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The Year I Was the Duchess

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

In the summer of 1936 my Rhodes Scholar and I were in Oxford, at the end of his three-year stint at Oxford University. Before returning to the States, where my husband was to take up a graduate assistantship at a university in western New York, we spent a few idyllic weeks in London, In those days London, like Paris in August, was dry and relatively empty as the people fled to the seashore, the Continent, the deep countryside, leaving the ancient villages that make up London—Chelsea, Kensington, Earls Court— emerging like tranquil hummocks when a meadow is drained. Every day we walked for miles, tracing the uniquity of London’s jigsaw puzzle pieces, gorging ourselves in museums, and, in the late afternoons and evenings, relaxing in the society of friends who like my husband were “just down” from Oxford, as idle and carefree as we were.

In this leisurely ambience, where one is removed a few thin stratifying layers from nobility, we heard first a rumor, then a good deal of titillating gossip about the new king, Edward VIII, and his mysterious American lady friend. Many of the English we met, unwilling to believe that their king would or could be seriously charmed by a commoner, a married woman at that, and most certainly not an American, declared it a myth. But one friend boasted of meeting someone of infallible honesty who had actually seen her with the king. Not a word of this romance appeared in the British newspapers, discreetly muzzled; nor was there any definable gossip in the society magazines, which thrived, albeit in good taste, on such fare. The buzz was underground, persistent and growing louder.

One evening at dinner I produced a prize, which clinched my own success for my little “London season.” That morning in a letter from home I had received a newspaper clipping with a dim photo of the king and Mrs. Simpson taken while on holiday abroad. If the American press was to be trusted, here was undeniable evidence. The clipping was passed round and round, examined and excitedly analyzed. It was good for three more dinner parties and several teas until I rescued it—a limp gray rag—and retired it from further circulation.

Within this brief period, hectic with almost constant social gathering, evening after evening, the memory that stands out in my recollection is incessant talk about Them, the king and Mrs. Simpson. Although I had as evidence that clipping, now worn to a fragment but safe in my handbag, there lingered a disquieting doubt about the credibility of the purported romance. A casual happening one evening ended my disbelief.

We had been invited by our friend Patrick to visit his favorite aunt, who lived in a large building of flats north of Oxford Street. I regret that I cannot remember her name or even a word of the lively, scintillating conversation we were treated to by that patrician lady. I wish I could summon up more than a blurred impression of the elegance of her drawing room. I cannot. My memory had been numbed by the most trivial incident.

As we waited in the foyer for the lift to take us to his aunt’s flat, Patrick turned and pointed to a brass plaque on the opposite wall. It was the registry of residents. “I say, did I tell you they lived here?” He put his finger at a number. There was that name, “Mr. and Mrs. Ernest O. Simpson.”

I was so stunned, so awestruck with the proximity of her, so overcome with the confrontation with that name not five feet away, that I could think of nothing else that evening. So there was a Mrs. Simpson, a Mrs. Ernest O. Simpson. It was true.

All too soon the London honeymoon was over. One torrid day my husband and I knew that life had begun in reality for us when we were erupted out of third class onto the dock in the steaming Cunard shed in New York. London and its magic were far behind. We were home, beginning life here in this spot where our meager luggage had been dumped.

A feeling of being imprisoned still grips me when I think of that arrival and the hot splinters of a torturous day, my first encounter—I was a Westerner—with summer on the Eastern seaboard. After hours of cooling our hot heels in that insufferable dock shed waiting to go through customs, we at last arrived at a small hotel with very little money but tremulous hopes for a better tomorrow. My only recollection now of there being a stamp of “time” on that day was seeing, while being bounced by taxi to a hotel, bold newspaper headlines—something about the king and Wally. I had this fleeting glimpse, quickly looked again before it vanished. Mrs. Simpson (whispered) in London had become familiar Wally (screamed) in New York. Late that evening I ran out to buy a paper. There was a typical dim news photo on the front page. Mrs. Simpson, hands at her sides, appeared rather stiff and awkward standing straight beside the king. There was nothing striking about her except, for me, graphic proof that she could stand beside a king.

