“I’ve given a lot of talks in my time, and when people ask, ‘When will this speaker shut up and sit down,’ the answer is when I get to Z!”
Z is for Zippy. Zippy Larson, 80, of Canton knows more about Baltimore history than anyone we know, and if someone knows more than Zippy, then they probably can’t capture an audience like she does.
Rather than a conventional chronological approach, Larson used the ABCs to guide her audience through the life of Wallis Warfield Simpson at City Hall’s Brown Bag Lecture Series last Friday.
Who was Wallis Warfield Simpson? A large portion of the people who recognize the name today probably know her as a tangential character in a recent Hollywood movie.
“F is for Firth—Colin Firth,” said Larson. “He portrayed George VI in The King’s Speech.”
George VI became King of England after his older brother, Edward VIII, gave up the throne to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a 40-year-old Baltimorean with two husbands already under her belt.
Born as the 19th Century was drawing to a close, Wallis grew up in Baltimore but lived all over the world, died in Paris in 1986, and was buried in England in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore Estate.
Gold-digger, Nazi sympathizer, “despicable person”—People have assigned various labels to Wallis over the years, few of them complimentary. Larson describes her as a witty and wily woman of the world who won some and lost some and always wanted to do things her way.
“B is for belle—Southern belle,” said Larson. “Southern belles are trained for their jobs as vigorously as any naval hero.”
But it was more than training. Wallis had a natural aptitude for what she did.
“C is for charm,” said Larson. “Wallis Warfield Simpson utilized charm. A woman who uses charm studies men; she learns their foibles and what interests them.”
Wallis’s first husband, Earl Spencer, was a Navy pilot. According to Larson, he was extremely unsure of himself and abusive to his wife.
“When she could tolerate no more, she left,” said Larson.
“D is for divorce.”
After shocking her family by ending her marriage, Wallis married her second husband, Ernest Simpson, part-owner of a successful shipping business.
Wallis’s marriage to Ernest Simpson brought her to England. Her social cunning eventually brought her into contact with Prince Edward, and the two began an affair sometime in the early 1930s.
At some point, according to Larson, “Edward went to Ernest and said, ‘Go and see a solicitor; I want to marry your wife.”
Though the scandal rocked the Royal Family, Edward and Wallis’s affair did not stir hatred in Wallis’s husband, Larson said.
“Why?—Why would Wallis’s husband go along with the affair? Ernest was a loyal Brit and he loved the monarchy,” explained Larson.
She noted that while the affair was going on, Edward frequently invited both Wallis and her husband to the palace for weekend stays. Ernest Simpson relished the time spent with royalty, Larson said, and Edward flattered him in return.
At one point, Ernest Simpson complimented a suit that Edward was wearing.
“The King had his tailor whip up a suit of the same fabric for Ernest,” she said.
Also, the royal ties helped strengthen Simpson’s shipping business, Larson added.
Finally, the affair was, bizarrely, a source of pride for Wallis’s cuckolded husband.
“The King chose my wife, not yours,” ad-libbed Larson, “and he could go off and have an affair with whoever
“J is for jewel”
Edward frequently bought huge jewels for Wallis, and some of her wardrobe items were relatively plain to emphasize the brilliance of her latest jewel.
“There’s no way those are real,” was one whispered remark that Wallis overheard at a party, Larson said.
“She turned around and said, ‘You’re only saying that because they’re not yours,’” said Larson.
Larson made it through the alphabet and opened the floor for questions:
“To answer a question I always get, yes, my hair is naturally thick and curly, and I’m 80 years old,” she said.
Marguerite Bellamy of northeast Baltimore brought up Wallis’s reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Though Larson’s talk was fun and lively, there are photos of Wallis and her husband with Hitler, and the evidence is rather damning, noted Bellamy.
“What’s to like after that?” she asked.
Rather than deny the association, Larson pointed out that Edward was a “foolish man” who had been, in effect, exiled from his home country after he married Wallis. She added that “someone at the American Embassy” had requested to Edward that he go to Hitler “and try to talk him out of starting World War II.”
Bellamy said that overall, she loved the lecture.
“I thought it was very informative—and not boring, like a lot of talks are,” she said. “Zippy was right on point—boom, boom, boom.”
Zippy Larson has won various accolades and awards for the tours she gives in Fell’s Point, Locust Point, and elsewhere. She also gives a “Wire Tour,” which visits the key spots of the famous David Simon TV series.
Larson did not want her contact information printed in this article.
“If they can’t find me, then they don’t qualify to go on my tours,” she joked.
by Erik Zygmont