Edward VIII’s marriage to Wallis Simpson is something straight out of a romance novel, but Simpson wasn’t the future king’s only famous mistress. That (extremely) dubious honor also goes to Thelma Furness, the aunt of the infamous Gloria Vanderbilt. The craziest part? Furness’s life is just as wild, if not wilder, than the lives of the famous figures around her.
During the early morning hours of August 23, 1904, a cry rang out in the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, Switzerland. That was the cry of baby Thelma Furness. Suddenly, another cry joined her's—that of her twin sister, Gloria. After getting over the shock of giving birth to twin girls, Thelma’s parents celebrated. Her mother was especially joyful, but the reasons for her happiness were surprisingly sinister.
Thelma’s mother dearest had a deep-seated obsession with her heritage, and she wanted to make sure that Thelma and her sister lived up to it. According to Thelma’s dear old mom, they descended from illustrious heights—none other than Spain’s Royal House of Navarre. Thelma didn’t know if these claims were true, but she wasn’t about to question her mom.
She learned very early in her childhood that questioning her mother could lead to dire consequences.
Thelma’s mother had a nasty habit of flying into random bouts of rage at the slightest provocation. According to Thelma, even something as simple as “A nail file borrowed from her dressing table and not put back would cause a storm.” However, her mother would just as quickly “forgive” her children for displeasing her. This emotional manipulation formed the bulk of Thelma’s childhood, and, as we’ll see, it was she who endured the brunt of her mother's brutality.
Due to her father’s job as an American diplomat, Thelma and her family never stayed in one place for long. Case in point: when Thelma became a toddler, her family moved from Lucerne, Switzerland, to Barcelona, Spain. Thelma’s mother quickly took the whole “Spanish royalty” thing to a whole new level. She was going to make sure that Thelma looked and acted like a Spanish princess, whether Thelma liked it or not.
First, Thelma’s mother ordered everyone to only speak Spanish. This caused more than its fair share of problems for Thelma, who grew up speaking French. Her mother forbade her from doing anything “unladylike,” such as skating, which she feared would cause the development of unsightly muscles. Although these restrictions angered Thelma, they didn’t push the little girl away from her mother.
Tragically, as Thelma grew, she developed an unhealthy sense of attachment to her mother.
Thelma’s descriptions of her mother reveal the dark and twisted nature of their relationship: “[My mother] was a possessive woman; and all possessive people—most of all a possessive parent—develop an abnormal sense of independence in those close to them; without her we were lost.” Her love for her mom made her easy to manipulate, even when her mom’s actions were cruel or, as one childhood showdown revealed, downright evil.
While Thelma’s mother was in America, the family physician gifted she and her sister a pair of pigeons. Thelma loved those pigeons, which soon had a brood of baby chicks. When her mother returned, she excitedly showed her their new family pets. She expected her mother to be happy, but what her mother actually did next was something straight out of a horror movie.
Thelma’s mother ordered a servant to release the adult pigeons, which was already upsetting enough for the young girl. But the fate that befell her baby chicks was far, far worse. In a stomach-turning twist, Thelma’s mother ordered a servant to kill and cook the baby pigeons for dinner. Thelma, crying and wailing, refused to eat the baby pigeons served to her that night.
This act of defiance infuriated her mother, but it was just a taste of the things in store.
In 1913, Thelma’s dad attempted to move the family to Germany for his next job, but her mother flat-out refused to leave Barcelona. With little choice, the family's patriarch left his precious daughter behind. Without her father to keep her mother in check, Thelma suffered even more from her mother’s cruelty. Her mother refused to spend money on Thelma and convinced her that her father was a womanizer who didn’t love them.
Sadly, her situation only got worse with the arrival of WWI.
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WWI threw Thelma’s life into absolute chaos. Her mother, for some reason, moved the family to England to avoid the war. While this made little sense (Spain would’ve been the safer choice), we all know that Thelma's mother seldom made good choices for her children, and the issue only got worse when her mother left to join their father in Germany.
Left alone in a strange country, Thelma struggled. She did get one good thing out of these hardships, though…
In 1915, 11-year-old Thelma managed to pull off the scam of the century. That year, her father was bound for New York aboard the New Amsterdam; upon hearing this, Thelma cooked up a plan to sneak onto the ship. She forged a telegram from her father to the American Consul General, requesting passage upon the ship for herself and her twin sister. Then, all she had to do was wait…
A few weeks later, Thelma’s mother received a telegram that nearly gave her a heart attack. It confirmed that Thelma and her twin sister had accommodations aboard the S.S New Amsterdam at the behest of their father. Her mother blew her top, and in the face of her explosive rage, Thelma confessed to her forgery. By then, it was too late.
