A&E pays tribute to Baltimore's real duchess

Biography: Exploring the Mount Vernon milieu of Wallis Warfield Simpson, who influenced a British king to abdicate his throne.

October 30, 1999|By JACQUES KELLY

IT IS NOT OFTEN that a Baltimorean gets her own chapter on the Arts and Entertainment Channel on cable television. This Tuesday night, on "Biography," our own Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, gets her hour-long tribute.

It was a cool and perfect May morning, the day before the Preakness, when I met Philip Armstrong Dampier, the British-born producer and director of this program. Just over from London, he had booked a room at the Mount Vernon Club of Mount Vernon Place and, to his surprise, discovered that this beautiful club was the last address in Baltimore that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor actually spent a night. That occasion was their last visit to Baltimore in the 1950s.

Dampier and I spent that Friday walking around St. Paul, Calvert, Charles, Biddle and Preston streets.

Thanks to my friend Earl Pruce, the retired librarian of the old News American, we had an inventory of all the homes where Simpson resided in Baltimore.

We made our little tour on foot, the way she would have circulated around the Mount Vernon neighborhood in the early years of this century.

Pruce's painstaking research into the future duchess' living habits in Baltimore established that her longest period of residence was at the old Preston Apartments, at the northwest corner of Guilford Avenue and Preston Street. A largish red-brick cube, it's still there today, still an apartment house. Then, as now, it overlooked the state penitentiary.

She also resided at the Earl Court apartments and the sadly abandoned Brexton, that Victorian gem awaiting some rich developer's largesse at Park Avenue and Tyson Street.

Dampier willingly converted to the charms of old Baltimore. His film crew climbed to the top of the Washington Monument to pan the rooftops and church steeples familiar to Baltimoreans who revere this gracious -- if occasionally underappreciated -- quarter.

As we walked the sidewalks and their granite curbs, Dampier, who works in busy London and lives in its suburbs, was struck at how few people appear on city streets. I responded by saying that Americans are not walkers and prefer to ride.

We visited the Lyric, where Wallis Warfield was presented to society when she made her debut. We dropped into the Hotel Belvedere. We admired the lines of the New Deliverence Cathedral, which was Christ Episcopal Church when she walked down its aisle as a bride -- the first time.

Dampier took the time to visit Maryland's Blue Ridge Summit, the bluff that runs along the Pennsylvania border where she was born.

He also interviewed Richard Roszel, one of her Baltimore cousins who grew up in Bolton Hill and who now lives in Roland Park, to get her family's side of the story.

The story of the little girl from the corner of Preston and Guilford makes one of the most fascinating stories this century has produced. And like every good family story, it is a tale that refuses to disappear.

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