Princess Margaret's marriage to Lord Snowdon was attracting comment and her Caribbean hideaway on the island of Mustique appeared an outpost of the Permissive Society.
By turns insightful and uproarious, Craig Brown’s brilliant new book on Princess Margaret is a masterpiece. Last week he recalled the sheer, jaw- dropping rudeness of the Queens’ sister, known as the dinner party guest from hell. Today, in a second and final extract, we meet the extraordinary world of louche hangers on and lovers who would eventually surround her amid the sun and sand of a private Caribbean island...
The young Princess Margaret, infinitely more louche and carefree than her sister, was the queen of London society throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Her friends and admirers were drawn from the aristocracy and showbusiness, and the jazzy area in between.
But by the 1970s, her increasingly rackety marriage to Lord Snowdon was attracting comment. For those of a nervous disposition, her Caribbean hideaway on the island of Mustique appeared to be a licentious outpost of the Permissive Society.
When Roddy Llewellyn – 18 years her junior – strayed into her life, Republicans simulated outrage, and a tut-tutathon ensued.
In the House of Commons, Labour Left-winger Dennis Canavan said: ‘Here she is, going away with her boyfriend to a paradise island while we are being asked to tighten our belts.’ Veteran anti-Royalist Willie Hamilton was equally incensed: ‘If she thumbs her nose at taxpayers by flying off to Mustique to see this pop-singer chap, she shouldn’t expect the workers of this country to pay for it.’
Risque: Margaret in 1976 with a dancer at Colin Tennant's 50th birthday party on Mustique
Margaret moved into her Mustique house Les Jolies Eaux – a belated wedding gift from her old friend Colin Tennant – in 1973 and furnished it mainly with free gifts hoovered up during her annual visits to the Ideal Home Exhibition.
The Princess’s timetable was unvarying. Rising at 11am, she would take a cup of coffee with her lady-in-waiting. On one occasion the lady-in-waiting in question, her cousin Jean Wills, tried to slip out for a quick walk before their coffee appointment, only to be caught red-handed and, according to Tennant, ‘soundly berated’.
Margaret would then make her way to the island’s hotel, the Cotton House, for a cigarette and a pick-me-up, thence to the beach, where she would swim a very slow breaststroke, her head held high, as though the sea itself might try to take advantage, while a member of her court swam alongside her, employing side-stroke so the Princess could see his or her face.
To minimise the irritation of sand sticking to the Princess’s feet as she got out of the sea, Colin Tennant would make sure that a basin of fresh water was to hand.
How risqué was the Princess’s life on Mustique? Buxom in her floral swimsuit, tipsy in the foreign sun, her adherence to protocol remained doggedly intact.
By all accounts, it was a curious combination of the jaunty and the ceremonial, the tone pitched somewhere between a lunch party at Balmoral and a hen party on Ibiza.
Anyone who overstepped the mark could expect a swift tongue-lashing. Those who arrived too late or left too early could expect to be taken down a peg or two.
On one occasion, Raquel Welch arrived for lunch halfway through pudding. The Princess took a good long slug on her cigarette, exhaled slowly, and then stared pointedly at her wristwatch. The sun shone brightly on Mustique, but there was always the risk of frost from its Royal inhabitant.
Roddy Llewellyn goes swimming whilst on holiday with Princess Margaret in Mustique in 1976
Princess Margaret’s biographers are unsure what to think about John Bindon, actor and real-life villain, with whom some claimed she had an affair. He had been to borstal as a teenager, but was presented with the Queen’s Award for Bravery at 25 for diving into the Thames in a failed attempt to rescue a drowning man. However, Bindon later boasted he had pushed the man off Putney Bridge, and had dived in only when the police came.
Bindon became a bit-part actor after chancing upon Ken Loach in a pub and appeared in the films Performance and Quadrophenia and various TV crime shows – his knack for playing thugs boosted by the fact that he was one. In 1978 he was charged with killing gangster Johnny Darke in a fight outside a pub, but he convinced the jury he was defending a third man. In 1982, he admitted attacking a man who bumped into him on his birthday.
‘I’ve always adored Margot,’ Princess Diana told a friend before things took a turn for the worse. ‘She’s been wonderful to me from day one.’
