I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A divorce case filled with salacious details about the sexual exploits of Britain's upper crust appalled ordinary folk in the 1960s. At the centre of story was a beautiful woman from a wealthy family who made very bad choices in her men.
Some Early Messes for Margaret Whigham
Margaret Whigham was born in 1912, the child of a Scottish millionaire and his wife. She spent most of her early life in New York City, where she was educated at a private school. It appears she was starved for affection from her parents, which led to her being vulnerable to anyone who showed any attachment to her.
One of her earliest admirers was an 18-year-old youth called David Niven who went on to a star-studded movie career. While on holiday on England's Isle of Wight, 15-year-old Margaret became pregnant and the provider of the sperm was young Niven. An uproar followed.
Margaret was whisked off to a private clinic where the pregnancy was secretly terminated. The law was broken first by having underage sex and second by having an illegal abortion. But, when you are very wealthy, as George Whigham was, such irritants can be made to go away.
In 1930, Margaret had her debutante year; an arcane process in which young women of marriageable age from upper-class families make their entry into polite society and are presented to the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace.
Margaret was accorded the title of Debutante of the Year so, obviously, nobody knew about the tumble from grace with the Niven cad. The debutante system was also a bit of a cattle market in which the girls are paraded before eligible suitors from the proper background.
Lyndsy Spence, author of The Grit in the Pearl, a biography of the Duchess of Argyll, tells us that for Margaret Whigham “What followed were engagements to unsuitable men: Prince Aly Khan, whose Muslim faith repelled the Whighams; Glen Kidston, a married millionaire sportsman who died in a plane crash; Max Aitken, the insecure son of Lord Beaverbrook; and Fulke Warwick, a penniless Earl.”
Her marriage to the last mentioned, the Earl of Warwick, was cancelled. Shortly before the day of the wedding, the earl's mother issued a warning to Margaret's mother: “If you love your daughter, don’t let her marry my son. He’s a liar, he’s ill-mannered, and he picks his nose.”
She also had an affair with Prince George, Duke of Kent, but then, who didn't?
Marriage and Divorce for Margaret Whigham
She chose as a husband an Irish-American stockbroker named Charles Sweeny, whose family had made millions during the mining boom of the Golden Age. The marriage, which took place in 1933, attracted huge crowds of onlookers who came to gawp at the bride's Norman Hartwell-designed wedding dress with its 28-foot train.
The marriage was not a happy one. Margaret suffered eight miscarriages and a stillbirth although she did have two children who survived. She said that “All Charlie wanted in a wife was a pretty, brainless doll,” meanwhile, he was off having affairs. The divorce happened in 1947.
Several romances followed and she apparently lived by the maxim she is quoted as creating of “Go to bed early, and often.” In 1949, she met Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.
Becoming the Duchess of Argyll
His Grace courted Margaret assiduously and the wedding took place in March 1951. The duke brought a lot of baggage to the nuptials. He was known to have a wandering eye and his first two marriages had ended in divorce, with issues of beatings involved. He gambled and was massively in debt, was an alcoholic, and was addicted to a stimulant drug called drinamyl.
True, he was in possession of Inveraray Castle and its estate, but the property was of little value and in need of repair. Margaret persuaded her father to pony up a considerable amount of money to pay for renovations and she gave the duke money to keep his creditors at bay. In addition to all these failings he was abusive. Not much of a catch for Margaret really.
As before, Margaret sought affection outside her marriage vows. She had a long string of lovers and kept a diary with names, along with compromising photographs. She would come to regret keeping the memorabilia.
The Headless Men
The Duke of Argyll grew suspicious of his wife's activities and started snooping into her affairs. Margaret had stopped bailing him out of debt so he needed to find another rich woman happy to dispense wealth in exchange for a duchess title. He broke into Margaret's desk and found the evidence he was looking for to build a case for divorce.
One Polaroid image in particular, taken in 1957, cast Margaret as an infamous trollop in the pages of the tabloids. There was the duchess, wearing only a string of pearls, pleasuring a standing man while on her knees.
In other images in Margaret's collection a man was seen pleasuring himself. The heads of both men were out of the frame but they were eventually identified 40 years later. The man receiving succour from the duchess was Duncan Sands, a Conservative Defence Minister and son-in-law of Winston Churchill. The other man was the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Along with the photographic evidence, Margaret's stolen diary and letters revealed the names of 88 men with whom she had trysts. The Polaroid became the prurient centrepiece of the 1963 divorce proceedings, although it was another man who was cited in the finding of Margaret's adultery.
