In an era before influencers and hashtags, there was Margaret Duchess of Argyll, a woman famous for being famous. Her fame turned to infamy in 1963 when she was the victim of revenge porn, distributed by her husband, Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll. Ahead of her time, she was vilified by the press, silenced by the British legal system and exiled from the establishment. It was a spectacular fall from grace.
Margaret first met Ian in 1947, on the Golden Arrow train between Paris and London. A recent divorcée, she was 34 and flitting between the UK, America and France. Ian was eight years her senior, twice married, with a penchant for rich women. His two wives were both heiresses. The train had scarcely left the station when he confided he had been a prisoner of war, having been captured by the Nazis while serving with the 51st Highland Division and sent to Rommel and a camp on the German-Polish border. His intensity did not alarm her. She sensed he was a damaged person and pitied him.
When they reached London, Margaret invited Ian to her home and into her bed. It was a brief encounter and she was unaware that he had caught her, hook, line and sinker.
Now the racy tale of wealth, status, sex and public opprobrium is being retold, more than 60 years on, in the miniseries A Very British Scandal. Claire Foy and Paul Bettany star as the couple, whose divorce was one of the bloodiest and most notorious in 20th-century legal history. Margaret, an It girl of her day, dominated the front pages. She was accused of drug-taking, forgery, theft and violence, betrayed by her friends and shamed by the press in Britain’s misogynistic mid-century society.
Many believed Margaret’s promiscuity was the result of a head injury in 1941 when she fell 40ft down a lift shaft. That is not true. She had always been tempted by the opposite sex, despite her mother’s puritanical warning: “Sex is this awful thing we women have to put up with. We close our eyes and bear it.”
Her fame turned to infamy in 1963 when she was the victim of revenge porn, distributed by her husband.
At the age of 15, Margaret became pregnant by the 18-year-old David Niven and was forced to have a secret abortion. Less than three years later, she was conducting a clandestine affair with Prince Aly Khan, who threatened suicide if she left him. There were brief engagements to Max Aitken, the son of Lord Beaverbrook; Glen Kidston, a married man who died in a plane crash, and Charles Fulke Greville, the Earl of Warwick. At the age of 20, she married Charles Sweeny, an Irish-American golfer and stockbroker, for whom she converted to Catholicism.
Some might view Margaret’s attitude to sex as progressive, but it was evident she was searching for love that was lacking elsewhere.
Born Ethel Margaret Whigham in 1912, she was the only child of Helen and George Whigham, nouveaux riches Scots who lived on Park Avenue, New York. Her mercurial mother wanted Margaret to be perfect and was disappointed by her lack of humor and her stammer. “No matter how many lovely clothes we give you, Margaret, you will get nowhere in life if you stammer,” Helen said.
The only thing Margaret could control was her image and from a young age her manicured beauty set her apart from her upper-class contemporaries. At the age of 14, she moved to England and at 17 she was presented at court and named debutante of the year (1930). It was rumored her father hired a press agent to keep her name in the newspapers.
Such was Margaret’s fame, her 1933 wedding to Sweeny drew a guest list of 2,000 and a further 2,000 onlookers, which brought traffic in Knightsbridge to a standstill for three hours. During their six-week honeymoon, Margaret learned of Sweeny’s “pathological streak of jealousy” and fits of rage. She returned to London pregnant and miscarried seven weeks later (she suffered eight miscarriages during her marriage).
Her second pregnancy ended with a stillborn daughter, delivered while she was unconscious with double pneumonia and kidney failure. When she came round, she saw Sweeny dressed in a white tie and leaving for the Embassy Club.
The Second World War emphasized the cracks in their marriage. They moved into the Dorchester hotel and their children, Frances and Brian, were evacuated to North Wales. He claimed she had an affair with General Frank O’Driscoll Hunter, and she learned he was sleeping with her friend, Sylvia Ashley, the widow of Douglas Fairbanks. They finalized their divorce in 1947.
