The real scandal of the Duchess of Argyll is that she was a victim of celebrity hacking

1930:  The Duchess of Argyll at a dress rehearsal for the Jewels of Empire Ball at Brook House in Park Lane.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
1930: The Duchess of Argyll at a dress rehearsal for the Jewels of Empire Ball at Brook House in Park Lane. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
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Having written several biographies on daring aristocratic women from the 20th century I am often faced with controversial themes relating to their private lives. It would be easy to focus entirely on scandal. After all, who is not attracted to hedonism? Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll is a fascinating and infuriating subject, for history has not been kind to her. She is best remembered as a nymphomaniac socialite who disgraced the House of Argyll when a collection of diaries and explicit Polaroids were stolen by her husband, Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, to be used as evidence in their divorce case in 1963. The Polaroids featured a mysterious ‘headless man’, for the gentleman was captured from the neck down – the candidates were and are rumoured to have been Douglas Fairbanks Jr, a Hollywood actor, Sigismund von Braun, a former Nazi, and Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law. It was also rumoured that, during her 12 year marriage to Campbell, Margaret had slept with 88 men, however it was later revealed that many of the men were homosexual and this she could not and would not divulge, for in 1963 it carried a prison sentence. Presiding over the case was Lord Wheatley, renowned for his harsh sentences for crimes involving sex and in a 50,000 word judgement he claimed Margaret was a ‘highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities’. Campbell was granted a divorce on the grounds of her adultery and returned to his family seat, Inveraray Castle, which had been restored with Margaret’s money.

The aforementioned has attached itself to Margaret’s legacy and some might argue it’s the most interesting part of her life. My book, The Grit in the Pearl, endeavours to understand her and what led to her 1951 marriage to Ian, a man known for fortune hunting and vices of drinking, gambling, and, later, an addiction to drinamyl. Born Ethel Margaret Whigham in 1912, in Newton Mearns, she was the only child of Helen (nee Hannay), a woman prone to extreme mood-swings, and George Whigham, a self-made millionaire and president of the Celanese Company. Her mother’s jealousy blighted her childhood, spent in New York, London and Ascot. She was taken to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with lacking a sense of humour and ordered her to watch Charlie Chaplin films; she also developed a stammer, and was treated unsuccessfully by Lionel Logue, speech therapist to King George VI. “No matter how pretty you are, Margaret... you will get nowhere in life if you stammer,” Helen said. It is little wonder that Margaret turned to anyone who gave her affection, and at the age of 15, she became pregnant to David Niven and had a secret termination. Two years later, in 1930, she was named Debutante of the Year, launching her social career. What followed were engagements to unsuitable men: Prince Aly Khan, whose Muslim faith repelled the Whighams; Glen Kidston, a married millionaire sportsman who died in a plane crash; Max Aitken, the insecure son of Lord Beaverbrook; and Fulke Warwick, a penniless earl.

With a subject like Margaret it is easy to draw attention to qualities that might be described as flamboyant; her signature hairstyle bolstered by a hairpiece, the three-strand pearl necklace that exposed her identity in the Polaroids, the tactless remarks (she told Paul Getty he was a bad father) and a lack of accountability for her actions. At the age of 20 she married Charles Sweeny, an Irish-American stockbroker whose family’s millions were founded in mining during the Gilded Age, and quickly discovered he was controlling and bad tempered. Their 15 year marriage was an attempt at domesticity for Margaret, during which time she suffered eight miscarriages and a stillbirth before giving birth to a daughter and son. “All Charlie wanted in a wife was a pretty, brainless doll,” she said, and credited the end of their marriage to his philandering during the war. Her father was a philanderer and as a child she was privy to her parents’ marital rows and used as a pawn in her mother’s attempt to make him behave. “Everything has a price,” she once said, and, like her mother, she was willing to overlook adultery and bad behaviour in exchange for marriage and status. As Margaret’s biographer the theme of searching for her father in other men came, not as a surprise, but as a way of understanding her tolerance of certain traits, and her lack of empathy for her mother’s unhappiness. In Margaret’s later years her maid thought she treated her dogs better than she treated people, and a friend remarked that she trusted only her pets and her father. Both were subservient to her and offered her love.

The years between Margaret’s divorce from Sweeny and her marrying Campbell might be described as a period of wilderness, and by then I was accustomed to the repetitive themes of international travel and love affairs, enlivened by a romance with Ted Rosseau, a ‘Monument Man’ who took her on his investigative trips to Europe. I have also found, from writing books about women such as Margaret, when they do exercise non-conformity or break from their traditional roles there is always an excuse. In Margaret’s case it was falling 40-feet down a lift shaft and hitting her head, which was said to be the cause of her onset nymphomania. It was also during this section of my research that I came across what some might call a scoop – I discovered the identity of the headless man, a mystery that has baffled journalists since 1963. The man in question was not listed amongst Campbell’s dossier of film stars, politicians, and international playboys, and until now, his name has remained out of the spotlight. The photographs were taken on her newly-bought Polaroid camera, then commercially available in America in 1948, and the headless man (not so headless in additional snaps) had his own stash of Polaroids, hidden away in a bureau. I wondered if Margaret concealed his identity as a way of exerting power over the situation with Campbell, or was she merely protecting her former lover? She often acted in a man’s best interest.

The headless man photographs remain much more than a scandal and as I wrote my book I began to view Margaret as an early victim of celebrity hacking, albeit in an era before the internet. There were no legal consequences for Campbell, who, before their marriage, had forged a Deed of Sale in exchange for Margaret’s money to restore Inveraray, and who later wiretapped her car. Themes of victim shaming were apparent in her story, as they are for many women today, as the legal system permitted Campbell to exhibit stolen images that compromised her dignity, and that the judge and jury would think her deserving of such treatment. In the years that followed Margaret attempted to rebuild her life and restore her fortune, both were fruitless attempts in an unforgiving society. Many legal technicalities prevented her from telling her side of the story without the risk of imprisonment. A friend remarked that all her life Margaret had wanted to be a star, and she became one, a star of the courtrooms and tabloid press, but it came at a price. She died in 1993, penniless and in a nursing home, her reputation having never recovered.

The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll by Lyndsy Spence is published by The History Press at £20, on Monday 11 February.