Her dad, all too pleased to be taking charge of his little girls, took them aboard the ship. Thelma’s new life was about to begin.
Thelma and her sister absolutely fell in love with the hustle and bustle of New York City. While her father’s job meant she left New York quite frequently, Thelma always regarded the city as her true home. By the time she was 16, she'd convinced her mother to allow her and her sister to live by themselves. Poor, sheltered Thelma had no idea what she was getting herself into.
While Thelma’s travels made her wise in many ways, she was still naive when it came to matters of the heart. It’s no wonder that a less-than-savory character quickly caught her in his web! During a Christmas party, Thelma met James Vail Converse, the grandson of the former president of AT&T (yes, really!). His rakish good looks and dark eyes immediately drew Thelma in, but it was his wild, suspiciously unbelievable stories that kept her coming back for more.
As Thelma puts it, “His stories were fantastic; I didn’t know whether to believe them or not.” Despite the giant, red flag that Converse was practically waving in her face, 16-year-old Thelma was flattered by the attention he heaped upon her. He wined and dined her, and convinced Thelma that he loved her, even though he was way too old for her.
Thelma’s heart was primed for the taking, and an accident soon gave Converse his chance to steal her away.
Despite being a part of high society, Thelma had comparatively little income. To supplement this, Thelma entered the dubious profession of acting. While the shame of being an actress was bad enough, it was about to get a whole lot worse. While on the set of The Young Diana, a fan blew dust and debris into her eyes for hours. The next day, Thelma realized the full extent of the damage caused to her eyes—and the diagnosis was unspeakable.
To her horror, Thelma realized that she'd gone blind. Thelma’s sister immediately called for a doctor, who prescribed hourly doses of castor oil to heal her eyes. The prospect of being permanently blind terrified Thelma, and in her fragile emotional state, Converse stayed right by her side. After days of the agonizing castor oil treatment—with Converse crooning sappy words of love into her ear all the while—Thelma’s sight returned.
It was a moment of celebration...quickly followed by a decision she later regretted.
Converse proposed marriage. At this point, Thelma suddenly had misgivings; did she really want to marry a man ten years her senior, and who she barely knew? Turns out the answer was, “yes.” In February of 1922, 17-year-old Thelma eloped with Converse. For the first time ever, Thelma left her twin sister behind to live with her new husband, where it quickly became clear that her fairytale marriage was, in reality, a living nightmare.
After a thoroughly fantastic honeymoon, Thelma returned home in April of 1922, where her relationship took a dark turn. Her new hubby drank heavily, and when he was deep in the bottle, he was a mean man. But that wasn't all. He also loved partying but claimed it was so he could meet people for his "business deals" which, Thelma found out, consisted of borrowing money from increasingly shady people. When Thelma became pregnant, her marriage only got worse.
Poor, naive Thelma did not expect her husband’s reaction when she announced her pregnancy. Instead of joy, Thelma’s husband was upset, and jealous at the idea of having to compete with the baby for Thelma’s attention. Tragically, her husband didn’t need to worry for long; a few months into her pregnancy, she miscarried. Thelma, in a state of utter despair, had no one to turn to, and her husband’s response was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.
While laid up in the hospital, Thelma’s husband dropped by to visit her. He was absolutely overjoyed by the news of the miscarriage. At that moment, Thelma lost all love for her husband. She separated from him despite his protests and began traveling. Her newfound freedom meant that Thelma could do practically anything she wanted, but even she didn’t predict the next wild turn her life suddenly took.
During an evening fête with several big Hollywood hotshots, a famed director named Allen Dwan offered her a small part in a film called The Society Scandal starring Gloria Swanson. All Thelma had to do was ride a horse under a bridge—simple. There was only one problem: Thelma had no horse riding experience. However, seeing this as her one shot at stardom, she recklessly took on the role, and it nearly did her in.
On the day of the shoot, Thelma mounted a horse for the first time in her life. All went well until she took the horse under the bridge. At that moment, disaster struck. The noise from above terrified Thelma’s horse, which shot forward like a rocket. Thelma barely managed to keep the horse under control! And more amazingly still, instead of being turned off from acting forever, this event only spurred Thelma on.
Thelma soon packed her bags for Hollywood. The move completely scandalized her twin sister and her mother, who thought Hollywood was no place for a 19-year-old girl. Thelma didn’t let that stop her. Within two months of her move, director Sam Goldwyn got her a small part in the film Cytherea, one of the first color films ever made.
Unfortunately, Thelma didn’t go on to make more groundbreaking films, all due to her relationship with one man.
Richard Bennet, the father of famed actresses Joan and Constance Bennet, completely won Thelma over with his complete devotion to acting. This devotion, however, soon revealed a dark side of Hollywood that caught Thelma off guard. Acting required personal sacrifice, and Thelma just wasn't interested in sacrificing anything. After a brief affair, Thelma left Bennet behind.
