If you are one of the millions of people who tuned into the superbly crafted mini-series A Very British Scandal, you will be familiar with the scandalous story of the late Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The programme was a hit, as it had it all. Apart from the excellent Claire Foy playing the Duchess, there was the spectacular scenery of Argyll in Scotland, the fairytale castle – Inveraray – that Margaret revived and lovingly restored to the gem it is today (which can be visited from April to October) and a no-holes-barred peek into the life of the immensely privileged, etiquette-bound aristocracy of the 1950s. Far from being a rose-tinted period drama, this was a warts ‘n’ all tale, which showed that the protagonist was not bound by the mores of the day and held a lens up to the double standards of the time.
The story of the Duchess’s adulterous marriage became tabloid fodder that made millions for the newspaper barons of the day. The infamous ‘headless man’ shocked the world, with the idea of a duchess being embroiled in such scandal unthinkable. That Margaret was promiscuous and committed adultery is without question, but despite her husband, Ian, 11th Duke of Argyll, also facing accusations of adultery (and of domestic violence), in that era eyebrows were rarely raised over men, but a woman facing such charges – and a Duchess to boot – was a scandal.
The Duchess was a complex character, way ahead of her time in many ways. Born in 1912, in Renfrewshire, Margaret Whigham was the only daughter of a millionaire Scottish businessman. After completing her education in New York, the heiress returned to the UK, where her beauty, and her bank balance, made her very much in-demand on the social scene. However, the painting of Margaret as a scarlet woman seems at odds with the facts. In 1928, aged 15, Margaret became pregnant with the future actor David Niven’s child. Niven was 18 at the time and, unlike Margaret, he was above the age of consent. Margaret was taken to hospital for a secret abortion.
Margaret was presented as a debutante in 1930, and after early romances with Prince Aly Khan, aviator Glen Kidston, Baron Martin Stillman von Brabus, publishing heir Max Aitken (later the 2nd Lord Beaverbrook), and Prince George, Duke of Kent, she became engaged to Charles Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick. However, the wedding was not to be, as Margaret was soon swept off her feet by the wealthy American, Charles Sweeny, who instead became her first husband. Her Norman Hartnell wedding dress cemented her status as one of the most glamorous socialites of the era, with crowds reportedly gathering to catch a glimpse of it. Margaret had three children during her marriage to Sweeny: her son Brian, daughter Frances (who went on to marry the Duke of Rutland), and a stillborn daughter. She also suffered eight miscarriages. The toll of these lost children undoubtedly affected Margaret’s emotional and mental health, but little is written of it, and it would appear she buried it deep in her psyche, hiding it behind her ‘carpe diem’ attitude.
The tragedies continued. Margaret almost died during a horrific accident while visiting her chiropodist, in which she fell down a lift shaft and broke her back. Margaret and Sweeny divorced in 1947, and she went on to become engaged again to the Lehman Brothers’ banker Joseph Thomas, although they never actually married. Margaret’s second husband – and the subject of A Very British Scandal – was Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. Married in 1951, Margaret was at the height of her fame as a glamorous and stylish socialite, and had even been name-dropped in Cole Porter’s song, You’re the Top.
However, it wasn’t long before fractures in the marriage began to show, and the Duke, suspicious that his wife had been unfaithful, hired a locksmith to break into her private drawers while she was away in New York. Inside, he discovered a cache of evidence of the Duchess’s infidelities, including Polaroid pictures of her with another man. The Duke claimed it was one of many racy snaps found in the Mayfair apartment.
The pictures were part of a legal case the Duke drew up against the Duchess as part of their divorce proceedings, alongside a list of a staggering 88 men he accused her of having relations with behind his back. Unsurprisingly, the case soon became a tabloid sensation, with Margaret unfortunately dubbed the ‘dirty duchess’ and the identity of the ‘headless man’ in the Polaroid pictures being widely speculated on (Sir Winston Churchill’s son-in-law and politician, Duncan Sandys, was one of them, as it was reported that only the Minister of Defence would have access to a Polaroid camera).
While granting the couple’s divorce in 1963, the judge said that Margaret was ‘‘a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men. Her attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain language was wholly immoral.” After the historic case, Margaret never remarried. She lost much of her fortune in later life and was forced to move into a hotel, before later being evicted. It was a sad end for a woman who lived such a full, public and glamorous life. Her children later placed her in a nursing home in Pimlico, London, and she died in penury in 1993 aged 80 after a bad fall. A lady ahead of her time is a fitting obituary for Margaret. Boring she never was. n