The American-born Duchess of Windsor, who died this week in 1986, is the reason Queen Elizabeth eventually took the throne. As any fan of The Crown could tell you, Simpson’s eventual husband, King Edward VIII, gave up the throne after less than a year because his family (and parliament) wouldn’t accept Simpson, the woman he loved (and a two-time divorcée) as Queen.
It’s this history-altering scandal that Simpson is best remembered for, but she lived for 50 fascinating years after her husband’s abdication — and led an equally interesting life before she ever rubbed elbows with royalty. Here are just a few of the most noteworthy.
1. She was a star from a young age.
Born on the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and raised in Maryland, even those who knew Wallis as a child thought she was something special — but it made them nervous. “Some of the parents at the time believed that there was something extraordinary about Wallis and that her influence was malign,” Anne Sebba, author of the book That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, wrote.
She attended high school at one of Maryland’s most prestigious private institutions, Oldfield’s, where she was best known as a rebel — prone to sneaking out, smoking cigarettes and having many boyfriends. She was an “It Girl” in school, “magnetic” to her peers, Sebba writes. It was that same magnetism that drew Edward to her decades later.
2. She married twice before meeting Edward.
Her first marriage came in 1916, when she was 20 years old, to Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer. They met at a naval air base in Pesacola, Florida, where Wallis was visiting her cousin, Corinne Mustin, who was also in the Navy. With Spencer in the military, the couple was often separated, especially as Wallis did a fair amount of traveling of her own, even spending a year in China at one point. When she returned to the United States in 1925, she and Spencer separated, eventually divorcing in 1927.
She married again, this time to Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive, in 1928. After they tied the knot, they lived in London, but they were forced to downsize after her investments tanked during the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was during her marriage to Simpson that Wallis met Edward through mutual friends. They frequently interacted with Edward, and Wallis was even presented at court. Their affair began in 1934, but her marriage to Simpson didn’t official end until 1937 — the same year Edward abdicated.
3. She also had a lot of affairs — one of which left her unable to have children.
During all three of her marriages, Wallis was known to be unfaithful. But it was an affair during her first marriage that is said to have left her infertile. While living in China, she met Count Galeazzo Ciano in Beijing — a man who would go on to be Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign minister in his government — with whom she had an affair. During which, she got pregnant, and in an effort to end the pregnancy, had an abortion. The procedure went wrong and left her unable to have children in the future, according to Charles Higham’s biography, Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor.
4. She had an impressive jewelry collection.
Although she was never the Queen of England, she certainly had a royally impressive collection of jewels. Included in her treasure trove are a number of custom pieces from Cartier, including a sapphire bracelet, an amethyst and turquoise bracelet and ring set and a coral bead necklace with an emerald clasp. Other pieces of note? A diamond brooch shaped like a dog, another shaped like a butterfly, a strand of natural and cultured pearls and a topaz and diamond pendant.
Many of these items were recently up for sale at Sotheby’s in 2013. A 1987 auction of her jewels set a record at the time, with the total of the pieces going for over $50 million. The 2013 auction raised over $6 million.
In a twist of royal fate, before the items went on auction in 1987, Mohamed Al Fayed, father of Dodi Al Fayed, who died alongside Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997, attempted to buy the bulk of the collection for a “rock-bottom price,” according to her estate’s executor, Suzanne Blum.
5. Many suspected she was a Nazi spy.
Edward is now a known Nazi sympathizer, and in the years before and during World War II, Wallis was thought by some to be a German agent and Nazi spy. These suspicions were only heightened when she and Edward visited Germany in 1938, where they met Adolf Hitler. According to Greg King’s biography of Wallis, The Duchess of Windsor, Hitler said following the meeting that “she would have made a good queen.” This statement, of course, did nothing to quash any rumors of a Nazi connection. Wallis herself at the time denied them in her letters to her husband.
Before the war, they lived in Paris, which they then fled for Biarritz, Spain and then Lisbon (where they bunked with another suspected German agent), eventually landing in the Bahamas in 1940, where they stayed for the next five years. After the war, they moved back to France, where they lived for the remainder of their time together. Wallis continued to live there after Edward’s death in 1977.
6. She gained some respect and recognition from the royal family later in life.
Although their marriage forced Edward into exile (which explained the move across the English Channel to Paris), Wallis was granted some acceptance from the royal family as the years went on. When Edward died, his funeral was held in England, and she stayed at Buckingham Palace for the event, according to Sebba.
Her own funeral in 1986 was held at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle — where the Queen celebrates Easter every year, and where Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall were married. She’s buried alongside her husband in the Royal Burial Ground cemetery near Windsor Castle. For the first 30 years of their marriage, Edward and Wallis planned to be buried near Baltimore, her hometown. It wasn’t until the 1960s that they came to an understanding with Queen Elizabeth that they were able to plan to be buried there.