On December 21 1960, the New York Daily News informed readers the Duchess of Argyll would soon jet home to London. Margaret Campbell often visited New York during separations from her husband. During one of her absences, the Duke broke into a locked cupboard and found her collection of pornographic photographs. He later produced the pics in court as evidence of adultery. One showed the reportedly naked Duchess giving head to a headless man. Always fond of both alliteration and slut-shaming, the British press branded her the Dirty Duchess.
The Duchess of Argyll wasn’t actually naked in the pics. She was wearing a pearl necklace. A genuine pearl necklace. Three strands,it appears she rarely took off, her signature piece.
Staunch gay ally
When the Duke sued for divorce in 1963, Margaret Campbell endured unrelenting attacks on her character. However, she remained a staunch ally to her gay friends, even at personal cost. She braved infamy rather than out the gays among the over 80 men her husband accused her of adultery with. Homosexuality remained illegal in Britain in 1963.
Born Margaret Whigham, the Duchess of Argyll was the only child of a self-made multimillionaire. At 15, she had an abortion after falling pregnant to David Niven, an 18-year-old future Hollywood star. Affairs with other actors, millionaires and royals followed. Her first marriage lasted 15 years before Margaret divorced her husband because of his womanising.
A few years later, she married Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. Campbell recently inherited the Dukedom from his (probably gay) second cousin once removed. Besides his titles and a very nice Scottish castle, the Duke wasn’t much of a catch. Already twice-divorced and somewhat too partial to drink, prescription drugs and gambling, he needed Margaret’s money. Friends warned her that the Duke was an opportunist. But she was 38. She might not get too many more proposals, and the title of Duchess of Argyll appealed to her vanity.
Before their wedding, the Duke of Argyll allegedly forged documents to access her money for an expensive restoration of his castle. Margaret soon tired of paying his bills. He already kept mistresses, and she sometimes took lovers. She decided on an open marriage. He agreed but secretly hired private detectives to collect evidence of her infidelities. By the end of the 1950s, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll argued, separated, reconciled, sued, made up… They became known as the Battling Argylls.
The headless man
During a separation in 1959, the Duke hired a locksmith to help him enter Margaret’s personally owned London mansion and break into her desk. He found her diary and a collection of pornographic Polaroid photos.
He claimed the diary contained evidence of adultery with over 80 men. Friends ridiculed that idea in recent years, Lady Colin Campbell among them. Lady C was married to the Duke’s younger son for a minute in the 1970s.
“Most of the people with whom she had social engagements were men. Mostly they were gay. Since homosexuality was still a criminal offence, she could hardly have defended herself by saying that many of the men… would have fled at the sight of a naked woman.”
But the ‘instamatic’ self-developing Polaroid photos were impossible to dismiss. There were pictures of the Duchess naked but for her pearls. There she was, on her knees, fellating a man whose head remained out of frame.
Four images showed another man wanking. Handwritten captions adorned the pics: before, thinking of you, during – oh, and finished.
Completely promiscuous woman
Lord Wheatley presided over the trial. Although he no doubt thought his 65,000-word summing up proved the undoing of a wanton trollop, portions instead sound like a blurb for a gang-bang flick.
“She was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men.”
Wheatley awarded the Duke his divorce and costs. Margaret Campbell continued to wear her pearl necklace despite its association with the scandal. A girl could go anywhere with a pearl necklace. She also continued to spend money freely and ended up broke in a nursing home. She died at the age of 80 in 1993.
The BBC will broadcast a three-part series on the scandal commencing Boxing Day 2021. No doubt they will transport the retelling to these Antipodean shores soon after.
Read more: December 20 <— On this day —> December 22
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