Of course, when it came to romance, Thelma was just getting started. Soon after, she met someone who changed her life forever.
During a dinner party held by her twin sister, Thelma met a British Nobleman named Marmaduke Furness. From the moment she laid eyes on him, Thelma thought Marmaduke was someone special. Unlike her past dud of a husband, Marmaduke was a savvy businessman that knew how to treat a lady well. After an amazing evening of partying, she knew that Marmaduke was “The One.” Thus began her descent into the truly insane world of royal life.
Thelma’s new love introduced her to something that she grew to enjoy—power. Marmaduke's money and name meant that many doors were suddenly open to her, and along with that came many little perks. She traveled with servants, ate at ritzy locations, and even had food flown to her at the drop of a hat. Best of all, Thelma got along with Marmaduke’s children from his previous marriage.
It seemed like a match made in heaven, but there was just one catch.
Thelma’s relationship with Marmaduke came with a major downside: the press. They hounded her wherever she went, and the fact that she was still technically married to Converse only made them more hungry for gossip. That meant that everything—from finalizing the divorce, to eventual wedding preparations, to her wedding with Marmaduke itself—was kept under wraps.
For the future Mrs. Viscountess Furness, though, this secrecy turned out to be the easiest part of all.
After months of stonewalling the press until they lost interest in her, Thelma finally got the chance to marry her one true love. On June 27, 1926, the two tied the knot in a small, private ceremony, surrounded only by close friends and family. Thelma felt like she had it all: someone that loved her and who she loved in return, money, power, and fame. But then life threw her a curveball the very next day...
...She met another man—one who would make infamous.
The next day, Thelma—now a Viscountess—received an invitation to a party hosted in Londonderry. The most nerve-wracking part? The Prince of Wales, Edward VIII himself, was attending. When Thelma laid eyes on him, she thought him very handsome—but their infamous affair didn’t start right then and there. That happened three years later, when Thelma's husband pushed her over the edge.
Pretty soon, Thelma became pregnant with Marmaduke’s child. The pregnancy made her indescribably happy. You see, following her miscarriage, her hopes of having children had been dashed. Unfortunately, misfortune came for her once again. In spite of having her loving husband and stepchildren at her side, Thelma gave birth prematurely to a son named William Anthony on March 31, 1929.
The birth left her weak, and while in this state, her husband’s actions took a strange turn.
A few months after the birth of her son, Thelma was at a party when she made an innocent bet with her husband. Peggy Hopkins, one of the most glamorous women in America, was attending the party; Thelma bet her husband that he wouldn’t be able to get her to dance with him. Game on! However, by the end of the night, she suffered a massive disappointment.
To her chagrin, Thelma's husband managed to dance with Hopkins, and she lost her bet. Of course, she didn’t realize that she was about to lose so much more.
Over the coming months, Thelma's husband was more absent than not. Rumors began to swirl that Marmaduke was being unfaithful, but Thelma ignored these rumors. After all, the penalties for divorce in England were severe, and moreover, her husband loved her with all his heart. Eventually, the rumors became too much for Thelma to handle.
Her jealousy and suspicions began to poison their relationship, and her happiness began to crumble.
By 1929, Thelma spent much of her time either alone or with her children. Her husband was frequently gone, and when he was home, the two spent much of their time arguing. Thelma's stepdaughter, sensing her loneliness, invited her to the Leicester Fair. She accepted her stepdaughter’s act of kindness and tried to enjoy herself. And that's when fate stepped in.
She bumped into someone she never expected to meet: the Prince of Wales himself.
Edward, recognizing Thelma from the party at Londonderry, immediately walked up to her and invited her out for dinner and dancing in London. Against her better judgment, Thelma accepted. She justified it to herself: husbands and wives in England went off on their own all the time, and besides, her husband was living his life, so why shouldn’t she?
And so, with her pulse hammering in her chest, she set off for London. Little did she know, her life was about to take a dramatic turn.
Thelma's first private meeting with Edward was like something out of a dream. They met in Edward’s private sitting room, where they talked and drank. In her own words, “The admiration in his eyes as we danced, the frank, disarming way in which he spoke…quickened my heart.” Before she knew it, Thelma had fallen deeply in love with Edward, and she even got a surprising supporter in her corner.
As the months wore on, Thelma and the Prince began spending long weekends together at Fort Belvedere, a place close to Edward’s heart. It became clear that the two weren’t just having fun weekend hangouts together—the two spent time alone, joined only by a friend of Edward’s and, surprisingly, Thelma’s father. Thelma spent many happy months together with Edward, but the arrival of another infamous woman abruptly ended her joy.
