The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1987, Volume 33, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

by Benjamin Sacks
Ph.D. Stanford University, and Professor Emeritus of both the
University of New Mexico and Arizona State University


Images from this article

THE death of the Duchess of Windsor on April 24, 1986 generated many nostalgic recollections about the royal romance. Among the controversies which commanded attention is a seemingly well-entrenched legend. In April 1920 she as Mrs. Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., aged twenty-four years (her first husband) and he as Prince of Wales, aged twenty-six years (later King Edward VIII for less than a year) had actually met at Hotel del Coronado across the bay from San Diego. The occasion had been a social affair honoring the heir to the British throne.

Certainly, on the surface, the facts possessed enough ingredients to warrant such a presumption. The Prince of Wales was enroute to New Zealand and Australia and had stopped off at this southwesternmost corner of the United States for a two-day visit, April 7-8, 1920. Lieutenant Commander Spencer was stationed then at North Island, contiguously adjacent to Coronado Beach where he and his wife (née Wallis Warfield) had their residence. The San Diego press provided the evidence that the Spencers went through the receiving line to greet the Prince of Wales. The particular newspapers will be identified as the Union and the Tribune (both owned by John D. Spreckels who also owned Hotel del Coronado) and the Sun (owned by the Scripps family). What they carried was the list of invitees (approximately 1,000 and mostly couples) to the reception and formal ball. And over several decades the legend of a casual meeting between the youthful David and the young matron Wallis won many adherents.

However, upon her demise a new set of facts were advanced to question the authenticity of the legend. The findings are those of Thomas J. Morrow, formerly communications officer on the staff of the caravansary. Currently he is described as a consultant in a similar capacity in Washington, D.C. Adding to his credibility, the Tribune noted his authorship (with William Sullivan) of an “official history” of Hotel del Coronado. The related views of Morrow are accompanied by a caption to the effect that “Apparently the Meeting Never Took Place”. His reasons would appear to have been given via telephone to a reporter of the Tribune (April 24, 1986.) He is quoted thus:

“It did not happen that way [even] if Spencer said he and his wife attended the reception. On that day [April 7, 1920] Spencer was in Washington, D.C. Naval Officers did receive invitations to the reception and ball. At the private dinner [prior] there were eighty people present [to honor] the prince and she was not at the dinner. If she went to the reception she would have had to have an escort to pass through the receiving line. Not generally known is she was at a tea the following day, April 8, 1920, aboard the Renown but the Prince was not there.”

Assuming Morrow was quoted accurately by the Tribune, an examination of news items back then does not support the time frame upon which he rests his case. There is no quarrel with him that the Spencers did not attend the dinner in the Crown Room. None of the fragmented lists carry their names. But his insistence that Spencer was in the nation’s capital is another matter. True it is that the Spencers did enjoy a leave and traveled east but it was in the fall of 1919. In its issue of September 23 the Union tells us “the Spencers…. left on the midnight train for Los Angeles…. The Spencers go to Washington and she on to Baltimore.” Perhaps Spencer hoped to seek information as to his next tour of duty, having completed the two-year assignment as commandant of the Naval Air Station training pilots. At any rate, we learn in the issue of December 14, 1919, that “upon the return of the Spencers from the East the Fullams [now residents at Hotel del Coronado preparatory to the retirement of Rear Admiral William Fullam] entertained them and the guests included Mrs. John D. Spreckels”.

Furthermore, Spencer remained for almost another year on temporary duty status at North Island. His assignment according to Navy personnel records was primarily in charge of a detachment of naval aviators for training with land planes at March Field, near Riverside. The experience had to do with their mission to scout for the Pacific fleet. In addition, he was listed as one of six aviators to get instruction in aerial gunnery at Ream Field in Imperial Beach. As to the departure of Spencer from the local scene, the Union (November 10, 1920) states “Lieut. Cmdr. Spencer leaves November 12 for detail at Pensacola [where he had been an instructor and met Wallis Warfield] while Mrs. Spencer will remain with her [visiting] mother at a cottage just taken on Flora Avenue.” In short, so far as Spencer is concerned, he was in Coronado during the presence of the prince in April, 1920.

