Few people know of the pivotal role played by Mary Kirk, an American friend of Wallis Simpson, in the scandal that forced King Edward VIII to abdicate the British throne in 1936. Fewer still are aware of how her childhood friendship was cruelly manipulated and abused by Simpson in her ruthless pursuit of power, money, and the title of Queen. Indeed, Mary became the most heartbreaking victim of a woman described by Sir Horace Wilson, a prime-ministerial adviser at the time of the abdication crisis, as a “gold-digging adventuress, selfish, hard, calculating, ambitious, scheming and dangerous.”

Mary’s story has never been fully told. References to her are fleeting, but the information that can be found sheds new light on the machinations of Simpson. And it has a particular resonance as Camilla prepares to succeed where Simpson failed—in becoming the first divorcée to be crowned Queen, alongside King Charles III next weekend.

Mary Kirk—at the time, Mrs. Jacques Raffray—in 1936.

Mary was born into the wealthy Samuel Kirk & Son silversmiths family in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1896. She had known Wallis—then Bessie Wallis Warfield—since she was 16, following an encounter at Burrland summer camp in Loudoun, Virginia, in 1912. They became even closer once Wallis convinced her wealthy uncle to pay for her to attend the exclusive Oldfields boarding school in Maryland, where Mary was already a pupil.

Mary provided a useful entrée to the sort of wealth and social connections that Wallis—brought up by a single mother with limited means—lacked. Although Mary’s family disapproved of Wallis, who was rumored to be “boy mad,” they could not prevent the friendship. In 1914, they were debutantes together at the Bachelors’ Cotillon in Baltimore, and newspaper reports described them closing down the ball, before dancing at the Baltimore Country Club until dawn.

A young Simpson at Oldfields School, in Maryland, 1910.

The pair were extremely close. Mary was a bridesmaid at Wallis’s first wedding, in 1916, when, at the age of 20, she married Lieutenant Earl Winfield Spencer of the U.S. Navy, one of the country’s first trained pilots. By 1923, Mary had married her own airman, a former First World War French pilot named Jacques Raffray, and moved to New York.

Neither woman was happy. Mary suffered three miscarriages, and her husband had a drinking problem and was rumored to be suffering from syphilis. Wallis’s husband was glamorous but not rich enough for her liking. The friends still wrote letters to each other, and, in 1926, Wallis accepted an invitation from Mary to spend Christmas with her in New York.

At the age of 22, Simpson was married and unhappy.

It was here that Mary introduced Wallis to one of Jacques’s business colleagues called Ernest Simpson. Ernest, the married scion of a London-based shipbroking firm, was a far better prospect than Spencer and also seemed to offer the chance of an exciting move to London.

Within 18 months, Ernest was divorced. His wife, Dorothea, recalled how Wallis had “moved in and helped herself to my house and my clothes, and, finally, to everything.” Wallis married him in 1928, and they settled in London, where Wallis’s social ambition became all-consuming, culminating in her pursuit of the most eminent bachelor of the age—Edward, the Prince of Wales.

Mary and Wallis stayed in touch with each other, and as Wallis’s relations with the Prince of Wales warmed—and after he became Edward VIII in January 1936—she invited Mary, now estranged from her own husband, to visit London. Ostensibly this was an act of friendship, but what Wallis really wanted was for Mary to act as a distraction for Ernest.

“A gold-digging adventuress, selfish, hard, calculating, ambitious, scheming and dangerous.”

The oblivious Mary was delighted to be in the thrall of the dazzling and outwardly welcoming Wallis, and the pair hobnobbed with the likes of London’s grandest hostess, Lady Cunard, as well as Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s envoy to London. In April 1936, Mary wrote breathlessly to her sister, Anne, back in the United States, of being invited with Ernest and Wallis to Windsor Castle.

“Windsor is marvelous,” she says. “You never saw such paintings in your life. Wallis is in the very thick of things, received and toadied to by everyone on account of her influence with the King.”

It is not known how much Mary knew of Wallis’s relationship with the King at this point, but she must have suspected it to be more than just friendship. Certainly that would have been confirmed when Ernest turned to Mary “in his unhappiness” at seeing his wife slipping off for assignations with the King of England. What Mary didn’t realize was her own unwitting role in Wallis’s great plan to divorce Ernest, marry Edward, and become Queen of England.

It was a few weeks later that the penny dropped.

“She tricked me into going to the opera and then at the last minute failed to appear because she told everyone Ernest’s mistress was there,” she wrote of Wallis in her diary. “Even though she loathed and despised having me there, it served her purpose as then she could say Ernest was having an affair with me and so she would have to get a divorce.”

Despite having encouraged Mary to befriend Ernest, Wallis accused Mary of seducing him and theatrically ejected her from her home. Mary collected her clothes and hailed a taxi. She initially stayed at a hotel where Ernest sought her out. Ironically, their relationship blossomed, and he later bought her an apartment of her own.

The “gold-digging adventuress” and the “difficult little man.”

