In 1924, Wallis was estranged from her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., known as Win. While they were apart, Wallis had an affair with an Argentine diplomat named Felipe de Espil, but this soon ended. Wallis was then asked to accompany 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.”1 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.2 In any case, Win accompanied her back to Hong Kong, where she received medical treatment. Once she had recovered, she made up her made to seek a divorce. Win reportedly retaliated by dragging her along to brothels, where he made her watch and threatened to kill her.
The rumours that Wallis was somehow connected to these brothels probably came from these episodes. The so-called China dossier – reportedly made in 1935 at the request of the British Prime Minister – supposedly claimed that she visited these brothels with her husband and was also trained in various techniques, such as the “Chinese grip.” She supposedly not only used these techniques on her husband but also on other men, and the dossier concluded that she had become a prostitute. In any case, no one has ever been able to reproduce the China dossier, and there is no record of it in the Royal Archives. The Countess of Romanones, a friend of Wallis, declared that it was “absolutely preposterous, absolutely no truth in that whatsoever.”3
Wallis soon packed her bags and joined a friend of hers by the name of Mary Sadler, who was on her way from Hong Kong to Shanghai. She looked up a British diplomat named Harold Robinson while in Shanghai, and he took her under his wing. Despite being swept up in parties, the sound of gunfire was never far away. She persuaded Mary to come with her to Peking, where a friend of hers, Col. Louis Little, was serving, and he could help her return to America. A steamer took them to Tientsin, and there they boarded a train in the midst of a regional civil war. The train took almost two days, and thankfully Louis was there to pick them up when they finally arrived. Wallis took a room in the Grand Hotel de Pekin – an oasis of peace.
One evening, she ran into an acquaintance of hers by the name of Katherine Rogers, and they immediately renewed their friendship. Katherine (then Bigelow) had married Herman Rogers in 1920, who was so wealthy he lived a retired life. They asked Wallis to stay with them, and she insisted on paying them rent. Wallis had a great time there. Mornings were for sleeping in, afternoons for shopping and evenings for dining out. Weekends were spent in the country where the Rogers had a rented summer house. She would spend a full year with the Rogers before leaving for Shanghai in the spring. However, during her stay there, she became very ill – another episode which turned into a nasty rumour.
The gossip was that Wallis had had an affair with an Italian Count by the name of Galeazzo Ciano and that she had become pregnant by him. An abortion was then reportedly performed, which went terribly wrong and left her permanently infertile. However, there is no evidence to support this at all. She was still sick when she boarded the President McKinley, and upon arrival in Seattle, she had to have emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage. She was now alone and sick in a strange city, and she called Win, who was also back in America. He met up with her in Chicago and accompanied her to Washington. It would be their last meeting.
Wallis spent the following months with her mother and learned that she could obtain a decree of desertion after three years’ separation if she had a year’s residence in Virginia. So, she moved to Warrenton to the Warren Green Hotel, where she rented a single room. She waited out the year at the hotel and decorated her room with memories of China. Finally, on 10 December 1927, her divorce from Win was finalised.