If you spent the weekend binging the first drop of Harry and Meghan, Netflix’s exclusive docuseries about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, you certainly wouldn’t be alone: It seems the whole world was ready to tune in for a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of one of the royal family’s most controversial couples.
But before Harry and Meghan got tongues wagging over their decision to step back from royal life, there was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. When the former King Edward VIII abdicated his throne for Mrs. Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée, headlines were made across both sides of the pond—and what a delight for locals when the couple chose Palm Beach as one of their new haunts.
Below, read more about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s time in Palm Beach, and the similarities between the Windsors and the Sussexes, in a preview of a feature story from PALMER Vol. 1, available now.
They came with luggage—a mountain of Louis Vuitton and Goyard cases piled precariously like a game of Jenga. This is to say nothing of the emotional baggage.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor—formerly King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson—first arrived in Palm Beach in 1941, five years after he abdicated the British throne to be with her. Edward fell in love with the sparkling, twice-divorced American socialite after meeting her at a party hosted by his then-mistress, Lady Furness, in the English countryside in 1931. The Church of England forbade marriages to divorcées and, inconveniently, Edward, as king, was head of the Church of England. After dangling his decision with all the suspense of a bachelor finale (with the heightened stakes of a constitutional crisis), Edward chose Wallis over the crown. He was swiftly demoted from king to comparatively lowly duke and appointed governor of the Bahamas, then a struggling British colony. It was from that Caribbean perch, and through a fancy friend, gold magnate Harry Oakes, that the Windsors became frequent high-season guests to Palm Beach.
People assumed their Vuitton trunks contained only the contents of Simpson’s closet: she was a favorite of Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior, and a sleek fixture on the International Best Dressed List. Actually, they were also stuffed with a hodge-podge of knick-knacks and cushions; crockery, monogrammed napkins, and dog bowls. “She felt she needed to create these mini palaces around him,” says Anna Pasternak, author of The American Duchess: The Real Wallis Simpson. Guilt plagued both the ex-king and his relatively new wife, according to Pasternak: “He had turned her into the most hated woman in the world”—the duchess was roundly shamed, blamed, and demonized for the popular king’s sensational departure—”and she felt she was responsible for him giving up the throne and the empire for her.”
Headlines trumpeted an “unprecedented” split when Prince Harry and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle announced they were stepping down as senior working members of the monarchy in January 2020. Yes, unlike Edward, who was ostensibly banished, Harry technically resigned. Edward’s abdication crisis 83 years earlier was arguably more monumental: royal snobs are quick to point out that Harry is but sixth in line to the crown, while Edward had already ascended, and, by the divine right of kings, reported exclusively to God. Still, similarities reign: both the Windsors and the Sussexes were starry, stylist couples who felt more like celebrities than royals; both broke from the fusty Firm and decamped to a dazzling America, sparking a global media frenzy in the process. Both were beloved by progressives and status quo-questioners and maligned by the pearl-clutching British establishment for choosing “common” life over royalty. (“How do you feel about Meghan and Harry?” is a kind of dinner party parlor game.) The two American duchesses were atypical royal brides—divorcees with independent lives who held their power and were arguably intellectually superior to their popular, golden-boy husbands, whom they were blamed by royalists for stealing away from their destiny. (Both ostensibly-powerful men had plenty of agency, but their wives likely opened their eyes to the world outside palace gates.) One notable difference: Simpson didn’t encourage Edward to abdicate, according to Pasternak, while Markle clearly reached a breaking point and supported fleeing—or at least stepping back from—The Firm. And in exile, both royal men and their wives chose to retreat to wealthy power centers by the beach: Palm Beach and Montecito, California, where they hoped to be embraced with open arms.
The public frothed when the Windsors flitted stateside. Exuberant crowds greeted them when they first landed in Miami from the Bahamas in 1941. The press pounced, closing in on Palm Beach’s Everglades Club—the iconic social hub—where the couple were staying. Eight decades later, while the Sussexes first showed signs of clashing with the stifling, stiff-upper-lipped monarchy, American supporters urged them to “come home,” where they’d be free from what Harry would later call the trap of The Firm.
“Especially for Americans who don’t have a royal family, that proximity to royalty is intoxicating. It’s intriguing, it’s glamorous,” Pasternak said. “It’s the one club in the world you cannot buy your way into.”