The Handshake That Rocked The Boat!
“Oh ray, oh my, oh my,” whispered a bejeweled society matron to her escort, “here comes the Duchess of Windsor. And the—the King—I mean her Duke ! What’ll Happy do? Oh, I wouldn’t miss this for all the world. Hurry—hurry . . .” and she pushed her escort towards the top of the gangway, where Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his new First Lady, Happy, were greeting society figures, entertainment people (including Joan Fontaine and Tony Perkins, who were, however, not with each other), diplomats, politicians, civic leaders and a sprinkling of titled Europeans as they boarded the S.S. Rotterdam at Manhattan’s Pier 40.
But the be jeweled one was too late. Already most of the 650 guests had pushed themselves forward to the dock-side—in such a mass that the ship practically shuddered and rocked and all but careened over. They stood packed, breathless, waiting—watching—as the Windsors approached the Rockefellers.
This was what the crowd, some of whom had paid $1,000 on the black market for regular $125 tick- ets, had come to see. The chance to gamble out beyond the three-mile limit on the Rotterdam’s five-and- a-half hour pleasure cruise to Ambrose Lightship and back—that was an inducement, of course. They had plunked down real dollars for phony money and a try at winning minks and art works and diamonds—all donated prizes—with the hard cash going to the New York City Cancer Committee of the American Cancer Society. The opportunity to dine on tournedos sauteed with foie gras and truffles, Caviar Beluga, turtle soup, vegetables, little cakes and coffee; to drink vintage champagne and choice liquors; to get away from the oppressive city heat—were also incentives. The fun of sharing the dance floor with others equally wealthy and famous (or infamous) as themselves—that would be a pleasure, definitely. But it was the possibility of being able to peek and eavesdrop as the central figures in the century’s two most renowned romances met for the first time—that had really lured the celebrities out tonight in fantastic numbers.
What would happen when Happy and Wally met face to face? They both knew all about gambling for high stakes! What would Happy Rockefeller, who may have changed the odds on her husband’s chances to become President of the United States, say to the Duchess of Windsor, who had once banked on being Queen of England, and lost? And what would the eyes of the former Mrs. Wallis (Wally) Simpson, whose marriage to Edward VIII (David Windsor) cost him the throne of England a quarter of a century ago, reveal as they searched the countenance of the former Mrs. Margaretta (Happy) Murphy, whose marriage to the previously divorced New York Governor, just one month after her own divorce from the husband of her four children, might cost Rockefeller the Republican Presidential nomination?
The Duke and the Duchess are now in front of the Rockefellers. Happy smiles nervously at first. But then, as they all chat together for exactly two minutes (some of the onlookers actually clock them), she relaxes. Her grin is open and friendly. The Duchess of Windsor smiles easily; she has smiled so many times through the years (in the beginning it was difficult, and sometimes her eyes showed the pain that her lips tried to deny) that it’s almost automatic. The Duke’s mouth crinkles in that sad-sweet way it always does when he’s called upon to show pleasure in public. The Governor’s smile is boyish and hearty: the smile of a bridegroom who’s delighted at this chance to show off his new bride.
What words do they exchange during their 120-second conversation? No one knows. The onlookers and eavesdroppers are too busy shushing each other to catch even a phrase.
But later, when the reporters move in on the four principals, there are statements.
“She’s very charming,” says the thirty-six-year-old Happy of the Duchess.
“She’s an extraordinary person,” says the sixty-six-year-old Duchess of Mrs. Rockefeller. And then she adds that she feels it’s “right” for Happy and Rocky to be married because “they’re very much in love.”
“I hope they will be very happy, as we are after twenty-six years of marriage,” says the Duke, gazing fondly at his wife.
His expression tells all
Rocky’s voice says nothing, but the ecstatic expression on his face says everything.
But the Republican politician who thought it was a “damn fool thing” for the Governor and his wife to meet and greet the Duke of Windsor and his wife, is less restrained. And an ex-Rockefeller supporter snaps, “Sure, the Duchess of Windsor thinks Happy is great—but does she vote?”
And although the initial confrontation of the Rockefellers and the Windsors fails to produce any visible explosions, there are subsequently enough fireworks to keep the guests buzzing all evening.
“Gosh, will you look at that? The Governor and Happy are chatting with Abe Schiller of the Hotel Flamingo. He’s the one who helped Nelson’s first wife get her divorce. I’d love to hear what they have to say to each other.”
