Fetishised for her beauty, famous for her rudeness, Princess Margaret's life is tinged with sadness and humour, as English satirist Craig Brown shows.
“The people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewellery,” John Lennon famously advised the audience. History draws a veil over whether the Princess was amused. As the by-then problematic younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, she may not have appreciated being, once again, outshone.
Brown to the rescue: he resurrects her over 400 rollicking pages. Even he had doubts about a whole book on the haughty, hedonistic, legendarily pointless Princess. Some royals so key to his generation – he’s 61 – have faded into obscurity. He asked his 28-year-old son to name the Queen’s children. “He said, ‘Well, there’s Charles. And there’s that woman, Anne.’ There was a big pause and he said, ‘Steve?’” Off with his head.
“Actually, she’s quite a depressing person to spend a year with, Margaret,” says Brown. “There’s a kind of downhill graph to her life.” It started with a bang at Scotland’s Glamis Castle in the summer of 1930, her birth greeted with a 41-gun salute, the ringing of bells at St Paul’s Cathedral and 4000 people trooping up Hunter’s Hill, led by the Glamis Pipe Band. The ending, in 2002, was more of a whimper. “After her funeral, when they were taking her body to be cremated five miles away in Slough, the police had put all the ribbons up in the road to keep the crowds out,” says Brown. “There was no one. Literally no one turned up to watch her body go past.”
No wonder Brown was assailed by doubt. “All the way through I said to my wife, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s going to be the worst thing I’ve ever done’.”
A strange fascination
The idea came from a previous book, One On One, a degrees-of-separation daisy-chain of 101 encounters between famous people, including Hitler, Tolstoy, TS Eliot and Michael Barrymore. “I thought we’d have a version of that, 101 people all meeting the same person. And Princess Margaret was in the centre of the Venn diagram.” But it turned out almost everyone she met socially had a version of the same anecdote. “They’d all be drinking and they’d get kind of lovey-dovey.” Then came the witching hour. There was no escape. No one could leave before Her Royal Highness left. “After drinking for three hours she’d suddenly go all formal. If they said ‘your sister’ she’d say, ‘Are you referring to Her Majesty?’ She’d suddenly turn into the mad queen from Alice in Wonderland.”
Glimpse 32 involves the same story told in a range of styles, from nursery rhyme to haiku to multiple choice. The writer’s way of keeping himself entertained? “Yes, I think that might have been a product of being bored. I was just sort of thinking, ‘Oh god, I can’t bear this any more’,” he says. “Sorry, that’s not a normal way to publicise a book.”
No. Still, he succeeds in making someone who achieved almost nothing strangely fascinating. “Well, there is something about failure that is more interesting than success. She’s interesting just as a flawed human being.”
As it turns out, the book is a laugh-aloud funny, sad, often-excruciating collection of lists, dreams, parodies, bitchy diary entries and appalling anecdotes. Brown has an eye for the comedy of royal manners. “Of all the adjectives used to describe the Queen Mother, ‘radiant’ is surely the most frequent,” he writes. “During her lifetime it almost became part of her title, like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Shakin’ Stevens.”
Elizabeth II? Less radiant, more enigmatic. “The Queen has managed to avoid saying anything striking or memorable to anyone,” writes Brown. “This is an achievement, not a failing.” He couldn’t have written such a romp about her. “Well, no. I think the Queen is rather clever at having you hardly ever get a sense of her character. She’s just slightly dull and dutiful and that’s why she doesn’t put a foot wrong.”
Margaret is an entirely more anarchic proposition. Brown’s account of her arduous morning routine went viral. The day began at 9am: “… breakfast in bed, followed by two hours in bed listening to the radio, reading the newspapers and chain-smoking”. She had her hair done, sometimes twice a day, and by midday was ready for a vodka pick-me-up followed by an “informal” four-course lunch with the Queen Mother.
The poor midgety brute
Her rudeness was so epic that everyone who met her, from Philip Larkin, Nancy Mitford and Richard Burton to Michael Palin, dined out on the stories about her. Once, she opened a retirement home and was served coronation chicken by lovely old ladies. “This looks like sick,” she remarked, ungratefully. “Such an unbelievably rude thing to say,” marvels Brown. “But it’s rather refreshing in a way. It gives you a sort of shiver of delight.”