The new man in Margaret’s life was a Texan named Joe Thomas, a senior partner in Lehman Brothers, who was engaged to the Swiss socialite Poppi de Salis. After a whirlwind romance, he proposed to Margaret and promised to end his engagement to de Salis, but in the end chose the latter. Margaret was heartbroken and humiliated.
The brief engagement to Thomas would seal Margaret’s fate, although at the time she was unaware of it. In 1948, she bought a Polaroid camera in New York, then newly available on the US market. At her home in Upper Grosvenor Street in London, Margaret and Thomas took explicit photographs in various rooms around her house. Margaret kept a set, stashed behind a bookcase, and two of the remaining prints were given to Thomas.
Thomas’s son, Michael, was 12 years old when he discovered the Polaroids in his father’s bureau. In 2018, he told me, “One was of a good-looking woman with dark hair and a confident gaze. The other was of my father. Both were what is today delicately described as full frontal, nothing left to the imagination.”
Claire Foy and Paul Bettany star as the couple, whose divorce was one of the bloodiest and most notorious in 20th-century legal history.
The memento of her love affair from 1948 to 1949 would come back to haunt her.
In 1949, Margaret and Ian Campbell were to meet once more, in Paris. He had inherited the dukedom of Argyll and she wanted to be a duchess. In her memoirs, she wrote, “I was so alone and felt drawn to this troubled man who had so much charm.”
An air of desperation surrounded Ian, revealed only to those with whom he was on intimate terms. He was work-shy and all of his schemes foundered. Sometimes he threatened to kill himself to manipulate others into giving him money to pay his gambling debts. Now, having inherited the dukedom from his cousin, he learned the estate, including the family seat, Inveraray Castle, was hemorrhaging money. His cousin’s unpaid bills totaled $110,000 and death duties were $480,000, which brought Ian’s debt to $3.3 million.
In the new year of 1950, Margaret was not only involved with Ian, but was also seeing Roberto Caracciolo, the 11th Duke of San Vito, a descendant of the royal family of Naples, who lived in Paris. Having returned home, she missed both men and sent them a telegram: “Bored and missing you. Wish you would come to London.” Roberto declined the offer and Ian arrived unannounced.
Eight days later, Ian proposed to Margaret and she accepted. “Now I’ll get my bills paid,” he told a friend. Ian was still married to his second wife, Louise, the mother of his two sons, and Margaret was named in the divorce petition.
The day after Ian’s divorce from Louise, he came to Margaret’s home and verbally attacked her. He criticized her parenting, called her children brats and insulted her father, who had given him $134,000 toward Inveraray. In exchange for the money, Ian presented Margaret with a deed of gift, a worthless piece of paper as the estate was managed by trustees. Later, she would point to the tapestries and furniture, reminding him, “That is mine! That is mine!”
On March 22, 1951, Margaret and Ian were married at Caxton Hall in London before leaving for Inveraray, where he carried her over the threshold and almost dropped her onto the stone floor. She spent her honeymoon in workman’s overalls, renovating her marital home ahead of opening it to the public.
A short time later, Ian began to humiliate Margaret in front of guests and to beat her. His first wife, Janet Aitken, daughter of Lord Beaverbrook, accused Ian of breaking her cheekbone and ribs. Margaret’s father confronted her with the truth: Ian was an alcoholic and addicted to purple hearts (painkillers). Her way of seeking help was to turn her library into White’s, so Ian could drink in a club-like atmosphere under her watch. In a drunken rage, Ian shouted, “You have created nothing in your life. You have not even created a garden. You have only created yourself.”
In response to Ian’s cruelty, Margaret began a misguided plot to secure her future as the Duchess of Argyll. She desperately wanted a son with Ian and having failed to conceive, she planned to fake a pregnancy by padding her stomach and buying a newborn baby boy from Poland. Her next step was to discredit Ian’s sons with Louise, particularly his heir, by forging letters questioning their paternity. In Margaret’s world, she would be victorious. Her plan, however, would not reach fruition.
The turning point came in 1958 when she refused to pay Ian’s latest debts of $134,000. In turn, he sought revenge and tried to have her certified insane due to her head injury from 1941.
