Wallis’s hope was in vain. She later wrote, “Life has since taught me that a change in material circumstances has little effect upon love that is securely established, but love that has been weakened and undermined is at the mercy of every incident and irrelevancy. Far from having the good effect I had hoped for, our move to Washington only made the wreckage complete.”1
One Sunday afternoon, Win locked Wallis into the bathroom of their apartment. For hours, she struggled to free herself until she was forced to give up. He eventually unlocked the door but did not open it, and Wallis was terrified to try and open the door. When she finally did so hours later, the apartment was dark, and Win was asleep in bed. Wallis spent the night on the couch and became determined to leave him. When Wallis later confided her plan to her mother, she was horrified and told Wallis, “Getting divorced would be the most terrible mistake you could make – one that you would never live down.”2 She warned Wallis that the family would probably not be willing to support her financially in the event of a divorce. Eventually, uncle Sol and aunt Bessie wore down her resolve, and she promised to give it another try with Win. Two weeks later, she hit her breaking point and asked her mother if she could move in with her. She agreed reluctantly.
In February 1922, Win was ordered to the far east as the commander of a gunboat. They were not officially divorced yet, though they were separated. Wallis and her mother lived in Washington, where she soon made new friends. Wallis later wrote, “I was often out quite late. Whatever the hour, my mother was always waiting for me, sitting up in bed, reading or sewing when I came in. She never failed to ask me where I had been, what I had done and with whom. I always told her.”3 Wallis felt suffocated living with her mother, but it was the only option for now.
She soon met a young diplomat attached to the embassy of Argentina – his name was Felipe Espil. Wallis quickly fell head over heels in love with him. He shaped the new Wallis – they read newspapers together, and she learned about fine food, wine and the art of conversation. They also attended diplomatic receptions together. However, Wallis’ mother continued to voice her disapproval, and Wallis soon moved in with Dorothy McNamee, whose husband was also stationed overseas. She was living off an allowance from Win by then. However, she failed to realise that Felipe would never marry her – they were too different. He was a Roman Catholic; she a Protestant. She had no money of her own, and above all – she was still married. A divorced Protestant wife would never work for him. Wallis grew jealous, and the following arguments led to Felipe ending the relationship. She was devastated.
In early 1924, Wallis accompanied her recently widowed cousin Corinne on a trip to Paris, and when they returned home, Wallis found a stack of letters from Win asking her to join him in China. And so, on 17 July 1924, Wallis boarded the USS Chaumont at Norfolk and set off for China.
The journey seemed to take forever, and Wallis suffered from a terrible cold throughout. It took six weeks for the ship to reach Manila, where Wallis boarded the Empress of Canada for the voyage to Hong Kong, where she arrived on 8 September. She found Win waiting for her at the dock. “He looked better than I had ever seen him since our first meeting in Pensacola – tanned, clear-eyed, and charming.”4 Having been a heavy drinker before, he now told her he had not had a drink since he had received word that she was coming. For the first few weeks, everything seemed to go well. Then he returned home completely drunk. She put him to bed, and they spoke little of the incident. In October, Win was despatched to Canton, which now lay in the heart of the beginnings of a civil war. Nevertheless, Wallis was desperate to save her marriage, and she followed him there a few days later.
This was when things truly went south. He accused her of having affairs with his fellow officers and began drinking heavily again. While Wallis wrote in her memoirs that she suffered a kidney infection at this time, a friend of hers later wrote that Win had beaten her to such an extent that she suffered from internal bleeding.5 In any case, Win accompanied her back to Hong Kong, where she received medical treatment. Once she had recovered, she made up her mind to seek a divorce. Win reportedly retaliated by dragging her along to brothels, where he made her watch and threatened to kill her.