Australian Women’s Weekly NZ
Andrew Morton exclusive:
In the 1960s they were the royal glamour couple, but the ritzy world of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones stood in stark contrast to her sister the Queen’s.
Princess Margaret – tiaras, tantrums and her tumultuous love
Decades before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were flag-bearers of the progressive and global, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were established as Britain’s hippest couple, peerless representatives of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and living proof that the monarchy could be both traditional and modern. According to Lord Ardwick, editor of the Daily Herald, the Snowdons signified ‘a new kind of royalty’. He went on: ‘they had far more contacts among writers and artists and so forth, not among stuffy courtiers. They became the new family model of fast travelling, hard-working, affluent young people – but at a price, a cost that was not always welcome.’ Together, this bohemian couple raced through the streets of London on Snowdon’s motorcycle or in his new Mini, visiting street markets, jazz clubs and theatres.
Such was their appeal that even First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was deeply disappointed when neither the princess nor her husband was present at a dinner in honour of President Kennedy held at Buckingham Palace in June 1961. Internationally, they were the royal version of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: sophisticated, artistic and raffish. Once, Margaret tried on the 29.4-carat diamond ring that had been given to Taylor by her third husband Mike Todd. She joked it was ‘vulgar’. Liz replied: ‘Yeah ain’t it great.’
Vibrant, dynamic and glamorous, Margaret and Tony in the early years captivated the nation, injecting new life and energy into what Prince Philip called ‘the Firm’. Everything from their fashions to their crowd – naturally ‘in’ – was a playful counterpoint to the Queen and her Court. If the Snowdons were deemed ‘hip plush’, the Queen was ‘starchy matron’ – her fashions were still chosen by her dresser since childhood, Bobo MacDonald. Just as her father had done, it was Tony who guided Margaret’s style, urging her to adopt simpler, skimpier trends to mirror the taste and temper of the time. Though she never wore miniskirts, her skirts and dresses were still much shorter than those of other royal women. She also experimented with kaftans, lace stockings and costume jewellery, and at one point the princess was voted just behind actor Grace Kelly in the annual ‘World’s Best Dressed Woman’ contest.
In contrast to the Queen’s unalterable look, Margaret’s hairstyle was constantly changing, from glossy bobs to elaborate, high-reaching coiffures adorned with hairpieces. Nor was she afraid to showcase daring trends: pale lipstick, heavy eye shadow, long earrings, and a provocatively low neckline. Tony’s clothes were just as modish: velvet jackets, voile shirts and barrow-boy caps. He even wore a white polo neck instead of black tie to formal events.
While the Queen and Prince Philip remained on British soil for their holidays, Margaret and Tony quickly became members of the international jet set and much-soughtafter guests of the rich and powerful. At a time when travel abroad was exclusive and expensive, their holidays on a millionaire’s yacht or villa excited awe and jealousy in equal measure. In September 1963, when the Queen and the rest of the royal family were at Balmoral, the Snowdons holidayed on a private Aegean island owned by Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos, which came fully stocked with game birds for shooting parties.
The following year it was the turn of the British-born
Aga Khan to fly them on his private plane to the exclusive resort of Costa Smeralda on the Italian island of Sardinia, where they were able to water-ski, sail, snorkel and sunbathe in relative privacy. They returned to the island often. On one occasion, the Aga Khan’s yacht, the
Amaloun, hit a rock and started to sink. Tony dove into the water and the others took to a life raft, from which they were rescued by a passing boat. Significantly, the first person Margaret contacted to say all was well was the Queen.
That escapade did not dim their enthusiasm for all things Italian. It became a favoured holiday destination. In the summer of 1965, for example, the couple drove to Rome in Tony’s Aston Martin to see the sights and be received by the Pope in a private audience. The paparazzi stalked them constantly, one photographer observing: ‘You have to remember that Princess Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor are the two most wanted women in the world.’
