Nasty divorces seem to run in the family

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TO LOSE one wife in the spotlight of public scandal may seem unfortunate. But for a grand family to lose not one, not two, but three wives in such manner within 100 years looks worse than careless. It begins to appear like an ingrained habit, family history stuck in a groove. And the ducal line of Argyll does indeed seem doomed to play over the same eerie and depressing reel.

'I was caught in a danse macabre,' says the present Lady Colin Campbell of her now-defunct marriage to Lord Colin Campbell, son of the 11th Duke of Argyll. Lord Colin, of course, may feel the same. Even for a danse macabre, it takes at least two: but the Argyll marital dance has a historical variation - with steps for two partners, four co-respondents and a judge.

This week Lady Colin Campbell was angry. 'She was set up by my stinking, rotten, drunken father-in- law,' she said, just before the funeral on Wednesday of her stepmother-in- law, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, whose divorce from the 11th Duke made her the most notorious woman of mid-20th-century British society.

But that was only the second notorious Campbell divorce. In the National Portrait Gallery, a beautiful face smiles out at passers-by. She is the Victorian Lady Colin Campbell, nee Gertrude Blood, painted by Boldini, eyes - not unlike those of her successor - a-glint with mischief. Her divorce case with the fifth son of the 8th Duke of Argyll made her the most notorious woman of fin de siecle London society.

In the case of Gertrude, who was cleared of adultery by a jury, curiosity was founded on the evidence of a succession of parlour maids and butlers: a keyhole view of Lady Colin on her drawing-room carpet; her alleged habit of engaging in Gladstonian discussions in the dark. In the case of Margaret, it focused - and still does - on the mystery of the 'headless man' photographs. The present Lady Colin Campbell, formerly Georgia Ziadie, believes this is no coincidence.

'Margaret told me,' she says, 'that Big Ian, the 11th Duke, used Gertrude's divorce as a precedent. It was a complete rerun - down to the number of respondents.

'All three scandals sit there like a heavy lunch,' adds Georgia, whose own divorce from Lord Colin Campbell in 1975 attracted sensational attention. 'Gertrude was destroyed. Margaret never got over the trauma. Never. I've tried to put mine behind me, but . . .'

Lady Colin sips a little mineral water through a straw. 'It's the way people look at you. With curiosity. Wherever you go, people have read things about you. It's a terribly demeaning feeling. All you can do is assume an air of studious disdain.'

Curiosity about Lady Colin - and there is plenty - focuses on the fact that she was brought up, for the first 14 years of her life in Jamaica, as a boy called George. This, she believes, would never have emerged in the papers if she had not been unfortunate enough to have a marriage break-up with a Campbell.

'Before then,' she says, 'everyone in my social circle knew that I had had an unusual upbringing. Of course, before we were married, I made sure I told him. And besides, he had lived in Jamaica, where everyone knew. But I did not want my private life in the gutter press.'

She says that during her brief marriage - it lasted only 14 months - her husband sometimes talked of the debacle between his Aunt Gertrude and his great-uncle, but it had meant nothing to her. Since then, however, Lady Colin has taken more interest in the family history.

'Gertrude's husband had syphilis,' she says. 'She wanted a judicial separation - to preserve her life. It's always been a code in good families that people can go their own ways if the marriage breaks down. Neither Margaret nor Gertrude broke that code. But the 11th Duke of Argyll learnt from his great-uncle that, if you hurl enough mud, a lot of it will stick.'

A dark-haired beauty, like Margaret, Gertrude met her Lord Colin Campbell in 1880 at Inveraray, the family's seat on the shores of Loch Fyne. Within two days they became engaged, and within five years they were in the divorce courts. Gertrude said that Lord Colin had been cruel in insisting on cohabitation despite his venereal disease (it was never absolutely identified as syphilis). And he accused her of adultery with four men, ranging from the then Lord Blandford to London's fire chief. Lord Colin lost the case, but Gertrude lost her reputation.

Georgia balances her head on her slim fingers, bearing heavy rings, and contemplates the weight of history. All three women earned money, at various times after their marriages ended, through journalism and books. All withdrew to small flats in central London. All clung to the names of the men they disliked.

In Georgia's case, this has led to repeated accusations of snobbery, which she icily denies. She did, she says, initially revert to her maiden name, until she heard rumours that she had been forced to give up her title.

'Now nothing will ever get me to give it up,' she says. 'If I marry 27,000 times, I will keep this crummy little name I loathe.' With that, she rises and leaves for her small flat on the edge of Belgravia.

Gertrude died aged 53 in 1911 and, although she left little money, she bequeathed her portrait to the National Portrait Gallery to ensure that her story would not be forgotten. Margaret died penniless in a nursing home. But the fortunes of Georgia are rising, due to the high sales of her two books exposing, ironically enough, the recent marital miseries of the Royal Family.

It is a sad story, this tale of the fatal attraction between the impetuous Campbells and their tempestuous brides. And it is not over yet.

The present Lady Colin Campbell, lacking only a famous court appearance to render parallels with the past more exact, seems to be in the grip of fate. She is, she says, even now suing her ex-husband for libel.

'I am not after revenge,' she adds, her accent still heavy with Jamaica. And, so saying, she assumes the traditional expression adopted by the three ex-Campbell wives: the image of studious disdain.

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