Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Mar­garet by Craig Brown

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Mar­garet by Craig Brown.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 423 pp., $28.00

When HRH The Princess Mar­garet was born in 1930, she was fourth in line to the British throne. In 1936, she moved up two notches af­ter Ed­ward VIII, her fool of an un­cle, bolted and was suc­ceeded by her fa­ther, mak­ing her big sis­ter the heir and she her­self the spare. She out­ranked her un­cles, aunts, cousins, and any play­mate, ex­cept for that big sis­ter. All but a hand­ful of adults dropped ei­ther a nod or a curtsy upon her en­trances and ex­its. King Ge­orge VI said that while Princess El­iz­a­beth was his pride, Princess Mar­garet was his joy. No one would ever love her per­for­mances as much as her fa­ther, the sov­er­eign. Her hash was set­tled.

The king died in 1952 and the big sis­ter—aged twenty-six, mar­ried, and the mother of two—was anointed queen. The funny sis­ter, aged twenty-two, had to move with their mother out of Buck­ing­ham Palace and into Clarence House around the cor­ner. By the time she died in 2002, af­ter a life of hair­dressers, church ser­vices, lun­cheons, au­di­ences, teas, din­ners, sup­pers, danc­ing, fit­tings, house par­ties, re­cep­tions, open­ings, pre­mieres, ship launches, va­ri­ety shows, pa­rades, point-to-points, As­cot stakes, wed­dings, fu­ner­als, hunts, beaches, planes, drinks, and cig­a­rettes, she was twelfth in line to the throne, go­ing on qui­etly in Kens­ing­ton Palace, the aunt heap, where, to­ward the end, she burned garbage bag af­ter garbage bag of let­ters she’d re­moved from Clarence House, still the res­i­dence of the Queen Mother. Princess Mar­garet had been a wife, was a mother and grand­mother, but it was her in­evitable slide down the lad­der of suc­ces­sion and no more Com­mon­wealth tours that most de­fined her life—or so Craig Brown con­cludes in Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Mar­garet. Ninety-Nine Glimpses is not a con­ven­tional bi­og­ra­phy, but rather a se­ries of telling re­flec­tions in ninety-nine brief chap­ters on the royal and the gaze, on how Princess Mar­garet was viewed and judged over time. “Bi­og­ra­phy is at the mercy of in­for­ma­tion,” he writes, “and in­for­ma­tion about the Royal Fam­ily is sel­dom there when you want it. Or rather, there is a wealth of in­for­ma­tion, but most of it is win­dow-dress­ing.” The open­ness of form that Brown, a satirist and vet­eran colum­nist for al­most ev­ery British pa­per, al­lows him­self, in­clud­ing tech­niques of fic­tion, is as un­ex­pected as his at­ti­tude to­ward his sub­ject and his wit­nesses.

What she had in com­mon with others born un­der the same zo­diac sign: she “shared a louche, camp, deca­dent streak with Aubrey Beard­s­ley, and might have iden­ti­fied with Kenny Rogers’ songs about be­ing dis­ap­pointed in love.” Brown imag­ines a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Princess Mar­garet and the man she fa­mously did not marry as a duet of a Clash song. He spec­u­lates on her deathbed drift, the “se­cret cham­bers of con­scious­ness.” He shows what the 1977 Christ­mas broad­cast of Queen Mar­garet might have been. He of­fers a pre­tend in­ter­view with Hello! mag­a­zine that the princess does with her hus­band, the Lib­eral politi­cian Jeremy Thorpe, as though he were el­e­vated to the House of Lords and serv­ing as lord chan­cel­lor. He cites her guest ap­pear­ance in Ed­ward St. Aubyn’s ro­man à clef Some Hope. He makes up a pas­sage from a mem­oir by John Richard­son in which Pi­casso is re­mem­bered sneak­ing into Kens­ing­ton Palace in a Grou­cho Marx dis­guise. “Pablo’s great­est mis­take was to marry HRH the Princess Mar­garet.” Brown will take the risks, any­thing to dis­tance him­self from the sus­pect genre of royal bi­og­ra­phy, where there is “no divi­sion be­tween the in­ter­est­ing and un­in­ter­est­ing.”