“Oh, oh—now the Governor’s done it! He asked the Duchess to help draw the door prizes and he called her, ‘Your Royal Highness.’ That’s a title they never gave her in England.”
“Did you notice that the Windsors and the Rockefellers didn’t eat together? Nelson arranged for himself and his wife to be behind a partition in a small private dining room. And while the others were gambling, those two were off alone, strolling on the deck. You wouldn’t think they were just married—which they are, of course. I mean—you wouldn’t think they’ve known each other for over ten years.”
“What could Nelson have meant when someone asked him if he wasn’t going to try his luck at roulette or blackjack or birdcage and he answered, ‘I don’t gamble any time, charity or otherwise’? Could he have been referring to running for President?”
At three in the morning, the Rotterdam steams back into port and discharges her distinguished passengers. The Rockefellers, arm in arm, go happily down the gang-plank, as if eager to embrace the future and make it theirs. But the Windsors descend more slowly, the Duchess a step or two ahead of the Duke, their thoughts, despite the fixed smiles on their faces, always reaching back to the past. . . .
It was back in the winter of 1928-1929 that Baltimore-born Bessie Wallis Warfield, the wife of an Englishman, Ernest Simpson (she was divorced from Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr.), first saw the Prince of Wales. She was being driven past St. James Palace on the way to pick up her husband at his office when she noticed the sentries snap to attention and present arms. A black automobile came out. As it passed her own car she caught a quick glimpse of a delicately-chiseled boyish face, drawn and grave as if burdened by grief.
“Madame, that was the Prince of Wales,” said her chauffeur. And in a flash she knew the reason for the Prince’s concern: he had been called back to London suddenly because King George V, stricken by a streptococcus infection, was fighting for his life. She’d seen a moment in history!
Their first meeting
But she didn’t meet the Prince of Wales in person until the autumn of 1930 (later, David was to insist that it happened in 1931, but then he never was very dependable about time and dates and things like that). The sister of a friend of hers was having the Prince and several other people down to her country place for a weekend. At the last minute, Wallis’ friend and her friend’s husband had to cancel out as chaperones. So she’d received a call asking whether she and Ernest would substitute for them.
She said yes, and instantly regretted it. What do you say to a Prince? How do you act? Would she make a fool of herself? She practiced curtsying. She was certain she’d fall on her face when she was presented to the Prince. When she reached Burrough Court, she was introduced not only to the Prince of Wales, but also to his younger brother, Prince George. Two curtsies instead of one.
But the Prince of Wales cocked his wind-rumpled, golden head to one side and gave her an encouraging smile that magically drove the sad, wistful look from his eyes. She did a deep curtsy—once to each Prince—and it was over—and she could enjoy herself.
The next day at luncheon she was seated next to the Prince and. although she was petrified, she realized that he was talking to her and that somehow she was answering. Months later, recalling their conversation, David insisted that the romantic topic of their tete-a-tete had been the American and British notions about central heating.
She didn’t see the Prince again until the spring of 1931. At a reception in a private house, David passed through the room where she was. As he went by he whispered to his hostess, “Haven’t I met that lady before?” Shortly afterwards, he came over to her and her husband, Ernest, and said, “How nice to see you again.”
But it wasn’t until June of the same year that the Prince said something to her that wasn’t either perfunctory or just social. It was when she was presented at court.
She stood in the front row with Ernest, watching the King and the Queen and the members of the Royal Family pass by, just before the ceremony. She heard the Prince of Wales whisper to his uncle, the Duke of Connaught, “Uncle Arthur, something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly.”
At a reception after the ceremony, the Prince complimented her on her gown. “But, Sir,” she said with a straight face “I understood that you thought we all looked ghastly.”
Like a little boy caught stealing from the cookie jar, he grinned in embarrassment. He said, “I had no idea my voice carried that far.”
The Prince was deeply involved in redecorating his country place, Fort Belvedere, near Windsor Great Park. As Ernest Simpson and Wallis invited him to drop by their apartment for a nightcap, he said, “I’d like very much to see your flat one day. I’m told it’s charming, and seeing it might give me some ideas for brightening up the Fort. But I have to be up so early.” But he said he’d like to visit if she’d invite him some other time.