Once the Snowdons moved into their newly renovated, 20-roomed home at Kensington Palace in March 1963, an invitation to supper or for a sing-along around the grand piano became the hottest ticket in town. Their social circle reflected their bohemian bent, singers, musicians, artists and writers all beating a path to 1a Clock Court.
Their servants did not mind working 18-hour days when they had the chance to glimpse luminaries such as designer Mary Quant, writer Edna O’Brien – Margaret did a good impression of the writer’s breathless, confiding speech patterns – actor Peter Sellers and his wife Britt Ekland, ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and trend-setting hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. The Snowdons even befriended the Beatles, with John Lennon famously nicknaming the couple ‘Priceless Margarine’ and ‘Bony
“Margaret and Tony quickly became members of the international jet set.”
Armstrove’. On one occasion, George Harrison asked Margaret to get his drug-possession charges dropped.
She declined. ‘I adored them because they were poets as well as musicians,’ the princess later recalled.
Their parties were replete with the rich and famous.
The comedian and musician Dudley Moore would play the piano; Cleo Laine and her jazz musician husband John Dankworth would sing; John Betjeman, a future poet laureate, would tell stories. Often, Princess Margaret would join in playing the piano and singing tunes from her favourite musicals. When the lights were out at Buckingham Palace, they were still blazing until the early hours at the Snowdons’ salon – invariably at Margaret’s bidding.
Established in her own home for the first time in her life and with baby number two on the way, Margaret’s life was scintillating, busy and happy. She could even share the mutual joys and difficulties of pregnancy with her sister, as the Queen gave birth to her fourth child, Prince Edward, in March 1964. Elizabeth and Prince Philip made a modest concession to modernity: for the first time,
Prince Philip was present at the birth, which took place in the Belgian Suite at Buckingham Palace.
During this time, the differing personalities of the two sisters became more sharply delineated and formalised as Margaret established her own home and social circle. At last she had her own salon where the princess, a performer and extrovert at heart, could literally hold court. By contrast, her sister focused her attention on her horses and dogs, her people being the country set who followed the jumps and the flats. Animals never broke her trust, let her down or came to her with difficult problems.
While Margaret inhabited a social halfway house, befriending the era’s popular icons as well as those with a handle before their first name, Elizabeth’s friends came almost exclusively from the land-owning aristocracy – she first knew her fourth prime minister, Sir Alec DouglasHome, as the owner of land in Scotland – or were those from the Guards regiments such as Lord Plunket and Lord Porchester, her racing manager, who got to know her during the war. When her mother won the Whitbread Gold Cup with Special Cargo, Colonel Bill Whitbread and his wife Betty held a dinner party for the Queen Mother. After dinner they adjourned to another room to watch the race one more time. They were a chair short so the Queen sat on the floor, clearly being comfortable with the racing crowd she was with. It is hard to imagine her being so relaxed with Margaret’s friends. Like her father, the Queen was uncomfortable around artists and the avant-garde.
Trust was always an issue, hence the reliance on familiar faces, on the tried and tested. Arguably, for all their differences, her sister was the Queen’s closest friend and, along with her husband, most stalwart and loyal supporter. Though Margaret was the undoubted queen of the smart set, she was always the supporting act to her sister, never the star of the show. She gave a telling clue as to the origin of this family drama when she said: ‘I’ve never suffered from second daughter-itis. I’ve never minded being referred to as the younger daughter but I do mind being referred to as the younger sister.’ This was a question of place and position in the hierarchy. As historian Michael Nash observed: ‘While her father was King, her own position was more elevated. She was in the mainstream. Immediately after he died, she became a collateral branch.’
Since she’d been a little girl, Margaret was the one drawn to the spotlight, who loved being the centre of attention whether the audience was just her father or, during the war, a table full of Guards officers. Now it was in her sitting room at Kensington Palace that she reigned supreme, singing show tunes as she sipped Famous Grouse whisky.
She was, though, undoubtedly loyal to her sister, just as she was to her friends – a characteristic that pleased the Queen. Her role, as she told writer Andrew Duncan, was to support her sister in her difficult and isolated position. ‘In my own humble way I’ve always tried to take some of the burden off my sister. She can’t do it all you know. And I leap at the opportunity to help.’
