Penniless duchess buried to frail echoes of a dazzling era

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The Independent Online
THE CONGREGATION suddenly froze. Several old men who had stood steadfastly through the Requiem Mass until that moment bowed their heads in grief as Larry Adler, a frail elderly figure with a harmonica, filled the vaulted ceiling of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair with haunting bars of Schubert's Ave Maria.

It was fitting that the most moving moment at yesterday's farewell to Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, who died last week aged 80, and penniless, came from an admirer whose career bloomed in another age. He still describes her as the most beautiful woman he met, and the memory was enough to inspire him to play through the weakness and pain of a recent illness.

But aside from those few minutes, much about the service, attended by barely 100 mourners, might have saddened the duchess. It was not at Brompton Oratory, as she requested in her 1987 will. Mayfair was her home, and family friends suggested that possibly her son and daughter, who arranged the service, were unaware of the will's terms. Nor was she buried near her beloved Inveraray Castle, seat of her second husband, the late Duke of Argyll, as she had hoped, but at Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, Surrey, beside her first husband, Charles Sweeny, who died in March.

When she married Mr Sweeny, in 1933, Brompton Oratory had been packed with high society, and thousands thronged Kensington hoping for a glimpse. The duchess's closest friend for 63 years, Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, 83, who was at the wedding, must have noted the disparity between the two events.

Yesterday's Mass was an occasion her friends had hoped would mark the healing of rifts which tore apart her family during the proceedings of her divorce from the Duke of Argyll, which lasted from 1959 to 1963, when he cited four alleged lovers and produced the infamous 'headless man' photographs, showing a faceless figure naked with the duchess. (The actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr, 83, who lives in the United States, and was identified last week as the subject, was not in church.)

The duchess's daughter, Frances, Duchess of Rutland, 56, and her son, Brian Sweeny, 56, had wanted their mother not to oppose the divorce. By the time of her final months they were still only partly reconciled to her, but they were in church. So was the Duke of Rutland, who had not seen his mother-in- law for a decade, and two of his children, Lady Teresa Manners, 30, and Lord Edward Manners, who last saw their grandmother when they were children.

As Ethel Margaret Whigham, the duchess first dazzled London society in 1930 when she was named debutante of the year and inspired the original lyrics to Cole Porter's You're the Top. She made various bequests but there was no estate left to pay for them. Even her furniture had been sold.