To herself she shrugged off the Prince’s words as royal good manners. For months they did not see each other. Then, out of nowhere, came an invitation from the Prince for Ernest and Wallis to join him for a weekend at Fort Belvedere.
That evening, after dinner, the Prince invited his guests to play Red Dog with him, a card game she hadn’t played in years. She told her host that she wasn’t sure she remembered the rules, and he offered to coach her. But after several hands he smiled and said, “I don’t think you need any more instruction from me. I’d better look after myself.”
Following the game, he danced with her—but with some of the other ladies present, too.
She and Ernest visited the Fort several more times in 1932, and a few times in the early part of 1933. When the Simpsons went back to the United States for a brief business trip, the Prince sent a personal message wishing them a safe crossing and a speedy return to England.
When they got back to London, the Prince gave a dinner party for her at Quaglino’s, a famous restaurant, on her birthday. And after dinner he presented her with a rare orchid plant. “He assured me that it would bloom again within a year if I faithfully followed certain instructions as to its care,” she later wrote in “The Heart Has Its Reasons,” her memoirs. “I set the plant in the sunniest window at Bryanston Court [her apartment]. For a year I watched it; nothing happened. Meanwhile, the Prince had become a frequent visitor. And one afternoon the plant came beautifully into flower exactly as he had predicted. I was afterward to feel that there was something symbolic about this.” Love flowering?
Now it was her turn to give a party for the Prince. A Fourth-of-July dinner party at which she served a typical Southern-American meal: black bean soup, grilled lobster, fried chicken, a cold raspberry souffle, and, as a concession to British tastes, a savory of marrow bones. The Prince enjoyed the meal and asked for the raspberry souffle recipe.
There were more visits to the Fort, which the Prince called “my Get-Away-From-People house”; and then one day a personal telephone call came from the Prince, who had always before contacted her through an intermediary. Now he invited the Simpsons to a dinner party he was giving for some friends. It was at this party, while the others were dancing, that he first let down his guard and talked to her about the Monarchy and its problems. She asked questions occasionally, made a few brief comments, but in the main she listened.
As the others were returning to the table he said, “Wallis, you’re the only woman who’s ever been interested in my job.”
Now events began to move rapidly—too quickly for her to always be sure what was happening. His Royal Highness took to dropping into her apartment for cocktails—and then for potluck dinners. By chance he picked the nights when Ernest had brought paperwork home from the office, and soon her husband found it was easier to concentrate on his accounts if he excused himself and retired to his own study. And on weekends the Prince singled her out more and more as his dancing partner.
One afternoon a woman friend who herself had had a crush on the Prince of Wales, asked Wallis point-blank if he were “keen” on her.
“I think he likes me. He may be fond of me,” she replied. “But if you mean by keen that he is in love with me, the answer is definitely no.” The denial was no sooner uttered than a series of incidents proved her wrong: he seeks her advice regarding menus, furniture arrangements and such for Fort Belvedere, despite his butler’s horrified objections; he gives her a cairn puppy, Slipper; he invites her to spend August with him at Biarritz (Ernest will be in the United States on business), with her Aunt Bessie as chaperone, and she accepts; they often slip away from the other guests at his villa and dine alone; he tires of Biarritz and takes her on a yacht cruise. (Aunt Bessie has gone off on a motor trip through Italy.)
A fusing of images into one emotion. Love. “Perhaps it was during these evenings off the Spanish coast that we crossed the line that marks the indefinable boundary between friendship and love,” she later wrote. “How can a woman ever really know? How can she ever really tell?”
Yet perhaps as symbolically significant as his previous gift of an orchid that burst into bloom after a year’s waiting is what he gives her now: a little diamond and emerald charm for her bracelet.
Many scenes. One emotion. Love.
Fort Belvedere. The Prince and a companion play a lilting, haunting, lyric tune on bagpipes. When asked what the tune is, the Prince—with a quick glance at her—answers, “As a matter of fact, I wrote it myself. It’s called ‘Majorca.’ ”
Buckingham Palace. The State Ball marking the Silver Jubilee, the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of King George V’s ascension to power. With David she dances past the dais where the King and Queen are seated. She feels the King’s eyes fixed searchingly upon her.
The house of a friend. Early January, 1936. The phone rings. It’s for her. David’s voice: “It’s all over.” King George is dead and David is now King of England.
