Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll

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The Duchess of Argyll
Margaret Duchess of Argyll crop.jpg
Born Ethel Margaret Whigham
(1912-12-01)1 December 1912
Newton Mearns, Renfrewshire, Scotland
Died 25 July 1993(1993-07-25) (aged 80)
Resting place
Brookwood Cemetery
Surrey, England
Coordinates: 51°17′52″N 0°37′54″W / 51.29783°N 0.63162°W / 51.29783; -0.63162
Spouse(s) Charles Sweeny (m. 1933–47)
Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll (1951-1963)

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (born Ethel Margaret Whigham, 1 December 1912 – 25 July 1993), was a well-known British socialite, best remembered for a celebrated divorce case in 1963[1] from her second husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll, which featured salacious photographs and scandalous stories.[2]

Birth and youth[edit]

Margaret was the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and George Hay Whigham, a Scottish millionaire who was chairman of the Celanese Corporation of Britain and North America. She spent the first 14 years of her life in New York City, where she was educated privately at the Hewitt School. Her beauty was much spoken of, and she had youthful romances with playboy Prince Aly Khan, millionaire aviator Glen Kidston, car salesman Baron Martin Stillman von Brabus, and publishing heir Max Aitken.[3]

In 1928, David Niven seduced the 15-year-old Margaret Whigham, during a holiday at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. To the fury of her father, she became pregnant as a result. Margaret was rushed into a London nursing home for a secret termination. "All hell broke loose," remembered her family cook, Elizabeth Duckworth. Margaret didn’t mention the episode in her 1975 memoirs, but she continued to adore Niven until the day he died. She was among the VIP guests at his London memorial service.[citation needed]

In 1930, she was presented at Court in London and was known as deb (or debutante) of that year. Shortly afterwards, she announced her engagement to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick. However, the wedding did not take place, for her head had been turned by Charles Sweeny, an American amateur golfer, and she decided that she was not sufficiently in love with Lord Warwick.[citation needed]

First marriage[edit]

On 21 February 1933, and after converting to his Roman Catholic faith,[3] Margaret married Charles Sweeny at the Brompton Oratory, London. Their wedding party comprised nine adult bridesmaids (Pamela Nicholl, Molly Vaughan, Angela Brett, The Hon. Sheila Berry, Baba Beaton, Dawn Gold, Jeanne Stourton, and Lady Bridgett Paulett) and the groom's brother, Robert Sweeny, as best man. Such had been the publicity surrounding her Norman Hartnell wedding dress, that the traffic in Knightsbridge was blocked for three hours.[4] For the rest of her life, she was associated with glamour and elegance, being a firm client of both Hartnell and Victor Stiebel in London before and after the war. She had three children with Charles Sweeny: a daughter, who was stillborn at eight months in late 1933; another daughter, Frances Helen (born 1937, she married Charles Manners, 10th Duke of Rutland), and a son, Brian Charles (born 1940). The Sweenys divorced in 1947.

In 1943, Margaret Sweeny had a near fatal fall down a lift shaft while visiting her chiropodist on Bond Street. "I fell forty feet to the bottom of the lift shaft", she later recalled. "The only thing that saved me was the lift cable, which broke my fall. I must have clutched at it, for it was later found that all my finger nails were torn off. I apparently fell on to my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall".[3] After her recovery, Sweeny's friends noted that not only had she lost all sense of taste and smell due to nerve damage, she also had become sexually voracious. As she once reportedly said, "Go to bed early and often". Given her numerous earlier romantic escapades, including an affair with the married George, Duke of Kent in her youth, this may have been a change in degree rather than basic predisposition.[citation needed]

Intermarital romances[edit]

After the end of her first marriage, Margaret was briefly engaged to a Texas-born banker, Joseph Thomas, of Lehman Brothers, but he fell in love with another woman and the engagement was broken. She also had a serious romantic relationship with Theodore Rousseau, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was, she recalled "highly intelligent, witty and self-confident to the point of arrogance". That romance also ended without the couple formalising their liaison, since the mother of two "feared that Ted was not 'stepfather material'".[3] Still, she noted in her memoirs, "[W]e continued to see each other constantly."[3] She also allegedly had an affair with Joseph Slatton, who was married to Jacqueline Kennedy's cousin. This occurred during a time when Slatton had access to the White House, and led to his resignation from his Washington post in 1962.[citation needed]

Second marriage[edit]

On 22 March 1951, Margaret became the third wife of Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. She wrote later in life -

(She was not mentioned in the original version of the song. P. G. Wodehouse anglicised it for the British version of Anything Goes, changing two lines from "You’re an O’Neill drama / You’re Whistler’s mama!" to "You’re Mussolini / You’re Mrs Sweeny")[5][6]

Divorce from the Duke of Argyll[edit]

In a marriage which was quickly falling apart, amid his documented alcoholism and drug-taking and her then speculated infidelity, whilst the Duchess was in New York, the Duke employed a locksmith to break open a cupboard at the Duchess's Mayfair pied-à-terre, 48 Upper Grosvenor Street.[7]

The evidence discovered resulted in the infamous 1963 divorce case, in which the Duke of Argyll accused his wife of infidelity, and included a set of Polaroid photographs of the Duchess nude save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace. There were also photographs of the bepearled Duchess fellating a naked man whose face was not shown. It was speculated that the "headless man" was the Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys (later Lord Duncan-Sandys, son-in-law of Winston Churchill), who offered to resign from the cabinet.[8]

Also introduced to the court was a list of as many as 88 men the Duke believed had enjoyed his wife's favours; the list is said to include two government ministers and three royals. The judge commented that the Duchess had indulged in "disgusting sexual activities". Lord Denning was called upon by the government to track down the "headless man". He compared the handwriting of the five leading "suspects" (Duncan-Sandys; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; John Cohane, an American businessman; Peter Combe, a former press officer at the Savoy Hotel; and Sigismund von Braun, brother of the German scientist Wernher von Braun) with the captions written on the photographs.[8] It is claimed that this analysis proved that the man in question was Fairbanks, then long married to his second wife, but this was not made public.[9] Granting the divorce, Lord Wheatley, the presiding judge, said the evidence established that the Duchess of Argyll "was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men".

