Saturday, 21 September 2013

Of Poodles and Pearls...The Scandalous Duchess of Argyll

 "Always a poodle, only a poodle! That, and three strands of pearls! Together they are absolutely the essential things in life."

So said Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, beloved of the press for a generation, and, poodles aside, those three strands of pearls brought her notoriety, a much publicised divorce and social ostracisation.

She was born Ethel Margaret Whigham on 1st December 1912 and died on 25th July 1993. During her lifetime she managed to cross boundaries no one had dared to approach before and created a scandal the like of which had never been seen.
With Charles Sweeny on their wedding day

Her beauty in her early years brought her relationships with publisher Max Aitken, Prince Aly Khan and, following her presentation at court as a debutante, an engagement to the 7th Earl of Warwick. This did not lead to marriage though, as Margaret's passions had moved on - to Charles Sweeny, an American amateur golfer who duly became her first husband. In order to marry him, she converted to Catholicism and the wedding took place on 21 February 1933. Never one to shy away from publicity, her much heralded Norman Hartnell wedding dress ensured Knightsbridge became gridlocked with sightseers and photographers.

The couple had three children (one stillborn) but the marriage did not last and they were divorced in 1947 perhaps because Charles couldn't take anymore of his wife's faithlessness. In 1943, she had suffered a terrible fall down a lift shaft, cracking her head in the process. Her injuries resulted in a loss of taste and smell and her subsequent insatiable sexual appetite has been attributed, by some, to this accident. On the other hand, maybe her close brush with death merely caused her to decide life was too short to hold back her natural inclinations!
Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll

She proceeded to have a string of affairs with high born and well connected men until, in 1951, Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, became her second husband. A divorcee with a reputation could hardly be viewed as an ideal match in the aristocratic circles of the day but, in fairness to Margaret, the Duke himself had been married and divorced twice before. When he married his first wife, the Duke's idea of a honeymoon treat was to take her to a French brothel to witness the proceedings!

 The Duke and his new Duchess were not destined to enjoy a "Happy ever after". Marriage did nothing to constrict Margaret. She continued with her wicked, wicked ways. Maurice Chevalier, Bob Hope and a significant percentage of the male population of Inverary (near to the Duke's ancestral home), enjoyed the Duchess's unique brand of hospitality. One 17 year old called Michael Thornton was out on a walk one sizzling hot day when the Duchess approached him and offered him a drink and a hot bath. As he lay in the tub, in walked a nude Margaret and promptly joined him.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

She did little, if anything, to hide her peccadilloes from her husband and the Duke eventually obtained an injunction to bar her from the castle and a petition for divorce followed in 1963 - the same year as the Profumo scandal. The Duke raided his wife's possessions and determined 88 possible co-respondents in the divorce case, but named only four of them on the petition.

Never had so much salacious behaviour hit the headlines. And the Duke had found photos to back up his claims of his wife licentious and debauched behaviour. The most infamous of these was a set of Polaroids, depicting two "headless men" enjoying oral sex from the Duchess, who was naked, except for her three strand pearl necklace. Various identities have been attributed to these men, but most likely contenders were the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the politician and son in law of Winston Churchill - Duncan Sandys.
Duncan Sandys

The Duke also found a gold diary where Margaret had written the letter 'v' on dates when she had her extra-marital flings. 

For her part, the Duchess responded by choosing to counter-petition, naming her own stepmother!

The resulting court case amassed a 40,000 judgment, where the judge described the Duchess as, "a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities and has started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite".
The divorce was granted, but neither party emerged with any glory. Socially, the Duke suffered more than the Duchess as he was blackballed by White's - his gentlemen's club - and generally  treated as something of a pariah. He married for the fourth time later that year and died in relative obscurity in 1973.

Margaret, did her penance from society for a short time before returning, falling out with her daughter and adopting two boys. But her finances were perilous and, by 1978, she had to sell her house in Upper Grosvenor Street, London. Unaccustomed to 'making do', she took a five room suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel, successively moving to smaller and smaller accommodation there as the money dwindled still further. Poodles came and went, the man from Asprey still came to wind the clocks once a week and she retained her 'essential' live-in maid.

In 1990, the hotel had decided her bills had gone unpaid long enough and evicted her. She moved to an apartment and then to a nursing home and, along the way, managed to fall out with pratically everyone around her, including her maids. She accused one of running up huge overseas telephone bills and another of abusing her and calling her a "Mayfair whore".
The Duchess in 1988

 Needless to say, when she died in 1993, the whole scandal of her 1963 divorce resurfaced and her legacy will forever be defined by a three strand pearl necklace, two headless men and a set of Polaroids.