Our second landing came two days later when we arrived in the university city. Through the help of shipboard acquaintances we found a small furnished apartment, my husband plunged eagerly into his studies and teaching duties, and I went job hunting—a grim business, for the Great Depression was barely over; in fact, we were that year suffering a minor recession, a setback that diminished my own chances of getting employment. Although I had been a high school English teacher for two years, I could not afford to wait through the lengthy period of having my teaching certificate validated in New York State. We could not live on my husband’s stipend. I had to have a job—now.

About two weeks after our arrival I was returning one afternoon from an unpromising interview that had taken me a long, dogleg journey into a distant part of the city. Discouragement undoubtedly contributed to my rather uncharacteristic irritability when something happened as I was three bus stops from my corner.

I was tensing myself for getting off, ready to reach for the cord and pull it, when I sensed rather than felt the pressure of an arm on the back of my seat as someone behind me leaned forward. A voice said clearly, “Say, Miss, did you know you look like that lady the king of England has fallen for?”

So astonished was I, so outraged at being accosted, I ducked forward, then automatically jerked my head around to look into the face of a quite nice-looking man. I could not speak at once, then there burst out of me an indignant response, delivered in the slight British accent I had acquired and nurtured in my few months in England. “Good gracious, that is quite absurd!” My outburst, and of course the accent, caused a ripple of laughter among the passengers and a chuckle from the man, who was more amused than astonished at my reaction. I rang the bell and jumped up to get off two stops early.

The man’s remark made no impression at the time. Feeling that I may unwittingly have done something gauche to draw attention to myself—a look or unguarded action, which might have invited an unwelcome approach—I wanted only to dismiss it, forget the incident. I said nothing to my husband.

A week or two later, as I paused at a street corner to wait for a light, a well-dressed woman stopped beside me and said, “You look like the lady the king of England wants to marry.” Surprised but not outraged as I had been at the man on the bus, I gave her a quick smile and dashed ahead of her across the street.

By this time I had a job in a small office, a job I almost did not take because my prospective employer eyed me for a time in a most disconcerting way. I was sure he was about to say something I did not want to hear. I was relieved when he said, “The job is yours if you want to begin Monday.”

As the king’s romance flourished and excitement grew about the possibility of a royal marriage, stories and many more pictures filled the papers. I seemed to be attracting more notice. Nearly every day people turned their heads to look at me on the street. In elevators and shops, while waiting for buses, I felt and saw that I was being studied. Sometimes passersby whispered. Had I not guessed the gist of their sly comments I should have been distressed, for I was by nature quite self-conscious.

All this time I had said nothing to my husband of these remarks and looks addressed to me. Then one Saturday night, when we were leaving a movie theater, it happened. A pleasant-looking couple, older than we, came up to us, and a man said to my husband, “Pardon me, but that’s not Wally you’re dating tonight, is it?” Then he laughed, the lady laughed, my husband looked at me, and he laughed. I smiled and looked away, embarrassed.

Despite my natural shyness I had had my share of day-dreaming—every young girl’s wistful longing for a moment of fame, distinction, adulation. Now I was finding that constantly being noticed was an annoyance not easily got rid of. One evening, not long afterward, we had just been seated at a table in a restaurant when I saw a man get up from his chair across the room. My heart begun to beat fast as I saw him coming toward us. He came right to our table and said, politely, with a good-humored glance at me, then at my husband, “You gave me a surprise, lady. I thought I was seeing Wally when you walked in.”

After he had gone away, I glanced at my husband, expecting to see him irritated. He was amused instead, and I was angry. “How can anyone have the nerve to come up to a stranger—?”

“But you do look like her,” my husband said, interrupting. “You can’t help it, and she’s in the public eye. People can’t help noticing. They mean to be nice, not rude.”

