The Grit in the Pearl

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She was always a headstrong woman, always used to getting her own way. This character trait, or flaw (depending if one were a friend or a foe), was apparent in girlhood. Born Ethel Margaret Whigman in 1912 in Newton Mearns near Glasgow, she dropped her parents’ choice of Ethel and insisted on being known as Margaret. Margaret was the only child of Helen and George Whigham. Her father, a shrewd businessman from Prestwick was a self-made millionaire and chairman of the Celanese Corporation; and her mother – perhaps knowing where to hit Margaret where it would hurt – threatened her with a sibling if she misbehaved. A beautiful child with a nervous stutter, she was petted and spoiled and protected, but it was a misplaced love, and early on the die was cast.

Perhaps the earliest and most vivid example of Margaret’s character lies in an anecdote from her adolescence. She had been a pupil at a progressive Hewitt school in New York City (where she lived until the age of 14) run by an Englishwoman, and although she realised that she needed little formal education, after all daddy’s millions would cushion the pinpricks of every day life, she took an interest in history. Obediently completing her homework – a history project on the Medieval period – she cut illustrations from an old and valuable library book and pasted them into her jotter. The project was submitted and hell broke loose. But Margaret did not understand what the fuss was about: she had simple done what was asked of her. This blind spot remained with her, always.

When Margaret was brought to England the storm clouds were already forming. In 1928, at the age of 15, she was seduced by the future actor David Niven during a holiday in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. To the fury of her father and the shame of her mother, Margaret became pregnant and was whisked off to a London clinic for a secret termination. She continued to adore David Niven until the day he died and was among the VIP guests at his memorial service in London.

Not a hint of scandal broke, and Margaret was sent to finishing school in Paris. In many ways, she was already finished, and she returned to London to a frivolous existence of parties and balls. In 1930 she was presented at Court and was named Debutante of the Year. Her striking face was photographed for society magazines and she peered out of Tatler, The Lady and The Sketch, lantern-jawed, her grey-blue eyes fixed in a cold stare, and her dark brown hair neatly waved around her face. She looked back with affection on those years, calling them ‘heaven’ with ‘three parties every night and not a care in the world’. As the economic depression of the early 1930s unravelled around her, Margaret developed something of a social conscience. The Daily Express reported:

As an example to the girlhood of Britain, the lovely Margaret Whigham has decided, in the interests of economy, to have her hair re-set only once a fortnight in future, and to stop wearing stockings in the evening. On the other hand, to stimulate trade, she has just bought four new evening dresses.

The socialist publication, the Daily Worker, viewed it as far from charitable and they wrote: ‘This should be a lesson to the wives of the unemployed, whose extravagant habits include setting their hair in curl-papers every day and buying no dresses at all.’

Margaret meant well, but her sentiments were poorly executed. This is best displayed in her memoirs, when she recalled the war-time necessity of the evacuation of her children to Lord and Lady Aberconway in North Wales. She divulged that ‘Christabel Aberconway had decided to take the children of her friends as paying guests at 10 pounds a head in preference to having the Liverpool evacuees forced upon her’.

However, before the war came and spoiled Margaret’s fun (or did it?) she was a celebrated girl about town. She was briefly engaged to Lord Beaverbrook’s son, Max Aitken, and then to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, the 7thEarl of Warwick. Feeling that she was not sufficiently in love, she ditched her suitors in favour of Charles Sweeney. In February 1933, after converting to the Roman Catholic faith, she married Sweeney, a dashing American golfer and businessman. It was heralded as the society wedding of the year, with the press and public surrounding Brompton Oratory for a glance of the much-publicised Norman Hartnell wedding dress with its 28-by-9-feet train, causing the traffic in Kensington to come to a standstill. It was said by Margaret that Princess Elizabeth copied the design for her wedding to Prince Philip in November 1947.

Margaret had three children with Sweeney: a daughter, who was stillborn at 8-months in 1933; another daughter Frances born in 1937 (she later married Charles Manners, 10thDuke of Rutland); and a son, Brian, born in 1940. Margaret also had 8 miscarriages during the course of their marriage. While she recuperated, Sweeney would visit her after work before dressing and going out for the evening, leaving her at home feeling miserable and increasingly insecure. Although distressed by her husband’s infidelities, something he did not hide from her, she adored him and they would remain friends long after their divorce.

In 1934, it seemed Margaret had the world at her feet. P.G. Wodehouse referenced her in his Anglicised version of Cole Porter’s song ‘You’re the Top’ from the musical Anything Goes. He replaced Porter’s original lyric ‘You’re an O’Neill drama, You’re Whistler’s mama’ with ‘You’re Mussolini, You’re Mrs Sweeney’. She continued to live a gilded life until, in 1943, she suffered a near fatal fall down a lift shaft while visiting her chiropodist on Bond Street. She later recalled:

I fell 40-feet to the bottom of the lift shaft. The only thing that saved me was the lift cable, which broke my fall. I must have clutched at it, for it was later found that all my finger nails were torn off. I apparently fell on to my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall.

After her recovery, Margaret’s friends noted that not only had she lost all sense of taste and smell due to nerve damage, she also had become sexually voracious. ‘Go to bed early and often,’ she was apt to say.

