BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE GRIT IN THE PEARL: THE SCANDALOUS LIFE OF MARGARET, DUCHESS OF ARGYLL
by Lyndsy Spence (The History Press £20, 256 pp)
Now it was hardly the fault of Margaret Whigham if she was born (in 1912 ) to great riches and privilege — all her life, ‘she could not boil a kettle, prepare a basic meal, and she never made her own bed’ — but it is the case that she made the worst of every opportunity.
Her father, George, was a brilliant engineer and businessman. He built railways and bridges in Canada and Egypt. In the Twenties, he made millions investing in a firm that produced artificial fibres and manufactured women’s lingerie.
Margaret’s mother Helen, however, came from the kind of grand and established background where it didn’t do to have an actual job. ‘New money’ was vulgar.
A new biography recalls the life of Margaret Whigham, Duchess of Argyll (pictured) who is described as a ‘cold, lacquered beauty’
Margaret, therefore, was always torn between the competing demands of wealth, breeding and snobbery.
Despite her titles and airs, she was a bit déclassé.
Described here as a ‘cold, lacquered beauty’ who had ‘an unshakeable poise’ to the end of her days, Margaret stood on ceremony.
When a guest at one of her Mayfair receptions picked up a satin cushion and sat on the floor, saying: ‘What a fun party, Margaret. Let’s swap gossip,’ Margaret replied: ‘It’s not that sort of party, and it’s not that sort of cushion.’
Easy to mock and deride, Margaret actually comes across in this biography as a sad figure, condemned to exist in a world where all the menfolk ever wanted for a wife was ‘a pretty, brainless doll’.
Her mother had stopped her from reading in case she would have to wear glasses, which would dent her appeal. She had a stammer and was considered ‘handicapped’.
Brought up in hotel suites, ‘highly strung and sensitive’, Margaret’s education was non-existent. All that would count was a rather degrading ‘social career’.
At her finishing school, she took dancing lessons and elocution and attended tennis parties and Ascot week.
The subject of sex was covered thus: ‘It’s this awful thing we women have to put up with. We close our eyes and bear it.’
Margaret was born into privilege and was encouraged by her mother not to read in case she would have to wear glasses that would dent her appeal, she went onto become the third wife of Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll (pictured together at a fancy dress party)
Margaret’s coming-out party, in May 1930, cost her father £40,000, with a banquet and dancing for 400. Norman Hartnell made the ballgown. On May 27, Margaret was presented to the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and dubbed Debutante of the Year.
She was an only child, not good at making friends, and she had terrible taste in men.
At the age of 19, Margaret often found herself engaged, usually simultaneously to several men. Among her paramours were ‘Winkie’, a nephew of Nancy Astor, who was an alcoholic at 17; an aviator called Glen, who kept crashing, eventually fatally; actor Douglas Fairbanks (‘dapper, vital and handsome’), and David Niven, another actor, who made her pregnant — there was an expensive and secret abortion.
Margaret was officially betrothed to the Earl of Warwick, but the wedding in Westminster Abbey was cancelled when his own mother said: ‘He’s a liar, he’s ill-mannered and he picks his nose.’
Margaret’s first actual husband, then, was Charlie Sweeny, who never liked her. ‘She was a conceited, garrulous show-off, whose company I avoided,’ he said.
Nevertheless, 2,000 guests attended the wedding in February 1933.
Margaret (pictured with Ian) attempted to forge documents suggesting Ian’s sons from earlier marriages were illegitimate in order to produce an heir of her own
What Sweeny did appreciate was the largesse of his new in-laws, who paid for a Belgravia home run by six servants. There was modish white furniture, mirrored walls and a sunken bath.
But there was also difficulty starting a family. Startled by a gunfire salute in Hyde Park to honour Queen Mary’s birthday, Margaret miscarried.
Two children, Frances and Brian, were eventually born, and they were left with the nanny so that their parents could ‘depart for a tour of Europe in their Rolls-Royce’.
In 1943, after visiting her chiropodist, Margaret fell 40ft down a lift-shaft, landing on her knees. She had to have 30 stitches in her head. Her olfactory nerve was damaged and she lost all sense of taste and smell.
Perhaps as a result of that bang on the head, Margaret’s behaviour became peculiar. She went to the U.S. alone on a banana boat and was diagnosed with scurvy. Charlie obtained a divorce in 1947 on the grounds of ‘constructive desertion’ and Margaret met Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll.
Ian and Margaret (pictured) divorced after Ian discovered Polaroid photographs of her ‘having sex with other men’ hidden in her desk, the case ran a bill of £50,000
Everyone who knew him said that he was ‘idle and an opportunist’. A drinker and a gambler who was £200,000 in debt, Campbell had already been married twice — to women he liked to beat up.
‘I felt drawn towards this troubled man,’ Margaret said masochistically. They were married in 1951.
She used her father’s fortune to restore the 88-room Inveraray Castle, while an ungrateful Ian remained at Claridge’s, running up bills that he expected his new wife to pay. ‘He very rarely spoke to her’ once he had his mitts on Margaret’s money.
Yet, if the Duke humiliated his Duchess, she was behaving bizarrely. Margaret forged letters alleging that Ian’s sons by his earlier marriages were illegitimate.
Her plan was to produce an heir of her own, so she padded her stomach to pretend that she was pregnant and tried to buy a baby in Venice and Poland. (Nothing came of this — save a libel writ from Ian’s ex-wives.)
THE GRIT IN THE PEARL: THE SCANDALOUS LIFE OF MARGARET, DUCHESS OF ARGYLL by Lyndsy Spence (The History Press £20, 256 pp)
Meanwhile, Ian broke into her desk and found Polaroid photographs of Margaret ‘having sex with other men’, most famously the ‘headless man’, a picture of Margaret naked except for her pearls, performing a sex act on a man whose head is out of shot.
At the ensuing divorce case, which ran up a bill of £50,000 that the judge made Margaret pay, she was accused of nymphomania. To prove that it was not Ian himself in those snapshots, he had to have a medical examination and lived thereafter ‘with the humiliation of publicly declaring his lesser dimensions.’
And as, in 1963, the only Polaroid gadgetry in existence at that time belonged to the security services, there was a government inquiry, led by Lord Denning.
The ‘headless man’ in the photos was identified as either Douglas Fairbanks Jr or Duncan Sandys, a government minister and Churchill’s son-in-law.
Margaret became a Norma Desmond figure. She sold her memoirs, opened her house to the public and her agent’s other client was Sooty, the puppet.
She moved into an apartment in Grosvenor House Hotel, the space filled with 40 wigs on wooden stands. She sued a maid for calling her ‘a silly old b***h’, was evicted for non-payment of rent and her overdraft at Barclays was £26,000.
When she went to a nursing home in Pimlico, where she died in 1993, she thought she was on a transatlantic liner. ‘We’re three days from Southampton,’ she told people.
This gripping book is both a comedy about a tragic woman and a tragedy about a comic heroine. It would make a champion film.