The Wild Life of Princess Margaret, The Original Royal Rockstar

The Daily Beast

July 17, 2016

It was later in life, and in light of all the scandal generated by Princess Diana, Prince Charles and younger royals, that Princess Margaret reportedly said, ”They leave me alone these days. Today they have other fish to fry.”

With her drinking, partying, and alleged affairs with the likes of Mick Jagger and Peter Sellers, Margaret’s public image—which orbited from tragic to passionate to louche and unpredictable—made her, pre-Princess Diana, the most dramatic and scandal-generating Royal.

The Queen’s younger sister, she was not bound by the all-consuming duty and responsibility that the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, was bound by. Think of Princess Margaret, and you think of her early thwarted love, lounging on Mustique, attending the ballet, and partying.

She mixed in society and showbiz circles, and she also knew shadier types like the ex-gangster John Bindon, whose mysterious relationship with her is one focus for Richard Stirling’s stage play, A Princess Undone, which will premiere at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the UK on October 19.

There are few British actresses—bar her Dynasty nemesis Joan Collins—that could be better chosen to play Margaret than Stephanie Beacham, who plays Margaret in Stirling’s show.

It is set in 1993, the year Bindon (who reportedly could hang five half-pint beer mugs on his large penis) died.

In the play, Bindon comes to visit Margaret, as she considers what to do with a trove of letters that contains scandalous information pertaining to Charles and Diana, and yet more scandalous information pertaining to Margaret herself.

“She was Diana before Diana, and it must have been difficult,” Beacham told the Daily Mail. ‘It’s always difficult being second fiddle. She adored her sister, but she didn’t have a place. She was president of this and that; she loved the good life; she loved being a princess. But she was difficult, and sometimes sad.”

“Men aren’t called difficult,” Beacham added. “A ‘difficult’ woman simply means that they are of a personality that can both delight and affront—and I think that’s true of Margaret.”

The source of Margaret’s restlessness was sourced in her placing in the family. She was not-the-Queen, and from a young age—with the Queen groomed to take on the mantle of monarch—was forced to find a way to live a life in her sister’s shadow, while still remaining loyal to her and the family.

The restlessness and drama of Margaret’s life was first crystallized by her falling in love with, and then having to renounce her relationship with, Group Captain Peter Townsend, her father King George VI’s former equerry. Townsend was divorced from his first wife, and became involved with Margaret. They wanted to marry, but the religious mores of the time dictated against it, even if the British public backed Margaret’s personal desires above such religious and social strictures.

In 1955, Margaret put an end to fevered media speculation by releasing a statement, finally drawing a line under the couple’s relationship: “I would like it to be known that I have decided not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage.

“But mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before others. I have reached this decision entirely alone, and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Captain Townsend.”

In 1960, Margaret married Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon), and from 1966, if you believe all the gossip, her extra-marital affairs with men began, some extremely famous like Jagger, Sellers, and David Niven.

This was the dawn of the era of Margaret, the royal diva, who swung wholeheartedly along with the Sixties.

At a high society New York event when, reportedly asked by a hostess how the Queen was, that Princess Margaret was said to have replied, “Which one? My sister, my mother or my husband?” (Lord Snowdon has denied rumors he had gay affairs.)

In the 1970s, her holidays on Mustique—and pictures of her with the much younger Roddy Llewellyn—cemented Margaret’s image as shamelessly high-living, and caused scandal.

She once told Jean Cocteau, “Disobedience is my joy.” Exceptionally grand, she expected to be called ‘Princess Margaret’ by her own children in front of visitors; and did not like guests to leave parties before she did. John Lennon called her ‘Priceless Margarine.’

Boy, did she smoke—up to 60 cigarettes a day. A section of her left lung was removed in 1985, even though the tissue was discovered was to be non-malignant. The Daily Telegraph summarized her years of illness, thus: “She suffered throat infections, laryngitis, migraine, gastro-enteritis, bronchitis, pneumonia and mild hepatitis.”

Despite the advice of her physicians, she would not quit smoking. A stroke followed, then she burnt her foot badly stepping into a scalding hot bath in 1999. A series of strokes left her partially paralyzed.

The photograph of Margaret, in a wheelchair looking incredibly frail and certainly frailer than her mother, the Queen Mother when the latter turned 101 in 2001, was in stark contrast to Norman Parkinson’s famous studio picture of her, the Queen, and the Queen Mother as a shimmeringly glamorous trio in 1980.

In the 2001 picture she is in a wheelchair, her arm in a sling, and half-covered in a blanket. The focus of Princes William and Harry seems to be on her, rather than the Queen Mother.

The Queen Mother would outlive her daughter. Margaret died, aged 71, in February 2002, the Queen Mother a month later. In the last days of her life, Margaret reportedly watched re-runs of Batman for comfort. She died peacefully in her sleep.

Observers wondered if the extravagant, sad, slightly crazy and health-wrecking rollercoaster of her life would have unfolded in the way it did had she been allowed to marry Townsend. Perhaps Stirling’s play, and Beacham’s performance, will convincingly interrogate this—the intriguing combination of high-rolling fun, capriciousness, snobbery, family loyalty, and personal sadness that seems to have been Margaret’s lot.

And the mischief. However impossible she sounds, one can smile at anecdotal tales such as Margaret insisting that at parties waiters be stationed every 50 feet with a bottle of Famous Grouse in hand to top her glass up.

When she dropped her coat at another function, the story goes that a man immediately offered to pick it up. Margaret’s response: “No. I’ll never remember where it is if you move it.”