The judge hearing and viewing the evidence, Lord Wheatley, expressed his moral outrage in his decision. The duchess was, he said, “a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite.”
No mention was made of the duke's multiple philanderings; it was acceptable for men to satisfy a lusty appetite for sex wherever they could, but it was totally unacceptable for women to behave in the same way.
Decline of the Duchess
Margaret's reputation was shattered by the revelations from the divorce, and her finances took a terrible hit. She was largely shunned by the society that had once sought her company and had attended her lavish parties. She could not afford the expense on her up-market Mayfair home and sold it in 1978 and moved into a suite at the luxury Grosvenor House Hotel.
Again, her finances could not keep pace with her scaled-down, but still extravagant, lifestyle and she was evicted from the hotel for failure to pay her rent. Next, it was a small apartment and, finally, a nursing home. She had a fall in July 1993 that led to her death at the age of 80. She was penniless.
Sixty years earlier, her wedding had caused a traffic jam in London and The Times reported that “No sooner had the bride procession moved up the aisle than the swing doors on either side of the main entrance were besieged by women who, using elbows and umbrellas freely, forced their way into the church, and for a moment stood swaying in a solid mass, completely cutting off the means of entry of guests who arrived late.”
Interview Discussing Margaret, Duchess of Argyll
- When she was a child, Margaret Whigham was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as lacking a sense of humour. As a therapy, he suggested she should watch Charlie Chaplin movies.
- The story of Margaret's life is the basis of a Thomas Adès opera entitled Powder Her Face.
- Margaret Sweeny (later the Duchess of Argyll) was so famous that Cole Porter wove a reference to her in his song You're the Top from his 1935 hit musical Anything Goes. The original lyric was “You’re Mussolini, You’re Mrs. Sweeny,” but that is now usually sung as “You’re an O’Neill drama, You’re Whistler’s mama.”
- “The Dirty Duchess of Argyll Was ahead of Her Time.” Ben Macintyre, The Times, February 2, 2019.
- “The Real Scandal of the Duchess of Argyll Is That She Was a Victim of Celebrity Hacking.” Lyndsy Spence, The Scotsman, February 5, 2019.
- “Lipstick on Her Collar.” Edward Seckerson, The Independent, June 29, 1995.
- “Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, Was a Victim of Revenge Porn that Followed Her until Death, Book Claims.” Stephanie Nolasco, Fox News, December 17, 2019.
- “ 'Headless Men' in Sex Scandal Finally Named.” Sarah Hall, The Guardian, August 10, 2000.
- “Double Standards that Damned the Duchess of Depravity.” Roger Lewis, Daily Mail, February 21, 2019.
- “You’re the Top! The Connection Between Socialite Mrs Sweeny, PG Wodehouse and Mussolini.” Rob Baker, flashbak.com, January 22, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 26, 2021:
What can you and me learn about her down side life and gained? Or should we be beware? Can we help it when she's bi-polar? She's sliding, sliding down all the time! I pity such unfortunate souls. Thanks.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on September 25, 2021:
Wow, what a lady! I really enjoyed reading and learning all about her.
Char Milbrett from Minnesota on September 25, 2021:
I don't know why Hugh Hefner comes to mind when I read this... He kept a bunch of pictures in a collection, and some people pay good money to see them... even the old, well worn copies. Alas, not the same thing. Sometimes sex is acceptable, and sometimes, sex is not. I feel sorry for poor Margaret. I have known of other women who have fallen into the same rut. Although, not quite as famous. Abortion. Failed marriages. Jealous husbands who knew what they were getting into before they got married to them... did someone mention double standard? I doubt it is, but I digress.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 24, 2021:
I pity the Dutches Magaret. Her parents seems to focus more on making more millions that playing games with the girl child. A read that is good and interestly. You dig deep.
Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on September 24, 2021:
A sad life of someone looking to be loved. Thanks for sharing this interesting read Rupert.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 24, 2021:
An interesting but rather sad tale of excess and debauchery. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. Thank you for sharing, Rupert.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on September 24, 2021:
David Niven who knew?
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 24, 2021:
Fran - I find the whole narrative to be terribly sad. There were clearly mental health issues, her mother was probably bi-polar, but one didn't talk about such things then - still don't much today.
It reminds me of the fate that befell Barbara Hutton, the Woolworths heiress that I wrote about "Barbara Hutton: 'Poor Little Rich Girl' ".
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on September 24, 2021:
Rupert, what an interesting article. Certainly from riches to poverty and such a long fall from her beginnings. I think she was looking in the wrong places to feel loved. Thanks for sharing.