St. James’s Palace. The accession of the Privy Council, the first ceremony marking a new reign. From an unused apartment overlooking Friary Court, she prepares to watch the medieval ceremony. She hears a familiar voice. David’s. He explains, “. . . the thought came to me that I’d like to see myself proclaimed King.”
Right after the ceremony. The band has just finished playing “God Save the King” when he tells her, “Wallis, there will be a difference, of course. But nothing can ever change my feelings for you.” Kingly love.
Bryanston Court. She tells David that there’s another woman in Ernest’s life, and that she will seek a divorce. The King arranges for a solicitor to handle the details.
The garden at Fort Belvedere. David says that he’s invited Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to dinner at York House and insists she be present. “It’s got to be done,” he explains. “Sooner or later my Prime Minister must meet my future wife.” She pleads with him, “David, you mustn’t talk this way. The idea is impossible. They’d never let you.” But he replies, “I’m well aware of all that, but rest assured, I will manage it somehow.”
York House. The dinner with the Prime Minister goes well. Later, Baldwin admits he was “intrigued” by the encounter. But Mrs. Baldwin’s comments, according to one writer, were less favorable: “For her, and for women like her throughout the Empire, Mrs. Simpson had stolen the Fairy Prince.”
Aboard the yacht “Nahlin.” She joins David for a summer cruise along the Dalmatian Coast, Greece, the Aegean Isles and the Bosporus. At a tiny fishing village on the Adriatic, thousands of peasants sing to them of the love of a King for the woman of his choice.
The King’s study at the Fort. David shows her a letter from his private secretary, Alexander Hardinge. It makes three points: 1) the British press won’t keep silent much longer on the subject of his friendship with Mrs. Simpson; 2) the Cabinet may resign, a general election would then have to take place, and the chief issue would be the King’s personal affairs. This would cause inestimable damage to the Crown. Mrs. Simpson must go abroad without any further delay.
“I’m going to marry you!”
She tells the King that she’ll leave the country immediately, but he asserts, “You’ll do no such thing. I won’t have it. They can’t stop me. On the throne or off. I’m going to marry you. I’m going to send for Mr. Baldwin to see me at the Palace tomorrow. I’m going to tell him that if the country won’t approve our marrying, I’m ready to go.”
In the months that followed, David remained steadfast to his purpose: either he would reign with her as his wife—and by his side—or he would not reign at all.
When he was with her or when he was exposed to public view, he was always calm, firm and courageous. But in private, alone, he suffered terribly.
One night, according to writer Pierre Berton, the King walked to his room at the Fort with his legal adviser, Sir Walter Monckton. “Well, I’ll leave you now. Sir,” Monckton said.
“No, don’t go, Walter,” the King beseeched. “Do you mind just sitting here until I fall asleep?”
The solicitor sat in silence as the King prepared for bed. Then suddenly David buried his face in his hands and began to cry.
On December 11, 1936, the inevitable day of abdication came. Over the radio she heard David’s voice saying the words that she’d hoped and prayed he’d never have to say: “I now quit altogether public life.”
Then, although he was officially addressing himself to his half-billion subjects, David spoke directly to her: “You must believe me when I tell you I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Tears flowed from her eyes as she heard these words, Somehow, part of a speech from Shakespeare’s “Richard II”—Richard’s words to his subjects when resigning the Crown—echoed in her ears:
. . . Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. . . . and then an even more bitter echo—from Lord Byron—pointing up poignantly the tremendous sacrifice David was making:
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
’Tis woman’s whole existence.
David had given up the throne for her, but he had not realized that the bonds tying him to his family would also be cut—irrevocably. “The drawbridges are going up behind me. I have taken you into a void,” he told her as the grim realization of their isolation was made clear to him.
On May 12, after he listened to the broadcast of his brother’s coronation, he turned to her and said, “You must have no regrets—I have none. This much I know: what I know of happiness is forever associated with you.”
On the day she and David were married, there were no members of his family at the wedding. They even tried to stop the Reverend R. A. Jardine from officiating at the ceremony by revoking his license, but he ignored their action and performed the marriage anyway.
Many years later, in 1956, the Windsors were interviewed on television. David said, “We feel that there is no more wasteful or foolish or frustrating exercise than trying to penetrate the fiction of what might have been. But I do know what has been in the years since we were married. They have been rewarding years, years of great happiness, years of no regrets, and years when we have preferred to look into the future. . .”