The Duchess never revealed the identity of the "headless man", and Fairbanks denied the allegation to his grave. Long afterwards, it was claimed that there were actually two "headless men" in the photographs, Fairbanks and Sandys,[8] the latter identified on the basis of the Duchess's statement that the "only Polaroid camera in the country at that time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence". In December 2013 her ex-daughter-in-law Lady Colin Campbell claimed that she had been told by the Duchess herself that the headless man was William H. "Bill" Lyons, then sales director of Pan American Airlines.[10]

The Duke of Argyll remarried in 1963, for the fourth time, to an American, Mathilda Coster Mortimer Heller, and died of a stroke in 1973, aged 69.

Final years[edit]

Margaret wrote a memoir, Forget Not, which was published by W. H. Allen Ltd in 1975 and negatively reviewed for its name dropping and air of entitlement. She also lent her name as author to a guide to entertaining. Her fortune diminished, however, and she eventually opened her London house — 48 Upper Grosvenor Street, which had been decorated for her parents in 1935 by Syrie Maugham — for paid tours. Even so, her extravagant lifestyle and ill-considered investments left her largely penniless by the time she died.[11]

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll appearing on After Dark in 1988

In her youth, Margaret's father had told Rosie d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, a close friend of hers, that he feared for what his high-living only child would do once she had her entire inheritance. Consequently, Whigham blocked his daughter's access to the principal of her inheritance through various protective legal prohibitions. However, after his death, Margaret's lawyers successfully voided most of the safeguards. In 1978, her debts forced Margaret to move from her house to a hotel suite with her maid. Shortly before her death, she found herself unable to pay the hotel bills, and her children placed her in a nursing home in Pimlico, London. Here she was photographed by Tatler magazine, for which she had previously been a columnist, sitting on the edge of her bed in a grim single room.

In April 1988, on the evening after the Grand National, she appeared on a Channel 4 After Dark discussion about horseracing "so she said, to put the point of view of the horse", later walking out of the programme "because she was so very sleepy".[12]

Margaret died in penury in 1993 after a bad fall in the nursing home where she spent her last years. She was buried alongside her first husband, Charles Sweeny, in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey.


She once told the New York Times, "I don't think anybody has real style or class any more. Everyone's gotten old and fat." More to the point, she described herself as "always vain". Another quote gives an insight into her personality: "Always a poodle, only a poodle! That, and three strands of pearls!" she said. "Together they are absolutely the essential things in life."[13]

Inspiration for modern opera[edit]

Powder Her Face, a chamber opera about the Duchess's last days, was composed by Thomas Adès, with a libretto by Philip Hensher, for the Almeida Opera in 1995. It received its premiere at the Cheltenham Music Festival. The opera has gained some notoriety, as it musically depicts a voracious fellatio scene which is all but graphically portrayed by the actors. Its most arresting scene, however, remains that in which insanity is hinted at during her trial, expressively composed not for musical instruments, but rather the sound of several fishing-reels slowly turning.


  1. ^ "The scarlet Duchess of Argyll: Much more than just a Highland fling". The Independent. Retrieved 12 January 2015. 
  2. ^ "The Argyll charade: The Journal Online". Retrieved 12 January 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Campbell, Margaret (1975). Forget Not: The Autobiography of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. W. H. Allen. ISBN 0-491-01825-8. [dead link]
  4. ^ "Chic Vintage Bride – Margaret Whigham". Chic Vintage Brides. 
  5. ^ "Mayfair, the Duchess of Argyll and the Headless Man polaroids «  Another Nickel In The Machine". Retrieved 12 January 2015. 
  6. ^ Warren Hoge London Journal; A Sex Scandal of the 60's, Doubly Scandalous Now New York Times 16 August 2000
  7. ^ Thornton, Michael (29 December 2012). "How I lost my virginity to the VERY racy real life chatelaine of Downton's Scottish castle". Daily Mail. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  8. ^ a b c Sarah Hall (10 August 2000). "'Headless men' in sex scandal finally named | UK news | The Guardian". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  9. ^ Warren Hoge, "London Journal: A Sex Scandal of the 60's, Doubly Scandalous Now," The New York Times, 16 August 2000.
  10. ^ Lady Colin Campbell (28 December 2013). "THE HEADLESS MAN UNMASKED". Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  11. ^ Terry Kirby (6 February 2004). "For sale: London residence where Duchess scandalised society - This Britain, UK - The Independent". Retrieved 2013-02-12. 
  12. ^ Sebastian Cody (14 August 2007). "Tony Wilson - 'Britain's finest live presenter' | Media | MediaGuardian". London: MediaGuardian. Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  13. ^ John Dukas, "Dukas' Diary: Advice from the Duchess", HG, October 1988, p. 160

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