Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

I first became aware of Francis Bacon shortly after World War II. I was then eighteen, and I was invited to a formal London ball given by Lady Rothermere, who was later to become Mrs. Ian Fleming. Princess Margaret was among the guests and could immediately be seen on the parquet floor wearing a crino-line and being worshiped by her adoring set who were known at the time as “the Smarties.” She was revered and considered glamorous because she was the one “Royal” who was accessible. Princess Margaret smoked, and she drank, and she flirted. She went to nightclubs and she loved show business and popular music.

As a guest Princess Margaret used to send out confusing signals. At times she seemed to ask to be treated as an ordinary racy young girl. But her conception of “ordinariness” sometimes made her behave in a manner that embarrassed rather than reassured those who entertained her. In order to put them at their ease so that they could forget that they had a royal figure at their table, she would pick up strings of tomato-pasted spaghetti from her plate and make loud sucking noises as she ate them with her hands. However, because she had emerged from the insulated capsule of her regal upbringing with ideas of “normality” that were askew, Princess Margaret inspired fear among her contemporaries. She encouraged familiarity and then, without warning, drew herself up to her full, small height and administered chilling snubs in which she reminded the socially inept that they had offended the daughter of the King of England.

Toward the end of the ball given by Lady Rothermere, after much champagne had been consumed, Princess Margaret seemed to be seized by a heady desire to show off. She grabbed the microphone from the startled singer of the band and she instructed them to play songs by Cole Porter. All the guests who had been waltzing under the vast chandeliers instantly stopped dancing. They stood like Buckingham Palace sentries called to attention in order to watch the royal performance.

Princess Margaret knew the Cole Porter lyrics by heart but she sang all his songs hopelessly off-key. She was given unfair encouragement by the reaction of her audience. All the ladies heavy-laden with jewelry, all the gentlemen penguin-like in their white ties and perfect black tails clapped for her. They shouted and they roared, and they asked for more.

Princess Margaret became a little manic at receiving such approval of her musical abilities, and she started wriggling around in her crinoline and tiara as she tried to mimic the sexual movements of the professional entertainer. Her dress with its petticoats bolstered by the wooden hoops that ballooned her skirts was unsuitable for the slinky act but all the rapturous applause seemed to make her forget this. Just when she had embarked on a rendering of “Let’s Do It,” a very menacing and unexpected sound came from the back of the crowded ballroom. It grew louder and louder…


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