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Ma’am’s Life and Loves

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Princess Margaret at her house on the West Indian island of Mustique, April 1976

When HRH The Princess Margaret was born in 1930, she was fourth in line to the British throne. In 1936, she moved up two notches after Edward VIII, her fool of an uncle, bolted and was succeeded by her father, making her big sister the heir and she herself the spare. She outranked her uncles, aunts, cousins, and any playmate, except for that big sister. All but a handful of adults dropped either a nod or a curtsy upon her entrances and exits. King George VI said that while Princess Elizabeth was his pride, Princess Margaret was his joy. No one would ever love her performances as much as her father, the sovereign. Her hash was settled.

The king died in 1952 and the big sister—aged twenty-six, married, and the mother of two—was anointed queen. The funny sister, aged twenty-two, had to move with their mother out of Buckingham Palace and into Clarence House around the corner. By the time she died in 2002, after a life of hairdressers, church services, luncheons, audiences, teas, dinners, suppers, dancing, fittings, house parties, receptions, openings, premieres, ship launches, variety shows, parades, point-to-points, Ascot stakes, weddings, funerals, hunts, beaches, planes, drinks, and cigarettes, she was twelfth in line to the throne, going on quietly in Kensington Palace, the aunt heap, where, toward the end, she burned garbage bag after garbage bag of letters she’d removed from Clarence House, still the residence of the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret had been a wife, was a mother and grandmother, but it was her inevitable slide down the ladder of succession and no more Commonwealth tours that most defined her life—or so Craig Brown concludes in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses is not a conventional biography, but rather a series of telling reflections in ninety-nine brief chapters on the royal and the gaze, on how Princess Margaret was viewed and judged over time. “Biography is at the mercy of information,” he writes, “and information about the Royal Family is seldom there when you want it. Or rather, there is a wealth of information, but most of it is window-dressing.” The openness of form that Brown, a satirist and veteran columnist for almost every British paper, allows himself, including techniques of fiction, is as unexpected as his attitude toward his subject and his witnesses.

What she had in common with others born under the same zodiac sign: she “shared a louche, camp, decadent streak with Aubrey Beardsley, and might have identified with Kenny Rogers’ songs about being disappointed in love.” Brown imagines a conversation between Princess Margaret and the man she famously did not marry as a duet of a Clash song. He speculates on her deathbed drift, the “secret chambers of consciousness.” He shows what the 1977 Christmas broadcast of Queen Margaret might have been. He offers a pretend interview with Hello! magazine that the princess does with her husband, the Liberal politician Jeremy Thorpe, as though he were elevated to the House of Lords and serving as lord chancellor. He cites her guest appearance in Edward St. Aubyn’s roman à clef Some Hope. He makes up a passage from a memoir by John Richardson in which Picasso is remembered sneaking into Kensington Palace in a Groucho Marx disguise. “Pablo’s greatest mistake was to marry HRH the Princess Margaret.” Brown will take the risks, anything to distance himself from the suspect genre of royal biography, where there is “no division between the interesting and uninteresting.”

Neurologists may one day discover a connection between mental illness and writing books about the royal family, Brown says. Authors of books on royalty divide into “fawners” and “psychos.” He’s read most of them. “William Shawcross, the Queen Mother’s treacly biographer,” or “for his biography Princess Margaret: A Life of Contrasts, Christopher Warwick was helped by the Princess herself, and was duly grateful.” Brown likes to accuse himself of plundering secondary sources, enjoying his appetite for kitsch, and suffering from biographer’s delirium. He pays homage to Lytton Strachey (but it’s James Pope-Hennessey’s Queen Mary that people praise these days, not Strachey’s Queen Victoria).

Brown uses sources royal biographies are usually too snobby to trust and admits the testimony of David Griffin, Princess Margaret’s chauffeur of twenty-six years, and the anecdotes of Marion Crawford, “Crawfie,” the Scottish nanny whose memoir, The Little Princesses, made her notorious at court. Brown describes My Life with Princess Margaret by former footman David John Payne as voyeuristic, fetishistic, “and creepy,” and quotes at length from Payne’s fantasy that he had an unspoken intimacy with the princess. Banned in the UK, it was published in the US in 1962.

