In December 1941, the United States was dragged into the Second World War with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Early the following year, there were rumours of German U-boats in the Caribbean, and several shipwrecked crews indeed came ashore and were brought to Nassau, where Wallis oversaw their care. A large airfield was constructed in Nassau for use by American and British Air Force troops, and the Windsors purchased an Elko cabin cruiser to make it easier to visit the outer islands.
They used the cruiser to visit Miami again in May 1942, but while they were away, there were riots in the streets over the wage disparity between the imported American workers and Bahamian workers. Six months earlier, Edward had proposed to raise the minimum wage by 80 cents an hour, but the legislature had refused to consider the idea. He returned to the Bahamas immediately with a private aeroplane, while Wallis remained behind until the situation had calmed down. A new proposal by the Duke was again met with resistance from the Bay Street Boys, who controlled the legislature. A new meagre proposal was eventually accepted, even by the rioters. Wallis was then able to return to the Bahamas, but a devastating fire broke out just a few days later.
They both flew into action; Edward directed firefighters and helped drag hoses, while Wallis ran to the Red Cross headquarters to haul supplies from the building before it was destroyed by the fire. In the end, four city blocks were destroyed, but the fire was out. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, a personal tragedy soon followed. On 25 August 1942, Edward’s brother, Prince George, Duke of Kent, was killed in a plane crash. He immediately wrote to his widow Princess Marina, but the letter never arrived and Marina, convinced that she had been snubbed, never forgave them. Wallis later wrote in her memoirs, “Of all the brothers the Duke of Kent had always been closest to him; that he had been cut off in the prime of young manhood, at the outset of what promised to be a brilliant career, seemed to David almost a senseless caprice of fortune.”1
Despite everything, Wallis turned out to be quite the exemplary Governor-General’s wife, though her reputation suffered much from inaccurate reports. There were inaccurate reports that Wallis was often in Miami or New York to shop or have her hair done. Her presumed extravagance led to much criticism, and when she turned out impeccably dressed at an event, she was criticised for caring too much about her looks and that it was inappropriate to dress like that during times of war. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) was celebrated for showing up impeccably dressed, and she even stated, “If the poor people had come to see me, they would have put on their best clothes.”2 Nevertheless, Wallis did not let it bother her – there was little she could do anyway.
She took up the traditional roles of the wife of the Governor-General – she became the president of both the Bahamian Red Cross and the Nassau chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire. She was involved with charity work and raised money for the underprivileged. She also took on the more controversial topics such as infant welfare, unwed mothers, education and health care for the Bahamian black population. A report by the Rockefeller Foundation later stated, “The Duchess of Windsor, American-born, is the only person known who has practised philanthropy, at least in the interest of health for the poor [redacted].”3
She befriended Alice Hill Jones, a native black nurse who worked in the local hospitals, trying to lower the infant mortality rate. She later presented Alice with a brand new Sedan when she learned that she took public transport everywhere she went. Alice also held clinics at Western High School, which was severely lacking in facilities. According to Alice, the Duchess was “awfully distressed to see what a terrible problem we had to deal with and how bad the facilities were. There and then, she rang America to arrange it all.”4 Wallis showed up every week to assist in the clinics – changing and washing babies, feeding them and rocking them to sleep. Wallis also learned of the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases among the native population and, after receiving no help from the legislature, she used her private funds to found a clinic specialising in sexually transmitted diseases. Wallis had the human touch, and she quietly broke down the barriers. She was never recognised for her work during the war by the Royal Family.
Their time in the Bahamas was perhaps most overshadowed by the gruesome murder of their acquaintance Sir Harry Oakes. On 7 July 1943, Oakes was murdered, and he was found the following morning with his head crushed and stabbing wounds. His body had also been set on fire. Once informed, Edward contacted the Nassau attorney general and chief of police, and with their approval, he also contacted the Miami Police Department to assist – despite Scotland Yard usually being asked to assist in these matters. He was later criticised for not following the procedure. The crime officially remains unsolved – Oakes’s son-in-law was later found not guilty of the crime.
In August 1944, Wallis – who had been working six days a week for 18 hours a day – was exhausted and was again suffering from stomach ulcers. She and Edward were in the United States when she decided to seek medical treatment. She was diagnosed with appendicitis and admitted to Roosevelt Hospital. During the surgery, surgeons also examined her stomach and found several tumour-like growths. When the biopsy revealed they were cancer, they were removed in a separate operation. The operation was successful, and they were able to return to Nassau.
By the end of 1944, the war seemed to be coming to an end. Edward formally resigned his role as Governor-General on 15 March 1945, which took effect on 30 April – the day Hitler shot himself. Edward wrote to Churchill asking to be invited to tea with Wallis by the King and Queen on their way back, but Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary absolutely would not receive Wallis. From then on, Wallis and Edward referred to Queen Elizabeth as “that fat Scotch cook”, for Wallis, she became “the Dowdy Duchess” and “the Monster of Glamis.”5
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor left Nassau on 3 May 1945 and lived in New York until their affairs could be settled. They finally returned to France on 22 September and found their home undisturbed. They had originally leased the house, but it was later sold to someone else, and they had six months to vacate it again. They took a suite at the Ritz Hotel for the time being. Wallis later wrote, “Our lives in Nassau had been happy and imbued with a sense of purpose that we were sorry to lose.”6