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During World War I, when she is said to have visited Cape May, Bessie Wallis Warfield would never have made the list of famous American women.

Fast forward 22 years later to the sequel to the war that was supposed to end all wars and that same Bessie Warfield was known as the Duchess of Windsor, one of the world’s most famous, and some will say one of its most scandalous, women.

Her story is something like an international soap opera with valleys and peaks, with one juicy episode ending and another to follow the next day.

Local history claims she visited Cape May during her first marriage, shortly after the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Her aunt is said to have introduced her to Cape May society at the Colonial Hotel, now The Inn of Cape May, on June 20, 1917, and Bessie was reported to have spent the winter of 1917-18 at the prestigious Windsor Hotel a few blocks away.

But did she? There is information that contradicts some of the Cape May stories and casts a shadowy doubt on some of the claims. A review of her early life explains, if not clears up, the discrepancies.

She was born on June 19, 1896 in a cottage of a hotel at the vacation resort of Blue Ridge Summit of Pennsylvania not far from the Maryland border. Her mother was Alice Montague and her father was Teackle Wallis Warfield, who died of tuberculosis on Nov. 25, 1896, a few months after her birth.

Soon to be in need of financial assistance after the death of the father, the mother and the baby got just that and more from his brother, banker Solomon Davies Warfield, a bachelor, who helped them out with money and allowed them to  move into the Baltimore residence he shared with his mother.

Six years later, Bessie moved with her mother into the residence of Bessie’s widowed aunt, Bessie Merryman, who was said to have played a role in her niece’s life years later at her summer home in Cape May.

Bessie’s mother remarried in 1908 when her daughter was 12 years old and was attending the OldfieldsSchool, the most expensive girls’ school in Maryland. Her tuition was paid by her uncle.

The daughter was growing into adolescence and on Dec. 7, 1914, then 18 years old, she became a debutante at a bachelor’s cotillion at Baltimore’s Lyric Theater.

“It was a life and death matter for Baltimore girls in those days,” she was to say of the experience that included 46 other invited girls.

Her family couldn’t afford to buy her a gown so they made one, which Bessie said was “borrowed shamelessly from a gown in which Irene Castle was at that time dancing to spectacular success on Broadway.”

Two years later, she met the first love of her life while visiting a cousin in Pensacola, Fla. He was Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., a Navy pilot, and she was to write to her mother, “I have just met the world’s most fascinating aviator.” They married in Baltimore on Nov. 8, 1916.

This is where the lifeline of Bessie and her first husband gets tricky. An article in the Sept. 2, 1980 edition of the Christian Science Monitor places her at the Colonial Hotel, now the Inn of Cape May, on June 20, 1917. She was “introduced” then by her aunt, so the article says. Her aunt presumably was the same aunt who housed Bessie and her mother after the death of Bessie’s father some years earlier.

Another synopsis of Cape May history, its source unidentified, says she visited her aunt at 23 Ocean Street, just a few steps from the hotel, and the aunt held a “coming out party” for her at the Colonial.

The problem with all this is that Bessie was already married and had been given a “coming out” party in Maryland three years ago. It raises the question of whether debutantes can “come out” more than once, and whether they can do so when they are married.

A bigger question comes up in an article in The Atlantic City Press which stated that Bessie and her husband spent the first winter of their marriage at the Windsor Hotel in Cape May. On the surface, that is not outside the realm of probability because her husband was a Navy officer, the United States was at war during the winter of 1917-18 and there was a Navy base in Cape May.

However, there is strong evidence that they couldn’t have been in Cape May during that period because Spencer was assigned as the first commanding officer of a training base in Coronado, Calif. in 1917 and stayed there until 1921. There is also evidence that his wife was with him in California, although he often left the base without her and their lives were separated professionally and romantically until they were divorced in Shanghai in December of 1927.

The remainder of her life, approaching soap opera status, has been duly recorded in the international media.

She married Ernest Aldrich Simpson, a shipping executive, in London a year after her divorce and then divorced Simpson a decade later in 1937 on the grounds of adultery. It was during her marriage to Simpson that she met the Prince of Wales, the future King of the United Kingdom, Edward VIII, and their relationship was more than platonic. He was reported to have said that their first night together was uneventful because she had a cold. He did not say whether she sneezed a lot.

As duly recorded, the prince became a king and then gave up the throne to marry the woman who may or may not have begun part of her married life in Cape May. She was to become known as the Duchess of Windsor, perhaps more than coincidental, given the disputed tale that she spent the first year of her first marriage at the Windsor Hotel in Cape May.

(Some of the information in this article was researched at the reference department  of the Cape May County Library in Cape May Court House.)

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