Brown has consulted the crazed and the courtiers, the broadsheets and the tabloids, and footage on YouTube. While he has no index himself, he marvels at the number of indexes in which “Margaret, Princess” appears. He understands her position. Having been born a piece of history, she, as a private person, was public property:

31 October 1955

‘I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend. I am deeply grateful for the concern of all those who have constantly prayed for my happiness.’

The princess was not allowed to forget her failed romance with a married, then divorced, man, Brown observes. A large segment of the British public considered her the victim of her uncle’s abdication crisis, denied happiness by the outworn morality of another generation. But Brown suggests that “the fairy tale romance” may not have been real enough for her to give up royal shelter and live in exile as a Mrs. Group Captain, retired. Brown tries out an obituary for “Mrs. Peter Townsend, the former HRH.” (And to think Prince Harry was already living on the grounds of one of the palaces with the divorced, slightly older, mixed-race, i.e., black American woman he was soon to wed.)

In her time, Brown reminds us, Princess Margaret was a “national sex symbol.” She could be in fantasy what the queen could not be. John Betjeman and Philip Larkin and John Fowles had literary crushes on her; Ralph Ellison reported to Albert Murray that when presented to her in 1956 he found her a “little hot looking pretty girl.” She was a bit of glamour in Britain’s austere postwar smog. Jeremy Thorpe actually thought he had a shot at courting the princess. In 1979 he ended up on trial for conspiring to murder his boyfriend. Brown himself is not a little susceptible; he lets her keep throughout a sort of innocence. It makes him protective of her as he raises the question of how young the princess was when she and Townsend fell in love. Under Brown’s scrutiny, Townsend’s account of their relationship in his autobiography seems a little fudged when it comes to the question of how old she was when they first got together.

Marriage in 1960 to a commoner was to make up for the heartbreak of having done her duty. Antony Armstrong-Jones, whom Auberon Waugh described as “her Welsh dwarf of ‘artistic’ leanings,” was Princess Margaret’s hasty choice to beat Townsend to the altar when he announced his engagement to a young Frenchwoman. The princess and her photographer started off as “the golden couple of the Swinging Sixties.” Her husband accepted an earldom and took his princess by motorcycle to toss Cointreau bottles into the Thames. They were having such a good time at the party following the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 that George Harrison had to tell the princess that protocol wouldn’t let them eat until she and her husband left:

Princess Margaret was drawn to the world of well-heeled bohemia: writers and musicians and actors and other fast-living artistic types who could nevertheless be relied upon to show a fair measure of deference. She liked the louche hours they kept, their smoking and drinking, their refusal to take responsibility or to do the right thing. In this she differed from her sister….

From their point of view, the bohemians enjoyed the cachet—ironic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, but cachet nonetheless—of having a royal on display, a real-life Princess to lend a bit of pageantry to things. It didn’t really matter that she could be difficult. In a way, it was her party piece. If she happened to round off an evening with a display of her famous hauteur, then so much the better.

Kenneth Tynan discovered that in spite of the home movies she made with manic Peter Sellers, royal comfort in bohemia did not extend to sitting through an after-dinner screening of Jean Genet’s dick-populated Un chant d’amour. (Brown’s book is not necessarily chronological, but it is 1968 in Tynan’s “glimpse,” which finishes with Harold Pinter falling down the stairs.)

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Princess Margaret costumed for a charity ball, 1964

The story that emerges features the bored, petty, and unfaithful husband who undermines his wife in front of friends, family, and strangers. She has sought comfort elsewhere, and by the mid-1970s is hanging out with a new love at her home on the Caribbean island of Mustique, given to her by Colin Tennant, master of jet-set ceremonies. Princess Margaret met Roddy Llewellyn in 1973, but it was not until a photographer managed to sneak onto the island in 1976 that her affair with a younger man in Union Jack swimming trunks became a scandal. Kensington Palace soon announced that princess and husband had “agreed mutually to live apart.” That same year Lord Harewood became the first member of the British royal family to divorce since Princess Victoria of Edinburgh in 1901. Princess Margaret was divorced in 1978. (“And so the tuttathon continued, each action sparking yet another reaction from politicians, columnists and readers: tut-tuts followed by more tut-tuts, then tut-tuts at the tut-tuts, tut-tuts at the tut-tuts at the tut-tuts, and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.” )

Three years later, Llewellyn happily married someone else, and Princess Margaret’s nephew, the heir apparent, brought home from St. Paul’s the tenth princess of Wales. Once the ancestor of future monarchs was herself divorced, no longer royal, and blabbing in books and on television, Princess Margaret turned against her, she who had had the power to make other members of the royal family in the room stop talking just by talking a little more loudly herself. The story had moved on. Diana, Princess of Wales, took it with her wherever she went. In 1997 lip-readers positioned themselves across from the gates of Buckingham Palace as the funeral cortege draped in the royal standard passed in front of the royal family. Brown says Princess Margaret had been alone in her opposition to a royal funeral for her former niece-in-law.

