Friday, September 25, 2015

Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson: The Coronado Connection and Other Myths

by Linda Root

The Del Coronado Hotel, circa 1900

On April 6, 1951, my family piled into our hard-to-come-by post war 1948 Green Chrysler and left Cleveland for our new home in Coronado, California.  As I write this post I find it an ironic aside as I remember the model of our automobile was called the Windsor. I was the only person in the car unhappy to be leaving. We were headed to a suburb of a city without an opera, a decent symphony or major league sports. We were leaving Oz and heading straight to Kansas.

On April 24, 1951, I spent my 12th Birthday in California  at the Officer’s Club at Naval Air Station-North Island, which was part of man-made (can we say that now?) Coronado Island in San Diego Bay. Our host and hostess were my ‘Aunt Muriel and Uncle Guy' Patterson, not my actual aunt and uncle. Commander Guy Patterson was my first cousin once removed, one of my mother's few relatives. Guy could have fallen out of the pages of F.Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Muriel was a perfect Zelda. He had been the bassist in the George Duffy Orchestra when he met and married a socialite who died of tuberculosis a month after I was born--my Godmother Helen Cooper Patterson. Brokenhearted, Guy joined the R.C.A.F and flew missions in the Battle of Britain, which is as close to suicide as his morals would allow. Amidst Welcome Home ticker tape parades in Manhattan and endless soirees, he met Aunt Muriel,who had been a show girl—not Ziegfeld Follies, but George White Scandals. Her first husband was actor-playwright Clark Twelvetrees, best known for dying mysteriously during the second of two marriages to screen siren Helen Twelvetrees. Muriel had met him somewhere in the middle. With all of this colorful history, I sometimes wonder why I chose to write historical fiction There is a a story waiting to be told, but it is not the subject of this post. This offering explores the evolution and devolution of a myth.

Steak Night at the O-Club was a bi-weekly social event for the Coronado A-List. Those who were not Naval Officers were local businessmen or politicians.Members and guests selected their rib-eye from a high pile of butchered meat, and from there it was DIY. The menu was simple—steak,Caesar salad and Open Bar. When Uncle Guy took my arm and escorted me through the line. I was relieved. My mother and steak were best not mixed. She believed since beefsteak and leather both came from cows, they should resemble one another in taste and texture. Our picnic table was outside the gallery leading to the ballroom, which is how we ended up discussing the Windsors and the Coronado Connection.

"Sometimes members of the Royal family on cruise with the Royal Navy visit here in time  to attend the Midshipmen’s Ball. When you’re older I’ll try to get you an invitation." My uncle was a man who liked to impress. He pointed towards San Diego Bay where the great Essex class aircraft carriers were anchored. "That’s the Bonny Dick," he said, pointing to the Bon Homme Richard,"and that is the pier where the English flagship Reknown was anchored when  Wallis Warfield Simpson had tea with the Prince of Wales". He spoke as if the events of April 7th and 8th, 1920, were etched in stone tablets.

Oh, I knew exactly whom he was talking about. The abdication of Edward VIII had been a topic of interest in our home. Many Americans are obsessed with the Royal Family. Besides, I had just read The Little Princesses by Marian Crawford, the future queen of England's nanny, and I knew how much Princess Elizabeth adored her Uncle David, which is the name the family called the erstwhile Edward VIII. The books revealed how disturbed she was when he estranged himself from the family when he abdicated  to marry the notorious American divorcee. The book had been a gift on my 11th birthday from my elementary school principal. By the time we left Cleveland, it was already dog-eared. 

"We don’t like her at our house," I commented as if our opinion of the Duchess mattered. My uncle frowned. 

"Some people say she was a Nazi but I’m not so sure. A lot of people were taken in by Hitler before the War." I don't know if he was defending her or the population of Germany.

"Mom says she was a social climber, and besides she was divorced." 

"Be careful what you say about that, Boots. Don’t forget Aunt Muriel was divorced when I met her. And so’s your Grandmother Fetterly."

"But Mom says the Duchess was not divorced from Mister Simpson when she took up with the King."