Diana used to greet Margaret by throwing her arms around her neck and was one of the handful permitted to address her as ‘Margot’.
This encouraged Diana to imagine that as her marriage disintegrated, Margaret would take her side. Instead, Margaret increasingly avoided her.
When it became clear Diana had been the principal source for Andrew Morton’s book Diana: Her True Story, Margaret sent her a furious note of reproof and she complained to a friend: ‘Poor Lilibet and Charles have done everything they can to get rid of the wretched girl, but she just won’t go.’
'Wretched girl' Diana with Margaret in 1988, before they fell out
Diana’s death did little to diminish Margaret’s animosity. ‘She didn’t like the emotionalism one bit,’ recalled Anne Tennant. ‘She said the hysteria was rather like Diana herself. It was as if when she died she got everyone to be as hysterical as she was.’
Alone among the Royal Family, Margaret argued that Diana’s corpse should not be allowed to rest in the Royal Chapel, nor be honoured with a Royal funeral.
She was furious, too, about the mass of flowers outside Kensington Palace. Later, she opposed a suggestion to erect a statue of Diana outside Kensington Palace, saying: ‘I’m not having that woman outside my bedroom window.’
Two years later he was given a two-month suspended sentence for holding a carving knife to the face of a detective, yet Bindon is probably most famous for a party trick, which is said to have involved balancing beer glasses on his appendage – although nobody can quite agree how this was achieved.
None of this prevented him from mixing with the Mustique crowd. There is even a photograph to prove it: the Princess sitting at a picnic table in a low-cut strapless swimsuit next to Bindon, clad in an orange T-shirt bearing the legend ‘Enjoy Cocaine’.
How far did they go? Bindon liked to make a show of refusing to talk about it, perhaps to give the impression there was something to talk about. There was even a suggestion Bindon stripped off on the beach.
However, there is a school of thought that regards this story as a smokescreen. ‘That was all to disguise the fact that John had been seeing Margaret in London,’ an anonymous friend of Bindon told his biographer Wensley Clarkson.
Her relationship with Roddy Llewellyn was, by all accounts, the happiest of her life. ‘Sometimes I think he is the only man to have ever treated her properly,’ observed Colin Tennant decades later. As a young man, Roddy had worked as a mobile DJ before becoming an assistant at the College of Arms.
His flatmate at the time, the interior decorator Nicky Haslam, claims Roddy nursed an ambition to meet Princess Margaret (who was still married to photographer Anthony Snowden). Haslam mentioned this to Violet Wyndham, who in turn mentioned it to her cousin Colin Tennant and his wife Anne, who happened to be having Margaret to stay at The Glen, his castle in Scotland.
On September 5, 1973, Roddy arrived, as instructed, at the Cafe Royal in Edinburgh at 1pm sharp. Colin Tennant was already there, sitting next to Margaret, who was sipping a gin and tonic. ‘It was obvious something happened as soon as Margaret saw Roddy,’ said Tennant. ‘She devoured him through luncheon. It was a great relief.’
After lunch, Margaret took Roddy shopping for swimming trunks and then travelled to The Glen in the back of Tennant’s minibus. For both, it appears to have been love at first sight. Anne Tennant’s immediate thought was: ‘Heavens, what have I done?’
The next day, Roddy told Anne that Margaret had the most beautiful eyes. ‘Don’t tell me, tell her!’ she replied. Roddy did – and it did the trick.
Years later, Colin Tennant confessed to hiding on the main landing at The Glen that night. ‘By that evening, the tower was rocking,’ recalls a friend. When, in March 1974, Roddy stayed on Mustique, he told his brother Dai it was ‘almost like a honeymoon’.
But back in London, Roddy found the affair difficult to cope with. ‘She had vamped him, and he couldn’t quite manage it,’ says a friend. He briefly fled to Istanbul, telling a passenger on the plane he was having an affair with a married woman, that it had all got too much for him, that the sex had become a problem.
Princess Margaret, in a similar state of disequilibrium, took a handful of sleeping pills, not quite dangerous, but sufficiently powerful to force her to cancel official engagements in Wolverhampton.
A Kensington Palace spokesman explained that Her Royal Highness was suffering from ‘a severe cold’.
