The Wallis Archive: The Duchess and the Suffragette

The Windsors

In April 1937, Wallis was residing at the Château de Candé in the Loire Valley as a guest of Herman and Katherine Rogers. Until her divorce from Ernest Simpson was made final with a decree absolute, her communication with the former King (at this time staying at Schloss Enzesfeld in Austria with friends Eugen and Kitty de Rothschild) had to be strictly limited. The separation from David and the intense anxiety of the dramatic events of the previous six months had made her somewhat defiant. According to Anne Sebba’s wonderful biography That Woman, Wallis had intended to give interviews to the British press to put her side of the story across to the public who were being fed daily doses of anti-Wallis propaganda to stamp out any sympathy that might remain for the Prince and his intended.

Wallis with Herman and David.
The Windsors on their wedding day at the Château de Candé, with Herman Rogers (left).

Whilst she did not carry out these threats, she did agree to speak to a journalist when the date of her decree absolute and subsequent marriage to David could be confirmed. The journalist in question was Helena Normanton. Normanton was a key figure in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and a founder member of the Women’s Freedom League. She was the first woman to practice as a barrister in England and only the second to be called to the bar. Helena had gained a reputation not only as a ferocious campaigner for women’s rights but also as a keen supporter of divorce reform. She was therefore naturally sympathetic to Wallis, believing as she did that a woman should have the right to leave a marriage if she was unhappy and not just if she was the victim of cruel treatment on the part of her husband.

Her outspoken views made Helena a pariah in the male-dominated legal profession and in order to make a living, she took on work as a freelance journalist. It should come as no surprise therefore that she was one of the first to have articles published on the fall out of the Abdication which were sympathetic in tone. These were published in American newspapers, the British establishment insisting as it was that the press toe the Palace line when it came to any coverage of the recently abdicated monarch and his fiance. Wallis would have been well aware of Helena’s reputation and so when Helena contacted Herman Rogers at the Château and asked if he might act as an intermediary to arrange an interview, she was confident that Wallis would agree.

Wallis began corresponding with Helena in April 1937 and was only too keen to take the one opportunity she felt she had to correct vicious rumours that had been allowed to take root in the aftermath of the abdication. She intended to use her interview with Helena to silence the gossips. On the 16th April 1937, she gave Helena an interview at the Chateau for publication in the New York Times. Wallis had one stipulation. Though her deed poll to change her name to Wallis Warfield (her maiden name) had yet to be approved, she wished to be known as Mrs Warfield in Helena’s articles and not Mrs Simpson.

On the 17th April 1937, Wallis wrote to Helena about the draft copy of the interview she had just given which would appear in the New York Times in two installments:

“I have [read] this article through and am very pleased with it – therefore I hope no alteration will [be] made”

The relationship between the two women was a friendly one built on mutual understanding. Helena told Wallis that she planned to write a book on her proposals for changes to the British constitution using the Windsors as an example of how such a dramatic turn of events could be avoided in the future. She sought Wallis’ help in securing an interview with the Duke of Windsor which Wallis appears to have promised to do when the pair were reunited.

Following their marriage on 3rd June 1937, the Duke of Windsor and his new Duchess traveled from France to Austria where they would honeymoon for four months at Schloss Wasserleonburg in Nötsch im Gailtal. It was from here that Wallis wrote to Helena on the 9th August;

Thank you so much for your letter of July thirteenth, which I regret not having been able to answer before. You will no doubt have noticed that proceedings have been taken in regard to ‘Coronation Commentary’, and the Duke has been advised that, while these proceedings are pending, he should not comment upon, nor authorise comments upon statements contained in that book. The book covers so wide a field, that I am afraid that at the present, I am unable to write anything useful in answer to your letter.

‘Coronation Commentary’ was written by Geoffrey Dennis in 1937, published before Helena Normanton had a chance to put her own manuscript to a publisher. The Duke of Windsor had given an interview to Dennis who had assured him of a friendly press but things quickly turned sour. Whilst the book was promoted as “a survey of the power of the throne and the crown in England”, Dennis believed his cordial co-operation with the Duke whilst writing afforded him the right to make flippant remarks about David and even included a few unveiled insults towards Wallis. David had therefore contacted his lawyers and intended to sue Dennis.

This is perhaps why Helena Normanton never finished her proposed book on the British constitution. Whilst the Windsors had every reason to trust Normanton, their lawyers were advising them not to speak to any more authors until the Dennis matter was resolved. Nonetheless, as a sign of good faith, Wallis invited Helena to visit the Windsors when they returned to Monts in September. From the letter that followed this visit, it appears that the Duchess considered Helena’s book a project she could now assist with. Indeed, she was quite eager to do so;

Helena Normanton.
Helena Normanton KC, (1882 – 1957).

I did so enjoy your too short visit to Cande – as usual I thought of all the things I wanted to say after you had gone. I am enclosing you some data which someone sent me from America today. Perhaps it will be of some use for your book – which I pray will have a speedy appearance as the unkind and inaccurate pens seem very busy. Will you be so kind as to return my little histories to me when you have finished with them? Yours sincerely, Wallis

Helena appears to have given up hope of producing her book by the end of 1937 but her association with Wallis was not altogether wasted. Two articles written by Normanton were published in May and June 1937 by the New York Times from their original interview at the Chateau. These articles are revealing in that they are the first time Wallis tackles the rumours being peddled by the British press which would remain attached to her name for the rest of her life. Whilst the British establishment felt secure in having robbed Wallis of a voice (the British press under strict orders not to print anything too complimentary to her), she found a way to speak her own mind to a woman she knew understood the importance of a woman’s right to be heard.

Mrs Warfied Denies Rumours!
Published article by Helena Normanton, New York Times, May 31, 1937.

Excerpts:

“I cannot recall ever being in Herr von Ribbentrop’s company more than twice. Once at a party of Lady Cunard’s before he became Ambassador and once at a big reception. I was never alone in his company and I never had more than a few words of conversation with him – simply the usual small talk. That is all. I took no interest at all in politics”

On rumours that she had been romantically involved with the German Ambassador.

In the first place, Queen Alexandra’s collection of jewellery was – for a Queen – none too remarkable. In the second, the Duke of Windsor never at any time in his life inherited any jewellery from any member of the Royal Family. Third, by no sort of route, through him or otherwise, has Wallis Warfield ever been in possession of any jewels ever owned by the late Queen Alexandra!

Helena on the rumours that Wallis had been gifted priceless emeralds from Queen Alexandra’s collection.

“As to coronet-embroidered pyjamas! I have never ordered or had any. I even dislike seeing women walk about at seaside resorts in them, and as far as coronets go, I’ve never even seen one!”

Wallis on rumours that she was incorporating a coronet design into her Spring wardrobe.
Intrigue is denied!
Article by Helena Normanton, New York Times, June 1st, 1937.

Excerpts:

“I do so hope the new King will have a really great reign”

Wallis on her brother-in-law, King George VI.

“Whatever you may write about me, will you promise not to forget to say how deep is the gratitude I feel toward Mr and Mrs Herman Rogers, for their magnificent hospitality which has sheltered me during this terrible time?”

Wallis thanks Herman and Katherine for taking her in.

What of the future of the Duke of Windsor and the woman he will marry on June 3rd? Must their short romance – for remember, neither is young; both are now in their early forties-be floodlit and deprived of every chance of quiet serenity? Shall they ever have peace?

Helena pleads the Windsors case to the British establishment.

Author’s Note: Quotes from these interviews were taken directly from the New York Times archives. The letters from Wallis to Helena Normanton were obtained from the Papers of Helena Normanton which are now kept by the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

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