Neu­rol­o­gists may one day dis­cover a con­nec­tion be­tween men­tal ill­ness and writ­ing books about the royal fam­ily, Brown says. Au­thors of books on roy­alty di­vide into “fawn­ers” and “psy­chos.” He’s read most of them. “Wil­liam Shawcross, the Queen Mother’s trea­cly bi­og­ra­pher,” or “for his bi­og­ra­phy Princess Mar­garet: A Life of Con­trasts, Christo­pher War­wick was helped by the Princess her­self, and was duly grate­ful.” Brown likes to ac­cuse him­self of plun­der­ing sec­ondary sources, en­joy­ing his ap­petite for kitsch, and suf­fer­ing from bi­og­ra­pher’s delir­ium. He pays homage to Lyt­ton Stra­chey (but it’s James Pope-Hen­nessey’s Queen Mary that

peo­ple praise these days, not Stra­chey’s Queen Vic­to­ria).

Brown uses sources royal biogra­phies are usu­ally too snobby to trust and ad­mits the tes­ti­mony of David Grif­fin, Princess Mar­garet’s chauf­feur of twenty-six years, and the anec­dotes of Mar­ion Craw­ford, “Craw­fie,” the Scot­tish nanny whose mem­oir, The Lit­tle Princesses, made her no­to­ri­ous at court. Brown de­scribes My Life with Princess Mar­garet by for­mer foot­man David John Payne as voyeuris­tic, fetishis­tic, “and creepy,” and quotes at length from Payne’s fan­tasy that he had an un­spo­ken in­ti­macy with the princess. Banned in the UK, it was pub­lished in the US in 1962.

Brown has con­sulted the crazed and the courtiers, the broad­sheets and the tabloids, and footage on YouTube. While he has no in­dex him­self, he marvels at the num­ber of in­dexes in which “Mar­garet, Princess” ap­pears. He un­der­stands her po­si­tion. Hav­ing been born a piece of his­tory, she, as a pri­vate per­son, was pub­lic prop­erty:

31 Oc­to­ber 1955

‘I would like it to be known that I have de­cided not to marry Group Cap­tain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, sub­ject to my re­nounc­ing my rights of suc­ces­sion, it might have been pos­si­ble for me to con­tract a civil mar­riage. But mind­ful of the Church’s teach­ings that Chris­tian mar­riage is in­dis­sol­u­ble, and con­scious of my duty to the Com­mon­wealth, I have re­solved to put these con­sid­er­a­tions be­fore others. I have reached this de­ci­sion en­tirely alone, and in do­ing so I have been strength­ened by the un­fail­ing sup­port and de­vo­tion of Group Cap­tain Townsend. I am deeply grate­ful for the con­cern of all those who have con­stantly prayed for my hap­pi­ness.’

The princess was not al­lowed to for­get her failed ro­mance with a mar­ried, then di­vorced, man, Brown ob­serves. A large seg­ment of the British pub­lic con­sid­ered her the vic­tim of her un­cle’s ab­di­ca­tion cri­sis, de­nied hap­pi­ness by the out­worn moral­ity of an­other gen­er­a­tion. But Brown sug­gests that “the fairy tale ro­mance” may not have been real enough for her to give up royal shel­ter and live in ex­ile as a Mrs. Group Cap­tain, re­tired. Brown tries out an obit­u­ary for “Mrs. Peter Townsend, the for­mer HRH.” (And to think Prince Harry was al­ready liv­ing on the grounds of one of the palaces with the di­vorced, slightly older, mixed-race, i.e., black Amer­i­can woman he was soon to wed.) In her time, Brown re­minds us, Princess Mar­garet was a “na­tional sex sym­bol.” She could be in fan­tasy what the queen could not be. John Bet­je­man and Philip Larkin and John Fowles had lit­er­ary crushes on her; Ralph El­li­son re­ported to Al­bert Mur­ray that when pre­sented to her in 1956 he found her a “lit­tle hot look­ing pretty girl.” She was a bit of glam­our in Bri­tain’s aus­tere post­war smog. Jeremy Thorpe ac­tu­ally thought he had a shot at court­ing the princess. In 1979 he ended up on trial for con­spir­ing to mur­der his boyfriend. Brown him­self is not a lit­tle sus­cep­ti­ble; he lets her keep through­out a sort of in­no­cence. It makes him pro­tec­tive of her as he raises the ques­tion of how young the princess was when she and Townsend fell in love. Un­der Brown’s scru­tiny, Townsend’s ac­count of their re­la­tion­ship in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy seems a lit­tle fudged when it comes to the ques­tion of how old she was when they first got to­gether.

Mar­riage in 1960 to a com­moner was to make up for the heart­break of hav­ing done her duty. Antony Arm­strong-Jones, whom Auberon Waugh de­scribed as “her Welsh dwarf of ‘artis­tic’ lean­ings,” was Princess Mar­garet’s hasty choice to beat Townsend to the al­tar when he an­nounced his en­gage­ment to a young French­woman. The princess and her photographer started off as “the golden couple of the Swing­ing Six­ties.”

