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.
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.
Divorce convulsed Britain in the 1960s, reflecting the changes to come. What has perhaps been lost along the way is the feeling that the Duchess, and indeed the Duke, were living human beings, made of flesh and blood.
A new miniseries “A Very British Scandal“Or” A Very British Scandal, “in which the actors Claire Foy and Paul Bettany play the Argylls, tries to rectify that. But this is one of those stories that makes sense of the old cliché that says, “The truth is stranger than any fiction.”
Scandalous and adored
Daughter of a Scottish millionaire, raised primarily in New York, young Margaret Whigham grew up in an atmosphere of privilege, but emotional insecurity.
By the time she was 19, she was already a veteran of engagements: to Prince Aly Khan, the Earl of Warwick, the son of newspaper mogul Lord Beaverbrook, and married millionaire sportsman Glen Kidston. 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 for three hours in Knightsbridge, a posh part of London.
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”
Four years later, unlike the previous one, Margaret’s marriage to the 11th Duke of Argyll was problematic from the start.
Ian Campbell was the head of his clan, hereditary master of the Royal House of Scotland, with many other compelling titles. But also he was addicted to drink, gambling and prescription drugs, that he continued to suffer 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 it: “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 his 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, among which were the mentioned photos.
The explicit photographs showed a woman, apparently Margaret, identified by her characteristic three-stranded pearl necklace, performing oral sex 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 never named.
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, it would appear that there was 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, many of the men whose company she enjoyed were said to be homosexuals, 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 saw John Vassall, a government employee at the British embassy in Moscow, caught in a ‘honey 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.
In the spring of 1963, the Argyll battles reached a climax with 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, a Russian naval attaché and spy.
The brief affair between Profumo and Keeler included ridiculous scenes, with the British minister coming 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 to the police and it garnered public attention.
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. The angry press was eager for anything that might discredit the government.
As in those other two 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 weeks after Argyll’s divorce was finalized, Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls – the second highest judge in England and Wales – had a confidential interview with the Duchess and those men designated as potential lovers.
It was then considered that his relationship with Duncan Sandys, the British Defense Minister, it opened 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 he survived the Duke of Argyll by two decades and died in 1993, his 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 “a thoroughly promiscuous woman.” Famous for his tough stance on sexual morality, he scoffed that his attitude toward marriage “was what moderns would call ‘enlightened.’ But many of the women who had seen the case from the public gallery wrote expressing their support for the Duchess..
Sarah Phelps, writer of the new television drama, describes her as someone who was “punished for being a woman, for being visible, for refusing to back down, behaving well and keeping quiet.”
Seen through today’s lens, the Duchess was a victim of ‘slut-shamming‘, the act of blaming a woman for sexual behaviors or desires considered contrary to the traditional, whether true or not. Furthermore, she was abused in her home environment and her private communications were hacked.
Despite the fact that it is not the way she has been seen for the last half century, perhaps today she could be considered a heroine.
We want to thank the author of this post for this awesome material
The divorce of the Dukes of Argyll, the sex scandal that shook England and reaches TV