Nor is the final sentence by Morrow as quoted in the Tribune any more acceptable. To repeat that statement: “Not generally known is she was at a tea the following day, April 8, 1920, aboard the Renown but the Prince was not there.” The best rebuttal is to study contemporary accounts in the local press of how the prince spent that day. To begin with, the prince availed himself of an open morning schedule and chose to get in a round of golf from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., a foursome on the Coronado Country Club links. The photos show him dressed in English tweeds, golf oxfords, striped stockings, shirt and collar of gray with a fine blue stripe, and Panama hat, “a symphony in gray.” Some talk was raised about a dash across the border to attend the races in Tijuana. Indeed, it was reported an invitation had been extended by James Wood Coffroth, president of the Lower California Jockey Club. But the necessity to have the prince back in time to host the ship’s reception made the idea impracticable.

The reception aboard the Renown was an expression of appreciation for local hospitality. The arrangements as to time and transportation were published in the Union issue of April 8. It stated that some 400 invitations [involving mostly couples] were sent out by the pertinent committee. An inquiring newsman did ask the prince for the complete list. He responded that he had promised to send each guest a souvenir card autographed by himself and so he had to retain the addresses for future fulfillment. As it is, only a partial list was available, furnished by Mrs. Louis J. Wilde, wife of San Diego’s mayor, the ceremonial host during the visit of the Prince of Wales. So, several score names, mainly civilian, appeared in the local press. Presumably the ranking service officers drew up their own list of invitees as did the local British residents. Whether the Spencers received an invitation is uncertain but, assuredly, his rank and responsibilities merited selection. Morrow is certain Wallis attended the tea but offers no sources. The description of the clothes worn by some of the ladies identifies a few of those present but not Mrs. Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr. These include Mrs. Wilde and her daughter Lucille, Mrs. Claus Spreckels (daughter-in-law of the John D. Spreckels), Mrs. G. Aubrey Davidson, wife of the director of the Panama-California International Exposition, 1915-1916, held in San Diego, and Mrs. U.S. Grant, Jr. (he the second son of President Ulysses S. Grant and a local realtor and she his second wife).

Much more available is the documentary evidence to dispute the claim of Morrow that “the Prince was not there”, that is, he was not aboard the Renown to receive the guests. The Tribune reports “the Prince of Wales played host on the Renown…. and took some guests around the boat and his own quarters.” The Union reports “the Prince of Wales yesterday afternoon entertained several hundred San Diegans and others…. The Prince of Wales himself was the busiest of all in making the visitors welcome on the quarterdeck with a hearty handshake and a pleasant sincere smile.” The uniform worn by the prince is described as that of a British navy captain — blue jacket, white collar and tie, white trousers, white shoes, navy cap. Surely, if he had absented himself the breach of protocol would have been remarked upon. One can only conclude that, as quoted in the Tribune, the account of Morrow anent the reception aboard the Renown as well as the Spencers’ participation in the festivities requires more proof than provided.

That the convictions of Morrow were not a sudden thing and had been reported accurately may be noted by a reference to a paragraph in the hotel’s publication of 1984, (pp. 32-34). In essence, the passage submitted indicates that two years prior to the death of the Duchess of Windsor, he was veering in the direction of his ultimate findings albeit hesitatingly.

“By far, the most talked-about celebrity guest in the Hotel del Coronado’s almost 100 years of existence was His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales…. Ever since the royal visit, it has been hotly argued as to whether or not Wallis Warfield Spencer met the prince at the Hotel del Coronado. The occasion was a full fifteen years prior to their ‘official’ introduction in England, when she was married to a Baltimore businessman [sic] and living in London. But there is evidence the two may have at least had a face-to-face exchange of pleasantries at the huge gala in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom (in which more than 1,000 people jammed to see the world’s most eligible bachelor), or the next day aboard the HMS Renown where the prince hosted a tea for the wives of senior U.S. Naval officers [sic]. Most likely, Mrs. Spencer met the prince in the receiving line in the Ballroom. (On another evening, a state dinner was hosted for the prince by San Diego Mayor Louis Wilde in the hotel’s Crown Room. California Governor W.D. Stevens [correctly, Stephens] attended, along with eighty carefully-selected guests; there is no evidence Commander Spencer and his wife were invited). There are unsubstantiated reports that Commander Spencer was out of town — transferred to a new duty assignment. If these reports are true, it is highly unlikely Mrs. Spencer would have attended without an escort. The legend persists that, indeed, the future Duke and Duchess of Windsor met each other for the first time at the Hotel del Coronado — but nobody except the two principals will ever know the details.”