Margaret was a pioneer in trying to remove the barriers of snobbery and protocol – but not all. Woe betide the conversational partner who referred to ‘your sister’ or
‘your father’. They received ‘the Windsor glare’. Though she struggled to turn on the electric kettle, when she was a guest at a weekend party she liked to muck in, whether it be laying the fire – a particular pleasure – stripping wallpaper or washing up. She hankered after a life more ordinary but not too ordinary. Royalty mattered most.
It was a social tightrope she walked all her life. As Tony’s business manager Peter Lyster-Todd observed: ‘I often stayed with them for weekends and you never quite knew what you were going to get; friendly Margaret or talking to “Ma’am”.’ It became a common refrain. While drag artist Danny La Rue found Margaret ‘witty and highly intelligent’, he maintained, ‘you always knew you were in the presence of a princess’.
For the Queen’s 39th birthday in 1965, the Snowdons joined Peter Sellers and several other friends in making a 15-minute home movie as a gift for Her Majesty. At one point in the film, Sellers, who played ‘The Great Berko’, proclaimed that in a world-record time of 11 seconds flat he would perform his celebrated impression of Princess Margaret. He then disappeared behind a screen and flung various articles of clothing into the air, after which, a few seconds later, the actual princess emerged, curtseying and grinning before retreating behind the screen. The Queen loved the movie and showed it frequently.
Within months, in November 1965, the princess and her husband were on a professional movie set, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mary Pickford, Charlton Heston, Maurice Chevalier and James Stewart at Universal Studios in Studio City, Hollywood. The three-week, five-city tour of the United States was the chance to fly the flag for Britain and take time to enjoy the sights, courtesy of their host, Margaret’s long-time American friend Sass Douglas, who organised the tour. Besides Los Angeles, the couple charmed San Francisco’s old-money families, dazzled
Clockwise from top left: Margaret and Tony return from the West Indies in 1962; making headlines in New York in 1965; touring the US; with President Johnson and his wife; meeting the Beatles in 1965; the duo with their children, Sarah and David.
New York’s Upper East Side aristocracy, and greeted locals in small town Arizona – Sass’s home state – before schmoozing President Johnson at a black-tie dinner held at the White House. The royal couple, who had performed numerous successful overseas visits on behalf of the Queen, found themselves the subject of constant criticism – even though many thought the trip a triumph.
While the tour was followed with intense interest by the media, Palace officials watched in horror as the trip devolved into utter mayhem. The getting-to-know-you visit was supposed to show Americans just how sexy and unstuffy the British royals could be. Who more qualified to do that than the House of Windsor’s grooviest couple, Margaret and Tony? Instead, as one columnist put it, the visit caused ‘plenty of trouble’. The jamboree cost the equivalent of US$500,000 and many lost tempers. An aircraft of the Queen’s Flight was sent out to back up a Lockheed JetStar, which an obliging President Johnson had provided. In addition, British Airways lent them a VC10 jet. The couple’s entourage included a Mayfair hairdresser, two menservants, two maids, a detective, a secretary, a lady-in-waiting, a private secretary and the Deputy Captain of the Queen’s Flight.
What followed after touchdown was a litany of missed appointments, cancelled public engagements and highly publicised social snubs. The princess, with her dangerous mix of highfalutin’ formality and fun-loving affability, was difficult to read. One instant she could be all friends together, the next she would be the daughter of the King-Emperor astride her high horse.
At a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the princess sent a message across the room to say that she would like to hear Judy Garland sing. The singer was incensed by the lordly tone and the trivialising of her talent. She said: ‘Go and tell that nasty, rude little princess that we’ve known each other long enough and gabbed enough in ladies’ rooms that she should skip the ho-hum royal routine, pop over here and ask me herself. Tell her I’ll sing if she christens a ship first.’