Despite her continued affair with Roddy, Margaret was growing increasingly distressed by her husband’s affair with Lucy Lindsay-Hogg. How do we know? The Princess told Mail diarist Nigel Dempster, the principal exporter of Kensington spice to the world.
Those who think of Princess Margaret’s life as a tragedy see Group Captain Peter Townsend as its unfortunate hero. The dashing air ace and the fairytale Princess torn apart by the cold-hearted Establishment. For these people, their broken romance was the source of all her later discontent. But how true is the myth?
Peter Townsend entered the scene in February 1944, when he was appointed the King’s Extra Equerry. At this time he was 29, with a wife and a small son. Margaret was 13, and a keen Girl Guide. When, precisely, did Townsend start taking a shine to the young Princess? It is a question rarely asked. According to him, romance blossomed shortly after his divorce in December 1952. Margaret told friends she fell for him on a tour of South Africa in 1947, when she was just 17. But had this impetuous young woman managed to hide her feelings for a full five years? And had the Group Captain somehow exercised similar restraint?
Margaret, then 17, and Townsend in 1947
Possibly not. Margaret’s chauffeur, John Larkin asked if she wanted to transfer her old numberplate – PM 6450 – to her new Rolls-Royce. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘It refers to an incident in my past best forgotten. I want something that doesn’t mean anything.’
Larkin worked out that ‘PM’ stood for Princess Margaret, and ‘6450’ stood for 6 April, 1950. What had happened on that day? Was it, as some have calculated, the day on which the 19-year-old lost her virginity to the Group Captain?
In the early summer of 1975, Roddy was invited to put up £1,000 to join an unusually blue-chip commune at Surrendell Farm near Malmesbury in Wiltshire.
The farm later had its electricity cut off, but while that summer lasted, the dream of a hippy paradise remained intact. The up-and-coming actress Helen Mirren was a some-time guest. Margaret even helped with the farm’s garden; she had always been a dab hand with the secateurs, snipping away with gay abandon at the undergrowth.
Her office at Kensington Palace customarily dismissed rumours of their affair as tittle-tattle, partly thanks to Colin Tennant, who turned away anyone looking remotely journalistic from Mustique.
But in February 1976, a New Zealand reporter managed to photograph the couple on the beach. From then on, Margaret and Roddy were sitting ducks – and photographs were at a premium. At one time or another, various members of the Tennant family had struggled, not always successfully, with the temptation of putting them to good use.
One such photo had been taken when Mustique was infected by the incautious 1970s craze for streaking. According to Tennant’s friend and biographer Nicholas Courtney, Tennant had turned to the Princess at a picnic on the beach and said: ‘Would you mind awfully, Ma’am, if I were to remove my swimming trunks?’
‘So long as I don’t have to look at IT,’ replied the Princess. Tennant persuaded Roddy Llewellyn and Courtney to follow suit. Tennant borrowed Llewellyn’s camera and took a snap of the Princess with the stark-naked Llewellyn and Courtney on either side of her, the skirts of her swimming costume obscuring their private parts. In turn, the Princess took photographs of the three naked men performing comical poses together.
The pictures found their way into the newspapers – which gave Margaret’s husband a golden opportunity to portray himself as the wronged party. He declared he felt humiliated, that his position was ‘quite intolerable’, and that a separation was the only solution.
‘Lord Snowdon,’ Margaret was to tell Dempster years later, ‘was devilish cunning.’
Snowdon summoned the Princess’s private secretary, Lord Napier, and said: ‘I’ll be out by the end of the week.’
This left Napier with the tricky task of telling Margaret, who was still on Mustique. Aware that the phone line was leaky, he couched what he said in a kind of code.
‘Ma’am, I have been talking to ROBERT. He has given in his notice. He will be leaving by the end of the week.’ The Princess did not catch his drift. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses? What ARE you talking about?’ Napier repeated, slowly, and the Princess suddenly understood. ‘Oh, I SEE! Thank you, Nigel. I think that’s the best news you’ve ever given me.’
© Craig Brown, 2017
lMa’am Darling: 99 Glimpses Of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown, is published by Fourth Estate on September 28, priced £16.99. Offer price £12.74 (25 per cent discount) until September 24. Pre-order at mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.
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