To interject, it should be noted that a second printing was issued in 1986 which lists Thomas J. Morrow as the author and drops William Sullivan as co-author. Both printings carry the title, Hotel del Coronado. At any rate, apart from questioning such items as that Ernest Simpson (her second husband) was a “Baltimore businessman” and that “the reception aboard the Renown was only for the wives of senior United States Naval Officers”, I beg to challenge the lamentation “nobody except the two principals will ever know the details.” What follows is the result of an investigative research that should unlock the secret.


To develop the story further it is necessary that a reader should know what contemporary accounts in the local press reported about the featured events during the visit of the Prince of Wales. To begin with, the scenario in London offers some interesting vignettes. David Lloyd George, prime minister, persuaded King George V to allow his son to undertake a series of goodwill tours to self-governing dominions and dependent Crown colonies. It was hoped the odysseys would serve not only to thank overseas colonists for their contributions to the defeat of the Central Powers but also to strengthen ties with the mother country. In 1919 the journey had been to Canada with interim stops at eastern coast cities in the United States. Now, in the spring of 1920, the destination would be the Pacific islands, New Zealand, and Australia. The passage was routed across the Atlantic, the West Indies, through the Panama Canal, and into the Pacific. The battle cruiser HMS Renown would be used again, fitted out for the comfort of the prince — roomy quarters, squash court, swimming pool, gymnasium.

The entourage accompanying the Prince of Wales is not exactly an exercise in erudition. The personalities will make appearances in San Diego and in one instance will carry over into the aftermath. Rear Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey represented the chief of staff and Sir Godfrey Thomas served as private secretary. There were three equerries as aides, a paymaster, and a valet. Captain E.A. Taylor would be in command of the war vessel which boasted a crew of 1,300 men. While not posted in the Court Circular (the daily schedule of the royal family in the London Times) as an original member of the party, the appointment of Louis Mountbatten, the Prince of Wales’ lively twenty-year-old cousin, suggests an eleventh-hour addition. At the time he was a sub-lieutenant in the navy and assigned to Sir Lionel Halsey as flag lieutenant. In his memoirs, A King’s Story, (1951, p. 152), the Duke of Windsor confirms this supposition.

“Just before I sailed, my parents gave a dinner at Buckingham Palace for me and my staff which remained unchanged except for the addition of Sub-Lieutenant Louis Mountbatten, R.N., known to his family and friends as “Dickie.” He came as Flag-Lieutenant to Admiral Halsey, but more than that he was 19 [born in 1900], a vigorous and high-spirited young man who became the instigator of many an unexpected diversion outside the official programme.”

The date of departure from London for Portsmouth was March 16, 1920, and members of the royal family gave him a rousing sendoff at the Victoria railway station. The selection of San Diego as a scheduled stop was to replenish supplies and to afford a break in the lengthy sea voyage. The United States government deemed propitious a suitable welcome for the Prince of Wales when the British vessel anchored off San Diego Bay. As protocol goes, both the state department and the British embassy in Washington, D.C. set in motion the machinery for such affairs as would be held. President Woodrow Wilson sent Robert Woods Bliss as his personal representative. He was a career diplomat, highly cultured, and possessed of wealth. It was the Bliss couple who turned over to Harvard University for public use their estate of Dumbarton Oaks near the capital city, to become the locale of many important international conferences. The state department dispatched its own special agent, Joseph M. Nye, a secret service man seasoned in guarding presidents and celebrities. He was a favorite of the Prince of Wales, having already performed a similar duty for him during his visit in 1919 to the eastern seaboard. The British embassy designated as its personal representative a military attaché, Air Commodore Lionel Evelyn Oswald (L.E.O.) Charlton, to coordinate efforts among the contingent of British-born families residing in San Diego.