King Edward VIII vacationing with Mrs. Simpson.
I did not mentioned my mother’s comment about her being a social climber, because she said the same about Aunt Muriel. There were similarities, to be sure. The Duchess of Windsor and my Aunt Muriel were both social climbers who were married to handsome Naval Aviators with drinking problems, and both were prominent in Coronado Society. Both had a discriminating clothes taste and an affinity for designer labels and loved to play hostess at dinner parties. There is an active organization centered in Palm Desert,California, that produces a journal about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and markets a recipe book of dishes served at her Coronado  parties during her first husband's posting at North Island Naval Air Station, circa 1917-1920. Maps to the Spencers' Coronado residences are still on sale. 

Wallis’s husband was the first commander of the nascent air wing at NAS-North Island, on Coronado. His name was Earl Winfield Spencer, Junior. His friends called him 'Win.' Wallis Warfield was just twenty when she married him in 1916. He was eight years older.

Several years earlier she had discarded her birth name, Bessie. One wonders if she would have acquired the same mystique had she kept it.

One of her rivals in the Coronado social scene said she was rather a wallflower at functions until the men entered the room.  In his noteworthy biography of Sir Winston Churchill, The Last Lion', William Manchester writes of Wallis:''If the man existed with whom Wallis had enjoyed a platonic friendship, his name is lost to history.

Lt. Commander Earl Winfield Spencer

With much rumor and gossip surrounding her, whether or not she met the Prince of Wales in 1920 at a dance seems trivial. Its significance is that she and an entire town of sophisticated people lied about it. Guy and Muriel Patterson, like most Coronado residents who were 'in the scene' during the few months my family lived in Coronado, were utterly convinced  the Duchess had been presented to the Prince of Wales at a tea aboard the English flagship and had likely danced with him at a ball held in his honor in the Crown Room of the famous Hotel Del Coronado, a property associated with the Speckles family with which she was acquainted. In later years when discussing the two days when the future Edward VIII was in Coronado on his Australian World Cruise, neither of the Windsors contradicted the legend surrounding a 1920 meeting.  

Perhaps the most authoritative endorsement of the meeting came from ex-husband Win Spencer, who described the evening as follows:

Practically all navy officers stationed here were present with their wives. We all went down the receiving line. My former wife [they divorced in December 1927] was with me most of the evening. Of course, I'm not quite sure but what she may have been introduced to him. As I recall she slipped away for a few minutes and may have been received by the Prince. . . .
 The above interview was reported as front page news in the San Diego Sun and thereafter was picked up by the wire services. As we would say using the current vernacular, the account went viral.

Whether they met then or almost a decade later as most records support probably matters to no one but the Coronadoans. Why, then, should it matter to lovers and writers of historical fiction? It matters because it is from twice told tales of mythic proportion that fancy becomes fact, and right or wrong, history is made. When authors do it, we end up with bad reviews on Amazon. When the royals do it, hardly an eyebrow is raised. Like the oft portrayed meetings between Elizabeth I and Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, or memories of the idyllic marriage of another Spencer and another Wales, the Coronado myth is a non-event more romantic and compelling than the truth. 'Some enchanted evening,' or so the song goes.

But this post is not a capsulized biography of Wallis Warfield Simpson. Many have been written and some have made it to the silver screen. Even Madonna produced one which bombed. It is, however, a post written about her during her life in Coronado and the implications flowing from her lifestyle. But if there is a protagonist to this story it is neither the Duke nor the Duchess of Windsor or his mistresses and her husbands and purported lovers. It is a Stanford academic you have likely never heard of named Benjamin Sachs who wrote a two part series on her Coronado years for the Journal of San Diego History. His zealous historical research gives credibility to the trite old adage, ‘be careful what you wish for.’ (A less well known adage came to me from a trial judge when I was in law school. He once sat in Coronado when it had a justice court. He said, "if it snowed in Coronado, every reporter in San Diego County would be on the island before the sun came up, following the footprints".) Coronado of the middle years of the Twentieth Century was a very sophisticated enclave. It was a place where legends were born and not easily put to rest. But in 1987, a year after the Duchess of Windsor’s death at one of her homes near Paris, Sachs endeavors to do just that  in his two part articles The Duchess of Windsor and the Coronado Legend, Part I and Part II.

