Margaret Campbell, the famous and beautiful Duchess of Argyll, had been a celebrity, and a source of scandal, even before her debutante days.
But she would be remembered for only one thing: the so-called ‘divorce of the century’, which ended her marriage to the Duke of Argyll in 1963.
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Photos, forcibly taken by her husband and presented as evidence, showed her naked in her distinctive pearls, in what the presiding judge called “a rude form of sexual intercourse” with an unidentified man.
The divorce convulsed the United Kingdom of the 1960s, and reflected the changes that were to come.
What has perhaps been lost along the way is the feeling that the Duchess, and indeed the Duke, were living human beings, flesh and blood.
A new miniseries “A Very British Scandal“Or” A very British scandal “, with the actors Claire Foy and Paul Bettany playing the Argyll, try to rectify that.
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But this is one of those stories that makes sense of the old cliché that says: truth is stranger than any fiction.
Scandalous and adored
Daughter of a Scottish millionaire, raised primarily in New York, the young Margaret Whigham He grew up in an atmosphere of privilege, but of emotional insecurity.
When I was 19, I was already a veteran of commitments: with the prince Aly khan, the Earl of Warwick, the son of newspaper mogul Lord Beaverbrook, and married millionaire sportsman Glen Kidston.
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Also, as she told an aspiring biographer, she became pregnant with actor David Niven and underwent an illegal abortion.
In 1933, at age 20, she married the wealthy businessman and socialite Charles Sweeny. There was so much public excitement surrounding her wedding dress that the event paralyzed traffic in Knightsbridge, a posh part of London, for three hours.
Such was his status that in a cover of Cole Porter’s hit song ‘You’re the top‘was referring to’ Mrs Sweeny ‘.
But after 13 years, two children, one stillbirth, and eight miscarriages, the couple divorced in 1947, comparatively amicable by the standards of things to come.
“Cold and unpleasant”
Unlike the previous one, Margaret’s marriage four years later to the eleventh Duke of Argyll it was troublesome from the start.
Ian Campbell he was the head of his clan, Hereditary Master of the Royal House of Scotland, with many other forceful titles.
But he was also addicted to drinking, gambling and prescription drugs, still suffering trauma as a result of being a prisoner of war in Germany.
His two previous wives spoke of their physical violence and emotional cruelty, and of his ruthless determination to use his money for the preservation of his family home, Inveraray Castle.
Writer Norman Mailer, who married the Duke of Argyll’s daughter from a previous marriage, described him as “one of the coldest and nastiest men I have ever met”.
Why did the Dukes of Argyll divorce?
The 1963 divorce case was just the culmination of a long battle in which for about five years the Argylls, now separated, had sued and countersued each other.
During the lengthy legal process, Margaret falsified documentary evidence to suggest that the Duke’s children from a previous marriage were illegitimate and accused the Duke of infidelity with her own stepmother.
In turn, the duke obtained a court order to keep her away from Inveraray and ransacked her home in search of her private papers. And among them were the mentioned photos.
The explicit photographs showed a woman, apparently Margaret, identified by her distinctive three-stranded pearl necklace, performing fellatio on a man.
When the images were presented as evidence during the divorce case, the public interest was focused on the identity of the man, whose head could not be seen and whom Margaret would never name.
Who was the “headless man”?
Margaret’s known lovers included Duncan Sandys, British Defense Minister and son-in-law of Winston Churchill; the German diplomat Sigismund von Braun; two wealthy American businessmen, and Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
During the process there were said to be 88 possible candidates, that Margaret was, in the judge’s words, “a highly sexual woman who was no longer satisfied with normal relationships.”
It was also suggested during the course of the trial that an accident, a fall down an elevator shaft two decades earlier, had triggered what was described as nymphomania.
On the other hand, it was said that many of the men whose company she enjoyed were homosexual, but that she refused to put them in danger by confirming it, at a time when homosexuality in the UK was still illegal.
A scandalous year
Between 1962 and 1963 the British saw the outbreak of not one, but three extraordinary scandals, all linked in the minds of the press and the public.
The Vassall Affair he saw John Vassall, a government employee at the British embassy in Moscow, caught in a ‘mie trap’: he was photographed in bed with three other naked men and then blackmailed by the KGB.
Returning to England and working in various intelligence offices, he leaked documents in the Soviet Union until their discovery, arrest, trial, and sentencing in October 1962.
During the following winter, the case continued to spiral until it prompted the resignation of an Admiralty Lord, and a witch hunt in official circles; the goal, as Vassall described it, was less to persecute communists than homosexuals.
Most famously, in the spring of 1963, when the Argyll battles reached a climax, was the Profumo Affair.
In the summer of 1961, the British Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, met the “happy girl” Christine Keeler at the swimming pool of the Cliveden Hotel. Another of Keeler’s lovers was also present: Eugene Ivanov, Russian naval attaché and spy.
The brief affair between Profumo and Keeler included ridiculous scenes, with the British minister entering to visit her through the front door as the Russian agent left through the back.
A year later, in the fall of 1962, a knife fight between two of Keeler’s other lovers brought her before the police and into the public eye.
In January 1963, he told the newspapers that if they wanted stories, he had another that they could sell better.
And days later, two journalists were jailed for refusing to reveal their sources on the Vassall case; and the angry press was eager for anything that might discredit the government.
As in those two other high-profile stories that made the spring of 1963 a true scandal season, there were other issues at stake in the Argyll case.
The case shed light on the relationship between Fleet Street and the establishment, and between sex and politics. After all, It was a turning point in the 1960s – a sexual revolution was coming.
Just a few weeks after Argyll’s divorce was finalized, Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls – the second most important judge in England and Wales – had a confidential interview with the Duchess and the men who were considered to be most likely to be her headless lover.
Her relationship with Duncan Sandys, the British Defense Minister, was seen as opening up the possibility that she was a national security risk.
What happened to the Duchess of Argyll?
Margaret’s reputation would never recover from the scandal of her divorce and, although she survived the Duke of Argyll by two decades and died in 1993, her later years were not happy. In tune with the attitudes of the time, the duke would be less vilified.
Judge Lord Wheatley’s fierce 50,000 word judgment had described her as “an utterly promiscuous woman.” Famous for his tough stance on sexual morality, he scoffed that his attitude toward marriage “was what moderns would call ‘enlightened.’
But the women who had seen the case from the public gallery wrote expressing their support for the Duchess..
And Sarah Phelps, writer of the new TV drama, describes her as someone who was “punished for being a woman, for being visible, for refusing to back down, behave well and keep quiet.”
Seen through today’s lens, the Duchess was a victim of ‘slut-shamming‘, the act of blaming a woman for behaviors or sexual desires considered contrary to traditional, whether true or not.
Furthermore, she was abused in her home environment and her private communications were hacked.
It is not the way she has been seen for the last half century, but perhaps today she would be regarded as a hero rather than a villain.
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Divorce of the Dukes of Argyll, the sex scandal that shook the British in the 60s