Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (born Ethel Margaret Whigham, 1 December 1912 – 25 July 1993), was a well-known British socialite, best remembered for a celebrated divorce case in 1963 from her second husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll, which featured salacious photographs and scandalous stories.
Margaret was the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and George Hay Whigham, a Scottish millionaire who was chairman of the Celanese Corporation of Britain and North America. She spent the first 14 years of her life in New York City, where she was educated privately at the Hewitt School. Her beauty was much spoken of, and she had youthful romances with playboy Prince Aly Khan, millionaire aviator Glen Kidston, car salesman Baron Martin Stillman von Brabus, and publishing heir Max Aitken.
In 1928, David Niven seduced the 15-year-old Margaret Whigham, during a holiday at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. To the fury of her father, she became pregnant as a result. Margaret was rushed into a London nursing home for a secret termination. "All hell broke loose," remembered her family cook, Elizabeth Duckworth. Margaret didn’t mention the episode in her 1975 memoirs, but she continued to adore Niven until the day he died. She was among the VIP guests at his London memorial service.
In 1930, she was presented at Court in London and was known as deb (or debutante) of that year. Shortly afterwards, she announced her engagement to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick. However, the wedding did not take place, for her head had been turned by Charles Sweeny, an American amateur golfer from a wealthy Pennsylvania family.
On 21 February 1933, and after converting to his Roman Catholic faith, Margaret married Charles Sweeny at the Brompton Oratory, London. Their wedding party comprised eight adult bridesmaids (Pamela Nicholl, Molly Vaughan, Angela Brett, The Hon. Sheila Berry, Baba Beaton, Dawn Gold, Jeanne Stourton, and Lady Bridgett Paulett) and the groom's brother, Robert Sweeny, as best man. Such had been the publicity surrounding her Norman Hartnell wedding dress, that the traffic in Knightsbridge was blocked for three hours. For the rest of her life, she was associated with glamour and elegance, being a firm client of both Hartnell and Victor Stiebel in London before and after the war. She had three children with Charles Sweeny: a daughter, who was stillborn at eight months in late 1933; another daughter, Frances Helen (born 1937, she married Charles Manners, 10th Duke of Rutland), and a son, Brian Charles (born 1940). The Sweenys divorced in 1947.
In 1943, Margaret Sweeny had a near fatal fall down a lift shaft while visiting her chiropodist on Bond Street. "I fell forty feet to the bottom of the lift shaft", she later recalled. "The only thing that saved me was the lift cable, which broke my fall. I must have clutched at it, for it was later found that all my finger nails were torn off. I apparently fell on to my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall". After her recovery, Sweeny's friends noted that not only had she lost all sense of taste and smell due to nerve damage, she also had become sexually voracious. As she once reportedly said, "Go to bed early and often". Given her numerous earlier romantic escapades, including an affair with the married George, Duke of Kent in her youth, this may have been a change in degree rather than basic predisposition.
After the end of her first marriage, Margaret was briefly engaged to a Texas-born banker, Joseph Thomas, of Lehman Brothers, but he fell in love with another woman and the engagement was broken. She also had a serious romantic relationship with Theodore Rousseau, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who was, she recalled "highly intelligent, witty and self-confident to the point of arrogance". That romance also ended without the couple formalising their liaison, since the mother of two "feared that Ted was not 'stepfather material'". Still, she noted in her memoirs, "We continued to see each other constantly." She also allegedly had an affair with Joseph Slatton, who was married to Jacqueline Kennedy's cousin. This occurred during a time when Slatton had access to the White House, and led to his resignation from his Washington post in 1962.
On 22 March 1951, Margaret became the third wife of Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. She wrote later in life -
“ I had wealth, I had good looks. As a young woman I had been constantly photographed, written about, flattered, admired, included in the Ten Best-Dressed Women in the World list, and mentioned by Cole Porter in the words of his hit song You're the Top. The top was what I was supposed to be. I had become a duchess and mistress of an historic castle. My daughter had married a duke. Life was apparently roses all the way. ”
(She was not mentioned in the original version of the song. P. G. Wodehouse anglicised it for the British version of Anything Goes, changing two lines from "You’re an O’Neill drama / You’re Whistler’s mama!" to "You’re Mussolini / You’re Mrs Sweeny")
Within a few years, the marriage was falling apart. The Duke suspected his wife of infidelity, and while she was in New York, he employed a locksmith to break open a cupboard at their Mayfair pied-à-terre, 48 Upper Grosvenor Street. The evidence discovered resulted in the infamous 1963 divorce case, in which the Duke of Argyll accused his wife of infidelity, and included a set of Polaroid photographs of the Duchess nude, save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, in the company of another man. There were also photographs of the bepearled Duchess fellating a naked man whose face was not shown. It was speculated that the "headless man" was the Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys (later Lord Duncan-Sandys, son-in-law of Winston Churchill), who offered to resign from the cabinet.