By July 1936, with his marriage ruined, Ernest Simpson agreed to a “hotel divorce” with Wallis. At the time, a woman could divorce her husband only if she could provide proof of adultery. So a husband would hire a hotel room, another woman, and a witness—usually one of the hotel staff—in order to be framed in an act of apparent infidelity. There was meant to be no collusion in staging a fake-adultery scene, but these hotel divorces were so common that one even appeared in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.

Seemingly at the instigation of Ernest, Mary agreed to act as the “other woman” in the charade, presumably because she and Ernest were in a relationship at this point, and perhaps because they both thought this would be the quickest way to be rid of Wallis. Mary asked that her name and any other details would be kept out of the divorce proceedings. Unfortunately, she hadn’t counted on Wallis’s continued maneuverings.

“She tricked me into going to the opera and then at the last minute failed to appear because she told everyone Ernest’s mistress was there.”

When, in October 1936, the divorce came before the High Court, Mary discovered that Wallis had stolen a love letter that Mary had written to Ernest and produced it as evidence. Although Mary was not named in the press, she wrote to her sister that “I have been mentioned many times as having been the correspondent in the Simpson divorce, which is unpleasant.” She worried that the rumor could exclude her from polite society.

Eventually the divorce went through. Wallis was free to marry the King, but at the moment of her greatest triumph, her hopes of being Queen were dashed. When King Edward VIII announced he wished to marry a twice-divorced woman with two living ex-husbands, the British prime minister and church leaders declared that such a woman was unsuitable to be queen consort. At the risk of causing a national crisis, Edward was forced to abdicate.

Mary wrote to her sister on January 7, 1937, three weeks after the abdication, “As bitterly as I feel toward her for what she did to me—the letter in the divorce suit was mine.” Mary may have been manipulated into a relationship with Ernest, but she took full responsibility for it. She continued, “I do not envy [Wallis] her life with that nervous difficult little man,” and then, presumably with some Schadenfreude: “Wallis was obliged to give back all the valuable bibelots and objets d’art His Majesty had given her. They are the property of the office not the man.”

Now living with Ernest, Mary was relieved to have severed all links to Wallis. “I love my life and Ernest and am happy,” she told Anne. But when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (mother of the late Queen Elizabeth II) held their coronation in May 1937, Mary wrote: “Ernest said to me when we were listening to the service in the Abbey when the Queen was crowned, ‘I couldn’t have taken it if it had been Wallis,’ but that of course is not for publication.”

In September 1939, Mary gave birth to a boy, Henry, and far from being shunned, she and Ernest remained in the fold of the highest echelons of London society. But Mary’s victory over Wallis was short-lived.

“I do not envy [Wallis] her life with that nervous difficult little man.”

With the start of the Second World War, and with the Germans heavily bombing London, Mary sent her infant son to live with family friends in Baltimore. However, shortly afterwards, she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned that Mary was dying, he organized a dangerous transatlantic flight for her—at a time when most civilian aircraft were grounded—to fetch her son and bring them both back to England.

Reflecting on the past? Simpson at her home in Bois de Boulogne, France, in 1974.

As Anne Sebba, author of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, has written, “Churchill had long been a friend of Edward Windsor, and Ernest Simpson could easily have revealed all sorts of information and prevented the divorce from Wallis, but he behaved like a gentleman. Churchill was very grateful and he was keen to demonstrate that gratitude.”

By the time Mary was preparing for her flight to pick up the now two-year-old Henry, she could no longer walk and ambulances were arranged at both ends of her journey. On her return to England, she spent her final few weeks with her son, staying with friends in a country house in Stanton Fitzwarren, Wiltshire.

Her funeral, in October 1941, was conducted with full pomp and ceremony by a bishop in the beautiful and historic city of Wells, Somerset, and she was laid to rest in a magisterial tomb. Historian Robert Lacey believes that the impressive funeral was “a reward for her husband. Ernest had behaved decently and discreetly during the abdication crisis in 1936. This was a payback which was easier to deliver in wartime secrecy than it would have been under peacetime scrutiny.”

But what of Mary herself? In the years since her death, her story has been forgotten, her diary has disappeared—after being quoted in Sebba’s biography—and although her sister, Anne, published a book about Mary entitled The Other Mrs. Simpson, only a handful of copies appear to be in existence. The loyal retainers who manage the Royal Archives have a long history of ensuring embarrassing evidence is swept up and stored out of sight. Philip Williamson, emeritus professor of history at Durham University, says, “Many of the papers for the 1930s and 1940s will still be concealed, and the Royal Archives are under no obligation to list closed material, so we don’t even know what’s there.”

Simpson, then the Duchess of Windsor, shakes hands with Adolf Hitler under the eye of her husband, the duke, during a visit to Germany in 1937.

So for now we are left with the scraps we can find of Mary Kirk’s life. Even from those it’s clear why the royal family might be keen to keep her story hidden. In a final diary entry, written weeks before her death, Mary wrote with devastating, and heartbreaking, acuity about Wallis one last time: “I think of her as people think of Hitler, an evil force … not really intelligent or clever because there is no intellect, but full of animal cunning…. If anyone could have damaged another person she damaged me. I who have never done an unkind act or treacherous thing to her in the many years we had been friends.”

Lois Rogers is a former award-winning journalist for The Sunday Times. She writes for a range of major news outlets