Margaret and Sweeney divorced in 1947. She had romances with several men including a brief engagement to a Texan-born banker, Joseph Thomas, of Lehman Brothers, which ended after he fell in love with another woman. There was also Theodore ‘Ted’ Rousseau, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was, she recalled, ‘highly intelligent, witty and self-confident to the point of arrogance’. That relationship ended because Margaret feared Ted was not stepfather material.

In 1950, she met Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, who was married to his second wife Louise, whose nickname was ‘Oui Oui’, but Margaret referred to her as ‘wee-wee’. Margaret and the duke, known as ‘Big Ian’, met on the luxurious Golden Arrow boat-train which operated Channel crossing between London and Paris. As they began to converse, Ian confessed that he had seen Margaret descending the staircase at the Café de Paris and ungallantly turned to his wife and said he had just seen ‘the girl he would marry someday’. They were to meet again, by chance, at Claridges upon which Margaret told Ian she was ‘a man short’ for a luncheon party she was giving the following day. He stepped in to make up the numbers.

The two soon began to confide in one another, and Ian disclosed to Margaret his marital woes, increasing debts and his inability to restore the Argyll family seat, Inveraray Castle. She later wrote:

Ian was obviously lonely, and depressed by the burden of debt and mismanagement that he had inherited from his elderly cousin, the 10th Duke. I was also alone, and felt drawn towards this troubled man who had so much charm. According to my diary, on March 25 1950, we spent the entire day together, having lunch in the country at an old mill house, dining at Maxim’s that evening, and going on afterwards to the Lido.

Ten days later Ian proposed to Margaret on the condition that they would marry when he was free from Louise. She readily accepted and they were married on 23 March 1951. Margaret’s friends and ex-husband warned her against marrying Ian, who had a reputation for being a fortune hunter, a heavy drinker, a gambler, and for beating his former wives. His first wife, Janet Aitken, the daughter of Lord Beaverbrook, was 17 when she married him and during their honeymoon his true character emerged when he shook her violently and told her to ‘stop snivelling’. During their ill-fated honeymoon he also took Janet to a Parisian bordello as she ‘had a lot to learn’. Later, on a cruise to Jamaica, Janet discovered he had stolen her jewels to pay his gambling debts. She realised he had married her for her money.

Margaret’s ex-husband, Charles Sweeney, also attempted to warn her of the folly she was committing, when he wrote:

I’ll never forget you or love anyone else. I know that now and I also know that nothing I can say or do will change your mind. Therefore . . I do wish you luck and I hope you’ll be happy. I only hope you’re not deluding yourself that Campbell is inspired by any great love, because he’s not. He couldn’t be and you’ll be making your crowning mistake if you think anything else. He married his first two wives for money and you’re no exception.

Furthermore, a mutual friend of both Margaret and Ian warned her that Ian had said: ‘Now I’ll get all my bills paid.’ When Margaret later took offence at him for saying that he ‘only married rich women’, it was not because of the content of his statement, but because he had said it in front of the servants.

Knowing that his beloved Margaret desperately wanted to become the Duchess of Argyll, George Whigham insisted that Ian sign a Deed of Gift which listed certain valuable items as security for the money he had laid out. Margaret had asked her father to fund a new roof for Inveraray Castle because Ian threatened to have it removed to avoid paying the rates bill. The document was regarded as superfluous, but Ian signed it anyway. Little did Margaret or her father know that Ian harboured a spiteful surprise which would be exposed when their marriage was dragged through the divorce court a decade later.

Ian himself had not been near the castle in 20 years, and to meet the death duties of the previous duke, the trustees of his estate sold the Island of Tiree. Margaret financed Ian’s latest scheme when he decided to exhume the wreck of the Spanish ship the Duque de Florencia in Tobermory Bay on the Island of Mull, which he claimed would net him £30-million. Margaret not only paid for the investigation of the wreck, but also the bill the Royal Navy sent him for its assistance in the project. Later she would also complain that she had had to pay for Ian’s children’s school fees. Yet, in spite of Margaret and her father’s generosity, Ian demanded she give up her London flat. Already discord had set in.

During their first year of marriage, Margaret sensed the flaws in her husband’s personality. He had attempted to humiliate her at his daughter Lady Jeanne’s coming out ball by dancing with is first wife, Janet, and ignoring Margaret. And, on holiday in Kingston, Jamaica, he had tried to beat her up and she was saved from assault when her friends intervened. He further displayed a sadistic and unpredictable streak when, on their way to a celebratory dinner at the French Embassy on Coronation Day in June 1953, he suddenly jumped out of the car and told her she could go herself. He was enraged when Margaret decided to do just that, and he went off to his London club, White’s.

Assuming her husband was content with an open marriage, Margaret began to invite her male friends to the castle, but one member on the guest list was a step too far for Ian. The guest was the German diplomat Sigismund von Braun, a noted anti-Nazi, and whose brother invented the V-2 rocket. But Ian, a former prisoner of war in a German camp for 5 years, was troubled by the intrusion. Margaret had, in many ways, played into Ian’s hands.