Also introduced to the court was a list of as many as eighty-eight men with whom the Duke believed his wife had consorted; the list is said to include two government ministers and three members of the British royal family. The judge commented that the Duchess had indulged in "disgusting sexual activities". Lord Denning was called upon by the government to track down the "headless man." He compared the handwriting of the five leading "suspects" (Duncan-Sandys; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; John Cohane, an American businessman; Peter Combe, a former press officer at the Savoy Hotel; and Sigismund von Braun, brother of the German scientist Wernher von Braun) with the captions written on the photographs. It is claimed that this analysis proved that the man in question was Fairbanks, then long married to his second wife, but this was not made public. Granting the divorce, Lord Wheatley, the presiding judge, said the evidence established that the Duchess of Argyll "was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men".
The Duchess never revealed the identity of the "headless man", and Fairbanks denied the allegation to his grave. Long afterwards, it was claimed that there were actually two "headless men" in the photographs, Fairbanks and Sandys, the latter identified on the basis of the Duchess's statement that "the only Polaroid camera in the country at that time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence". In December 2013 her ex-daughter-in-law Lady Colin Campbell claimed that she had been told by the Duchess herself that the headless man was William H. "Bill" Lyons, then sales director of Pan American World Airways.
The Duke of Argyll married an American, Mathilda Coster Mortimer Heller in 1963, and died of a stroke in 1973, aged 69.
Margaret wrote a memoir, Forget Not, which was published by W. H. Allen Ltd in 1975 and negatively reviewed for its name dropping and air of entitlement. She also lent her name as author to a guide to entertaining. Her fortune diminished, however, and she eventually opened her London house — 48 Upper Grosvenor Street, which had been decorated for her parents in 1935 by Syrie Maugham — for paid tours. Even so, her extravagant lifestyle and ill-considered investments left her largely penniless by the time she died.
In her youth, Margaret's father had told Rosie d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, a close friend of hers, that he feared for what his high-living only child would do once she had her entire inheritance. Consequently, Whigham blocked his daughter's access to the principal of her inheritance through various protective legal prohibitions. However, after his death, Margaret's lawyers successfully voided most of the safeguards. In 1978, her debts forced Margaret to move from her Belgravia house and relocate with her maid to a suite at the Grosvenor Hotel.
In April 1988, on the evening after the Grand National, she appeared on a Channel 4 After Dark discussion about horseracing "so she said, to put the point of view of the horse", later walking out of the programme "because she was so very sleepy".
In 1990, unable to pay the hotel bills, she was evicted, and with the support of friends and her first husband moved to an apartment. Her children later placed her in a nursing home in Pimlico, London. Here she was photographed by Tatler magazine, for which she had previously been a columnist, sitting on the edge of her bed in a grim single room. Margaret died in penury in 1993 after a bad fall in the nursing home. She was buried alongside her first husband, Charles Sweeny, in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey.
She once told the New York Times, "I don't think anybody has real style or class any more. Everyone's gotten old and fat." More to the point, she described herself as "always vain". Another quote gives an insight into her personality: "Always a poodle, only a poodle! That, and three strands of pearls!" she said. "Together they are absolutely the essential things in life."
Powder Her Face, a chamber opera based on major events in the Duchess's life, received its premiere at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 1995. The English composer Thomas Adès wrote the music, and novelist Philip Hensher contributed the libretto; the Festival, along with the Almeida Opera, commissioned the piece. Performed in dozens of productions since, the opera has prompted sharply polarized, if mostly positive, comment from critics on the question of its depiction of Margaret.
The opera's Duchess character, an image of the real woman refracted through an astringent Camp sensibility, invites both sympathy and contempt for her by design. In the fourth of the opera's eight scenes, the soprano who plays the Duchess must recreate one of the notorious "headless man" photographs with a hotel waiter, simulating fellatio as she hums a brief, ecstatic passage; the opera owes some of its fame to this wordless aria.