There was the time playwright Keith Waterhouse noticed the ash of the Princess’s ever-present cigarette growing perilously long. “He reached across her to grab an ashtray. ‘She simply flicked her ash into my palm as it passed,’” he reported. You really couldn’t make her up.
“We’re flabbergasted they were all prepared to acquiesce to all these weird demands of hers,” says Brown. “Two people I spoke to said they’d witnessed her, once in a swimming pool and once in the sea, asking for a drink and then getting one of these old friends to just walk into the sea fully dressed with the drink she wanted. It was another era. I wanted to make the book a portrait of that age of deference, which is now ended. If, say, Meghan Markle tried to do that, no one would go along with it.” He met someone from Margaret’s set at a book signing. He thought she might be cross. Instead, she said, “What I can’t understand is why we let her get away with it.”
People got revenge. Glimpse 51 is composed entirely of insults. Tory MP Alan Clark: “Fat, ugly, dwarflike, lecherous …” Photographer Cecil Beaton: “Gosh, the shock! She has become a little pocket monster – Queen Victoria … The poor midgety brute.” Writer Gore Vidal was an exception. “He was almost her only friend who wasn’t catty about her, whereas he was catty about everyone else. He even thought she was one of the most intelligent women he’d ever met, which is pushing it a bit, I think,” says Brown, a little cattily. Vidal wasn’t afraid of her. Margaret constantly complained about never having had a proper education. “He said, ‘Oh shut up. You could have always just carried on learning. Everyone else does.’”
Midgety brute: isn’t the book a bit cruel? “I think there is a kind of cruel element to me,” says Brown, whose parodies and satire have graced Private Eye, the Spectator and the Guardian. “Not quite cruel but slightly merciless. Putting anyone’s life under a microscope in that playful way, in a way the more playful you are the crueller it is.”
It’s also revealing. There’s the disturbing parade of men who fetishised the young Princess. John Fowles wrote in his diary about the inspiration for his 1963 novel, The Collector, about a man who imprisons a young woman in his cellar: “My lifelong fantasy of imprisoning a girl underground … I remember it used often to be famous people. Princess Margaret, various film stars …” There are extracts from My Life with Princess Margaret, the unnerving memoir of Margaret’s footman, David John Payne. He snoops around her bedroom and offers a report of finding himself in the presence of his bikini-clad employer: “Her body glistened and little droplets of water trickled down her arms and legs … my eyes taking her in from head to toe …”
Lord. Even the great artist Pablo Picasso had erotic dreams about her. “The idea that he had fantasies about three in a bed with the Queen,” says Brown. “It just seemed so …” Even he’s at a loss for words. “If they knew what I had done in my dreams with your royal ladies,” Picasso told British art historian Roland Penrose, “they would take me to the Tower of London and chop off my head!”
One of the most wretched anecdotes involves lovesick actor and suck up Peter Sellers giving his daughter’s beloved pony, Buttercup, to one of the Princess’s children. What? “Yeah, that’s a terrible story. I think he was a monstrous person. Probably, of all the people in the book, he’s the most unpleasant.” Sellers claimed to have had an affair with the Princess. “She did have this very kind of fruity life,” muses Brown. “In a way all biography is an illusion because no one quite knows whether they did have an affair. He liked the idea that people thought he’d had sex with her. But who knows?”
No one quite knows. But the book gleefully records a weapons-grade cavalcade of snark and perving. Margaret was prey to a lot of sexism, surely. “I don’t know whether it was sexism. I suppose the nearest equivalent, and it’s not very equivalent, is Prince Andrew, who people don’t like. He’s rather brutish and rude. He gets a rough ride as well.” Yes, but the obsession with her body, her smoking and drinking, her sex life … Brown allows that there was an element of sexism in the reaction to her relationship with the much younger Roddy Llewellyn, her “toy boy”. “If she’d been a man with a younger woman, then people wouldn’t have been anything like as gossipy about her or jokey. So, to that extent, yeah.”
