Initially, the British press reported little on Wallis due to a gentlemen’s agreement, which lasted nearly the entire abdication crisis. The American press, however, had been hounding her but her name and references to her were censored in the American newspapers available in England.
During her divorce court case, the international press had assembled at Ipswich, but few British journalists were there. In 1926, an act had been passed to restrict reports on divorce cases, and only 30 tickets had been issued to the press. Their seats had been placed in such a way that they could only see the back of the witnesses’ heads. As Wallis arrived, she still had to run through a crowd of journalists that lined the sidewalks. When it was over, she spoke briefly to a reporter from United Press International, who asked if she’d be returning to America. She told him, “I will never return to the United States. After all the nasty things said about me, I could never show my face there again. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. I don’t know why they should talk about me that way. I certainly am not that important… The things that have been said about me are almost beyond belief. I have never seen or heard anything like it. I feel terribly hurt and humiliated.”1
As the crisis came to a head at the beginning of December 1936 and the British press tethered on the brink of breaking the gentlemen’s agreement, Wallis decided to leave for France. Wallis later recalled, “I was braced for a blow, but nothing had equipped me to deal with what faced me on my breakfast tray in the morning. There in big black type in paper after paper were the words ‘Grave Constitutional Issue’, ‘Grave Crisis’, and ‘Constitutional Crisis.’ The dam was broken.”2 That day, Wallis called her friends Herman and Katherine Rogers, who lived in Cannes and asked to stay with them. The roads around Fort Belvedere were now under constant press surveillance, and Wallis left under the cover of darkness. Edward told her, “It will be some time before we can be together again. You must wait for me, no matter how long it takes. I shall never give you up.”3
Within hours of her leaving, word had reached the French press, and they began to follow her on her way to Cannes. During a stop at a hotel, an altercation broke out, and the Inspector accompanying Wallis broke a camera – believing it could have been a weapon. Escaping from the second hotel in Blois went a little easier as they left at dawn and crept past dozing reporters. Nevertheless, her car was eventually being trailed by several other cars. On 6 December, Wallis lay on the floor of the car as they passed through a mob of reporters through the gates of the Rogers’ villa. Reporters crawled over the gates, looked into the windows and even managed to tap the phone lines.
Wallis later wrote, “Directly upon my arrival at Cannes there followed a fantastic volume of mail, a great deal of it from strangers, much of it anonymous and threatening in tone.[…] An anonymous writer, who identified himself only as an Australian, swore that he was on his way to France to kill me. He sent half a dozen such letters, spaced a day or so apart, all postmarked London, but from different districts.” She added, “I did not lack examples of the fury and hatred that the human race is capable of mustering in a flash. Of all the strange and dismaying things connected with the coupling of my name with the King’s, nothing shook me so much or hurt me more than the discovery of the scorn, even hatred, that many felt for me. I do not wish to suggest that no friendly voices were raised in my behalf. Many were. From strangers all over the world, and even from Britain, came warming letters of sympathy.
“But these were in the minority. The most abusive, oddly enough, came from the Canadians, from English people residing in the United States, and from Americans of British birth or connections. During my first weeks at Cannes, I must have read several thousand letters. With my breakfast would two or three trays heaped high with the day’s delivery. It is no exaggeration to say that my world went to pieces every morning on a tray. Everything that I stood for was condemned. The presumption was that I had in some way, gained an ascendancy over a beloved King. The vocabulary of vilification and abuse is a good deal more extensive than I had until then supposed; there can be few expletives applicable to my sex that were missing from my morning tray.”4
“The enormity of the hatred I had aroused, and the distorted image of me that seemed to be forming in minds everywhere went far beyond anything I had anticipated even in my most depressed moments. Whatever else may have been absent from my make-up, spite and envy certainly were; and I had assumed the same of others. But the daily bombardment to which I was subjected at Cannes taught me that my judgment of human nature had been woefully innocent. The human race, or at least that segment given to firing letters at public figures, includes an astonishingly high proportion of jealous, vindictive people, some of whom appear to be actually crazed. 5
There was also a letter from Ernest who wrote, “My thoughts have been with you throughout your ordeal, and you may rest assured that no one has felt more deeply for you than I have.”6 It was the little glimmer of gentleness that Wallis needed so badly at the time.
The Duke of Windsor was furious about the hate mail but there was little he could do. In early March 1937, he wrote to her from Austria, “God’s curses be on the heads of those English bitches who dare to insult you. Oh, it makes me so sick and scared and I’m so far away and can’t protect you.”7
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p. 179
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p. 213
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p. 215
- The heart has its reasons by The Duchess of Windsor p. 304
- The heart has its reasons by The Duchess of Windsor p. 305
- The Duchess of Windsor by Greg King p. 252
- Wallis and Edward edited by Michael Bloch p.288