Lady Colin Campbell, stepdaughter-in-law of the Duchess of Argyll, said she had long known the true identity of the 'headless man' Photo: GEOFF PUGH
'Headless man' in Duchess of Argyll sex scandal was US airline executive Bill Lyons
Lady Colin Campbell claims that mystery man pictured with Duchess of Argyll in sensational photo produced at her 1963 divorce trial was a PanAm executive that Duchess regarded as her 'third husband'
By Emily Gosden6:38PM GMT 29 Dec 2013
The ‘headless man’ who was subject of a 1963 sex scandal with Margaret, Duchess of Argyll has been named as an American airline executive, William “Bill” H Lyons.
The claim over the true identity was made by Lady Colin Campbell, the late Duchess’s stepdaughter-in-law.
The Duchess’s husband, Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, produced sexually-explicit Polaroid photos found in his wife’s possession as evidence at their divorce trial.
One photo showed the Duchess performing a sex act on a man, whose face is not visible in the photo.
The scandal caused widespread shock, only being overshadowed by the Profumo affair the same year.
Speculation has been rife ever since over the identity of the so-called ‘headless man’. The Duchess, who died in 1993 aged 80, never disclosed his identity.
Both Duncan Sandys, the son-in-law of Winston Churchill and a Cabinet minister, and the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr, had been widely linked to the photos.
But Lady Colin said that the Duchess herself had told her the true identity of the man in the photo was Bill Lyons.
Lyons was sales director of Pan American Airlines and “scion of a wealthy family” and was the Duchess’s lover for six years, she wrote in the Mail on Sunday.
Lady Colin – known for her revelatory biography of Princess Diana – said she had now chosen to reveal the Duchess of Argyll’s secret as an opera about her, Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face, meant the Duchess was being “immortalised on stage in an obscene pose” as a “lady of loose morals”.
This “bore little or no resemblance” to the Duchess she knew, she wrote.
“The mystery of The Headless Man distorted Margaret’s life while she was alive, and it threatens to distort her memory in death … It is to restore some small measure of justice that I have decided to end the mystery and reveal who it was in the picture with her, and why. I know the answer for a fact because, in the course of our long friendship, it was Margaret who told me.”
Polaroid cameras were a very new technology at the time, a fact that had been used to attempt to narrow down the identity of the man. But Lady Colin wrote: “Margaret was a genuine neophyte. If it was new, she had to have it…
"It should, therefore, come as no surprise she managed to own one of the first Polaroids in England.
“And she used it, in all innocence, to record a loving encounter with the man who replaced Big Ian in her affections after he began divorce proceedings against her.
“Or, to be more accurate, the man rigged up the timer and they recorded a memento of their love for each other.”
She said that the Duchess’s family had known the identity for 50 years but it had been “a secret shared only within the family”. “To those of us who were close to her, it was hardly a surprise – Bill was her lover after all.”
She said that the secret may have been kept too long because in doing so it “perpetuated the mystery, and in so doing we have done Margaret’s reputation no favours”.
The Duke was her second husband and Lady Colin said that the Duchess referred to Lyons as her “third husband” and that they were widely accepted as a couple.
“He was sophisticated, debonair, dapper, well-bred, charming and handsome,” Lady Colin said.
His father was a lawyer, enabling him to give the Duchess guidance as the divorce case progressed.
But Lady Colin said that Lyons was already married to a woman who threatened to kill herself each time Lyons attempted to leave her for the Duchess, a factor that eventually brought the relationship with the Duchess to an end.
At the divorce trial, the Duke of Argyll – who had been married twice previously – claimed that his third wife, the Duchess, had as many as 88 lovers.
Lady Colin alleges that the Duke and his daughter Jeanne broke into the Duchess’s house to find evidence of the infidelity and found the photos in his wife's writing desk which showed her naked, wearing only a three-strand pearl necklace.
They also found the Duchess’s appointments diaries. The men listed in the diaries had been widely interpreted as her lovers.
The divorce trial judge Lord Wheatley, in his judgment on the case, said: "There is enough in her own admissions and proven facts to establish that, by 1960, she was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men."
But Lady Colin says that the most of the men who were listed in the appointments diaries were friends who were gay and “would have fled at the sight of a naked woman” – a fact that the Duchess could not reveal while homosexuality was illegal at the time.
