She was born Bessie Wallis Warfield in 1896, and she died last week the duchess of Windsor. In between she was Mrs. Spencer and Mrs. Simpson, but she played only one big role, one part for the history books and the newspapers. She was the co-star of "The Love Story of the Century."
The most memorable lines in the greatest romantic hit of the 1930s were not those delivered by or even to this American woman. They were the words spoken to the British Empire by the man who loved her.
On Dec. 11, 1936, the man who could not be both king and Mrs. Simpson's third husband said this to his people: "You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love." Edward VIII's monologue sent goose bumps through an entire generation.
From that moment on, Wally Simpson would have to be a wife worth more than the crown of England, and Edward VIII would have to find more fulfillment as husband than as ruler of the British Empire. Love had to be worth the price.
If the former king had second thoughts during their 35 years of marriage he never expressed them. "She is the perfect woman," he said again and again. "We were made for one another -- even if it meant giving up my throne."
But the woman on the receiving end of this exchange could never quite explain it. "Nobody ever called me beautiful or even pretty. I was thin in an era when a certain plumpness was a girl's ideal. My jaw was clearly too big and too pointed to be classic. And no one has ever accused me of being intellectual," she wrote. "Perhaps I was one of the first to penetrate his inner loneliness."
I don't know how this love story played out in its offstage hours. There are some who say it turned sour, the duchess a shrew and the duke a wimp, their 31/2 decades spent at dinner parties and travels with pug dogs and visits to the couturier. Others say they were devoted; when he died, she kept his clothes pressed and shoes lined up in his closet.
But I do know something about how our love-story scripts have been rewritten. In the '30s, tales of romance were steeped in such sacrifice. The King of England, David as he was called, was the shining star of this period piece, but the cast of the times measured love through more plebian sacrifice.
It was routine for women in that era to give up titles -- though far less glittering -- for love. It was love that made some guy trade in his independence to support a doll.
Today we are not so sure. Today we talk about love as something meant to enhance an individual life. Love, we say, is a relationship between two people who are each stronger and better for it. Love, we declare, makes me a better person, makes my life fuller. The dialogue of our modern romance is less about merger and submerger than about individual gain.
If David and Wallis were to act out their pivotal scene now in the '80s, what would it look like? If David offered to give up the crown, would Wallis say, "I don't know if I can handle that, David." Would David's therapist encourage him to "become a whole person" first; "You cannot look to another person to complete your own life."
In a half-century, we have become much more reluctant to ask or even accept everything of the people we love. We are far more skittish about carrying the burden of someone else's self-sacrifice. Nor do we sacrifice the way we once did. For every man or woman who would give up a crown for love now there are a thousand who are not sure that they would give up a transfer to Silicon Valley.
"I have had to live in the knowledge that . . . my every action," wrote this woman who died at 89 years old, "is inevitably judged against the fact of my being married to a former king." This footnote to "The Love Story of the Century" carries more of a shudder than a goose bump into our modern consciousness. We have learned the costs of sacrifice. We don't want to lose our own lives in partnership. The tenuous quality of today's love stories encourages us to withhold, keep some part separate just in case. But this same withholding may make love more tenuous.
The duchess referred to the duke as "My Prince Charming." Have you noticed how few lovers believe in fairy tales anymore?