“Don’t you remember,” his wife chimed in, “we always said we would never talk about what might have been? In fact, I think we arranged that pact on our honeymoon.”
“It is a vow,” David nodded, “we have never broken.”
More recently, when asked by Elsa Maxwell (after he’d just returned from a trip to England) if he’d enjoyed going home, he answered softly, “Why, Elsa, home to me is where the Duchess is.”
But once in a while the past comes bubbling up, as it did recently when the Windsors were dinner guests on Long Island and the conversation got around to the Profumo case, involving the Minister for War and Christine Keeler, Britain’s new “Cabinetmaker.”
“Where Profumo made his mistake,” sounded off one guest, “was to have lied to Parliament about his romance. That lie cost him his job.”
Edward dissented. “I told the truth,” the ex-King of England said wryly.
And then he and his wife produced fixed smiles on their faces, and someone changed the subject—and the dinner went on. They could all relax again.
Rocky and Happy have also experienced much of the same kind of antagonism, misunderstanding and ostracism that the Windsors knew before them. Echoing the Supreme Head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who blasted David more than a quarter of a century ago by saying, “He had a craving for private happiness,” American ecclesiastics and politicians, men like Prescott S. Bush, for instance, former United States Senator from Connecticut, can thunder, “Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the Governor of a great state—one who perhaps aspires to the nomination for President—can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of four youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the Governor?”
Reminiscent of the savage satire that filled the British press just before David abdicated is the kind of column coverage the Happy-Rocky marriage sometimes receives. Art Hoppe of The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, suggests a new TV series to be entitled, “The Rocky Road to Happiness,” starring Rocky Nelson and Hysterical O’Brien.
ROCKY: There is a terribly important question I want to ask you, fella.
HYSTERICAL (fluttering her eyelids): Please do. Dearest.
ROCKY: Thanks a thou, fella. Well, it’s . . . that is . . .
HYSTERICAL (blushing): Please go ahead. Dearest.
ROCKY (blurting it out): Well, do you think if I married you, I could carry Vermont?
Parallels to what happened at the Winders’ wedding: Most of Rocky’s family were conspicuous by their absence at his nuptial ceremony; subsequently, the minister who united Rocky and Happy, the Reverend Marshall Lee Smith, also came under fire from his superiors, the members of the Hudson River Presbytery, and was admonished for violating the constitution of his Church by performing a marriage ceremony for a person (Mrs. Murphy) divorced less than a year.
But the Rockefellers are convinced that time and Happy’s winning personality will overcome major criticism and minor annoyances such as night club gags (Eddie Fisher: “Well, I suppose you read they got married—congratulations, Rocky and Happy”); song takeoffs (“Just Mary and me, and Happy makes three, so cozy in our blue heaven”—an obvious reference to the fact that under the terms of her divorce agreement, Mary, the first Mrs. Rockefeller, retains tbe top two floors of the Governor’s three-story Fifth Avenue penthouse, while Rocky and Happy live in the twelfth floor apartment beneath hers); embarrassing fluffs (when Rocky escorted his Happy to a $100-a-head crowd of 3,000 persons packed into New York’s Waldorf-Astoria for a Republican dinner, he was chagrined, to say the least, when State Chairman Freddie Young introduced her by saying, “I know you all want to meet this very charming lady—may I present Mrs. Happy Murphy—uh—Rockefeller”).
There are some auspicious signs. The details of Happy’s custody agreement with her ex-husband, Dr. Murphy, regarding their four children will be made public any day—and may placate some critics. The staid Social Register lists both Rocky and Happy in their blue book of Who’s Who in Society. A staff member explains: “If a woman is in and a man is in, they automatically stay in when they marry. They only go out if there’s scandal, and, of course, there’s no scandal in this case”; and Walter Winehell is able to report about the Governor and his bride: “ ‘The talk about them.’ someone observed, ‘has died down.’ . . . ‘Yes,’ nodded another, ‘there’s nothing so dull as a happy marriage.’ ”
Rocky, in commenting on the race for the Republican Presidential nomination, is able to say confidently, “I’m not scratched.” And Happy, sounding a little like the Duchess of Windsor, says she’s not sure she wants her husband to be President.
“I don’t know,” she explains, “whether one would want to have the man she loves to have such awesome responsibilities.”
—BY JAE LYLE
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE OCTOBER 1963