WITH her pale complexion, glaucous green eyes, and blown-back brown hair ever set for the camera's lens, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, was, to the media which followed her every move, as much an icon of society beauty in the 1930s, as she was a figure of scandal 30 years later.
Her fall from grace was absolute. The sensational divorce case which made her name infamous lasted from 1959 to 1963, and gave the press ample opportunity to explore the more sordid court evidence, including photographs of the Duchess - only recently voted one of the best-dressed women in the world - here accessorised by just three strings of pearls and an anonymous naked man (alleged to be either the cabinet minister Duncan Sandys, or the film star Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, although both men successfully denied the charge), with whom the noble lady was portrayed in flagrante delicto.
She was born Margaret Whigham in 1912 and educated in New York (her class-mate was Barbara Hutton, the Winfield heiress, later godmother to her son Brian), London and Paris. She 'came out' extravagantly in 1931, aged 18, and was named 'Deb of the Year'. Romances followed quickly: Prince Aly Khan, the millionaire aviator Glen Kidston (she was said to have collapsed at the Hippodrome Theatre when she learnt of his death from a newspaper placard), and the seventh Earl of Warwick, whom she met, whilst on holiday with her parents in Egypt, on Christmas Eve 1931. He proposed before the New Year, and they arrived back in England to celebrate with a lavish party at the Embassy Club, where the following night she met a handsome Irish-American stockbroker, Charles Sweeny. By March the engagement was broken; in November, her betrothal to Charles Sweeny was announced. She converted to Catholicism, and the couple were married at the Brompton Oratory in February 1933, attended by a crowd of 2,000 fans.
During the Thirties Mrs Sweeny reached her social apogee, omnipresent at charity matinees and royal receptions, championing luminous nail varnish, and name-checked by Cole Porter in 'You're The Top'. She basked in the attentions of the media, although often their reports were of her apparently accident-prone life: in 1934 newspaper placards in purple, usually reserved for royalty, announced that double pneumonia and a kidney infection had laid the society beauty at death's door; she received the Last Rites, and every paper was said to have prepared obituaries. She recovered, but three years later was reported to have fallen while pregnant with her daughter Frances; in 1943, she fell 40 feet down a lift-shaft.
Her life was full of pitfalls, both real and emotional. She was divorced from Sweeny in 1947, and became the Duchess of Argyll in 1951, after meeting the 11th Duke on the Golden Arrow train from Paris (he proposed when, in yet another accident, Mrs Sweeny got stuck in a box at the Globe Theatre). Virtually anything the woman did was considered newsworthy; she was said to have sustained herself during the Coronation by chewing malted milk tablets, and in 1954, a nation commiserated when pounds 8,000 of jewellery was stolen from her house at 48 Grosvenor Street.
Society itself found the Duchess an equivocal attraction. The archly snobbish but acutely observant Cecil Beaton wrote in 1955 that he was 'tired of seeing Margaret about 'everywhere' . . . There is nothing of the private faces in public places about her. There is a dull inevitabilty and monotony about her beauty.' During a transatlantic voyage, he was told by the Duchess: 'I'm always putting my foot in my mouth. Queen Gaffeuse,' after calling a man she knew 'President of the Shit Club'. Although she also self-deprecatingly referred to herself as a 'Dumb Bunny', she famously lacked a sense of humour: 'She don't make many jokes, do she?' observed Lord Wimborne.
In September 1959, Pall Mall clubs resounded with the news that the Duke had applied to have his wife banned from his castle; she was given a day to claim her possessions. After a lengthy court case in Edinburgh, during which she denied forgery and multiple adultery, an unprecedented 40,000-word judgment was delivered denouncing the Duchess as 'a highly sexed woman who ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite'. When the verdict was announced, the Duke said he would have a celebration bonfire.
Dinner with Noel Coward or the Anthony Edens was difficult after that: even to speak the Duchess's name was considered socially incorrect, and the fact that, in 1963, she was interviewed by Lord Denning during his Profumo enquiry, did not make life easier. However, revenge of a sort presented itself the following year, when she successfully prevented the Duke from publishing details of their married life in the People; Argyll experienced some of his wife's social ostracism when he was subsequently asked to resign from White's.
Undaunted, and still very much titled, the Duchess resumed her place in a new plutocratic society, throwing lavish parties at Grosvenor Street in the Seventies, and charging admission for guided tours of the house, until she was forced to leave it in 1978. A gossip column for the Tatler lasted only briefly, largely because of the tedium of her social observations. She did however prove some worth in her animal rights campaigns, and in her adoption of Jamie and Richard Gardner, whose schooling at Kinwarton House was supervised by Philip Rutter, one of the few people who attested to Margaret Argyll's more generous side.
Money proved to be her final downfall. In 1990 she was evicted from the Grosvenor House Hotel for unpaid rent, and spent her last days at the St George's nursing home, in Pimlico. Here the writer Hugo Vickers happened upon the deserted, faded beauty, finding a woman both 'good and bad . . . certainly elegant and dignified, but she could behave extremely badly . . . Like a lot of those society women, she could never accept when she was wrong'.
To Vickers, it seemed the Duchess would have done better in the United States, 'where she might have become an Ivana Trump figure'. Cecil Beaton would have agreed, after hearing about the Duke's complaint, when the still-married couple were in Seville, about their poky hotel bedroom: 'After all, I am the Duke of Argyll,' he pompously announced. 'Sweetie, don't try that one,' chided the Duchess, 'in this town dukes are two-a-penny. If you want to get results just start crackling a few crisp dollars]'