Her hus­band ac­cepted an earl­dom and took his princess by mo­tor­cy­cle to toss Coin­treau bot­tles into the Thames. They were hav­ing such a good time at the party fol­low­ing the pre­miere of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 that Ge­orge Harrison had to tell the princess that pro­to­col wouldn’t let them eat un­til she and her hus­band left:

Princess Mar­garet was drawn to the world of well-heeled bo­hemia: writ­ers and mu­si­cians and ac­tors and other fast-liv­ing artis­tic types who could nev­er­the­less be re­lied upon to show a fair mea­sure of def­er­ence. She liked the louche hours they kept, their smok­ing and drink­ing, their re­fusal to take re­spon­si­bil­ity or to do the right thing. In this she dif­fered from her sis­ter . . . .

From their point of view, the bo­hemi­ans en­joyed the ca­chet— ironic, satir­i­cal, tongue-in-cheek, but ca­chet none­the­less—of hav­ing a royal on dis­play, a real-life Princess to lend a bit of pageantry to things. It didn’t re­ally mat­ter that she could be dif­fi­cult. In a way, it was her party piece. If she hap­pened to round off an evening with a dis­play of her fa­mous hau­teur, then so much the bet­ter.

Ken­neth Ty­nan dis­cov­ered that in spite of the home movies she made with manic Peter Sell­ers, royal com­fort in bo­hemia did not ex­tend to sit­ting through an af­ter-din­ner screen­ing of Jean Genet’s dick-pop­u­lated Un chant d’amour. (Brown’s book is not nec­es­sar­ily chrono­log­i­cal, but it is 1968 in Ty­nan’s “glimpse,” which fin­ishes with Harold Pin­ter fall­ing down the stairs.)

The story that emerges fea­tures the bored, petty, and un­faith­ful hus­band who un­der­mines his wife in front of friends, fam­ily, and strangers. She has sought com­fort else­where, and by the mid-1970s is hang­ing out with a new love at her home on the Caribbean is­land of Mus­tique, given to her by Colin Ten­nant, mas­ter of jet-set cer­e­monies. Princess Mar­garet met Roddy Llewellyn in 1973, but it was not un­til a photographer man­aged to sneak onto the is­land in 1976 that her af­fair with a younger man in Union Jack swim­ming trunks be­came a scan­dal. Kens­ing­ton Palace soon an­nounced that princess and hus­band had “agreed mu­tu­ally to live apart.” That same year Lord Hare­wood be­came the first mem­ber of the British royal fam­ily to di­vorce since Princess Vic­to­ria of Ed­in­burgh in 1901. Princess Mar­garet was di­vorced in 1978. (“And so the tut­tathon con­tin­ued, each ac­tion spark­ing yet an­other re­ac­tion from politi­cians, colum­nists and read­ers: tut-tuts fol­lowed by more tut-tuts, then tut-tuts at the tut-tuts, tut­tuts at the tut-tuts at the tut-tuts, and so on, and so forth, ad in­fini­tum.” )

Three years later, Llewellyn hap­pily mar­ried some­one else, and Princess Mar­garet’s nephew, the heir ap­par­ent, brought home from the Abbey the tenth princess of Wales. Once the an­ces­tor of fu­ture monar­chs was her­self di­vorced, no longer royal, and blab­bing in books and on tele­vi­sion, Princess Mar­garet turned against her, she who had had the power to make other mem­bers of the royal fam­ily in the room stop talk­ing just by talk­ing a lit­tle more loudly her­self. The story had moved on. Diana, Princess of Wales, took it with her wher­ever she went. In 1997 lip-read­ers po­si­tioned them­selves across from the gates of Buck­ing­ham Palace as the fu­neral cortege draped in the royal stan­dard passed in front of the royal fam­ily. Brown says Princess Mar­garet had been alone in her op­po­si­tion to a royal fu­neral for her for­mer niece-in-law.

An ac­ci­dent in the bath­room on Mus­tique in 1999 left Princess Mar­garet badly scalded, af­ter which her health de­clined. Peo­ple gath­ered out­side Clarence House on the Queen Mother’s one­hun­dred-and-sec­ond birth­day gasped when her seventy-two-year-old daugh­ter was wheeled out in dark glasses. Princess Mar­garet died two months be­fore her mother in 2002. Brown does not for­get the Christie’s cat­a­log of the auc­tion in 2006 of 896 items from the col­lec­tion of HRH; he visits the Mus­tique re­alty web­site in 2017 when her house is up for sale. All gone.