Legends are spun from imagination’s strong but slender thread, and so is the Cinderella syndrome, the persistent, haunting daydream of one who might have been chosen— me. Not that I really wanted to be that person—I was happily married—but still there is in every woman, even the contented woman, the wistful girl with the sweet, it-might-have-been-me dream.

I began to wonder. Did I really resemble her? From the quite dim newspaper photos I had not detected any similarity between Mrs. Simpson’s looks and mine. How could I be compared to a woman nearly 20 years my senior? It did not occur to me to be insulted; I suppose I was still too young to mind the difference in years. By this time good, clear photos were appearing in the slick magazines, but I had not seen these better pictures until one day in a dentist’s office, when I picked up one of the glossy magazines and turned to a studio photograph of Mrs. Simpson. I studied it carefully and later, alone in our apartment, spent several moments looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. There was a resemblance.

We were both small, slender, dark-haired. Our faces had the same heart-shaped formation. Our eyebrows were slightly arched. We both had strong noses. But mine had a slight hump, the souvenir of having once unwisely let myself be coaxed into playing football with my older brother. I too wore my hair parted in the center. Though my hair was short, the way I brushed it back, away from my face and upward, gave the illusion of wearing a chignon, which she wore and I did not.

I, who had always brushed my hair with eyes closed, now spent rather a lot of time in front of the mirror cultivating the “Wally” look. Don’t frown, don’t wrinkle your forehead, mustn’t do that. Don’t jerk your head or bob it when you speak. There was an alluring little expression about the mouth I practiced till I could imitate it to perfection, a slight suspicion of a pout, amused, good-humored, a look that added delightfully to Wally’s charm—at least in photographs—and I was sure to mine as well,

No longer did I bristle when accosted by well-meaning but bold strangers with the inevitable opener: “Say, did you know you were Wally’s double?” I had a ready response calculated to be both caustic and provocative. At the predictable question I would lift my brows, widen my eyes and say in by best British accent, “Oh, really? How interesting! But she is so much better looking than I.”

That fateful December, with daily bulletins from England on the king’s now probable marriage to Mrs. Simpson, there was little else discussed in social gatherings. My husband and I, through an unusual network of acquaintances, had been taken into a circle that included artists, musicians, inventors, university professors, and writers—a rather rarified atmosphere for a young graduate student and his girl-Friday wife.

Even in such a sophisticated group there were curious loyalties and preferences, not at all equally divided between men and women. Women for the most part, it would seem from journalistic accounts, were conservative in their feelings that the king ought not to give up his crown for a divorced woman. There was quite possibly a strong streak of envy in this leaning toward righteousness. Perhaps most women did not really want the king to marry an American. Men, for the most part, applauded his determination to marry her, to show his royal prerogative, to have his own way. But, as I said, these opinions were not clearly divided between men and women. Some women vigorously cheered the king on. Among his staunchest admirers was a lady who had lately joined our little society, a distant relative of Wallis Warfield Simpson.

At our first meeting this young woman and I struck up a friendship, having discovered at once that we had something in common. She too had a resemblance to her famous cousin, the same heart-shaped face and sweet, winsome mouth.

Because of the daily bombardment of news photos the image of Mrs. Simpson was in everybody’s mind, so quite naturally strangers to our circle of friends were quick to notice my friend and me. As knowledge of her relationship to Wallis spread, the newcomer entering a room would look for her, expecting to see a likeness to Mrs. Simpson. But it was usually myself whom strangers approached, saying, “I hear you’re Wally’s cousin.”

Since we could not both ride the crest of notoriety and since I got this attention more frequently than my friend, she became a little cool toward me. Hers was the blood relationship, the rightful similarity. She looked like Wallis except for one feature. My hair was dark, my friend’s was a glorious red.

How fortunate that we did not have to live too long on that inflated romance! Our friendship was saved when after the king’s abdication and Mrs. Simpson’s flight into exile, the furor subsided. We were given a respite for several months until the brief but intense excitement of the royal wedding. Secretly I had begun to miss my few uninvited moments of celebrity, and I was rather glad when the outbreak of news and rash of wedding photos instigated new excitement.