Then, when Margaret met with President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird, she made full use of her ‘actressy’ nature. According to one observer, who saw her at a ball at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, ‘It’s a put-on; campy; tongue-in-cheek camp. She’s doing an impersonation of herself.’ Princess Margaret – always the performer – loved opportunities where she could showcase her ‘star’ nature, becoming an exaggeration of her own public persona.
The couple were subject to a flurry of critical headlines from both sides of the political divide back in the UK, the left-wing New Statesman describing her tour as a ‘private rubbernecking trip to the American fun centres’ while the right-wing Sunday Express called it a ‘holiday frolic among the tinsel princes and princesses of Hollywood’.
After her return to London in late November, questions were asked in the House of Commons about her behaviour. In a private report, the British ambassador, Sir Patrick Dean, reported diplomatically: ‘They worked hard and played hard. It was a mistake that so much of their time was spent with and organised by Miss Douglas. It was not always possible to persuade the American public that HRH and Lord Snowdon were serious as well as gay people.’ When the princess spoke of returning to the States in 1973, British ambassador Lord Cromer torpedoed the suggestion. Margaret’s private secretary Lieutenant-Colonel BurnabyAtkins was told, ‘Lord Cromer is not at all keen on having the Princess in the United States, possibly for some time to come. This is mainly due to the behaviour of some of HRH’s friends, who tend to take such visits lightly.’
With headlines like ‘Luxury tour’, ‘Who pays’ and ‘Own hairdresser’, the impression was left in the public mind once again that the princess was neither pulling her weight nor cost effective. Once established, this narrative would dog her for the rest of her life, no matter how many public engagements she undertook on behalf of the Queen.
The wheels were beginning to come off – not just in terms of her public image but also concerning the couple’s private behaviour. Similar in so many ways, the personality traits that had at first united now gradually divided them. It was Margaret’s tragedy that consciously and subconsciously she fell for a man who exhibited similar characteristics to herself rather than her sister.
Tragically, it soon became apparent that, in the worst sense, Margaret and Tony were ‘two peas in a pod’, both strong-willed, competitive, ‘centre-stage’ people used to getting their way. The princess had long been indulged and coddled, while Tony was magnetic and ambitious, bolder and more conniving than Margaret herself. With their personalities ‘too alike, too selfish’, as friends recalled, they were bound to clash. In this battle of wills, Snowdon, as the Queen’s biographer Sarah Bradford noted, was much better at being nasty than Margaret.
Though the earliest years of their marriage were happy and stimulating, Snowdon soon chafed at the bars of the royal cage – as his friends had predicted.
Before the couple married, Margaret’s lady-in-waiting Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, who first introduced them, asked the princess if she could genuinely cope with Tony’s ‘bohemian world’. When Lady Elizabeth explained that he would be here, there and everywhere with his professional commitments and would not always be home for dinner, Margaret dismissed her concerns, believing that their passion and deep connection would overcome all obstacles.
For all her surface royal sheen, Margaret was a surprisingly shy, insecure woman, more so than her sister, and once marital hostilities began it was easy for Snowdon to knock her off her perch. In the beginning he could pass off his casual controlling cruelties as practical jokes.
In the summer of 1963, when the couple stayed with wealthy Greek ship owner Stavros Niarchos on his private island, Spetsopoula, friends on a nearby island threw a party to celebrate Margaret’s thirty-third birthday. When Tony arrived, he brought presents for everyone – except his wife. Then, as the two were getting ready for the barbecue that night, Margaret shouted from upstairs, ‘Oh, darling, what shall I wear?’ Tony replied, ‘I think that ball gown
you wore last week.’ Margaret, suspecting nothing, arrived at the dinner dressed to the hilt, while all the other guests wore casual jeans. These kinds of jokes-in-disguise progressively undermined her self-confidence and her trust in her husband. As the years ticked by, the photographer’s controlling behaviour could be described as mental cruelty.