Princess Mar­garet got bad press pretty much all the time. When asked by the BBC Ra­dio 4 host of Desert Is­land Discs how she re­acted to nasty sto­ries, Brown tran­scribes: “But Eh think that since the age of seven­teen Eh’ve been mis­re­ported and mis­rep­re­sented.” In one of his most play­ful flights, he shows thirty-one dif­fer­ent styles of voice in which a fact about the princess could be re­ported, from what he calls the jour­nal­is­tic to the tragic. How­ever, Brown’s book is not a guilty en­ter­tain­ment. He’s not try­ing to have it both ways, to put on a royal roustabout and then cover his pruri­ent in­ter­est by feign­ing dis­ap­proval or stand­ing for re­form. It is as if Princess Mar­garet and her scan­dals are sub­jects of nos­tal­gia for Brown. That realm and the cul­ture they shared have slipped away. In 1977 Fran­cis Ba­con booed her singing at a party and she ran off. Def­er­ence was no longer so cer­tain. For the roy­als, it be­came per­for­mance-re­lated, like pay un­der pri­va­ti­za­tion. Nine­ty­Nine Glimpses swims with re­ports of her snooty be­hav­ior, friendly, then cold, sel­dom punc­tual, sit­ting down to a pi­ano and keep­ing other guests wait­ing un­til the mid­dle of the night for her to take her leave. It be­came some­thing like her sig­na­ture, the so­cial de­mands (she in­sisted on Malvern wa­ter), the snide re­marks. A theme through­out Brown’s book is that if the monarch must be gra­cious, then her sis­ter is to say rude things, as if also play­ing a role. Plenty found her out­ra­geous­ness fun enough, un­til they, or she, didn’t. Brown says that Princess Mar­garet’s life asks the same ques­tion as Princess Diana’s life, which is what a princess is for. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, could an­swer that in a look.

Nella Last was a house­wife who kept a diary from 1939 to 1966 for the Mass-Ob­ser­va­tion archive and had a lot to say about the princess, but she was un­usu­ally sub­ur­ban among Wind­sor chron­i­clers. Chips Chan­non was of the class that could draw near and he saw Princess Mar­garet at a ball in 1949. Bar­bara Skel­ton, Cyril Con­nolly’s wife, was of the class that wanted to get away from what she rep­re­sented and in 1951 had no trou­ble dub­bing her “the Royal Dwarf” in her diary. Ce­cil Beaton in his diary is filled with jeal­ous loathing of the up­start Arm­strongJones. No ad­mirer of El­iz­a­beth Taylor’s, the princess is mis­be­hav­ing in Richard Bur­ton’s diary, and Lady Glad­wyn, a diplo­mat’s wife, re­ally lets the princess have it in her diary for her pre­dictable ob­streper­ous­ness. Noël Cow­ard is talk­ing and talk­ing about her, and so is James Lees-Milne, as bleak as any hyp­ocrite in Trol­lope. Then the bitchy mu­seum di­rec­tor Roy Strong is sneer­ing at her clothes, and here comes classs­mooth Alan Clark, draw­ing blood on ev­ery page. Even in pri­vate, she was on stage.

The most provoca­tive story Nine­ty­Nine Glimpses tells is how mean the bo­hemian mi­lieu in mid­cen­tury Lon­don could be, how heart­less the British up­per classes were, and how lit­tle they needed the Six­ties and so­cial change to swing. They had been do­ing it be­hind closed doors for gen­er­a­tions. The Mit­fords dis­missed Mar­garet, yet those clos­est to her—out­side of the royal fam­ily—were aris­to­cratic women, such as the writ­ers Selina Hast­ings and Su­sanna John­ston, and her la­dyin-wait­ing of many years, Anne, Lady Glen­con­ner. Brown has lis­tened to the in­tel­li­gent sym­pa­thy they had for her. Gore Vidal re­mained a stead­fast friend, a royal princess be­ing such a gay en­thu­si­asm. Early on, he said that it would take a di­arist on the or­der of the Duc de Saint-Si­mon, “the French mas­ter of so­cial cyn­i­cism,” to do jus­tice to the bick­er­ing be­tween the princess and her hus­band. Maybe she caught a break there.

Princess Mar­garet at her house on the West In­dian is­land of Mus­tique, April 1976

Princess Mar­garet cos­tumed for a char­ity ball, 1964

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