Duchess of Argyll sex scandal retold in new BBC drama series

It took the judge more than three hours to read out his damning judgment at the end of one of the longest, most expensive and toxic divorce cases of the 20th century.

Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, was, he declared with contempt, “a highly sexed woman” who was not “satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite”.

Margaret was in Paris with her married lover at the time, breezily convinced she would win. Her lawyer phoned to give her the bad news, adding it was the cruellest judgment he had ever heard.

In 1963, the cruelty – and misogyny – was perhaps not surprising. Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll, had petitioned for divorce on grounds of adultery, and Margaret’s life was laid bare. Campbell alleged Margaret had slept with 88 men, provided diaries purporting to show dates of her liaisons, and most salacious of all, provided Polaroid photographs, including of Margaret giving an unknown man oral sex.

That Campbell had stolen her private property and had committed his own adultery – theirs was an open marriage – was deemed largely irrelevant. The court found Margaret, who turned 50 during the long proceedings, had not behaved as a woman should, and particularly perhaps not as an older woman should. And she was punished for it.

The BBC’s new three-part drama, A Very British Scandal, might provide, hopes Lyndsy Spence, the author of a biography of the duchess, the “justice that Margaret deserves: to be understood and seen in a different light”.

What happened to the duchess then – she became known as the “dirty duchess” – would be described as “slut-shaming” or revenge porn now, but at the time it was scandalous, not least because of the tales of her sexual appetite and speculation of who the “headless man” in the photograph was.

The Conservative government was already in crisis over the Profumo affair, and when Duncan Sandys, the minister of defence, was rumoured as possibly the person in Margaret’s photograph – as were Hollywood actors and royalty – he offered his resignation.

All these things were converging, says Robert Lacey, a historian and royal biographer. It was all part of “the upper-class excess, that led to the Labour [victory] the following year”. It was also a time, he says, when the media were willing to report salacious stories.

Viewed today, she was a vibrant, sexually liberated woman, ahead of her time. “The wealth of her father and of her first husband enabled her to live by another set of rules, which then became everybody else’s set of rules,” says Lacey. The swinging 60s were about to start, and the pill – made available for single women the following decade – signalled the start of the sexual revolution.

Then, though, says Spence, “it was scandalous because women weren’t expected to behave like that”. But Margaret was defiant. She was a formidable woman who had come through many traumatic experiences – during her first marriage, she had eight miscarriages and gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She also suffered a head injury and broke her back when she fell 40ft down a lift shaft, spending three months in hospital.

Margaret was complicated. “Some people found her snobby, and self-publicising,” says Lacey. “She was a name-dropper and had an attitude of entitlement.” Nothing was ever her fault. As Spence notes in her book, The Grit in the Pearl, Margaret “rarely, if ever, cast herself in an unfavourable light”.

It was partly personality, but mostly her upbringing, says Spence. Born in 1912, she was the only child of a Scottish textile millionaire and his wife, who brought Margaret up in New York. “She was very spoilt,” says Spence. “She said when she was young her father taught her how to argue and get her own way.” At 15, on holiday in the Isle of Wight, she met a 17-year-old David Niven and he had sex with her; she became pregnant and her father sent her for an abortion.

Her family had moved to London not long before, her mother having worried about how louche 1920s New York was becoming. “She was of the jazz and cocktails age,” says Lacey. In London, things were not much quieter: this was the Bright Young Things era. When Margaret became a debutante in 1930, her father – desperate to make a name for his daughter – spent vast sums on her coming out ball. “In those days [that] was a way of buying status,” says Lacey.

The newspapers were obsessed with her, and as a society beauty – with money – she had several engagements, before marrying Charles Sweeny, an Irish-American stockbroker in 1933. The Guardian described it as the “media event of the decade”.

“It was only with her second marriage that she became an aristocrat,” says Lacey. The Duke of Argyll was impoverished by gambling debts; he was also violent and was addicted to alcohol and amphetamines. He was drowning in death duties and his Scottish castle was crumbling; Margaret brought wealth to the marriage, and paid to update and repair the castle.

It was when she stopped paying the duke’s bills that he reportedly started divorce proceedings. Throughout it, her society circle largely sided with the duke, says Spence, although “I think privately a lot of people, especially women, sympathised with her”.

Lacey met Margaret in her later years “when she was rather sad”. The damage to her reputation came at huge personal cost, as well as financial. She had become estranged from her daughter, though remained close to her son, and had become a bit of a joke. “The Duke of Argyll took so much off her,” says Spence, even before the divorce, “and she had to pay his legal costs. She lost her home. She lived in a hotel for a while and then she got evicted for unpaid bills.”

None of it broke Margaret, who died in 1993 aged 80, says Spence. “Obviously she was humiliated, but anybody else would have been devastated and probably gone into hiding. Margaret moved past all of that. She carried on, and kept living the good life. I think that’s quite something, even for today, to have that courage.”

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