The Duchess and a very dirty divorce: The scandalous life of the Duchess of Argyle
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll caused a scandal in the Sixties
The proceedings ignited huge interest from a prurient public, with rumours of two government ministers, a member of the Royal Family and a Hollywood star being among the 88 men that the lively aristocrat was accused by her husband of entertaining, some at Inveraray Castle, the Argyll family seat in western Scotland.
The marriage had fallen apart after the suspicious duke hired a locksmith to break open a cupboard at the house his wife owned in London’s Mayfair.
The search uncovered not only an impressive collection of pornography but a diary detailing the duchess’s dalliances, along with a set of artfully composed photographic mementos of these raunchy encounters in her boudoir.
One Polaroid in particular caught the public interest, leading to a guessing game over the identity of the “headless man” – a naked, faceless figure who was snapped in a moment of oral ecstasy with the duchess (wearing nothing more than a string of pearls).
Few disagreed that when it came to the upper classes airing their dirty linen in public, there had been few washdays with quite such a spectacular pile of soiled laundry as the Argylls’ divorce case.
Now the lurid tale of the “Dirty Duchess” is to be the subject of a TV miniseries from the producers of the BBC’s A Very English Scandal, the drama which followed Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe and the alleged conspiracy to murder his former lover Norman Scott in 1975.
The Duke of Argyll marries Miss Margaret Whigham
“This is essentially a feminist scandal – the Duchess of Argyll was the first woman to be publicly slut-shamed,” says the series’ producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins.
“We’re going to focus on the very public divorce from the duke, after he went through her desk and found a list of all the men she’d slept with, along with the Polaroids.”
Lyndsy Spence, the author of a new biography of the duchess, agrees that Margaret was a victim of her times, who found herself ridiculed by society because of her husband’s allegations about her sex life.
“In many ways, Margaret was one of the first Me Too victims as her husband stole her personal property and used it to violate her in court. Producing those pictures and ruining her reputation was a horrific thing to do. It should never have been allowed to happen.
“As a divorcee, she was portrayed as a mentally unstable villain and cast out from the very uppermost echelons of English society. She was viewed as a freak show.”
Spence says that the marriage between Ian Campbell – the 11th duke – and the wealthy Margaret Whigham was unhappy and volatile from the outset.
Duchess of Argyll outside the Royal Courts of Justice
Margaret had been brought up mainly in America, where she lost her virginity at 15 to the actor David Niven, and first dazzled London society in 1930 when, as debutante of the year, she inspired the original lyrics to Cole Porter’s You’re the Top. She was the most beautiful deb of her era, according to Barbara Cartland.
A fleeting engagement to the Earl of Warwick was followed by marriage to the US golfer Charles Sweeny, with whom she had three children, but they divorced in 1947, and three years later she met the Duke when they were both travelling on a train from Paris.
“But,” says Spence, “Ian never really showed any love for her and it was clear from the outset that he only wanted her family money to restore his castle. She was naive and was taken advantage of quite easily.”
By the time she and the duke had drifted apart, Margaret, who had a brittle, androgynous look like Wallis Simpson, was bedding other men with gusto. While her detractors dismissed her fanatical pursuits as late-onset nymphomania, 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.
Whatever the cause, by the early mid-1950s her long list of lovers included Bob Hope, Maurice Chevalier, a fair percentage of the men of Inveraray (the town near her husband’s castle) and even passing teenage holidaymakers.
Her modus operandi was later described by the writer Michael Thornton, who wandered into Oban on a hot day in 1958 aged 17 and was offered a drink and a hot bath by Margaret. No sooner had he started to soap himself in a castle bathroom than the naked duchess eased herself into the tub.
The Duke and Duchess of Argyll stroll around the grounds of Inveraray Castle
By 1959, the Argylls were living separate lives. Ian had obtained an injunction barring her from the castle (renovated with £100,000 of her money) and acrimonious divorce proceedings had begun.
After the shock of the damning trial – in which the duchess was, the judge concluded, “a highly sexed woman who had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite” – Margaret spent a brief period in the social shade, before rejoining the circuit.
But after falling out with most of her family – there was a total estrangement with her daughter the Duchess of Rutland, after she objected to her grandchildren being raised as Anglicans – Margaret’s finances began to run out.
She was forced to sell her 13-bedroom house in Mayfair and moved into a suite at the Grosvenor House Hotel.
Margaret Whigham as a debutante
Even as the money dwindled further there were some things she could not forsake: a live-in maid (Margaret was said never to have boiled 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 into a nursing home.
The duchess’s former daughter-in-law, Lady Colin Campbell, said: “Margaret was a very gracious, very amusing woman who was more wronged against than wronging. The truth is that she did not have the number of lovers she was rumoured to have. As one of her friends put it to me, ‘Margaret was far too fastidious. She wouldn’t want anyone to muss up her hair’.”
Sadly, by the time of her death, aged 80, she was penniless and only partly reconciled with her family.
A sad end to an extraordinary life – and a brilliant subject for a scandal-filled television series.