The scarlet Duchess of Argyll: Much more than just a Highland fling

Fifty years ago, in 1963, the divorce proceedings of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll had even the judge reeling in horror. David Randall looks back at the life, and loves, of Margaret Campbell

When it comes to the upper classes airing their dirty linen in public, there have been few washdays with quite such a spectacular pile of soiled laundry as the one in February 1963 when Lord Justice Wheatley settled down on the bench in Edinburgh and began hearing submissions in the Argyll divorce case. Aristocratic adultery and the occasional unnatural practice had passed the public way before; neither the law nor the press or its readers were strangers to them. But nothing, in fact or publishable fiction, would have prepared them for what they were about to hear: an insatiable woman, unusual sexual practices, blackmail, bribery, a diary listing conquests, odd encounters in bathrooms, artfully composed photographic mementoes of these occasions featuring the so-called "headless man" (actually, two men), rumours of the involvement of royalty and a cabinet minister, a list of 88 possible co-respondents, pornographic postcards, and more.

It was the first great shock in that festival of scandal 50 summers ago, the year of Profumo, Christine Keeler, and Mandy Rice-Davies, when the "establishment" was caught with its pin-striped trousers round its ankles. Deference was never really the same again.

The parties to the decree were the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, a pair who had rank, position, money, a stately home, but no class. He was Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. His first wife was Janet Aitken, daughter of Lord Beaverbrook. She was 18 when they married, and his idea of honeymoon entertainment was to take her to spectate at a French brothel. They had a daughter, but, as Janet subsequently told it, he spent her money, pawned her jewellery, and knocked her about. They were divorced within eight years. Wife number two was Mrs Louise Vanneck, similarly rich, and eventually similarly disillusioned. Janet Aitken once asked her: "Did he rob you?" The reply came: "He took everything but my trust funds."

The Duchess's marital escapades were more modest. She was born Ethel Margaret Whigham to a multi-millionaire Scot and his wife, and, after an upbringing largely in the US where she was relieved of her virginity at 15 by the actor David Niven, she arrived in London to be unveiled as a debutante, the most beautiful of her era, according to Barbara Cartland. A fleeting engagement to the 7th Earl of Warwick was followed by marriage to the American golfer and socialite Charles Sweeny, their combined celebrity causing a crowd of 3,000 to block streets around the church. There were three children, but they drifted apart, divorcing in 1947. She met the Duke on the Golden Arrow train from Paris, and they married in 1951. But their happiness lasted only three years: by 1954, their affections had gone their separate ways.

Margaret Argyll was still thought of as a great society beauty. In photographs, she strikes the modern eye as rather brittle and overly manicured, with the sort of androgynous look of a Wallis Simpson. But while her cold-looking exterior was unchanged as she went into her forties, her bedding of men and lads became a fanatical pursuit, its tempo such that if her life at this time had been set to music the only possible soundtrack would have been "The Flight of the Bumble Bee".

Armchair psychologists will no doubt have their theories about this late-onset nymphomania, but her friends put it down to injuries sustained in a fall down a lift shaft in 1943 – a plummet from the fourth floor becoming, in their eyes, a fall from grace, or at least from propriety. But whatever the cause, by the early mid-1950s, she was extremely busy, her lovers including Bob Hope, Maurice Chevalier, a fair percentage of the men of Inveraray (the town near the Duke's seat of the same name), an unnamed member of the Royal Family, even passing teenage holidaymakers. Her modus operandi was later described by the then 17-year-old Michael Thornton, who, wandering into Oban on a hot day in 1958, was offered a drink and a hot bath by Margaret. No sooner had he started to soap himself in the castle's pink tub than the unclad duchess stepped into the bathroom with her intentions clear. Hospitality, indeed. By 1959, the Duke and Duchess were living entirely separate lives, he had obtained an injunction barring her from the castle (renovated with £100,000 of her money), and divorce proceedings had begun.

To describe these as acrimonious hardly does justice to the unpleasantness which then ensued. In no special order: she counter-petitioned, citing, of all people, her own stepmother; detectives were hired, and people followed; bribes to potential witnesses were wafted about; and the Duke twice personally raided his estranged wife's property, netting evidential gold: a diary in which she marked the days of her encounters with a "v", and 13 Polaroid photographs. These depicted two episodes: her, naked except for a string of pearls, fellating a man; and a series capturing a man masturbating, the first one captioned "Thinking of you", and the last, superfluously one imagines, "Finished". The venue for both tableaux was her London bathroom, and the pictures taken so that the men were headless. The identities of the men were speculated about for many years, it now being accepted that the fellatee was almost certainly Duncan Sandys, a cabinet minister, and the other the actor Douglas Fairbanks. Thus, when it came to possible co-respondents, the Duke was somewhat spoilt for choice. He and his advisers eventually whittled them down to 88, only four of whom (none well-known) were named on the petition.

All these shenanigans meant that it wasn't until 28 February 1963 that the court convened in Edinburgh to hear the juicy details made public. The judge listened with accelerating horror, and, having absorbed it all, was ready to deliver his verdict by early May. Embracing his moment in the sun with as much enthusiasm as Margaret once clutched at passing males, he took many hours to read out a judgment of no fewer than 160 pages – 40,000 words. The Duchess, he concluded, was "a highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities and has started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite".

The repercussions of the case were worse for the Duke than his ex-wife. Ian Argyll was blackballed by his club, White's, but married for a fourth time in 1963, and died in 1973 in as much obscurity as a duke who is also Norman Mailer's father-in-law can manage. She lost a libel case to her stepmother and had to pay £25,000 damages, but, after a brief period in the social shade, she soon rejoined the circuit. Margaret then managed to fall out with her daughter, the Duchess of Rutland, over, of all things, religion, objecting to her grandchildren being raised as Anglicans. The upshot was a total estrangement, a blow that she tried to soften in the oddest way, "adopting" two little boys, sons of a retired sales manager from Worcestershire and his schoolteacher wife.

The two lads, Jamie and Richard Gardner, found themselves thrust into private schools, and then, during the holidays, scrubbed up and taken to London for treats at the circus and zoo, and tea with their exotic sponsor. It all came to an abrupt halt some years later when Margaret's finances began to creak. She had tried opening up her 13-bedroom house at 48 Upper Grosvenor Street to the hoi polloi at 7/6 a tour, but that venture did not fly, and nor did her next. This was a column of social notes for Tatler, entitled "Stepping Out with Margaret Argyll", which, even in that publication, stood out for its snobbish banalities. By 1978, she had to sell her house.

Economy drives, however, were not her forte. Her new domicile was a five-room suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and, even as the money dwindled further and she began to move nearer the ground floor in ever smaller rooms, there were some things she could not forsake: a live-in maid (Margaret, said her stepmother, was unable even to boil a kettle), a succession of demanding poodles, and the man from Asprey who came round once a week to wind the clocks. Eventually, in 1990, she was evicted from the hotel, and, with the support of friends and her first husband, she moved to an apartment, and then a nursing home.

But despite her descent into genteel poverty, she retained her ability to fall out with those closest to her. This time it was her maids. One was prosecuted over Margaret's claim she had run up huge overseas telephone charges without her permission; the other was discharged for abusing her by-now ailing mistress, calling her, among other things, "a Mayfair whore". It was a line which followed her to the grave, forming, along with tales of Polaroid pictures, headless men and a string of pearls, the centrepiece of her obituaries when she died in 1993. Why no one has ever made a film of this woman's eventful life is one of the great mysteries of British cinema.

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