Needless to say, the local community was thrilled at the opportunity to bask in the international spotlight. The earliest awareness of the city is a report in the Union (February 12, 1920). On the front page along with the photo of the prince was the news of his forthcoming visit. Once the date of April 7 was confirmed as the day of arrival, Mayor Louis J. Wilde, wealthy financier and real estate developer, appointed a general committee of 100 members from all walks of life to plan the entertainment. An inner group of sixteen members would function as an executive committee to carry out the recommendations, notably to nominate the special committees in charge of each event. Hotel del Coronado was selected as the site for the principal evening affairs and one can be pretty sure that John D. Spreckels had a hand in its designation. The afternoon of April 7 would be set aside for the general public to see and hear the prince, embracing an automobile parade downtown and an address in the stadium adjoining Balboa Park. The evening would be reserved for a formal dinner limited to high dignitaries while a reception and ball would take care of local society in Coronado and San Diego.

The HMS Renown arrived on Wednesday, April 7, 1920 at 10:00 a.m., dropping anchor in what is known as the Coronado Roads two miles south of Point Loma alongside several American warships which had been ordered south from San Francisco to welcome the British battle cruiser. There could be no doubt of the warm greeting to await the Prince of Wales. The last thirty-five miles or so of the approach witnessed an escort of American naval vessels, seaplanes circling above and closer in a squadron of land planes joined in forming an aerial circus. There followed a gun salute from the shore batteries of Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma. As the ships anchored the crews stood at attention while bands played in turn their national anthems. A contingent of civilian and military dignitaries were taken out by a United States sub-chaser to go aboard the Renown and pay their respects to the British complement. At 1:00 p.m. the Prince of Wales and staff were ferried over to the flagship USS New Mexico for a luncheon. Whether Lieutenant Commander Spencer attended is doubtful with all the high ranking officers in town. An inquiry to Naval Archives re the log of the flagship carried no detailed account of the luncheon guests.

Afterwards the Prince of Wales, accompanied by members of his entourage, boated across the bay. At the municipal pier the party met with several hundred British-born residents and their families including a number of ex-war veterans. The presentations were made by Major Halford D. Gerrard, honorary British vice-consul in San Diego. Subsequently a motorcade was formed to proceed through the downtown district to afford the citizenry a chance to catch a glimpse of the prince. At the city stadium the prince addressed briefly a throng estimated at 25,000. His speech consisted of pleasantries. He thanked the American Navy for the impressive sea escort and the city of San Diego for its hospitality. He dwelt upon the delightful climate and the exuberant floral display. The final daytime call was at U.S. Grant Hotel where Mayor Wilde and civic leaders received the British guests.

The initial evening affair of April 7 was neither on the official program nor on the premises of the caravansary. The source is an article in the February 1953 souvenir program of the annual Charity Ball written by Mrs. Ellis Moon Moore entitled “So Near and Yet So Far.” Her first husband was Claus Spreckels who died in 1935 and she had rewed in 1936 to Dr. E. Clarence Moore, a Los Angeles surgeon who had died several years later. The nomenclature to be used will depend upon the chronology involved. Reverting to her years as the daughter-in-law of John D. Spreckels, the thrust of the episode is her recollection of an unexpected visit by the Prince of Wales and his staff to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Claus Spreckels on Ocean Boulevard. How this improvised “cocktail hour” came to pass remains a mystery but there is a possible explanation. In some way John D. Spreckels had penetrated protocol to persuade the prince to stop off at the Claus Spreckels home on the way to the Hotel del Coronado. Apparently the couple had not been let in on the surprise and Claus had not yet come home. Ellis was busy preparing for the events of the evening when the maid burst in to apprise her of the distinguished visitors. She managed to collect her wits and pull it off and serve the gentlemen cocktails. An anecdote she was fond of relating had it that her two and a half year old daughter Tookie paid no attention to the prince who commented “it was charming to be snubbed by a lady — they’re always willing to meet me.”

In the case of the formal dinner, the seating at the table of honor once again suggests that John D. Spreckels had a hand in it. A relevant passage from the above Charity Ball souvenir program article certainly makes her erstwhile father-in-law suspect.