Despite Ian’s treatment, Margaret insisted on accompanying him to New Zealand and Australia to visit Clan Campbell and raise money for Inveraray. It was in Sydney that Ian opened her diary and saw the names of half a dozen men. When he accused her of adultery, she did not deny it. Both were having flings and she was content with their open marriage.
Her second pregnancy ended with a stillborn daughter, delivered while she was unconscious with double pneumonia and kidney failure.
In London, he broke into a cupboard and stole her letters. Behind a bookcase he discovered more letters and diaries. He also came across sheets of hotel writing paper with words cut out from letters written by Louise – the blueprints for Margaret’s plans to discredit his heir and falsify a pregnancy. He did not confront Margaret and waited for her to walk into his trap. Eventually, she handed him two bogus letters, which she claimed were written by Louise.
A writ was sent by Louise, suing Margaret for libel and slander. She later paid $13,000 in damages to Louise and received a court order preventing her from discussing the case. Ian informed Louise that Margaret had broken her injunction by speaking of their sons and so Louise’s lawyers sent an application to Mr Justice Paull for Margaret’s committal to Holloway prison. Frightened by the outcome, Margaret attempted to flee to Switzerland to stay with Mary Chevreau d’Antraigues, a friend of her parents. “I won’t have that silly girl in the house!” Mary said. Luckily for Margaret, the hearing had gone in her favor.
Before this, Margaret had also forged a telegram from Ian’s secretary, Yvonne McPherson, with whom she said Ian was having an affair. McPherson sued Margaret for libel and slander and received $6,700 in damages. At the hearing, Ian testified against Margaret and admitted to sending McPherson letters about his wife. “S” was their code for Margaret; it stood for Satan. “Good God,” Margaret said of her legal woes. “How much of this am I going to have to suffer?”
The most damning piece of evidence was the explicit Polaroids that Ian found hidden behind a bookcase. Inside the manila envelope addressed to Margaret were two images: the first was what Michael Thomas described as “full frontal” and the other was of her engaged in a sex act with a man who appeared from the neck down. He became known as “the headless man” and was rumored to be Duncan Sandys, the minister of defense, or Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the Hollywood actor. Both had had affairs with Margaret, but denied their involvement in the photographs.
Nobody knew of the explicit images she had taken with Joe Thomas. In one image, she was identified by the back of her head (her hairstyle had not changed since the Thirties) and her three-strand pearl necklace, bought from Asprey. To her credit, Margaret did not reveal his identity and took the secret to her grave. Perhaps it gave her a sense of control after her privacy had been violated.
The divorce petition was sent to the Edinburgh Court of Session and Margaret was served with an injunction, which prevented her from entering Inveraray. “That dreary hole in Scotland”, she began to call it. She broke into the castle and smashed up Ian’s records and stole a boomerang. At dinner parties in the south of France, Ian passed around the injunction, turning her into a joke.
Margaret failed to grasp the severity of the situation and worried only about her public image. The newspapers called her “the Dirty Duchess”. She turned to psychics for guidance and was a client of Eva Petulengro. In her memoirs, Petulengro wrote, “She was like a cross between a high-class whore and the wicked witch who gave Snow White the apple.”
In 1963, the divorce case was heard at the Edinburgh Court of Session before Lord Wheatley, a judge known for his harsh sentences for crimes involving sex. The small courtroom was packed to capacity with members of the British and foreign press sitting in the area normally reserved for the jury, and only 23 members of the public were admitted to the gallery.
The first piece of evidence to be examined was Margaret’s diaries. For the period covering 1954 to ’59, the letter “B” appeared throughout and Ian believed it stood for her old lover, Sigismund von Braun. Ian explained that Margaret used the symbol “V” to record when she had sex. It was a small victory for Margaret when Lord Wheatley ruled that her diaries lacked evidence of her infidelities.
However, her letters from John Cohane, an American businessman, spoke of an affair.
