For sale: London residence where Duchess scandalised society

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The Independent Online

It is the Mayfair house where one of the most celebrated sex scandals of the Sixties took place, when its glittering parties attracted Hollywood stars, society figures and leading politicians. John Paul Getty I dubbed it "Number One, London".

Today, 48 Upper Grosvenor Street is empty and dilapidated, its large rooms echoing with the ghosts of parties past, but still with the potential to become one of the glamorous houses of London again. And it can be bought for a mere £2.8m, with another couple of million or so needed to bring it up to scratch.

It was in its Art Deco-style mirrored bathroom - designed by the wife of W Somerset Maughan - that Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, naked apart from a string of pearls, was photographed by a hidden Polaroid camera, performing fellatio on a man whose identity was concealed because his head was not captured in the frame.

In a highly publicised case, the so-called "headless man" photographs were used by the Duke to win divorce from his wife in 1963 on the grounds of her adultery.

The judge described the Duchess as "a highly-sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite".

Inevitably, the case caused a huge controversy, becoming one of the sex scandals that defined the decade and the source of endless speculation as to the identity of her lover.

Among the many names mentioned were the leading Conservative politicians Duncan Sandys and Ernest Marples, Sigismund von Braun, a German diplomat and brother of Werner von Braun, the inventor of the V2 rocket and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the silver-haired Anglophile Hollywood actor. The affair was examined by Lord Denning in his report into the Profumo security scandal.

Years later, it was disclosed that there may have been two different men in the photographs. While Lord Denning had identified - but not publicised - Fairbanks as a man seen masturbating in in one of them, it was Sandys who may have been the "headless man".

The house, first put on the market three years ago, is now up for sale again after its last buyer pulled out this Christmas, even though the sale was nearly complete. Its present owner, an unidentified Indian businessman, bought the house in 1990, but has lived abroad since 1995. It was built as part of the Grosvenor estate in the late 1720s and bought by the Duchess's father, a Scottish textiles millionaire, in 1935. He commissioned Syrie Maughan to design and decorate it in the Art Deco style of the era.

Rupert Connell of estate agents DTZ Residential said: "It is a fantastic house and could be made beautiful again. But it isn't likely to attract a developer because the margins are so small, so it has to be someone who wants to live in it as their home.'' Renovation is complicated as the house is Grade II-listed and permission for any structural alterations would be needed from Westminster Council.

The house enjoyed its peak of popularity after the Duchess - a former debutante of the year - was given it by her father in 1945. She married the Duke of Argyll in 1951. After the divorce, the Duchess was ostracised by the society that had flocked to her parties. She tried to capitalise on her notoriety by showing groups of people around the house, but was stopped by the Grosvenor estate. She sold the house in 1978, moving into an apartment at the Grosvenor House Hotel. She died in 1993, and the story of her life was used as the basis for an opera, Powder Her Face, by Thomas Adès.