Thursday, February 19, 2009

Portrait Gallery: The Dirty Duchess

Today's object lesson in the dangers of misdirected fabulousness is Margaret, sometime Duchess of Argyll: a beautiful, brilliant, crazed woman who is one of the few historical figures I can think of still regularly referred to as a hopeless nymphomaniac.

In her early days, she was a fairly standard - if especially stunning - Bright Young Thing, as evinced by this extremely fetching portrait by Cecil Beaton.

She married serially and well, spending a brief period in Ducal splendour as something of a pillar of the establishment, leading to eighteenth-century-style portraits and regrettable (almost Windsorian) taste in ballgowns.

And then it all went rather wrong. Something - a naturally voracious nature; a bad fall that shook loose some shard of crazy that set her off, who knows - made Margaret the talk of London for her wild promiscuity, culminating in one of the nastiest divorces in British history, with a scandal that included a Polaroid camera, her trademark three strands of pearls, at least one gentlemen but probably more, still anonymous, but likely well-known, and some extremely Compromising Circumstances.

She ended her days in reduced circumstances and her final decades in clinging to whatever shards of the high life she could. As seen here, she spent time in some fairly dubious company, and looks rather bemused by it.

She is remembered, beyond the scandals, for her style: the pearls, the poodle, the black-red bouffant; the brittle remarks; the extraordinary contrast between her High Lady facade and whatever it was that roiled within. Composer Thomas Ades wrote an opera, Powder Her Face, on her life, and it was as entrancing and befuddling as the lady herself would seem to have been.

But I keep going back to the Beaton: those eyes, that face.


  1. And, you know, Dame Cartland looks more like an Old Drag Queen than most old drag queens I personally know.

  2. Oh, she is one of our role models (The Duchess, that is, not Dame Cartland!) - I do love her sunken raccoon eyes. Shunned by dowagers!

  3. I just love that freaky portrait!
    I want.

  4. Fascinating! I am ashamed to admit that I never knew of her before now. Pearls, sex scandals, dowagers, Cecil Beaton, bouffants, royalty...what's not to love?