Another comparison might be to Margaret’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII before he abdicated to marry a divorcee. In a way, what with all the partying at her villa on the Caribbean Island of Mustique, Margaret abdicated, too. “Yeah, they were people who didn’t fit in and wanted a different life for themselves. When they got a different life, they didn’t really know what to do with it.”
She chose her friends badly. “All these camp, waspish men who then turned on her in their diaries – I think the Queen was wise to go with these rather duller tweedy characters.”
It’s all strangely compelling. The book has been a success. “Much better than any other book I’ve done.” Luck played a part when the television series The Crown came along. “The Crown reignited an interest in her.” It told the star-crossed story of how Margaret was prevented from marrying the much older, divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. Brown didn’t entirely buy The Crown’s version. “They tried to make it an Establishment plot against Margaret and true love, whereas I think they’d both fallen out of love by that time.” The series downplayed the creepiness of the relationship. Townsend, an equerry to the royal family, met her when she was 13. He accompanied them to South Africa in 1947. “We rode together every morning in that wonderful country …,” Margaret told a friend. “That’s when I really fell in love with him.” She was 16. He was 32. Yikes. Since he wrote the book, Brown has learnt more. “I was doing a talk in Northern Ireland, in a stately home. The couple who were in charge of the home came up when I was signing books.” Margaret had stayed at the house during one of her first solo engagements. “They looked in the log book and it said that Townsend, accompanying her as a sort of aide-de-camp, had asked for his room to be moved to a room next to hers. She would have been 16 or 17. I think he got off quite lightly, actually, Townsend. He was in this position of trust as well.” He went on to marry a woman younger than Margaret.
Kicking the bucket
Brown declares Margaret a sort of pantomime version of her sister. He compares her to the classic British sitcom character, the self-appointed suburban sovereign Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet). Ouch. Thanks to the cumulative effect of her preposterously imperious sense of entitlement, she’s a figure of fun.
But it’s not all cruel laughs. When she did marry, to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon as he became, once again, things started well. There’s a photograph taken by Snowdon that Brown couldn’t get permission to use. “It’s of her sitting in the bath with a tiara on. It’s worth googling. She looks happy. I’d like to have had that on the cover.” Of course, it all went horribly wrong. Cue scenes of Snowdon amusing himself by flicking lit cigarettes at his wife.
There’s an oddly heart-breaking section cataloguing the auction of her estate. “Over the course of two days, the remnants of Princess Margaret went under the hammer.” Queen Mary’s antique necklace with 35 diamonds; a French gold toothpick box; a Cartier cigarette case engraved “To Margaret from her very devoted Papa”; a Walt Disney breakfast set featuring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cutlery. Her wedding tiara. “Being realistic, we have a young family that needs educating …,” said Margaret’s son, Viscount Linley, about the sale of the tiara. Thus passes the glory of the world.
There’s nothing much in the book about Linley or Margaret’s daughter, Lady Sarah Chatto. “It’s one of my slight regrets,” says Brown. “That was her plus point – they basically ended up better than the Queen’s children, so, whatever she did, something kind of worked.”
One of the book’s parodies imagines that, had Margaret somehow become Queen, her 1977 Christmas message might have included this inspiring thought: “My own year has been faintly tiresome … If I see one more plate of coronation chicken …” It might have happened. “George V was a second son. George VI was a second son. If the Queen had had a riding accident or something …” That sounds like a horror story in the making. Possibly not, says Brown. “Maybe being the top dog would have suited Margaret. Maybe her character would have changed.” You suspect Brown ended up with a sneaking affection for his insufferable subject, who stretched the boundaries of royalty to the limit years before Lady Diana Spencer came along.
There’s a section in which he allows himself to imagine what might have composed, as she lay dying from a stroke, Princess Margaret’s last thoughts: Roddy Llewellyn rising from the sea at Mustique in his brand new trunks; President Johnson letting his hand linger a second too long on the royal behind. “Lillibet’s voice down the telephone, reassuring her once more that no harm had been done; and her mother laughing and saying, ‘Such fun!’ before giving her a pitying look, and her father on his final evening bidding her good night, and see you in the morning.” In the end, all things considered, unlike so many people in her life, her biographer hasn’t been too unkind.
Ma’am Darling, by Craig Brown (Fourth Estate, $25).
This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.