Lady Colin wrote: “Margaret might have been coquettish, but she was most certainly no cocotte. And the only way to do her justice is to identify the Headless Man,” she wrote.
“Then, and only then, will everyone be able to appreciate that what she was doing in those photographs was not so very terrible. She was simply a woman in love – who was unfortunate enough to have a memento of something happy stolen from her.
'Headless men' in sex scandal finally named
Unidentified lover in Duchess of Argyll divorce case exposed as not one but two men - a cabinet minister and a swashbuckling movie star
Thursday 10 August 2000 01.05 BST
It was a scandal that rocked the nation: an aristocratic beauty was photographed performing fellatio on a lover, while shots of another man gratifying himself were unearthed in her boudoir.
The sexually explicit Polaroid snaps proved central in the 1963 divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, and became part of a government investigation.
The duchess's reputation was ruined, but her lover escaped blameless, his identity preserved for almost 40 years by the camera cutting him off at the neck.
Tonight, the mystery of the "headless man" - or rather headless men - is resolved for the first time, with new evidence identifying not one, but two, lovers.
The man in the more notorious shot is unveiled as Duncan Sandys, then a cabinet minister, and his masturbating rival as Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the Hollywood legend who dallied with Marlene Dietrich and married Joan Crawford.
The two men's identities are revealed in a Channel 4 documentary to be shown tonight, Secret History: The Duchess and the Headless Man, which draws on the memories of the duchess's confidante, who identifies Sandys, and previously unpublished evidence gathered by the nation's then most senior law lord, Lord Denning. This formed part of his inquiry into security risks following the resignation of the then secretary of state for war, John Profumo.
Sandys's identity is "conclusively proved", the documentary makers believe, by the duchess's claim that the only Polaroid camera in the country at the time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence, where Sandys was a minister. Fairbanks is nailed by his handwriting.
The Argyll case, heard in March 1963 - the same month John Profumo lied to the Commons about his relationship Christine Keeler - was the longest and most sensational divorce to occur in Britain.
Margaret Argyll, the only child of a self-made Scottish millionaire, was a society beauty who her husband alleged had slept with 88 men, including two cabinet ministers and three royals.
Profumo resigned in early June but, before the month was out, the precarious Macmillan government was rocked by another threat, and looked in danger of being toppled.
At a stormy cabinet meeting on June 20, Sandys, the son-in-law of Winston Churchill, confessed he was rumoured to be the person in the erotic shots, which, at that time, were presumed to be of one man.
He offered to resign but Macmillan managed to dissuade him by ensuring Lord Denning, who had been commissioned to investigate the Profumo scandal, also investigated the identity of the headless lover.
For this Denning, the master of the rolls, had a plan. On the four shots of the man in different states of arousal were handwritten captions: "before", "thinking of you", "during - oh", and "finished". If he could match the handwriting, he would find his man.
He invited the five key suspects - Sandys, Fairbanks, American businessman John Cohane, Peter Combe, an ex-press officer at the Savoy, and Sigismund von Braun, the diplomat brother of the Nazi scientist Werner von Braun - to the Treasury and asked for their help in a "very delicate matter".
As they arrived, each signed the visitor's register. Their handwriting was analysed by a graphologist, and the results proved conclusive. As the broadcaster Peter Jay, then a young Treasury official, tells the documentary: "The headless man identified by the handwriting expert and therefore identified by Lord Denning, though he didn't write this down in his report, was, in fact, the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr."
Duncan Sandys, who in 1974 was given a peerage, appeared to be in the clear - a fact confirmed by a Harley Street doctor who concluded his pubic hair did not correspond with that in the masturbation photos.
But tonight's documentary confirms the other photograph clearly showed a different man whose identity the duchess hinted at to her close friend Paul Vaughan just before her death.
"She did say to me quite clearly that, 'Of course, sweetie, the only Polaroid camera in the country at this time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence,'" recalls Mr Vaughan. "If that wasn't running a flag up the flag pole, I don't know what was. She wanted someone to know." Analysis of the film suggests the photo was taken in 1957, at which stage Sandys held his defence post.
"We believe it's pretty definitive," said Dan Corn, the programme's producer. "It's ironic because he effectively got away with it by being cleared by Denning."
The duchess died in a Pimlico nursing home in July 1993, without even hinting at the identity of her other lover. But despite this discretion, she never recovered from her reputation being so besmirched during her divorce.
Summing up, the judge, Lord Wheatley, said: "She was a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities."