THE NEW YORK TIMES GAVE ELIZABETH SLOANE SIMPSON a brilliant send-off last November, paying her far more mind in her death at eighty than in her life for the past twenty or so years. She was described in the lengthy and laudatory obituary as “the beautiful young fashion model who married New York’s handsome postwar mayor” and as “a Texas beauty and queen of Acapulco society” who had ostensibly enjoyed a life of glamour (she’d been a famous model) interrupted by adventure (bullfighting in Spain) and punctuated by scandal (her predilection for inappropriate romances). Simpson’s life appeared as big as Texas—except that by 1996, no one but a few style-conscious women of a certain age remembered who she was.
The modest Dallas condominium she left behind at 2525 Turtle Creek was more than a little mysterious. Not that the multilevel garden complex is unpleasant; it is helpful to know, given Simpson’s history, that it was constructed to evoke the world renowned Las Brisas resort in Acapulco. But her place was low ceilinged and dim, and her furnishings—the formal dining room table, the upholstery-matching draperies, the Baccarat candelabras, and the very large, very striking portraits of Simpson herself—suggested a big life compressed at the end into a very small space.
What happened? Simpson left few clues. She wasn’t a hoarder and, in the freighted words of the Times, left “no immediate survivors.” The high-society types she had known seemed uninterested in the question or governed by different priorities. (“She was not a great model— I was,” recalled Marshall native and international arts patron Wendy Reves.) Simpson’s belongings as well as the official record of her life were either scattered, lost, or decaying. The silver tea service had gone to Sotheby’s. The house she built high atop a hill overlooking Acapulco Bay had been sold and remodeled, the huge Indian laurel that caused her to christen it Casa del Arbol cut down to make room for the new owners’ second swimming pool. The May 1950 Life cover that featured her as Mayor William O’Dwyer’s beloved first lady was yellowing in many library archives; the edition of True Magazine that chronicled the biggest scandal of her life had vanished, even from the Library of Congress. Sloane Simpson, it appeared, was hard to hold on to.
But her face, smiling from the few remaining photographs, still had the power to captivate decades later. She was indeed beautiful, with Alpine cheekbones, a wide, generous mouth, a sharp, straight nose, and eyes that were at once inviting and appraising. In combination they formed something familiar, an expression that was at once challenging and open, all business yet at the same time all in fun. It was, simply, a Texas face, and anyone who saw it would want to know what happened to the woman who possessed it.
“There are no Cinderella stories,” Simpson’s friend and fellow Texan Marianne Rivas told me one day, trying to explain Simpson’s life. “You never know how it’s gonna run out.” Indeed, it was a singular characteristic of Sloane Simpson’s that, unlike most people, she knew better than to put her faith in fairy tales. don’t look back,” sloane simpson told dallas morning News columnist Maryln Schwartz sometime after she had cut her losses in Acapulco and returned home to Texas in 1989. On that day Simpson was, as always, a good sport: Schwartz had invited her to Peggy Sue Barbecue because the framed picture of Simpson on the cover of Life hung on a wall there beside other celebrity photographs, offering the kind of symmetry that can make for a good twenty-inch column: Subject confronts the past and so forth. But it turned out that Simpson wasn’t really interested in the picture or her past and had been puzzled, rather than amused, at finding that someone had forged her autograph upon it. “That’s not my handwriting,” she said. “I’ve never been here before.”
By then Simpson was in her seventies, and the beauty that had once made her world famous was difficult to discern. Her hair was still auburn and her face was still smooth, but the artificial enhancements she’d employed did not preserve her glamour as much as highlight its passing. By then, too, her story, which for decades had been packaged as a fairy tale—the first lady who enchanted New York, the ambassador’s wife who charmed Mexico City, the seductress who created Acapulco—more closely resembled a cautionary one.
“She was a champagne girl,” one old friend said about her, as good a way as any to explain the particular glamour Sloane Simpson projected. She had an aristocrat’s bearing and an emancipating laugh, which made her the epitome of forties glamour, when femininity and self-possession were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, her beginnings portended the most glamorous kind of future: those nights at the Stork Club, her name in Walter Winchell’s column, the opportunity to call Grace Kelly and Wallis Simpson friends. But Sloane Simpson did not wind up immortalized like Grace Kelly or Wallis Simpson, classic heroines of particularly American stories. If she was forgotten, perhaps it was because she was a Texan, possessed of all the characteristics associated with heroes of Texas stories: the unerring faith in self-invention, the unflappable self-confidence, the boundless optimism, and above all, the need to play by one’s own rules. Texas men with those qualities built tangible empires, but Sloane Simpson, a woman of her time and place, did not have that option. Instead she created something entirely ephemeral, demonstrating in the process how it was possible to begin with so much and end up with so little, the price of a life built on traveling light.
FEW COULD BOAST A FINER TEXAS PEDIGREE THAN SLOANE Simpson. The men who dominated her family were sophisticated but unrestrained, the kind who challenged the Texas stereotype while confirming the Texas myth. In the 1880’s her grandfather John N. Simpson founded the predecessor of First National Bank of Dallas and also claimed ownership of the world’s largest cattle herd. His son,