Duchess of Argyll sex scandal resurfaces in new BBC drama series | Aristocracy

It took more than three hours for the judge to read his damning judgment at the end of one of the longest, costliest and most toxic divorce cases of the 20th century.

Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, was, he said contemptuously, “a very sexual woman” who was “not” satisfied with normal relationships and had begun to engage in disgusting sexual activity to satisfy an appetite. sexual debased “.

Margaret was in Paris with her married lover at the time, convinced that she would win. His lawyer called him to tell him the bad news, adding that it was the cruelest judgment he had ever heard.

In 1963, the cruelty – and misogyny – was perhaps not surprising. Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll, had filed for divorce for adultery, and Margaret’s life was laid bare. Campbell alleged Margaret had slept with 88 men, provided diaries purported to show dates of her affair, and most salacious of all, provided Polaroid photographs, including of Margaret giving a man a blowjob unknown.

That Campbell stole his private property and committed his own adultery – theirs was an open marriage – was deemed largely irrelevant. The court concluded that Margaret, who turned 50 during the long proceedings, had not behaved like a woman should, and in particular perhaps not like an older woman should. And she was punished for it.

The BBC’s new three-part drama A Very British Scandal could provide, hopes Lyndsy Spence, author of a biography of the Duchess, “the justice Margaret deserves: to be understood and seen in a different light.”

What happened to the Duchess at the time – she became the “dirty duchess” – would now be described as “slut-shaming” or pornographic revenge, but at the time it was outrageous, not least because of the stories. of his sexual appetite and speculation as to the identity of the “headless man” in the photo.

Margaret (Claire Foy) in A Very British Scandal. Photograph: screenshot / BBC / Blueprint Television

The Tory government was already in crisis over the Profumo affair, and when Defense Minister Duncan Sandys was rumored to be possibly the person in Margaret’s picture – as were Hollywood actors and royalty – he offered his resignation.

All of these things converged, says Robert Lacey, historian and royal biographer. It was all part of “upper class excess, which led to the [victory] the following year. ”It was also a time, he said, when the media were ready to report dirty stories.

Seen today, she was a dynamic, sexually liberated woman ahead of her time. “The wealth of her father and her first husband allowed her to live by another set of rules, which then became everyone’s set of rules,” says Lacey. The 1960s were about to begin, and the Pill – made available to single women the following decade – marked the start of the sexual revolution.

But then, says Spence, “it was outrageous because you didn’t expect women to behave like that.” But Margaret was defiant. She was a wonderful woman who had gone through many traumatic experiences – during her first marriage she had eight miscarriages and gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She also suffered a head injury and broke her back when she fell 40 feet into an elevator shaft, spending three months in the hospital.

Margaret was complicated. “Some people have found her snobby and self-promoting,” says Lacey. “She was a dropper and had an upright attitude.” Nothing was ever his fault. As Spence notes in his book, The Grit in the Pearl, Margaret “rarely, if ever, throws herself in a negative light.”

It was partly his personality, but mostly his upbringing, says Spence. Born in 1912, she was the only daughter of a Scottish textile millionaire and his wife, who raised Margaret in New York City. “She was very spoiled,” said Spence. “She said when she was young that her father taught her to argue and do whatever she wanted.” When she was 15, on vacation on the Isle of Wight, she met 17-year-old David Niven and he had sex with her; she got pregnant and her father sent her for an abortion.

Her family had moved to London not long before, with her mother worrying about how shady 1920s New York was getting. “She was from the jazz and cocktail era,” says Lacey. In London, things weren’t much calmer: it was the era of Bright Young Things. When Margaret became a debutante in 1930, her father – desperate to make a name for his daughter – spent huge sums on her prom. “At that time [that] was a way to buy status, ”says Lacey.

The newspapers were obsessed with her, and as a societal beauty – with money – she had several engagements, before marrying Charles Sweeny, an Irish-American stockbroker in 1933. The Guardian has her described as “the media event of the decade”.

“It wasn’t until her second marriage that she became an aristocrat,” says Lacey. The Duke of Argyll was impoverished by gambling debts; he was also violent and addicted to alcohol and amphetamines. He was drowning in inheritance rights and his Scottish castle collapsed; Margaret brought wealth to the marriage and paid to update and repair the castle.

It was when she stopped paying the Duke’s bills that he allegedly started divorce proceedings. Throughout it, her social circle has largely sided with the Duke, Spence says, although “I think privately that a lot of people, especially women, sympathized with her.”

Lacey met Margaret in her later “when she was pretty sad” years. The damage to his reputation came at a huge personal cost, as well as a financial one. She had moved away from her daughter, while remaining close to her son, and had become a bit of a joke. “The Duke of Argyll took so much from her,” Spence says, even before the divorce, “and she had to pay her legal costs. She lost her house. She lived in a hotel for a while, then she was kicked out for unpaid bills.

None of this broke Margaret, who died in 1993 at the age of 80, says Spence. “Obviously she was humiliated, but anyone else would have been devastated and probably should have gone into hiding. Margaret has moved past it all. She went on and on living the good life. I think it’s something, even for today, to have this courage.

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