I first met Princess Margaret nearly 50 years ago, when I wrote to her asking to meet in connection with a book I was researching, perhaps optimistically and arrogantly called The Reality of Monarchy. I’d travelled with the Queen and Prince Philip to various parts of the world, talked to them at functions and interviewed several members of the family.
She agreed immediately. I found her then, and in subsequent meetings, amusing, relaxed and helpful, not at all the allegedly imperious, controversial and mocked royal figure of popular imagination.
She was 39, in a difficult marriage to photographer Lord [Tony] Snowdon. The pair were the “black sheep” of the family, a prominent, elderly royal told me. Another senior royal added, “God’s tooth, what a narrow squeak Margaret wasn’t the older daughter. A catastrophe. How long would the monarchy have lasted if Snowdon had been consort? Dreadful, dreadful.”
Apartment 1a Kensington Palace, where she and Snowdon lived, was not lavish, although £85,000 [nearly £2 million today, a quarter of which was paid by the Queen] was spent on refurbishing it before they moved in. Princess Margaret rented four rooms to her husband for his work. There was just one spare bedroom.
The drawing room looked out onto the garden. There were two large sofas with a drinks trolley behind one and a desk jumbled with papers. Underneath the desk was a shopping basket and a handbag. Objets d’art were cluttered around the room and the focal point was a black grand piano, where Margaret would sing of an evening to the delight of some and the anguish of others. It was covered in photographs of the family.
“Hello, waiting for Princess Margaret? I’m sorry she’s keeping you waiting.” It was Viscount Linley, then eight years old, who helped himself to a Coca-Cola.
Princess Margaret entered wearing an inexpensive orange dress, greeted me warmly – although we’d never met – poured herself a gin and tonic, lit a cigarette in a black holder, and turned on the television. She and the Queen Mother had been up most of the previous night watching American astronauts land on the Moon for the first time.
“Sit down,” she said, patting the sofa next to her. Her aquamarine blue eyes had frozen many an aspiring or overfamiliar friend or obsequious acquaintance, of which there were too many. But her haughtiness, even when tipsy, was a bit of a pose, perhaps to enliven boredom. Today there was no formality. I didn’t call her “Ma’am”, as she’s said to have required, and she had no factotums or PRs padding around, as there would be today. “I have never been imperious, and it’s part of my job not to be,” she said. “But everyone has a right to stick up for themselves. My friends used to tease me and call it my ‘acid-drop’ expression. That doesn’t happen a lot now. I’m much nicer in old age,” she smiled. She had a voluptuous sexiness that could be turned instantly to a withering put-down.
Her attention returned to the TV. “Isn’t this [the Apollo 11 landing] the most incredible thing?” Lord Snowdon entered, wearing blackand-white striped slacks and no shirt. “Turn it up a bit, ducky,” she said. “You can’t tell the repercussions of this. Who knows what will happen?”
I wondered what she thought her role in life was. “In my own humble way I’ve always tried to take some of the burden off my sister. She can’t do it all, you know, and I leap at the opportunity to help. Sometimes it can be very formal and boring, but I’ve got a reflex against that now. It’s very much up to one not to be bored.”
She knew, obviously, she’d become a focus for critics of the family. “When my sister and I were growing up, she was made out to be the goody goody one. That wasn’t interesting, so the press tried to say I was wicked as hell. It didn’t always work. I got letters, mainly from America, which said, ‘How marvellous of you to do that’, because they thought we were terribly stuffy and Victorian. Then there were critical letters accusing me of things I hadn’t done, mostly anonymous and from England. I minded those very much.
“I was told [within the family], ‘No, darling, I wouldn’t do that. People won’t understand.’ In the past 20 years there have been enormous changes. Now I could do pretty well anything, apart from tearing one’s clothes off and jumping into the fountains at Trafalgar Square – which I don’t want to do. In those days, one never gave interviews, so I got appallingly upset with no way of hitting back. I was an absolute wreck after some of the publicity, but luckily that’s all over.”
First look at Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in The Crown season three (Netflix)
Of course it wasn’t. Pouring herself another gin and tonic, she added, “I’ve been lucky with Tony because I’ve had fairly good contact with newspaper people and know the ones to trust. I wouldn’t speak to a gossip column, but I don’t suppose anyone would, would they?”
One well known “royal” reporter at the time, who admitted earning £5,000 a year [over £100,000 today] making up stories about her and her husband and then selling them to foreign magazines, told me, “Of course I exaggerate. What are they going to do? Sue me?”
Throughout Margaret’s life she was compared unfavourably to the Queen. “My sister has an aura,” she told me. “I’m enormously impressed when she walks into a room. It’s a kind of magic. She’s a pretty young woman and the longer she’s sovereign the more her experience will affect decisions by Prime Ministers. She’ll have an influence and be the great hope of the country in the future.
“So long as our family can produce nicely brought up young people it will be all right. Queen Victoria got wildly out of date by retiring from public life. King George V and Queen Mary were out of date in the 20s, but were a stabilising influence in those days of change. My father [George VI] led us so magnificently through the war and brought the monarchy nearer to life as it was lived then. It’s lucky we’ve always been a little flexible. We can fit in with life as it is lived in our country at any given moment.”
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Rumours about the royal family will continue to be discussed behind closed doors. The one certainty is that any member who flies free, as she did, from the constraints imposed by public perception, will have a tough time. And it will probably be unfair.
Princess Margaret: the Rebel Royal airs Tuesday 11th September at 9.00pm on BBC2