Having been divorced by his first two wives, Ian would be the one to do the divorcing this time. Although they had been living separately for years, Ian was determined to expose Margaret as an adulteress. For his plan to render successful he would need evidence, and a ruthless man in the grand scheme of things, he did not shirk from setting his wife up. He took advantage of Margaret being out of the country and entered her house on Upper Grosvenor Street where he stole diaries, letters and photographs. When he returned to locate a missing diary for 1956-59 he brought him with his daughter, Lady Jeanne. This time Margaret was at home, and as she turned out her bedroom light she saw two figures entering her bedroom. She later recalled:

I immediately began dialing 999, but Ian pinioned my arms to prevent this, while Jeanne snatched up my diary. After this they made a rapid exit. It was a horrible experience, and the next day I suffered from delayed shock.

Margaret sued Lady Jeanne for trespass, which was settled out of court. She would have sued Ian, too, except by law he had a right to enter her home as they were still married. Unhappy with the British legal system, Margaret fought against the stolen items being used in evidence and she took her case to the House of Lords before the issue was referred back to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, where the case was to be heard. In a bid to destroy Margaret, Ian attempted to have her certified insane by arranging for his doctor to draw up the necessary committal papers. However, he had to obtain a second signature and the latter doctor refused and warned Margaret what her husband was plotting.

The hearing for evidence began on 26 February 1963. The judge, Lord Wheatley, was said to have influenced his jury to revolt against Margaret when it came to their verdict. He was a teetotal, Jesuit-educated Catholic, and such was his background, he was shocked by Margaret’s behaviour. He was also a Campbell on his mother’s side.

The first witness admitted to the court was Ian, and the first legal objection arose early when reference was made to one of the diaries he had stolen from Upper Grosvenor Street, but Lord Wheatley permitted the evidence to be used. Ian was also given preferential treatment when, due to an alleged medical difficulty, he remained seated whilst giving evidence, whereas Margaret had to stand for 13 hours. Ian said the marriage had been happy up until 1954, after which date Margaret’s social life posed a threat to their domesticity, and she stayed out as late as 4am. This behaviour, he said, caused arguments between them. Speaking of the night he and his daughter had broken into Margaret’s house and used restraint on her, Ian explained he had noticed the diary under a telephone which Margaret had picked up, and having found it, he and Jeanne departed. The reason Jeanne accompanied him, he said, was to protect him from being accused by Margaret of ‘jumping into bed together’.

Damning evidence was produced, which would ultimately seal Margaret’s fate. Ian produced a collection of Polaroids which came to be known as ‘the headless man’. They showed Margaret, nude save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, with a gentleman whose back was turned to the camera. She would not disclose who he was (she never did) and a list of over 80 possible names were drawn up. It was believed the man was either Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr. or Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, Minister of Defence. Indeed, Margaret admitted that ‘the only Polaroid camera in the country at that time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence’. In recent times the headless man was revealed as William H. ‘Bill’ Lyons, then sales director of Pan American World Airways. The judge proclaimed Margaret to be ‘a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual relations’ and had started to indulge in what he could only describe as ‘disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite’.

When the divorce case came to a conclusion in May 1963, Margaret was at the Ritz Hotel in Paris with her married lover. In her 1975 memoir, Forget Not, she wrote:

As soon as I reached my room I put through a call to my solicitor in Edinburgh. ‘It couldn’t be much worse,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never in my life heard such a cruel judgement.’ He went on to repeat some of the things the judge, Lord Wheatley, had said about me. As he spoke, I knew I was listening to my world disintegrate. The words I was hearing constituted nothing less than a savage character assassination. I could scarcely believe that any man – let alone a judge – could be so merciless or capable of inflicting such unnecessary pain on another human being.

Ian was granted his divorce, and Margaret had become a social pariah. The media circus, the speculation over the Polaroids, and the exposure of her behaviour conspired to destroy her reputation. Furthermore, she became estranged from her children who were appalled at their mother. Ian was prepared to cash in on the spectacle, and he sold his story to People. Before the article was published in November 1964, Margaret applied for an injunction to stop the printing of her private letters. Nevertheless, the first installment was published, but her solicitor prevented the publication of any more after it had come to Margaret’s attention that Ian wanted to make public her medical files detailing her physical and psychological health. The judge agreed with Margaret, and this became known as the ‘Argyll law’.

But Margaret was to have the last laugh. After humiliating her in the pages of People, Ian was asked to resign from White’s, his beloved London club, or risk being thrown out. With a heavy heart he chose the former. It was Margaret’s first husband, Charles Sweeney, who had used his influence at the club to have Ian expelled. With a certain amount of glee, she said: ‘Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.’

Margaret died in 1993 at the age of 80, having spent the evening of her life at St George’s nursing home in Pimlico. In her later years she found herself impoverished after investing in several, ill-advised schemes. She did, however, maintain her standards. When luncheon was served at midday in the nursing home she refused to eat it. Only servants ate their meal at 12, she said, and she defiantly waited until 1 o’clock. Though the food was cold, Margaret could, at least, take satisfaction in knowing she had the last word.

Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. III

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