For all her differences with her sister, she saw the Queen’s successful marriage as a template she should imitate. Like Tony, Philip was an alpha male, creative, bombastic and strong-willed but accepting of his secondary role in the marriage. As he had once told a friend: ‘This is my destiny – to support my wife in what lies ahead for her.’ In the early years, Snowdon performed this role exactly as Margaret had imagined – a smiling, gracious and deferential addition to her retinue.
Once he began working for the Sunday Times, he reverted to type, a workaholic with a wandering eye. An early riser, he was working when Margaret, after a long night carousing, was still in bed, often until shortly before noon. After a row he might send her a note, loving but firm, suggesting that she drink less and retire to bed earlier. Given her later health problems, this note could be interpreted as a husband’s fond concern for his wife. He had the ability, which she found ultimately frustrating, of skilfully laying every problem with the marriage at her door.
She knew instinctively that if she started complaining to her sister or mother, they wouldn’t want to know. They had experienced a lifetime of Margaret’s rudeness and self-absorption, so probably would side with the angelic and courteous Tony. The Queen knew it had been a long struggle for her own husband to adapt, so she sympathised with Tony’s juggling act, working as a photographer as well as undertaking national and international royal duties.
The couple began to move in different worlds. Though Margaret had longed to create a life outside royal circles, at moments of personal tension she fell back on the familiar, namely the formalities and superficialities of the royal world. In this world, her natural habitat, it was others who had to compromise to her standards and requirements.
But as Tony began to exhibit a growing need for independence, she became increasingly possessive, calling him on assignments, at restaurants or at the homes of friends. Lacking Elizabeth’s economy of emotion, Margaret could not accept that someone had ‘out-royaled her’. Since she was a girl, she had used her personality and position to get away with murder. As the gloves came off in their marriage, she began to realise she had finally met her match.
Though she was aware of the backstage drama in her sister’s marriage, the Queen simply watched and waited, hoping that matters would resolve themselves.
The cracks remained, as Tony found his duties as consort increasingly burdensome. He snapped, ‘I am not a member of the royal family. I am married to a member of the royal family.’ He focused fiercely on his job, travelling around the world on assignments, both for still photography and filming documentaries. It was creatively fulfilling but it was a world that was alien to the princess. Though she pleaded with him to let her join him on projects, he flatly refused, saying he wanted to be as anonymous as possible.
Meanwhile, Margaret remained at home, pregnant and bored. Just as the sisters had faced the challenges of pregnancy together, Elizabeth fretted over the effects of the deteriorating marriage on her sister. She knew that Margaret’s doctor – worried that marital strain was endangering her second pregnancy – had even warned Tony directly about his behaviour.
While the pregnant princess marked time, Tony was busier than ever, shooting portraits of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, and Sophia Loren. He also designed the impressive Snowdon Aviary at the London Zoo, which opened in October 1964. Most importantly, he began to evolve into a progressive voice for change, championing the disadvantaged, dispossessed and disabled. Not only did he photograph blind and deaf children, as well as victims of rubella, but he also started making award-winning TV documentaries about old age, mental health, disability, poverty and children. He was delighted that the Queen watched his work, the Sovereign complimenting him fulsomely on his efforts.
As Snowdon’s star rose, Margaret’s only claim to fame continued to be an accident of birth – a truth she shrank from her entire life.
The seeds of discontent were now sown. Rows she could bear; at least they signified emotional engagement. It was the silent treatment she dreaded. He would arrive home late and then head straight to his basement work room, often ignoring his wife’s requests to meet with guests.
With the birth of their second child, Sarah Frances Elizabeth, on 1 May 1964, there was a temporary truce. Tony had his assistant fetch a huge bouquet for Margaret from the florist. Ever conscious of royal protocol that the Queen must be the first to know the baby’s birth and sex, Tony instructed the assistant: ‘If they do it up in pink ribbon, hide it – otherwise the press’ll know that it’s a girl.’ An hour after the birth, Tony visited his wife and new daughter, then dutifully telephoned the Queen and Queen Mother, who came to see the infant in the severe black of court mourning following the death of the King of Greece. It was not an auspicious omen.
“After a row he might send her a note ... suggesting that she drink less.”