Now it was: “Say, did you know you looked like the duchess?” That was an unanticipated thrill. Snob that I was, I fell for the delicious sound of the word. Duchess? Duchess! The practice I had not abandoned of perfecting the mannerisms of the duchess enabled me to smile, though quite spontaneously, the little puckered smile. I could make my eyes twinkle, I was perfectly sure, as easily when I faced my questioner as she faced photographers. I could reply in my still lingering British accent, “Yes, I know, isn’t it ridiculous?”

After The Wedding interest in the romance of the century began to wane. Cinderella had her Prince at last, uncertainty was at an end, the press had extracted its last drop of public excitation from one of the most extended and profitable news stories of all time. As the duke and duchess faded into the sunset of conjugal bliss, my own moment in the sun of fame faded too. I had a pang, a feeling of being left behind, but I continued to wear my hair parted in the middle and, quite composed, when someone though rarely now asked me, “You’re not the lady who’s related to the duchess, are you?,” I shook my head as I smiled the duchess smile.

A few months later we moved to a small college in the eastern part of the state. Quite naturally, as I was a new and young faculty wife, I found myself for a while an object of attention, and again there was a flurry of interest when someone first commented on my resemblance to the duchess. Having now been nourished on the flattery of that resemblance, I was not about to discourage comparison. I continued to wear my hair with the severe center part. I had one or two “halo” hats that I clung to, like the one the duchess wore at her wedding, and I favored tightly molded dresses with little collars. Although I was not sufficiently objective to see myself in action, I know now that my facial expression, my posture, my attitude bordering on haughtiness, were all part of the desire to perpetuate the myth.

But I was not dependent on this myth. The change in our lives had given me a new importance. I was no longer a girl Friday helping my husband through graduate school but a woman of station and leisure. Instead of batting away at a typewriter in a stuffy little office, I was now obliged to put on a hat and gloves, pick up my newly engraved calling cards, and sally forth to pay my respects to the senior professors’ senior wives.

Sometime in the early winter a faculty wife who was a competent artist asked me to sit for a portrait. She needed a subject for practice, and I, jobless and momentarily tired of teas and dropping calling cards, was happy to oblige. While in college, I had sat briefly for art students and remembered the experiences as painless and casual. Not so with Kay. She was uncompromisingly serious about her art. Although we were socially the best of friends, in her studio she was the professional. Before she lifted a brush to canvas, we had four trial sessions for choosing posture, light, costume. I had moments of regret for having agreed with such alacrity and blamed my vanity for getting me into a harder job than I had bargained for. I found I was not a natural for passive occupation. There were many times I would have preferred being elsewhere, active, even cleaning up after a faculty tea.

At last the costume was selected, by the artist. Of the two outfits I had brought I was sure she would choose the royal blue dinner dress with peplum jacket and white, fur-trimmed collar; but she promptly rejected that, quite to my surprise, for it was my most becoming dress. She also turned down the black dress with white lace collar and chose instead the cold-weather costume I happened to be wearing that day—a girlish, round-necked white wool pullover and an old tweed skirt.

That was the costume I sat in, day after day, each time a little longer as the light endured now farther into the afternoon. The posture was rather strained. I sat turned to the right, head tilted upward almost in profile. My right elbow she had me extend sharply outward, my hand clutching the hipbone to hold the pose. My left hand rested on my lap. Often I caught myself nervously twitching my fingers, picking at my skirt in agitation because of the sometimes unendurable strain of posing.

Progress was slow, even after all the painstaking preparations. Each day a little more emerged from the blank, but it seemed vague, amorphous, a triangle of white with the suggestion of hair sketched in. As days went by and only faint development showed at the end of each sitting, I lost interest in seeing my image take shape. When the sitting was over, I hardly looked at the canvas, I was so eager to get away.

