Even now, 17 years after her death at the age of 71, Princess Margaret continues to fascinate people not just in Britain, but around the world. Born into colossal privilege and unimaginable pressure as the second daughter of George VI, Margaret was, at one time or another, the model of fresh-faced girlish vigour, the symbol of flirtatious elegance, the personification of arrogant entitlement and the embodiment of an ancient institution that seemed to be losing its way. And if The Crown’s Helena Bonham Carter can capture even a fraction of her extraordinary, world-class rudeness, then audiences are surely in for a treat.
Born in 1930, Margaret was stereotyped as the classic naughty younger sister from the very beginning. The camera always loved her, and visitors often commented on her spiky personality. “Full of character and very tart,” one remarked when she was still in her early teens. She was “a most attractive girl – lovely skin, lovely eyes, lovely mouth, very sure of herself and full of humour”, recorded the diplomat Duff Cooper, who met her a few years later. Presciently, he thought she “might get into trouble before she’s finished”.
Peter Townsend romance
She did. By the time her sister, Elizabeth, became Queen in 1952, Margaret was already cementing her reputation as an acerbic girl-about-town, never knowingly seen without a drink, a cigarette and a coterie of male admirers. Far more than her sister, she epitomised the new elegance of a society bent on banishing the years of rationing and austerity. She was more than a princess; she was a star.
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Indeed, in 1955 she even became the leading figure in her own soap opera, as the nation waited to discover whether she would abandon her royal role to marry her older lover, the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. Love or duty; heart or head? “Come on, Margaret!” urged the headlines. But to the disappointment of the romantics, she chose duty – a very un-Margaret choice, as it turned out.
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On the surface, the next 10 years appeared to be Margaret’s golden years. In reality, she was heading down a very steep incline. Her marriage to the aristocratic society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, another louche, raffish character, delighted the tabloids but proved a toxic disaster. According to one account, Snowdon liked to leave her little notes tucked into her bedside reading books, which read simply: “I hate you.” And when, at a party in New York, somebody asked her how the Queen was, she snapped: “Which one? My sister, my mother or my husband?”
“Tiresome, spoilt and irritating”
For all the wild evenings with the likes of the actor Peter Sellers and the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, there was a hollowness at the centre of Margaret’s existence. As the Sixties slumped towards a gin-soaked end, even her friends found her sullen, maudlin and entitled. She was “tiresome, spoilt, idle and irritating,” wrote the diarist Sir Roy Strong. “She has no direction, no overriding interest. All she likes is young men.”
And she was now ruder than ever: seated next to the model Twiggy at a party, the princess ignored her for two hours before finally turning and asking who she was. “I’m Lesley Hornby, ma’am, but people call me Twiggy,” Twiggy said. “How unfortunate,” Margaret said coldly, and then turned her back again.
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By the early 1970s Margaret’s marriage was effectively over. She seemed to have aged overnight: after spotting her at another party, the photographer Cecil Beaton recorded that her “eyes seem to have lost their vigour, her complexion is now a dirty negligée pink satin. The sort of thing one sees in a disbanded dyer’s shop window.” All in all, he thought she looked like Queen Victoria. “Poor brute. I do feel sorry for her,” Beaton mused. “She was not very nice in the days when she was so pretty and attractive. She snubbed and ignored friends. But, my God, has she been paid out!”
Roddy Llewellyn scandal
Increasingly Margaret retreated to her house on the Caribbean island of Mustique, where she surrounded herself with cheap men and expensive bottles. Her closest companion now was the would-be gardener, Roddy Llewellyn, who was almost two decades her junior. When, in the spring of 1976, Buckingham Palace confirmed that her marriage had broken down, Llewellyn found himself at the centre of an international media storm, cast as the topless ‘toyboy’ who had stolen the heart of the Queen’s sister.
Not surprisingly, he eventually jumped ship, and Margaret drifted on, lonely and miserable. The historian John Julius Norwich even recalled that he had “never known an unhappier woman” – an extraordinary thing to say about somebody born with so many advantages.
The Snowdons’ divorce
Margaret’s divorce was an enormous international story: the first sign that the carefully manicured Victorian façade of the royal family was breaking apart under the pressures of the late 20th century. Some of her subsequent lovers were almost beyond parody: one example was the East End gangland enforcer John Bindon, who reportedly amused her by dangling five half-pint glasses from his erect penis. It is hard to imagine such a display going down well with her sister. In any case, Margaret had become an embarrassment. By April 1978 seven out of 10 people agreed that she had damaged the royal family, and whenever her most outspoken critic, the Labour MP Willie Hamilton, laid into her “expensive, extravagant irrelevance”, people nodded with approval.
As the criticism mounted, Margaret retreated ever deeper into an alcohol-soaked haze. According to one account, she was now so lazy that she tried to glue matchboxes to her gin glasses, so that she could keep drinking while she was lighting her cigarettes. And as the spotlight passed to Princess Diana, so Margaret no longer bothered with the faintest semblance of politeness. When she visited the Conservative MP Matthew Parris’s constituency in the mid-1980s, Parris was shocked that Margaret seemed already drunk by mid-morning, and even more shocked when she told the caterers at an old people’s home that their coronation chicken looked like vomit.
But to experienced Margaret-watchers, this was merely par for the course, part of the long, sad decline towards her death in 2002. Margaret died on 9 February 2002 at the age of 71 after suffering a stroke and developing heart problems.
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What, then, should we make of Margaret? One of her biographers, Craig Brown, suggests that she became a “nightclub burlesque of her sister”, her life a kind of “pantomime as tragedy, tragedy as pantomime”. She was, of course, in a pretty unenviable position: for all the palaces, the jewels and the bouquets, she was the eternal spare part, doomed forever to be the naughty little sister.
But then you think about the time she met an architect, disabled since birth, and asked him: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?” Perhaps she thought she was being funny. But nobody else thought so.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian who has written widely on postwar Britain. He presented a two-part documentary series Princess Margaret: Royal Rebel on BBC Two in September 2018.