Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness, was born on 23 August 1904 as Thelma Morgan, the daughter of Harry Hays Morgan Sr. and Laura Delphine Kilpatrick, in Switzerland. She had a twin sister named Gloria, a sister named Consuelo and a brother named Harry. From her father’s first marriage, she also had two half-sisters. Thelma and her twin Gloria were identical, though Thelma was later marked by a scar from roller-skating. Her father’s job – he was a diplomat – led the family all over the world. This also meant that she spoke English with a French/Spanish accent and that her education was rather all over the place.
When the First World War broke out, Thelma was in Spain with her mother and sister, and they were forced to leave. Her father was working in Hamburg at the time, and her mother went to him while Thelma and Gloria were sent to a French boarding school in England. They immediately took a dislike to England, and after returning to Germany for the summer holidays, they were moved to a boarding school in Switzerland. They were only there briefly when their parents decided to go to the United States. Thelma and Gloria had never been there and were determined to go with their parents. They eventually relented, and the girls went with them.
They arrived in New York in September 1916, where their striking looks attracted much attention. They were once again sent off to boarding school as their father continued his work. They would only see their mother four times over the next three years, and they became close to the head of the school, Reverend Mother Dammen. At the age of 17, they left the school and went to live together in an apartment in New York. This was an unusual arrangement, and while their parents were away – now in Brussels – their landlady kept an eye on them.
Thelma and Gloria fit right into the New York society and lived a sophisticated lifestyle, despite their limited budget. They were both skilled needlewomen and made their own clothes. Thelma fell deeply in love with James Vail Converse Junior and eloped with him to Maryland. It was her first separation from her twin sister, and she was soon desperately missing her. Her new husband turned out to be an alcoholic, but by then, she was pregnant. She suffered a miscarriage after a fall and finally felt free enough to leave him. When she was in the hospital, it was Gloria who sat by her bedside. A divorce was soon set in motion, and Thelma decided to try a career in acting. She played a few small parts but her acting career never really took off. During this time, she had a relationship with fellow actor Richard Bennet. After deciding that acting was not for her, she left Hollywood and Richard behind and went to Europe to see her parents and her sister Consuelo.
At a dinner in Paris, she met her future second husband – Marmaduke Furness, who had been created Viscount Furness in 1918. He also happened to be one of Britain’s wealthiest men. He was also 20 years older than Thelma, and he, too, had been married before. From this first marriage, he had two adult children – Averill and Christopher. Her first husband was reluctant to divorce, but he was eventually tracked down by detectives and agreed to a divorce.
On 27 June 1926, Thelma and Marmaduke were married at St George’s Register Office in London. She wore a Patou wedding dress, in bois-de-rose crepe de Chine with a long coat trimmed with lynx and a matching turban. For the first months, everything seemed well, but she soon came to know her new husband as one with a very bad temper.
On 31 March 1929, Thelma gave birth to her only child – a son named William Anthony. She would not be a very hands-on mother; the child was raised by nannies, as was the custom at the time. A few months after their son was born, Marmaduke’s eye fell on one Peggy Hopkins Joyce – a woman who had famously married five millionaires. She soon became his mistress, though apparently not his only mistress. According to her memoirs, it was shortly after this that Thelma met the Prince of Wales again1, and he congratulated her on the birth of her son. He then asked if she planned to come to London during the summer, to which she replied that she came to London regularly. He then asked her to dinner the following, which she eagerly accepted.
There are several stories going around as to when Thelma and the Prince of Wales really met. Marmaduke reportedly doubted that Anthony was really his son, but Thelma would not have wanted to have his legitimacy doubted as he would eventually inherit the Furness title. Anthony himself was said to have resembled his paternal grandfather, and he always denied the story.
In any case, the dinner began with cocktails in York House before they went out to dine at Hotel Splendide. They danced to the waltz, and they talked quite easily. When he asked if he could call her again soon, she agreed, and they soon began to see each other regularly. His other more established mistress Freda Dudley Ward disappeared to the background a little, but she could never truly replace her. Thelma was the light entertainment to him, while Freda was more serious. He continued to call Freda every morning and he visited her almost every afternoon. Thelma’s husband took it all stride.
Although Thelma’s relationship with the Prince would last around five years, it was Thelma who introduced Wallis Simpson to him in 1931. It would not be until 1934 that Thelma was truly ousted as the favourite, and for now, she and the Prince enjoyed weekends together. If they were apart, they would swap teddy bears, which Thelma bought at Harrods. Thelma met Wallis through her sister Consuelo, who was married to Benjamin Thaw – the first secretary of the American embassy in London. She liked Wallis and soon began to include her in her social circle.