Sachs's interest in the Coronado legend was provoked when former communications officer Thomas J.Morrow was asked to comment on the Coronado connection by a reporter for the San Diego Union upon the Duchess’s death.  Morrow suggested a 1920 enchanted evening across a crowded ballroom at the “Del” could not have taken place, because the Prince had not attended the tea aboard the flagship Renown, and Wallis’ husband was in Washington D.C. at a time when aristocratic women did not show up at social affairs without an escort. Thus, Morrow speculated, Coronado's Cinderella could not have made it to the ball. Morrow was quoted in the San Diego Union as follows:

It did not happen that way [even] if Spencer said he and his wife attended the reception. On that day [April 7, 1920] Spencer was in Washington, D.C. Naval Officers did receive invitations to the reception and ball. At the private dinner [prior] there were eighty people present [to honor] the prince and she was not at the dinner. If she went to the reception she would have had to have an escort to pass through the receiving line. Not generally known is she was at a tea the following day, April 8, 1920, aboard Renown but the Prince was not there. 

That should have ended it, but it did not sound right to Sachs. He did a first class job of sleuthing and proved beyond doubt the Prince of Wales was at both events, and he reported his findings in Part I of his two-part series. However, in part two of his essay, he discloses that the flamboyant Wallis Spencer was in Pebble Beach visiting the Bay Area with a girlfriend. Bay area society columns confirmed it, not once but several times over. Later, the professor observed rather lightheartedly that he became a hero in Part I by proving the meeting could have happened, and a pariah in Part II by proving that it didn’t.

The English version of how the star-crossed lovers met -- at a party given by the Prince’s then current mistress Lady Furness, no less -- is the prevailing one. At the time Wallis was married to her second husband Ernest Simpson, who although likely gay probably adored her far more than any other man to enter her life. The Simpsons were included in the weekend because for the sake of propriety, the Royals insisted that the Prince of Wales and his mistress always be accompanied by married couples to act as chaperons. One cannot fail to think of the royal family encouraging Princess Diana to make friends with her husband's pal Camella Parker-Bowles who they anticipated would be a positive influence on the younger, less mature Diana.

Ernest Simpson, circa 1937
In 1937 when the photograph to the left was taken, Simpson was writing to friends expressing his undying love for Wallis. He was holding out hope she would come back to him in time. His tearful lament to a friend was reported in a letter to his wife which has survived :
''For the second time I am disgraced in the club, where I dined tonight,'' he wrote on Oct. 14, 1937, in a note to his ex-wife on the letterhead of the Guards Club, Brook Street, London. ''The first time was when George Sebastian insisted on holding my hand throughout lunch, remember? Tonight, I cried all through dinner. The tears are still trickling, even as I write. Isn't it all too unfunny?'' (Alan Cowell, New York Times,  June 18, 2004).

At some point of her life, the Duchess  denied ever having sexual intercourse with either Spencer or Simpson, hinting they achieved gratification through other means. 

The strange nature of her marriages including her third to the man  who was briefly Edward VIII has given rise to other bizarre rumors about the Duchess of Windsor, her other lovers and her relationship during her last years with her Svengali-like lawyer Maitre Suzanne Blum. 

Oddly, the most recent to surface is one she posthumously shares with Queen Elizabeth, not QE2 but QE1. In recent years there has been speculation that both of them were actually men. The latter makes the Coronado story pale by comparison.

The most significant aspect of the events on the Island in San Diego Bay is that not just the Duke and Duchess and Earl Spencer later lied about it, but an entire village bore witness to the falsehood. It is mind-boggling to writers of historical fiction who so frequently are accused of playing fast and loose with historical accuracy. The rules are different for the beautiful and the rich. When it comes to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor it is hard to envision a fiction more provocative than the truth.


For those of us who believe in karma, consider Benjamin Sachs, who died peacefully and respected in 2010 at the age of 104.

Win Spencer died in Coronado while on vacation, on what may have been a sentimental journey to the glory days of his youth. He collapsed at the El Cordova Hotel on Orange Avenue, a spot less pretentious than the Del, but one I thought more charming. In 1951 it was owned by relatives of my six-grade best friend Sally, who could not join the same Girl Scout Troop as mine because her father was a Chief Warrant Officer and we lived on what was called 'Commander Row.'  That sort of snobbery and the compulsory 3 p.m. cocktail party ritual was not a good fit for my family. My father worked from 8-5 in the air-frame industry in San Diego, and my mother enjoyed a single vodka gimlet on birthdays and holidays. In six months we were living in a new house on the rim of a boxed-in valley called El Cajon in an environment where I thrived. 
El Cordova Hotel

Other interesting tidbits I learned in researching the Coronado Connection include:

The Duke of Windsor had his jackets tailored to hide his short stature and to allow for the many packs of cigarettes he carried in his pockets. While some official biographies say he was 5'7", he was probably closer to 5'5". (See the King's new clothes, below) "It was all manipulated,'' said Andrew Bolton, curator of ''Blithe Spirit," Exhibition of the Windsors' clothing and personalty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: ''Whenever you see photographs, even if he is in kilts, you never notice how small he actually was.'' 