“Just before dinner Mrs. G. Aubrey Davidson [serving as chairman of the banquet arrangements] whispered to me, ‘You are going to sit on the Prince’s right’. There was a picture taken of the dinner guests seated at his table which showed my head leaning toward his and his head turned toward mine. So many later asked me what we were discussing at the time. The answer is simple — Hollywood, the movies, and all the glamorous gals of those days.”

For a postscript, it would seem fair to suggest that John D. Spreckels could well have been motivated by the thought of assuring a sophisticated conversationalist next to the Prince at the dinner.

The Tribune put the number of dinner guests at eighty and listed the full complement. Photos show Mr. and Mrs. Wilde, Mrs. Claus Spreckels, William D. Stephens, governor of California, his widowed daughter, Mrs. Randolph T. Zane substituting for an ailing mother, Mrs. Joseph E. Kuhn, wife of a general, and Carnegie Ross, British consul-general from San Francisco. Mr. and Mrs. John D. Spreckels sat at another table and had as their guest 16-year-old Marie Spreckels, daughter of John D. Spreckels, Jr. The British contingent were scattered among the guests at other tables including Major H.D. Gerrard. Nor should the emissaries from the state department and the British embassy be overlooked. The several ranking American army and navy officers resplendent in glittering uniforms and their wives were present. The inner executive committee of sixteen and wives were rewarded for their efforts. Miss Lucille Wilde, aged seventeen, had as her guest Ladessa Gibson, a girl friend from Los Angeles. Places were found for last-minute personages. Lady Stewart McKenzie, known for her First World War relief work, had been spending the winter in southern California. She had been staying with Mrs. Frank Hall Moon, mother of Mrs. Claus Spreckels. She claimed renewal of an acquaintanceship with the prince whom she had held in his infancy. She sat at a table with Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, an old friend. Lady McKenzie had motored down from Los Angeles with Sir and Lady Oliver Lodge, he in town to lecture on spiritualism and life after death. Where Lord Louis Mountbatten sat was not stated.

All in all, the dinner guests comprised those representing state bodies and those involved in the arrangements, and their friends. The names of the Spencers were not included as present and have not been the subject of controversy. In any instance, the gathering must not have been indifferent to the majesty of the Crown Room. The vast elliptical expanse of varnished sugar pine was spanned by an arch soaring thirty-three feet above. The inlaid panels of the ceiling were joined in a web formation using only wooden pegs and nary a nail or supporting pillars. Its seating capacity was put at 1,000 diners. And for breath-taking views the picture windows at one end yielded the semi-tropical courtyard and at the other end the bay and ocean.

For the greater number of substantial citizenry — civilian and military — the piéce de résistance was the reception and dance in the ballroom. A women’s committee including Mrs. Claus Spreckels sent out the invitations. The wording of the card contained the name of Miss Lucille Wilde along with those of her parents as the hosts. The Wildes had used the occasion as a coming-out party for their daughter. There can be no doubt that the Spencers received an invitation to the two social affairs at Hotel del Coronado where they were actually residing at the moment. But as published in the Union (April 8, 1920, 8:1-4) it read “Cmdr. and Mrs. Wallace Spencer”. The errors are noted by a question mark handwritten in the copy used for microfilming. Correctly and observing standard etiquette, it should read “Lt. Cmdr. and Mrs. Earl Winfield Spencer, Jr., U.S.N.”, albeit in conversation the salutation omits the “Lieutenant.” That the misnomers must have riled the Spencers is not without due cause considering their active role in local society.

A series of vignettes should illuminate the story of the reception. As in the English tradition, those bearing invitation cards were announced upon approaching the Prince of Wales and his supporting cast — the Wildes, Governor Stephens, Mrs. Randolph T. Zane, and Mrs. Claus Spreckels. And lest the nostalgic memory be dimmed in succeeding decades, one encounters often in the local press a litany expressive of the elite society present. It goes thus: “the Marstons, Forwards, Luces, Fletchers, Belchers, Cottons, Oatmans, Hellers, Benboughs, Petersons, Klaubers, Seftons, Wangenheims, Heilbrons, McRaes, Davidsons, Spreckels, Kennetts, Tesmars, Stearns, Burnhams.” Incidentally, Eileen Jackson, for many years society editor of the Union, passed along a bit of memorabilia in the issue of August 10, 1970 (D-l). Some descendants “have preserved the invitations of their forebears and even attached dress trimmings to the cherished cards.” In any instance, the gathering must have marveled at the beauty of the spacious ballroom. What guests saw that evening was a circular room boasting a polished dance floor 240 feet in circumference, a promenade of 20 feet all around the edge, and a tier of windows presenting a vista of the ocean horizon. Several wooden pillars provided supports for a spectators’ gallery through whose clerestory windows rays of light filtered. The ceiling claimed a cavernous opening upwards of seventy feet at the apex of which rested the familiar pavilion tower.

