The First Modern Royal
How Lord Snowdon became a star
HE WAS THE DASHING, leading man in what was arguably the biggest production of 1960: his union with Princess Margaret. Watched by some 300 million people, it was the first royal wedding to be shown on television. When she took Antony Armstrong-Jones for better or for worse at Westminster Abbey, it was not only a harbinger of blockbuster nuptials to come (think Charles and Di), but also hoisted Tony and Margaret into an ozone layer of glamour, occupied in that era by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
With his Eton-honed élan, his Byronic good looks, and his job (gasp!) as a photographer, the groom was an instant star. This was despite some sniping from the establishment about a commoner marrying into royalty (foreshadowing the wives of princes William and Harry), and because of the bohemianism he represented, which gave the press fresh meat to feast on. The union offered the monarchy its first crossover with the world of celebrity (again with the foreshadowing).
Born in 1930 into minor gentry, Armstrong-Jones came tumbling into a family that was soon broken, with his grandiose mom, socialite Anne Messel, becoming the Countess of Rosse following a second marriage. He was struck with polio as a teen, which left him bedbound for a year, and gave him a permanent limp and a finely spooled imagination.
By the time he met the wilful Margaret on the London social circuit, he was already well on the way to becoming one of the celebrated photographers of his generation. Revolutionizing theatre photography, which had consisted of drearily posed portraits, he did what he called “snaps.” Armstrong-Jones, as his biographer Anne de Courcy wrote, “would prowl among the cast at rehearsals, flitting about in well-worn jeans while snapping away with a small hand-held camera ... Nothing like it had been seen before.”
The courtship was so clandestine, few knew about it. Some say it was the best-kept royal secret of the last century, and a surprise, alas, to Armstrong-Jones’ ex-girlfriend Camilla Grinling, who was carrying his baby by then, even though she was married to his best friend, Jeremy Fry. The baby was born while Margaret and Tony were on honeymoon, in a “Ring Around the Rosie” of infidelity (on both sides!) that would become a feature of their marriage.
Armstrong-Jones’ proclivities extended to the bisexual, as veteran British journalist Clive Irving contends in the PBS documentary Margaret: The Rebel Princess. It didn’t faze Margaret, and Irving corroborates what has long been whispered: that Armstrong-Jones had been in a “throuple” with Grinling and Fry.
Tony and Margaret were two bon vivants with the ability to make each other howl, so the marriage was good for awhile. It helped that Lord Snowdon (his sister-in-law, the Queen, soon bequeathed him the title) shared many interests with his wife – ballet, swimming and carousing – and that the public was so invested in the couple, with the Snowdons sent to represent the Crown at independence celebrations in Jamaica, for example. They had two children: David and Sarah Armstrong-Jones.
By 1976 it was all over, the marriage cracking under the weight of too many extramarital affairs and fiery rows. “Her Royal Highness, the Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and the Earl of Snowdon have mutually agreed to live apart,” came the official announcement – the first royal divorce since King Henry VIII’s in 1540 – and yet another trailer for Windsor splits to come.
Armstrong-Jones had more chapters in him, though. Friendly with the royals post-Margaret – even invited to photograph Charles and Di for their 1981 engagement – his was a life filled with creative juices. He published more than a dozen books. He designed an aviary for the London Zoo. He helped invent an electric-powered wheelchair, and became an advocate for the disabled in the House of Lords. Another marriage followed. More affairs. He photographed everyone from Valentino to David Hockney to Germaine Greer.
When his pal, painter David Bailey, asked him if he had any regrets, shortly before he died in 2017, his response was succinct: “No. None.”