The early years of the Duchess of Windsor

wallis alice
(public domain)

“Mine is a simple story – or so I like to think.”1

On 19 June 1896, the future Duchess of Windsor was born Bessie Wallis Warfield as the daughter of Teackle Wallis Warfield and Alice Montague. Her parents had settled in Blue Ridge Summit for the summer, and she probably arrived a little earlier than expected as a physician had to be hastily called to help with the delivery. The birth was not registered, which has led to some outrageous rumours that Wallis was born with both male and female genitalia. This was denied by the doctor who cared for her until her death.2 There was no legal requirement in Pennsylvania to register a birth.

Wallis, as she preferred to be known, was named Bessie after her mother’s older sister and Wallis in honour of her father. At the time of her birth, he was already quite ill with tuberculosis, and when the new family returned to Baltimore at the end of the summer, he was becoming increasingly ill. They moved into the Brexton Residential Hotel, and it would be his final home. Little Wallis was kept in an adjoining room for fear of infection, and as his end neared, he asked for a photograph of his daughter. He commented, “I’m afraid, Alice, she has the Warfield look. Let us hope that in spirit she’ll be like you – a Montague.”3 On 15 November 1896, Teackle Wallis Warfield died at the age of 27.

The penniless Alice and young Wallis soon moved in with her Teackle’s widowed mother, Anna Emory Warfield. Wallis’s uncle Solomon also lived there – he was unmarried but was probably the most successful of his siblings. Wallis later wrote of him, “For a long and impressionable period, he was the nearest thing to a father in my uncertain world, but an odd kind of father – reserved, unbending, silent. Uncle Sol was destined to return again and again to my life – or, more accurately, it was my fate to be obliged to turn again and again to him, usually at some new point of crisis for me and one seldom to his liking. I was always a little afraid of Uncle Sol.”4

Young Wallis was known to be a healthy and happy child. In her early years, she had an Irish governess who had served the Warfield family for many years. She lacked for nothing, and her life revolved around her formidable grandmother. She learned Wallis to respect her southern roots and implored her to “never marry a Yankee.”5 However, Alice was unhappy living from her late husband’s family charity, and she never seemed to gain their approval. In 1901, Alice packed her bags and took the five-year-old Wallis with her.

Alice’s family had disapproved of her marriage with Teackle, so she could not turn to them either. She returned to the Brexton Residential Hotel, where she and Wallis shared a double room. Every month, Solomon sent her checks, but the amounts varied all the time, and she never knew if she would have enough to cover her expenses. Alice eventually joined the Women’s Exchange in Baltimore, where she received a small weekly salary making clothing for the poor. After a year of this, she finally accepted an invitation to come live with her widowed sister Bessie.

In 1902, Wallis was sent to a private school after Alice convinced Solomon to pay for the education of his niece. Wallis did well there and became a star pupil. She left the school in 1906 and entered the Arundell School for Girls. Every month, Wallis presented her report cards to uncle Solomon for inspection. By 1908, Alice had found her footing again, and they left Bessie’s house to move into a suite of room in the Preston Apartment House. Not much later, they moved to an actual house at 212 Biddle Street. Her mother had been quietly seeing a man named John Freeman Rasin, but when she informed Wallis that they were to marry, Wallis threatened to run away. She was finally convinced to attend the wedding by aunt Bessie and a cousin.

Alice and John were married on 20 June 1908 in the parlour of the Biddle Street house. Wallis duly appeared, dressed in a gown with embroidered batiste laced with blue ribbons. Halfway through the ceremony, she slipped out and tore apart the wedding cake. Her new stepfather found her, but instead of punishing her, he grabbed her, twirled her around and laughed. Although Wallis could never call him anything other than Mr Rasin, she finally accepted him into her life.

Her new stepfather did not work and lived on an income from his trust fund, which also allowed Alice to play the hostess again. Wallis was put up with piano lessons, which she hated. She was finally allowed to stop the lessons after a terrible recital performance. On 17 April 1910, Wallis was confirmed into the Episcopal church and later that year, she attended the Burrlands Summer Camp. Here she had her first crush – his name was Lloyd Tabb, and he was 17 years old.

Wallis left Arundell in 1911 to attend one of the local finishing schools. She attended Oldfields in Glencoe, which was also a boarding school. She became friends with Mary Kirk (who would later marry Ernest Simpson). At first, Wallis enjoyed Oldfields, but she soon came to resent the strict regime and began to fake various illnesses to get out of lessons.

Tragedy soon came knocking again. On 4 April 1913, Wallis’s stepfather died of Bright’s disease. Her mother was devastated, and it was Wallis who took charge of the funeral arrangements. The two were now once again at the mercy of their more wealthy relatives. Alice was forced to move from Biddle street to an apartment. In early May, Wallis completed her schooling at Oldfields – she was almost 18 years old. None of her friends continued their schooling, and neither did Wallis. Her only focus became her debut, and with some money from uncle Solomon, she was able to buy new dresses.

The ultimate event was the Bachelor’s Cotillon, which was only for a lucky 47 debutants, and Wallis was one of the lucky ones. The event took place on 7 December 1914, and Wallis had two dates; her mother’s cousin’s husband, George Barnett (a major general in the US Marine Corps) and her cousin Henry Warfield. The night was a great success.

One of her first serious boyfriends was Carter Osborne. He later recalled, “I think for a while we were in love with each other. […] Between ourselves, we said we were engaged. We thought we were serious and planned to marry.”6 They never married.

In December 1915, Wallis’s grandmother died, and she was surprised to learn that she had been left four thousand dollars in her will. However, the money would not be hers until her 21st birthday. During the mourning for her grandmother, she was asked by her cousin Corinne to join them in Florida for a holiday. She left Baltimore in April 1916, and it was through Corinne’s husband that she would meet her future first husband – Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, known as Win. She wrote to her mother, “I have just met the world’s most fascinating aviator…”7 It was the beginning of a new life.


Our book The Duchess of Windsor – A Collection of Articles is available now in the US and the UK.

  1. The heart has its reasons by the Duchess of Windsor p.59
  2. The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.12
  3. The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.12
  4. The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.15
  5. The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.17
  6. The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p.35
  7. The heart has its reasons by the Duchess of Windsor p.59

About Moniek Bloks 2490 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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