Anthony Armstrong-Jones was the first commoner to marry a British king’s daughter in 400 years, and in 1960 his profession – “society photographer” – lent a dash of trendiness and modernity to the Royal Family. By the time of his death 57 years later, the first Earl of Snowdon, a prodigious swinger of Swinging London, seemed far more quaintly passé than any of the more conventional royal consorts. Serially unfaithful both to Princess Margaret and her successor as his countess, Tony Snowdon (as he liked to be known) fathered at least two illegitimate children and drove one lover to suicide. His tastes were varied but close to home: he is alleged to have had a fling with the Queen Mother’s longtime page, Backstairs Billy Tallon. The “society decorator” Nicky Haslam claims affairs with both Lord Snowdon and the man who replaced him in Princess Margaret’s affections, the “society gardener” Roddy Llewellyn.
Whatever. I expect someone’s working on a book about it all. His royal bride was cursed to be the House of Windsor’s in-between generation, no longer expected to endure a dynastic merger with a Euro-princeling, yet not quite permitted to marry for love, not if your one great love was an unacceptable divorcé. So instead she settled for Snowdon, who lived fast and well, and survived his princess by a decade and a half.
Here’s what I had to say when Princess Margaret died almost exactly 15 years ago. This obituary is anthologized in Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade:
I haven’t seen any official Canadian statements offering condolences to the Queen on the death of Princess Margaret. Perhaps the Bloc, as part of its heroic revolutionary struggle, has vetoed them. But I note that most reports begin with references to “years of heavy smoking” or, alternatively, “of heavy smoking and drinking”. The great Australian wag Tim Blair contrasts this with the obituaries for Linda McCartney, who was respectfully styled as a “committed vegetarian”: when a committed vegetarian dies of cancer at 56, it’s just one of those things, could’ve happened to anyone; when a heavy smoker/drinker lives out her three score and ten, she’s a victim of her addictions.
I can testify to her prodigious intake. A few years ago, I was on the judges’ panel of some music prize and, come the awards ceremony, found myself sitting across the table from Her Royal Highness. This was way back in the mid-Nineties and even then the lunch had the vague feel of a parody Royal occasion. I’d been put next to Vera Lynn, Britain’s famed “Forces’ Sweetheart” of World War Two, celebrated songstress of “We’ll Meet Again” and “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover”. She sent back the avocado, sniffing “This French food disagrees with me.” That’s the Dunkirk spirit.
Over the table, Princess Margaret seemed tetchy and irritable and, after some whispering with our host, the compère of the occasion stood up and announced that we would have the Loyal Toast a little early “thus enabling a certain personage among us to smoke”. For any Bloquiste readers, I should explain that the Loyal Toast to Her Majesty comes at the end of the meal, after which guests are permitted to light up. But, for the first time in my experience, the Loyal Toast was being scheduled in the middle of the hors d’oeuvres. So, halfway through the avocado, we all shuffled to our feet, raised our glasses, toasted “The Queen!” and, before our bottoms had hit the upholstery, Princess Margaret had whipped out her ivory cigarette holder, loaded up, and was awaiting a light.
According to the obituaries, she was a 30-a-day gal. By my reckoning, she got through a good couple of dozen over lunch. By the time Vera Lynn sent back the fish and asked them to bring her some chicken, Her Highness had had at least three. By the time Dame Vera sent back the chicken, telling the waiter “This is inedible”, Her Highness had had maybe six or seven. By the time Dame Vera remarked to me that “the colour of your jacket is making me nauseous”, Her Highness was on her second pack. She smoked between mouthfuls, she smoked between gulps, she smoked between cigarettes.
The Princess’ understanding of the deal was admirable in its simplicity. She had lent her Royal lustre to the occasion, and in return she expected to be entertained. I ventured an amusing anecdote – short, colourful, breezy set-up, zinger of a punch line. She seemed to be enjoying it, until, ten seconds before the end, she cut me off and demanded to know, “Has anyone seen Jurassic Park?” Someone had, and started to tell a Spielberg story, but again she cut him off and moved on to someone else. I’d got it figured out by now: When the cigarette burned down to approx. three-eighths of an inch from the filter, she’d kill your anecdote stone dead. If you could raconte quicker than she could smoke, you had a sporting chance.
