Baltimore Glimpses: Our Duchess

September 26, 1995|By Gilbert Sandler

Describing in the New York Times his recent visit to Baltimore, travel writer John Ash noted: ''We also pass close to the former home of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, whom Baltimoreans regard with undisguised affection. The thought of a Baltimore girl who not only netted a king, but also got him to give up his throne for her, and became a duchess in the bargain, still makes them glow with civic pride.''

In truth, there hasn't been anybody in Baltimore glowing with civic pride about the Duchess of Windsor in 50 years. Many present Baltimoreans have never even heard of her. Still, Mr. Ash is right -- her remarkable story is a Baltimore story. And it's worth retelling -- if just to remind the natives.

Baltimore stood still

When she died in France on April 24, 1986, the Duchess of Windsor was world famous as the widow of Edward VIII. The former Wallis Warfield Simpson -- queen of the international set -- was a woman of such mystery, charm and charisma that a king abdicated his throne for her. That is why, on Oct. 13, 1941, on a visit to Baltimore -- her first trip here since their 1937 marriage -- she took the city's heart. After all, she had been raised in Baltimore; her family lived first at 34 E. Preston St., and later -- when their lot improved -- at 222 E. Biddle St. She attended Miss Ada's School, operated by Ada O'Donnell Boone, then the fashionable Arundell School, then Oldfields in Glencoe. She was very much a part of Baltimore high society, making her debut in 1914 at the Bachelors Cotillion at the Lyric Theatre. One then-Baltimore society writer called her, ''Baltimore's Dashing Deb.''

But back to her 1941 visit to Baltimore: On that festive day more than 200,000 people lined her motorcade's route from City Hall to Baltimore Country Club, where a by-invitation-only reception was held.

One who was there remembered, ''There were flowers everywhere. The orchestra played 'There'll Always Be an England.' '' Rosa Ponselle sang: "Home, Sweet Home."

The beloved teacher

The long reception line, which wound its way across the veranda of the club, moved slowly much of the evening. But at one point it came to a halt. It seems that the Duchess was having a joyous reunion with one woman, alternately embracing her and kissing her affectionately. The Duchess explained: ''She was my very first school teacher. She taught me kindergarten. Her name is Ada O'Donnell.'' Then she turned to a reporter and said: ''And please get that right. It's Ada O'Donnell.'' Then she spelled the name.

In the spring of 1986, the gravely ill Duchess was alone except for the few ministering to her in a nearly empty 12-room house in France; its windows had long been shuttered against the world. Her attorney, Maitre Blum, said: ''She does not speak anymore but she has her memories. . .''

Perhaps among those memories was that long ago day in 1941, when after making the journey all the way from Biddle Street halfway around the world to the tenure of a duchy, she returned to the city of her birth and was reunited with her kindergarten teacher.

Telling this story 54 years later, in the Duchess' memory and for John Ash and the New York Times, we want to get it right:

''It's Ada O'Donnell.''

Gilbert Sandler is a free-lance writer.

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