Wallis Simpson motored to the South of France hoping that the Abdication crisis – and dense fog – would blow over. The press were in hot pursuit. We recreate the journey, based on contemporary reports.
In early December 1936, two weeks after King Edward VII first told the prime minister he wanted to marry Mrs Simpson, the abdication crisis built to its climax.
On Wednesday 2 December British newspapers finally threw off their self-imposed censorship over an affair long played out in the rest of the world’s press. The ‘biggest news story since the resurrection’ was fully out in the open.
The next day, the New York Times quoted a friend of an ‘angry’ Mrs Simpson saying, ‘She is now determined that she will not leave the country unless the king commands her to do so. She does not want it said of her that she quit under fire. If she leaves at all she wants to go with banners flying and not creep from the country secretively like a fugitive.’
Later the same day though that is exactly what she did. Thick fog enveloped the king’s country house Fort Belvedere near Sunningdale as Mrs Simpson, accompanied Lord Brownlow, the king’s advisor, chauffeur George Ladbrooke and Inspector Evans of Scotland Yard, left on the seventy mile drive to Newhaven, ultimately heading for Cannes.
Their only advantage was that journalists weren’t sure where they were headed. They managed to shake them off initially until a brief stop at the Grand Hôtel de la Poste at Rouen at 3am when a customer recognised them and took a picture.
They turned towards Paris but by lunchtime had almost doubled back on themselves to Évreux.
At the Hôtellerie du Grand-Cerf in the shadow of the cathedral, Mrs Simpson phoned the King, shouting over a poor connection, pleading with him not to abdicate. Flustered, she left some notes in the phone booth, under the noses of reporters, later retrieved by the manager and kept in the hotel safe.
Fog gave way to sleet and driving snow as they motored past Orleans. Unexpectedly they then turned west, seeming to confirm that Mrs Simpson was really on her way to Biarritz on the Atlantic coast.
The next stage of the journey would inevitably give away their final destination so they tried to put reporters off by booking an alarm call for 9am while really intending to leave at 4am.
But for the newspaper reading public the trick might have worked. Reports soon emerged from Châtellerault that Lord Brownlow had tried to buy some aspirin.
To make matters truely miserable, after breakfast at the Hotel de Paris in Moulins, the flask of whiskey in Brownlow’s pocket shattered. They couldn’t even open the windows because it was snowing too hard.
After a high speed chase through the streets of Lyon, journalists finally caught up with them at the Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne.
Mrs Simpson dined on pâté de fois gras, shrimp salad, fowl, and some sips of white wine before leaving through the kitchen window.
By 18:00 they were in Avignon, 140 miles from Cannes. The final leg, ninety miles on ‘twisted’ roads from Aix-en-Provence, took three and a half hours. They finally arrived at Villa Lou Viei, in the hills above the town, at three minutes to midnight on 5 December. The 830 mile drive had taken fifty five hours.
Progress had been torturously slow in the early stages. By Friday evening, after thirty hours travelling, they were only 275 miles from the start. However, in twenty hours almost continuous driving on Saturday they covered a very respectable 540 miles, especially given the conditions and state of the roads.
Mrs Simpson’s luggage – eight trunks and three suitcases – had already arrived. She stayed in bed until noon the next day when onlookers saw her on the terrace outside her room wearing, apparently, a pale pink négligée.
A few days later, in the face of frenzied speculation and continuing crowds outside the villa, Mrs Simpson said she would ‘withdraw forthwith from a situation which has been rendered both unhappy and untenable’ but it was too late. The king abdicated the following Friday and left the country immediately, bound for Austria. He sailed from Portsmouth on the destroyer HMS Fury to Boulogne where he was met by the Orient Express.
The couple didn’t meet again until their wedding at Château de Candé near Tours in June 1937.