his wife should be permitted to use the same front door,' the duke once said bitterly.

'Nothing in the aftermath of the abdication hurt (him) more than that gratuitous thrust,' Simpson said.

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The duchess of Windsor was born Bessie Wallis Warfield on June 19, 1896, at a summer resort in Pennyslvania, an 'accident' of location that did not prevent her from considering herself a Southerner.

Her father, Teackle Wallis Warfield, was a Warfield of Maryland and her mother, Alice, a Montague of Virginia. Both families were said by the duchess to go back to earliest colonial times.

According to one story, when her mother asked the doctor if her baby was all right, he replied, 'She's perfect. In fact, she's fit for a king.'

In December 1914, Bessie Wallis, as her friends called her, scored her first social success -- she was one of the debutantes at the Bachelor's Cotillion, a dance that was a matter of life and death for marriageable young Baltimore girls of the right background.

Always engagingly frank, the duchess viewed herself realistically then and thereafter.

'Nobody ever called me beautiful or even pretty,' she said. 'I was thin in an era when a certain plumpness was a girl's ideal. My jaw was clearly too big and too pointed to be classic. And no one has ever accused me of being intellectual.'

Two years after the Baltimore cotillion, in the gathering excitement that preceded World War I, Wallis met Lt. Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., 'the most fascinating aviator in the world,' fell in love and married him Nov. 18, 1916. Within two years the marriage was foundering and he was, she said later, jealous and sadistic when drinking.

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In the mid-1920s, she met Ernest Simpson and his wife, whose marriage, she was given to understand, was in difficulty. Simpson worked in the family shipping business. Although born in the United States, he had elected to adopt the English nationality of his father.

Wallis Simpson was divorced from Spencer in December 1927. Simpson transferred to his company's London office. In May 1928, she went to London and the following July became the new Mrs. Simpson.

In London, as in Baltimore, Wallis Simpson moved into high-powered social circles, and she and her husband were frequent guests at many famous homes. Their marriage was reportedly happy, and he was as solicitious as her first husband was uncaring.

Then came the event -- the meeting at a dinner party in 1930 -- that changed their lives -- and history.

Although she and the prince did not see each other for six months after the first meeting, by January of 1932 the prince was inviting the Simpsons to weekend at his favorite residence, Fort Belvedere.

At one point, a mutual friend asked Wallis Simpson point-blank if the prince were interested in her. She recalled she replied, 'I think he likes me. He may be fond of me. But if you mean is he in love with me, the answer is definitely no.'

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Simpson went back to New York on business. His wife joined the prince and other friends for a yachting party in the Mediterannean. She often found herself alone on deck with the prince.

'Perhaps it was during these evenings off the Spanish coast that we crossed the line that marks the indefinable boundary between friendship and love,' she wrote.

In January 1936 King George V died and the Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII. The duchess claims that about this time she discovered through a wrongly addressed letter that her husband was having an affair and she determined to divorce him.

She was granted a decree nisi -- a preliminary divorce decree - from Simpson on October 27, 1936. By then, American newspapers were seething with stories of the romance. The British government and people divided over the possibility of an American queen -- and a twice-divorced one.

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the king he had three choices: give up the idea of marriage, marry against the advice of the government or abdicate.

The king replied, 'Whether on the throne or not, Mr. Baldwin, I shall marry; and, however painful the prospect, I shall, if necessary, abdicate in order to do so.'

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Thus began the abdication process. And on Dec. 10, 1936, Edward told the nation in a radio broadcast, 'You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.'

A few hours after the broadcast, the former king -- then duke of Windsor because his brother had ascended to the throne as George VI - boarded the destroyer Fury and left the land and empire he ruled so briefly.

He stayed in Austria and she in France until her divorce was final. They wed on June 3, 1937, at the Chateau de Cande near Tours in a ceremony performed by the Rev. R. Anderson Jardine, dean of St. Paul's, who defied his bishop to perform the ceremony.

From then on, their life was lived abroad. They were not exiled from Britain but the duke refused to live there until his wife was made a royal highness. They visited his homeland, but always quietly.

The royal family was cordial to the duchess but no effort was made to give her royal status.

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When the duke died, his body was flown to London for a service in St. George's chapel and burial in the family plot at Frogmore near Windsor Castle.

The duchess lunched at Buckingham Palace with the Queen and Princess Anne and stood with the family at the funeral services. But she declined the queen's invitation to stay overnight at the palace.

The widowed duchess lived a lonely life to the end.

'The duchess has never really recovered from his death,' a friend said on the duchess's 84th birthday.

The duchess had been in failing health since her 81st birthday.

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