Allegedly, the Duchess died with little or no control of her physical or mental faculties, although access to her was closely guarded by her lawyer Suzanne Blum, who dealt with her property on the pretense she was following Wallis's orders. Reportedly at least one  of her physicians had said she was vegetative, but even that is questionable. Too bad we do not have a Benjamin Sachs to sort it for us. 

While the Duchess  was still lucid,  she tacitly endorsed the theory that Edward VIII used her as an excuse to quit a job he never wanted and did not like. According to the Duchess, the famous declaration explaining he was giving up the crown because he could not go forward without the aid of the 'woman I love' was a speech orchestrated by Sir Winston Churchill, who privately credited the Duchess of Windsor for unwittingly helping him rid England of someone he expected to be a bad king.


This was a difficult post to write because the Duchess of Windsor is still a contemporary figure for many of us. It would be pretentious to think a writer could hit even the high points of her life in a blog post.  Mine  is limited to one of the lesser controversies—the one involving the visit of the Prince of Wales to Coronado in 1920. I chose it because it is a poignant illustration of the power of legend in altering history, turning  historical fact into  historical fiction.

I am not an expert on the history of Coronado. If truth be told, I could not get out of there fast enough. During my brief stay, I realized a painful  truth about my family.  The Pattersons were elitists ,and my father’s family were egalitarian; and  I was very much my father’s child. I had always been treated kindly, almost lavishly, by the Pattersons, but always as the poor relation. I sometimes wonder if the same were not true of Bessie Wallis Warfield. Her father died when she was young, leaving Bessie and her mother socially and economically dependent upon her uncle Warfield’s largesse. Friends who remembered her in her youth commented on a certain lack of self-confidence, except in her relationships with men. Thanks to my father’s family, I was not so afflicted, but my mother had been. She grew up with a sense she was better than the Fetterlys  and Jamiesons (my father’s lines), but not quite a proper Patterson. Her weeks in Coronado must have been a living hell. I remember our next door neighbor remarking, "Poor Betty, you must be going crazy waiting for your good clothes to arrive." I remember it because I caught her crying, something she had not done since Roosevelt died.
Thus, in a certain sense, the main character in this post is Coronado, (1898-1967), may she  R.I.P.  She died in 1967, the year the Coronado Bridge came and exposed her to the diseases brought by common folk who would not have been able to endure the costs and delays of visiting her by ferry. Her descendant is a very different village than the one Wallis Warfield knew.

In researching this post, I visited a number of enjoyable sources and relied substantially on several.  The most relevant follow:

1. The Duke & Duchess of Windsor Historical Society Quarterly Journal on Issue 4-2009 (Issue 22) The WINDSOR'S SAN DIEGO CONNECTION.
Gaulding, Mark (publisher). A 80-page four color spiral bound news journal. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor Society is an exclusive Society of individuals interested in Wallis and Edward ("WE").
2. Sachs, Benjamin, The Journal of San Diego History Fall 1987, Volume 33,
Number 4,Thomas Sharf,Editor.
3. Sachs, Benjamin, The Journal of San Diego History Winter 1988, Volume 34,
Number 1
4. Toepfer, Susan, Good Wallis, Bad Wallis,MORE: for Women of Style and Substance, Nov.2011,
5. Treby, Guy, The King's New Clothes,for All to See. New York Times, October 29, 2002.
6. Manchester, William, The Last Lion Box Set: Winston Spencer Churchill, 1874 - 1965: 1,2,3 Kindle Edition


LINDA Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and the series The Legacy of the Queen of Scots: 1) The Midwife’s Secret:The Mystery of the Hidden Princess 2) The Other Daughter: Midwife’s Secret II, 3) 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, and 4) In the Shadow of the Gallows, due on November 5, 2015; and as J.D. Root, the historical fantasies The Green Woman, a Scottish Fantasy, and her forthcoming The Curse of Fyvie: Green Woman II. She is a contributing author in the anthology Castle, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Vol II, coming September 30. Her books are available on Amazon in paperback and as Kindle e-books.Visit her author page at

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