Sometime between 1930 and 1931, Thelma met someone that changed her life, and that of Edward’s: Wallis Simpson. By her own account, she found Simpson to be an incredibly charming and fun person to be around. According to Thelma, she even introduced Edward to Simpson as a friend of hers! Although Thelma didn’t know it at the time, she had just doomed her own relationship with Edward, and things with her husband weren’t going too well either.
By now, Thelma and her husband practically lived separate lives, so you can imagine her surprise when she suddenly received a telegram from him, asking her to join him in Nairobi and promising to work on their relationship. Although the telegram confused and upset her, she decided to give it a shot. What’s the worst that could possibly happen?
When Thelma joined her husband in Nairobi, he was attentive to her and kind…for a while. Quickly, his old habits slipped through the cracks, and the frequent arguing started up again. Soon enough, both Thelma and Marmaduke came to an earth-shattering realization: There was simply no salvaging their marriage. The two separated, and she returned to Edward.
Upon telling Edward of the news, the two were incredibly joyful—but there was also an undercurrent of sadness.
Thelma knew in her heart that marriage to Edward was impossible. Edward would, one day, be the king, and would bear an incredible amount of responsibility along with the title. Obviously, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—marry her. In the moment, though, she was just happy to be with someone who loved her and whom she trusted. Unfortunately for Thelma, she trusted Edward perhaps a little too much.
In January 1934, Thelma’s twin sister invited her to California for a visit. The trip would take roughly five or six weeks. She immediately prepared for the trip, but Edward was less than happy to be away from her for so long. That’s when Thelma had a stroke of genius: she asked her good friend Wallis Simpson to keep Edward company.
Of course, Simpson took Thelma's request a little too literally…
For now, Thelma busied herself in America while exchanging frequent telegrams and calls with Edward. In all respects, her relationship with the future king seemed to be going well, even if she didn’t expect it to lead to marriage. In her mind, she was more or less “taken,” but that didn’t stop suitors in America from making their moves.
While in New York, Thelma met the handsome and dashing Prince Aly Khan. Although she only had eyes for Edward, Khan was absolutely taken by her, to the point where he asked Thelma to delay her trip back home to London for his sake. She said “no,” of course, but that didn’t stop him from bombarding her with flowers and declarations of love.
For Furness, it was all very flattering, but nothing could come between her and Edward…Right?
Upon her return to London, Thelma met with Edward—and she immediately knew something was off. Edward was just not himself, going so far as to remark that he heard rumors of Khan’s extravagant shows of affection for her. Confused and distressed by Edward’s coolness, Thelma turned to a friend for advice. Unfortunately, the friend she went to for advice was none other than Wallis Simpson.
When Thelma met with Simpson, everything clicked into place. While in the middle of inviting Simpson for a couple’s weekend getaway, Simpson received a direct phone call from Edward. For Thelma, the alarm bells were already screaming. Then, during their weekend get-together, she noticed all the secretive little glances shared between Edward and Simpson.
At that moment, Thelma knew that both of them had betrayed her, and she wouldn’t stand for it.
Angry at the Prince for stabbing her in the back, Thelma got a bit of her own revenge. She started seeing Prince Aly Khan, the man that pined for her during her trip to America. Khan was the perfect escape for her; he was adventurous and perpetually untroubled. Khan allowed Thelma to bury her heartache deep into the back of her mind, but the relationship didn’t last; eventually, they drifted apart.
Thelma felt more alone than ever—but she still had one person to lean on.
In 1947, Thelma reunited with her twin in New York to care for her after a surgical procedure. Tragically, the procedure went horribly wrong, and Thelma desperately spent every cent she had to keep her twin alive. She even went as far as to beg her twin’s daughter for money, even though her niece had long since fallen out with her mother.
Thankfully, her sister recovered, but her fears were far from over. Thelma ended up losing someone else instead.
In 1955, Thelma received news that shook her to her core. Her mother, the towering titan that once ruled over her childhood, was ill. Thelma and her twin went to see her at once. Despite the pain her mother had caused her, she still saw her as family. A month later, her mother lost her battle with her illness. Thelma’s twin received $80,000 from her mother’s will, and the two of them started a new life together.
However, this didn’t mean that Thelma had completely forsaken her past. In fact, she kept a token of remembrance—one that was utterly heartbreaking.
On January 29, 1970, at the age of 65, Furness’s life came to an end while she was on the way to see her doctor. According to her niece, Gloria Vanderbilt, “In [Thelma’s] bag was this miniature teddy bear that the Prince of Wales had given her, years before, when she came to be with my mother at the custody trial, and it was worn down to the nub.” Her grave is next to her twin’s in Culver City, California.
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