There was surely nothing in the pose arranged or in my attitude that intimated trouble, but Kay began to falter, pausing long moments and gazing at me with such intensity that I wanted to scream, “Don’t stare! What’s the matter?” I began to doubt my suitability as a model. Was she disappointed in me? I wanted to ask and dared not. The sittings got longer, the atmosphere more strained, as Kay brooded.

One morning everything came abruptly to an end. I had been sitting for perhaps half an hour. By this time there was some shape on the canvas, that much I had seen, though I disdained to give the portrait in the making more than a glance. Suddenly Kay jumped up and flung aside her brush. “I can’t go on!” she cried, and she was in tears. “It’s no good. I can’t paint you. It just keeps looking more and more like the duchess, and I don’t want to paint her. I want to paint you!”

I was stunned. I would never have guessed it. Kay had not spoken of my resemblance to the duchess. If she saw it she gave no hint of recognition, nor did she indicate it in arrangement of the pose. I was speechless. I looked at the canvas. Yes, it was Wallis, not I, looking proudly off into the distance, the familiar curl to her lips, the suggestion of a twinkle in the corner of her eye. And, of course, the coiffure, the parting like a white streak in the valley of the hair.

“I am so sorry, Kay,” was all I could say.

I never sat again. Kay put the canvas away. She told me years later that although it was partly done she could not bear to discard it; she used to take it out and look at it now and then.

That was the end for me. Here was the humiliating evidence that vain pretense had led me to absorb another identity into myself. Now I saw myself for what I was—a silly, posturing female who had taken something that did not belong to her. I had bonded myself to another.

The duchess and I parted that day. I put away my upswept hats, and I scrambled my hair to get rid of the center part. I stopped crinkling my mouth when I smiled. I stopped looking regal. And I began to have fun as myself.

When the duchess was 42 and in her prime of her beauty, I had no qualms about being compared to a woman much older. But when she was 72 I did not think I would have liked it said then that I looked like her. So as the years went by and I consciously put all that foolishness behind me, I could laugh at myself when it was from time to time mentioned that once I was a dead ringer for the Duchess of Windsor. But even then, realizing the absurdity of my ingenuous behavior in perpetuating a likeness, there was always that lingering twinge of envy. Hers was the beauty, my likeness was but a shadow, an accident I had turned to my own advantage. It was sweet old fantasy and I treasured it.

Then something happened that was an expiation for the private shame I had suffered for my vanity.

When, not too many years ago, we were living in a European capital city, I was well acquainted with the American ambassador’s wife with whom I worked in various women’s activities. My husband and I were occasional guests at the embassy.

One evening at an embassy dinner party, the ambassador’s wife leaned over and spoke my name loudly enough to get my attention, for I was some ways from her end of the table. “My dear,” she said when I looked at her, noting the rather urgent tone of her address, “it has just come to me. Did anyone ever tell you that you looked like the Duchess of Windsor?”

How many years it had been since I had heard those thrilling words! I was suddenly rushed backward in time to see that young faculty wife, bridling at the flattery.

The daydreaming, the darkness. In the middle of the night you are at a dinner party, a ball, a concert, carrying on a conversation that establishes you beyond doubt as the wittiest woman in the world. You can produce an instant, brilliant retort, a stunning answer to any question. Yours is the infallible comment, the mot juste. But the epigrams fly at three in the morning afterward, not on the night of the ambassador’s dinner.

That evening, the very night of the ambassador’s dinner, I managed to unlock a treasure I had been hoarding for 25 years. An answer. I smiled my Wallis smile, composed myself serenely, hesitated only a few seconds before replying to my hostess: “Frequently, in the past. Only rarely now.” I sighed and spoke up clearly so that I could be distinctly heard. “But what I should like to know is this: why hasn’t someone told the duchess she looks like me?”

In utmost seriousness the ambassador’s wife replied, and promptly, for she was a woman of her word, “I’ll be seeing her in Paris next week. I shall tell her.”


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