She handed out the prizes with noticeable lack of enthusiasm – I’m comparing her not just to Di but to the Queen – and then tottered off, a tiny woman, barely five foot, atop huge chunky shoes, like Minnie Mouse with an attitude problem. “She was on good form today,” an old Royal hand told me. “Doesn’t always go as well.” Someone said that the Princess had given the elderly lady-in-waiting accompanying her a toilet brush for Christmas because the Princess had had to use the bathroom at her house and discovered she hadn’t got one.
The awards were supposed to honour up-and-coming young talent, but in my corner of the room, between Vera and Margaret, the whole thing seemed suffused in the grim monochrome austerity of post-war Britain. “Post-war Britain” is a term that covers not just a couple of years in the late Forties, but an entire era, constraints such as petrol rationing stretching languorously on to taint a generation, from VE Day to, well, somewhere “between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”, to quote Philip Larkin. In Britain’s post-war baby boom, there were babies, but no boom. I have no first-hand experience of the time or place – I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes, they being barely twinkles themselves – but I always like the bit in pretty much any Mordecai Richler novel when the young Montreal protagonist arrives in 1950s London and is shocked by what the locals call the totty. “Where were the girls?” wonders Jake in St Urbain’s Horseman. “Oh my God, the ones he saw in the pubs were so depressingly lumpy, all those years of bread-and-dripping and sweets and fishpaste sandwiches having entered their young bodies like a poison, coming out here as a moustache, there as a chilblain, and like lead through the teeth.”
In a world where even the pin-ups were homely and/or beefy chantoozies like Anne Shelton and Alma Cogan, Princess Margaret Rose was a rare bloom. If you look at the early portraits of the young princesses, Margaret and Elizabeth, they have the same features – same eyes, same lips, same nose, same curls, same impressive Windsor bosom – but there’s a flash in Margaret’s eyes, a tease in the lips. The Queen is all business, her sister hints at pleasure. Fifty years ago, on the death of her father, Princess Elizabeth returned from Kenya to London as Queen and was greeted at the airport by Churchill, who was so overcome by grief he could barely speak his words of condolence. The Queen is said to have replied, “A sad homecoming. But a smooth flight.” Yes, well, there we are. Mustn’t grumble. All very English.
Margaret, on the other hand, ran with a raffish West End fast set. Unlike the rest of the family, she had no interest in the country, not the British kind anyway. When she left town, it was not for Sandringham or Balmoral, but Tuscany or Mustique. Her affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a dashing divorcé, became public on the very day of her sister’s Coronation, when she was seen on the porch of Westminster Abbey familiarly brushing a piece of fluff from his uniform. When their love survived the machinations of courtiers, she was forced to make the classic Royal choice and announced she would not marry him, “mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth.” That would be us.
How quaintly Ruritanian it seems. “Is love the only thing?” Princess Flavia asks her English adventurer in The Prisoner Of Zenda. “If love were the only thing, I would follow you – in rags, if need be – to the world’s end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand!.. But honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my House.”
The bright eyes dimmed. The dazzling smile soured. In some of the group shots for Charles and Di’s wedding, Princess Margaret’s the only one who doesn’t seem to be under any illusions. She never found a role, only endless lunches like the one above, dinners and receptions, charities and openings, in London and Toronto, Belize and Botswana, the sum of whose parts never added up to any kind of coherent whole. She was a great booster of, for example, Aids charities but never flaunted her saintliness Diana-style. Meanwhile, after her Battle of Britain hero was deemed unsuitable, she ran around with Peter Sellers, Mick Jagger, and a Welsh gardener 17 years her junior, the emblem of duty decaying into an emblem of disappointment, and dissolution. I wouldn’t have wanted to live her life and, if the price of its frustrations is that you smoke during the soup course and screw up showbiz anecdotes and give toilet brushes for Christmas, well, that’s fine by me. But, as on Coronation Day, on the eve of the Golden Jubilee the Queen has been upstaged by her sister once again – for few people sum up so well how far English society has travelled from those drab, pinched British Fifties.