In the case of the formal ball, the local press affords no evidence that Wallis danced with the Prince of Wales. Lamentably, a complete list of the lucky partners gliding around in the arms of the prince was not given. But some of those that did were reported in the Tribune (April 8, 1920, 6:3-4).

The prince danced his first with Mrs. Wilde. He then danced with Mrs. Zane and after that with Miss Lucille Wilde, the charming debutante of the evening. Later he danced with Mrs. Claus Spreckels, Miss Ladessa Gibson, Miss Mildred Lewis [daughter of Mrs. Mark Lewis, a Los Angeles socialite; her daughter was the house guest of Mr. and Mrs. G. Aubrey Davidson]. Later in the evening Mrs. Mildred Harris Chaplin [in the process of being] divorced from the comedian and said to be a friend of Lucille, was a partner [as were] Miss Marie Spreckels and several others. The prince is a good dancer and the girls who had the honor of dancing with His Royal Highness were the envy of the ballroom, as the young prince and his fair partners went through one-step, fox trot and other American dances.”

Considering the space already devoted to refuting in detail the ruminations of Morrow that Wallis Spencer was at the tea aboard the Renown and that the Prince of Wales was absent, a supplementary paragraph should suffice for that event. The local press publicized the instructions requesting guests to be at the municipal pier at 2:00 p.m. sharp and to have their invitations in hand upon boarding the two United States minesweepers. In sight of the British vessel one could see the ensign of the Prince of Wales fluttering in the strong breeze. The ship was bedecked in gala attire and striped awnings shielded the reception area on the quarterdeck from the vagaries of the sun. The music was furnished by the crew’s band and a group of Caledonian bagpipers. Refreshments included lemonade, claret cup, cakes and sandwiches, although one wag had it “tea and cakes for the ladies and other things for the men.” The sources certainly answer the contention of Morrow that only “wives of senior United States naval officers were hosted aboard the Renown”. Governor Stephens and Mayor Wilde were listed as present and references to “many high army and navy officers being at the tea.” The suite of the prince was described as very charming, a sitting room garlanded with flowers and furnished with luxurious lounges cushioned in purple and lavender silks. The dining room yielded a study in yellow. A pianola piled high in jazz pieces and sheets of popular excerpts from the latest operas occupied a corner in the quarters. The festivities must have been a huge success, for the original instructions had stated the reception would end at 4:00 p.m. and the return trip to the pier would leave not later than 4:15 p.m. The Renown had been scheduled to depart at 6:00 p.m. As it was the guests did not leave until long after 6:00 p.m.

The HMS Renown moved out to sea shortly after 8:00 p.m. when the last notes of the two national anthems sounded. An escort of American war-ships again provided the fanfare while land batteries repeated a 21-gun salute. In the dark of night the British battle cruiser proceeded on its course to Honolulu. For those curious as to the supplies brought on board, they stocked meat, fruit, vegetables, and fuel oil. They were paid for in Bank of England pound notes (put at £1,500) at the current rate of exchange. Years later the Sun (November 15, 1936) carried an interesting anecdote as the royal romance between the Prince and Mrs. Simpson (her second husband) gained public attention. Carl Heilbron, then in the electrical business, had a hand in setting up the loud speaker for the prince’s address at the city stadium. He received an invitation to the tea aboard the Renown and asked to bring along a helper to attach a loud speaker to the phonograph in the cabin of the prince. Heilbron stated he spent an hour with the prince installing the equipment and thereby laid claim to having had an audience with the future king.

In the next issue: Did the young Wallis Spencer actually attend any of the festivities during the Prince of Wales visit to San Diego? Or, has myth replaced fact?