The Argyll divorce: the society scandal that rocked 1960s Britain
New BBC drama A Very British Scandal will catapult viewers into a vicious society divorce battle that saw one woman’s reputation raked over in the 1960s tabloids. Biographer and historian Sarah Gristwood considers the real figures at the centre of the drama – including the so-called ‘headless man’ – and how the case reflects the changing attitudes of a nation…
Margaret Campbell, the famously beautiful Duchess of Argyll, had been a celebrity – and a source of scandal – from even before her debutante days. But she would be remembered for just one thing: the so-called ‘divorce of the century’, which ended her marriage to the Duke of Argyll in 1963. Polaroids, forcibly snatched by her husband and produced in evidence, showed her – naked except for her recognisable signature pearls – engaged in what the presiding judge called “a gross form of a sexual relationship” with an unidentified man.
The divorce convulsed the Britain of the 1960s, reflecting a changing mood in the country. What has perhaps been lost along the way is a sense of the duchess, and indeed the duke, as a living, breathing human being. The new miniseries A Very British Scandal, with Claire Foy and Paul Bettany playing the Argylls, must hope to change that. But this is the story that gives meaning to the old cliche – this truth really is stranger than any fiction could be.
The child of a Scottish self-made millionaire, raised largely in New York, the young Margaret Whigham had been reared in an atmosphere of privilege, but emotional insecurity. By the time she was 19 years old, she was already the veteran of four engagements – to the Prince Aly Khan; the Earl of Warwick; the son of the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook; and the married millionaire sportsman Glen Kidston. She had also, as she told one would-be biographer, become pregnant by a young David Niven and undergone an illegal abortion. In 1933, at 20, she married the rich American-born socialite and businessman Charles Sweeny; there was such public excitement around her wedding dress that the event halted traffic in Knightsbridge for three hours. Such was her status that a lyric referencing ‘Mrs Sweeny’ would feature in one version of Cole Porter’s hit song ‘You’re The Top’. But after 13 years, two children, a stillbirth, and eight miscarriages, the couple divorced in 1947 – comparatively amicably, by the standards of what was to come.
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By contrast, Margaret’s marriage four years later to the 11th Duke of Argyll was troubled from the start. Ian Campbell was chief of his clan, Hereditary Master of the Royal Household in Scotland, with many other resounding titles. But he was also – still suffering from wartime trauma as a prisoner of war in Germany – addicted to drink, gambling and prescription drugs. His two earlier wives spoke of his physical violence and emotional cruelty; his ruthless determination to use their money for the preservation of his family seat, Inveraray Castle. The writer Norman Mailer, who married the Duke of Argyll’s daughter from a previous marriage, described him as “one of the coldest, nastiest men I’ve ever known”.
Why did the Duke and Duchess of Argyll divorce?
The divorce case of 1963 was only the culmination of a long battle in which for some five years the estranged Argylls had sued and countersued each other. During the protracted legal process, Margaret faked documentary evidence to suggest the duke’s children by a previous marriage were illegitimate, and accused the duke of infidelity with her own stepmother. In turn, the duke took out an injunction to keep her away from Inveraray, and ransacked her home for her private papers. And among them were the damning polaroids.
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The explicit photographs showed a woman – ostensibly Margaret, identified by her signature three-strand pearl necklace – fellating a man. When the images were submitted as evidence during the divorce case, public interest centred on the identity of the man, whose head could not be seen, and who Margaret would never name.
Who was the ‘headless man’?
Known lovers of Margaret’s included Duncan Sandys, Minister of Defence and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law; the German diplomat Sigismund von Braun; two wealthy American businessmen; and the Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.
It would be said during the case that there were 88 possible candidates – that Margaret was, in the judge’s words, “a highly-sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations”. It was also suggested during the course of the trial that an accident – a fall down a lift shaft two decades before – had triggered in her what the day described as nymphomania. It would be said, by contrast, that many of the men whose company she enjoyed were gay, but that she refused to jeopardise them by saying so, at a time when homosexuality in the UK was still illegal.
A year of scandal
Those early months of 1963 saw the breaking of not one but three extraordinary scandals: all linked in the minds of press and public. The Vassall Affair saw John Vassall, a government clerk at the British embassy in Moscow, caught in a ‘honey trap’ operation: he was photographed in bed with three other naked men, and then blackmailed by the KGB. Returning to England and working in various intelligence offices, he continued to leak documents to his KGB masters until his discovery, arrest, trial and sentence in October 1962. Through the following winter the case continued to spiral outwards until it triggered the resignation of a Lord of the Admiralty, and sparked something of a witch hunt in official circles – the goal, as Vassall described it, being less to hunt out communists than to hunt out gay people.
More famously of course, that same spring of 1963 – when the Argylls’ battles reached a climax – brought the Profumo Affair into the public gaze. In the summer of 1961, Secretary of State for War John Profumo had met ‘good time girl’ Christine Keeler in the swimming pool at Cliveden. Also present was another of Keeler’s lovers; Eugene Ivanov, Russian naval attaché and spy. The brief affair between Profumo and Keeler saw farcical scenes of the British minister coming to visit her by the front door as the Russian agent was leaving by the back. It was a year later that, in autumn 1962, a knife fight between two of Keeler’s other lovers brought her to police and public attention. In January 1963, she told the papers that if they wanted stories, there was another, better tale she could sell. And an angry press was eager for anything that might bring discredit on Harold Macmillan’s government: that February two journalists would be jailed for refusing to reveal their sources over the Vassall Affair.
As in all three of those high-profile stories that made the spring of 1963 a veritable season of scandals, there were other tense relationships in play in the Argyll case. The case shone light on relationships between Fleet Street and the Establishment, and between sex and politics. At this crucial moment of the early 1960s there was, after all, a new sexual morality on the way.
Just weeks after the Argyll divorce was finalised, and after Profumo resigned from the government and Commons, Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls – commissioned to prepare a report into the Profumo case – had a confidential interview with the duchess as well as with the men considered most likely to be her headless lover. It was deemed that her relationship with Duncan Sandys, prominent in her circle of acquaintances, opened the possibility that she too was a security risk.
Listen | Virginia Nicholson explores how some of the radical changes of the 1960s shaped the lives of women from different backgrounds, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
What happened to Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll?
Margaret’s reputation would never recover from the scandal surrounding her divorce, and – though she outlived the Duke of Argyll by two decades, dying only in 1993 – her later years were not happy. (In tune with the attitudes of the day, the duke would be less vilified.) Judge Lord Wheatley's blistering 50,000-word judgement had described her as “a completely promiscuous woman”. Famed for his harsh stance on sexual morality, he sniffed that her attitude to marriage “was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’”.
But women who had watched the case from the public gallery wrote expressing their support. And Sarah Phelps, writer of the new television drama, describes her as having “been punished for being a woman, for being visible, for refusing to back down, be a good girl and go quietly.” Viewed through today’s lens, the duchess was ‘slut-shamed’, abused in a domestic setting, and with her private communications hacked. It isn’t the way she has been seen over the last half century, but A Very British Scandal may yet see Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, become a heroine for today.
Series two of A Very British Scandal is three episodes written by Sarah Phelps that explores the very public breakdown of the marriage between Margaret Campbell (Claire Foy) and her husband Ian (Paul Bettany) in the 1960s.
All three episodes of are available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Amazon Prime in the US, Canada and New Zealand
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