An accident in the bathroom on Mustique in 1999 left Princess Margaret badly scalded, after which her health declined. People gathered outside Clarence House on the Queen Mother’s one-hundred-and-second birthday gasped when her seventy-two-year-old daughter was wheeled out in dark glasses. Princess Margaret died two months before her mother in 2002. Brown does not forget the Christie’s catalog of the auction in 2006 of 896 items from the collection of HRH; he visits the Mustique realty website in 2017 when her house is up for sale. All gone.

Princess Margaret got bad press pretty much all the time. When asked by the BBC Radio 4 host of Desert Island Discs how she reacted to nasty stories, Brown transcribes: “But Eh think that since the age of seventeen Eh’ve been misreported and misrepresented.” In one of his most playful flights, he shows thirty-one different styles of voice in which a fact about the princess could be reported, from what he calls the journalistic to the tragic. However, Brown’s book is not a guilty entertainment. He’s not trying to have it both ways, to put on a royal roustabout and then cover his prurient interest by feigning disapproval or standing for reform. It is as if Princess Margaret and her scandals are subjects of nostalgia for Brown. That realm and the culture they shared have slipped away.

In 1977 Francis Bacon booed her singing at a party and she ran off. Deference was no longer so certain. For the royals, it became performance-related, like pay under privatization. Ninety-Nine Glimpses swims with reports of her snooty behavior, friendly, then cold, seldom punctual, sitting down to a piano and keeping other guests waiting until the middle of the night for her to take her leave. It became something like her signature, the social demands (she insisted on Malvern water), the snide remarks. A theme throughout Brown’s book is that if the monarch must be gracious, then her sister is to say rude things, as if also playing a role. Plenty found her outrageousness fun enough, until they, or she, didn’t. Brown says that Princess Margaret’s life asks the same question as Princess Diana’s life, which is what a princess is for. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, could answer that in a look.

Nella Last was a housewife who kept a diary from 1939 to 1966 for the Mass-Observation archive and had a lot to say about the princess, but she was unusually suburban among Windsor chroniclers. Chips Channon was of the class that could draw near and he saw Princess Margaret at a ball in 1949. Barbara Skelton, Cyril Connolly’s wife, was of the class that wanted to get away from what she represented and in 1951 had no trouble dubbing her “the Royal Dwarf” in her diary. Cecil Beaton in his diary is filled with jealous loathing of the upstart Armstrong-Jones. No admirer of Elizabeth Taylor’s, the princess is misbehaving in Richard Burton’s diary, and Lady Gladwyn, a diplomat’s wife, really lets the princess have it in her diary for her predictable obstreperousness. Noël Coward is talking and talking about her, and so is James Lees-Milne, as bleak as any hypocrite in Trollope. Then the bitchy museum director Roy Strong is sneering at her clothes, and here comes class-smooth Alan Clark, drawing blood on every page. Even in private, she was on stage.

The most provocative story Ninety-Nine Glimpses tells is how mean the bohemian milieu in midcentury London could be, how heartless the British upper classes were, and how little they needed the Sixties and social change to swing. They had been doing it behind closed doors for generations. The Mitfords dismissed Margaret, yet those closest to her—outside of the royal family—were aristocratic women, such as the writers Selina Hastings and Susanna Johnston, and her lady-in-waiting of many years, Anne, Lady Glenconner. Brown has listened to the intelligent sympathy they had for her. Gore Vidal remained a steadfast friend, a royal princess being such a gay enthusiasm. Early on, he said that it would take a diarist on the order of the Duc de Saint-Simon, “the French master of social cynicism,” to do justice to the bickering between the princess and her husband. Maybe she caught a break there.