Lord Wheatley read from Cohane’s letters to Margaret: “I have thought of a number of highly intriguing things we might do, or that I might do to you.” “I would like to be with you in Paris – what a titillating idea.” “I never knew that such a short acquaintance could keep a hot flame burning so high for so long.”
Sometimes he threatened to kill himself to manipulate others into giving him money to pay his gambling debts.
The third and most recent allegation of adultery was directed at Peter Combe, a former press officer for the Savoy hotel and a man 12 years her junior and rumored to be gay. On the evening of July 13, 1960, private detectives noted Combe’s arrival at Margaret’s house with three dogs and his departure at 3.25am. The reason for his staying so long, Margaret explained, was due to the dogs having made a mess of the house, which she and Combe tidied, and then had a nightcap. Dismissing her statement, Lord Wheatley found it difficult to believe that Margaret herself would clean up the dogs’ mess when she had servants.
Furthermore, on September 23 to 25, 1960, Ian accused Margaret and Combe of going to Spain, which they both denied and then admitted to being true, because she wished to buy land, although when questioned she could not remember the exact location. She said they had met in her hotel room for a glass of champagne, but Lord Wheatley was convinced they had shared a bed. Based on the scant evidence, Lord Wheatley ruled that Margaret and Combe did have an affair.
The final proof of Margaret’s adultery, as Lord Wheatley reminded the jury, was the pornographic images in which she appeared. It was rumored there were 13 Polaroids in total, involving Margaret and two men, although on separate occasions. She always denied this and claimed Ian had tampered with the evidence, having submitted images from his pornographic collection, one of the largest in Britain. Dismissing the allegations, Lord Wheatley concluded that such photographs would belong to a woman with a sex perversion rather than a man with a similar interest.
At the time, nobody challenged the double standards or misogyny at play. The law was against her. She was damaged goods.
Eventually, Margaret admitted appearing in two of the images and accused Ian of being her accomplice, explaining he had borrowed the Polaroid camera to take the photos. As the man was captured from the neck down, the only way Ian could prove it was not him was to have a medical examination and “publicly declare his lesser dimensions”.
Ian was granted a divorce on the grounds of Margaret’s adultery with Combe. She continued to deny having an affair and Combe echoed her sentiments. “I have absolutely nothing to say,” he said. “If I had anything to say at all, it would be full of four-letter words.”
Lord Wheatley’s 50,000-word judgment took 3 hours 10 minutes to deliver. It was a treatise of a warring couple, a he-said-she-said account of an embittered marriage, which recalled Ian’s drinking, Margaret’s socializing and their joint accusations of adultery. It was believed she had slept with 88 men, although many of these liaisons were dates with her coterie of gay admirers. Given that homosexuality was a crime in Britain, Margaret remained silent on the matter.
In the final damning verdict, Lord Wheatley called her “a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in what I can only describe as disgusting sexual activities to gratify a basic sexual appetite”. She was ordered to pay seven eighths of the $67,000 bill, then the highest in Scottish legal history.
“God knows he was an old bastard,” she said of Lord Wheatley.
Today, Ian would face up to two years’ imprisonment for stealing Margaret’s images and distributing them without her consent. Injunctions also prevented her from telling her side of the story. She was famous but powerless, a familiar theme in women’s lives.
Claire Foy, who portrays Margaret in A Very British Scandal, was drawn to the “shame, judgment and controversy” that surrounded her sexuality. Undoubtedly, Foy will introduce Margaret to an audience who are viewing women’s stories through the lenses of the #FreeBritney and #MeToo movements as well as the Weinstein and Epstein scandals. It’s the posthumous justice Margaret deserves.
Margaret’s reputation never recovered during her lifetime, nor did her finances. Was she a vixen or victim, or both? “My husband was terribly persuasive,” she said of Ian’s smear campaign. “All crooks are.”
She died in penury in 1993.
A Very British Scandal is available to watch in the U.K. on BBC. It will be available to watch in the U.S. this spring on Amazon Prime
Lyndsy Spence is a Northern Ireland–based historian and screenwriter and the author of The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll