They told me she would give me a hard time, that it would be the interview to challenge all interviews, for Margaret, the 74-year-old Duchess of Argyll, the ogre with talons outstretched, would make mincemeat of me in minutes.
But even after the surprise of our previous meeting, when I found Her Grace to be a warm and caring person, my courage to mention the most lurid and scandalous divorce case of all time, may still erupt the volcano today. But so far so good!
Wearing my favourite Gottex gown and chasing after the Duchess’ puppy, Louis, escaping into the outer corridor of her London Park Lane Apartment when the door opens as I arrive, her Grace exclaims, “Oh, what a lovely dress! I love it. I have one just like it, the same colours, the same material. Isn’t it beautiful! Come, I must show you this dress of mine. I got it in America. It is so colourful and comfortable. Isn’t it funny, I nearly wore it this afternoon, then thought it was too dressy.”
Is Her Grace trying to tell me something? Leading me through the corridor, embellished with the original portrait of the 9th Duke of Argyll and his wife Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, Margaret’s huge dressing room is a walk-in- wardrobe, two opposite walls lined with hundreds of dresses, each in a built-in, clear plastic hanging compartment, the other two walls hung from floor to ceiling with more shoes than you could ever wear in a lifetime. “Not all of them are new by any means.
I now can’t wear those stiletto heels since I broke my hip. But shoes are very important,” declares the Duchess, straightening her back, as the heavy coral broach drags her left shoulder down. “I wish I had been brought up to walk with a telephone book on my head as my mother did. I think we all slump at times, don’t you? ” Born the only child of self-made Scottish millionaire, George Whigham of the Celanese Corporation of America, Canada, and Britain, (the first-ever artificial silk), Margaret was loved and adored, cosseted and spoilt from the very day she opened those deep searching eyes.
Her mother too, came from a very rich cotton magnate’s family from Glasgow, as Her Grace confirms. “I never wanted for anything. I wasn’t covered in diamond bracelets, no, but I had the best education and a lovely time with my parents and I was extremely close to my father.” The Duchess’ favourite place is still the Scottish Inveraray Castle, with its picturesque hills and lochs going out to sea, of which she became the mistress when she married the 11th Duke of Argyll – a marriage, destined to disaster.
Passing around bacon-flavoured soya bean snacks (“Do you think they’re heaven, you’d better!”) pooch Louis jumping up and down on me, and enjoying them too, I am surprised when Her Grace speaks about her failed marriage herself, as I have not yet dared. She shows an amazing sense of fair play and a lack of bitterness. “The divorce case lasted for four years, you know.
It was a great injustice. I was so disillusioned with the Duke, but not the legal process of divorce.” In his judgment, Lord Wheatley, the teetotal, Jesuit-educated judge, denounced the Duchess as a ‘highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities.’ “Yes,” Margaret confirms. “The judge made me out to be a nymphomaniac and then spent months apologizing afterward. Look, it was 23 years ago.
I have done a lot since then. Your life has to go on. I’ve just had one divorce, other people….” Not a nice man, that Ian, 11th Duke of Argyll, who, while married to his first wife, Janet, allegedly stole her jewellery to pay off his gambling debts, was said to have drinking problems, reportedly said, ‘two women have divorced me, so this time I am the one doing the divorcing,’ sold his story to the newspapers in 1964 and was expulsed from London’s exclusive gentleman’s club, White’s, for his unchivalrous behaviour.
And to top it all, when first meeting Margaret on the luxury Golden Arrow boat-train and watching her descend the Café de Paris staircase, he confessed to his second wife, “I’ve just seen the girl I will marry someday.” Stepdaughter-in-law, writer and presenter, Lady Colin Campbell, (once married for five days to the Duke’s son) defended the Duchess, insisting that this was not the mother-in-law she had known and that the tally of 88 supposed lovers in her diary notes were appointments with men, who more often than not were gay, when homosexuality was still illegal.
She also accused the duke of buying pornographic photos abroad, including them as evidence to humiliate Margaret. Now those pleading eyes demand a change of subject. And as Her Grace reminisces, her supposed frightfully posh accent with every ‘very’ pronounced ‘virry’ is markedly absent. But 17 years ago a family feud over trifling matters, caused her daughter, Frances, never to speak to her since, nor let the Duchess see her granddaughters. With a mischievous sparkle in her eye, Margaret asks, “But who says she won’t have anything to do with me??”
The Duchess does, however, enjoy the regular company of her grandsons from son Brian. It’s eight years now since the Duchess opted for hotel apartment life, after selling her 18th century, 13-bedroom London house sprawling over five floors. Living 45 years there she managed on six servants. Here there is just a maid and a housekeeper and of course, her closest companion, poodle Louis. “I spend all day with him. After our walk in Hyde Park, we go shopping together, or to the doctor or dentist.
He loves taxis. Louis always comes with me.” Not a surprise, as Margaret has been involved in animal charities all her life, is a committee member of several charities and was active President for 18 years for animals in distress, be they sheep, goats, horses, dogs or cats. But over the next seven years, Margaret’s world will shrink further and further, to smaller and smaller apartments in Grosvenor House, and finally to a Pimlico nursing home. Here, at 80, before her death in 1993, the aristocratic establishment beauty’s standards will come to the forefront, insisting eating the noon served lunch rather stone cold at 1 pm, as “only servants eat their lunch at midday.”
But as I see Margaret in 1986, maybe the image has escalated over the years or maybe the Duchess has simply mellowed with time. Whatever the answer, Margaret’s kindness is genuine and she emerges not only as a sweet but vulnerable old lady. And when you peer into those penetrating, searching blue eyes, set deeply into the alabaster skin, there is even a hint of the naïve 15-year-old of yesteryear when she fell pregnant to the charms of the 17-year-old actor, David Niven.
Copyright © 2019 This feature is supplied to the Bribie Islander for First Australian Serial Rights for one publication only in ISSUE 99, OCTOBER 25TH 2019.