Archives for February 2013

Star Duchess

Argyll“A star of courtrooms and tabloids,” her biographer wrote of Margaret Duchess of Argyll. She stars next week in Thomas Adès’s chamber opera, Powder Her Face, to be performed at BAM by the New York City Opera, February 15 to 23. Zachary Woolfe has written about the opera in The New York Times, praising the work as a “masterpiece” and a “tabloid dreamscape.” This contemporary gem dramatizes the Duchess haunted by her memories and encroaching madness. The marvelous music of Adès contains echoes of Alban Berg, Kurt Weill, and Benjamin Britten.

Powder Her Face portrays the eccentric, nearly penniless Duchess, sung by mezzo-soprano Allison Cook. In attendance are her last remaining courtiers–her maid, an electrician/waiter and the manager of the hotel where she resides as a non-paying guest.

In her heyday, slim, fragile Margaret was fêted as a world-class beauty. At seventeen she was engaged to Aly Khan, who later married Rita Hayworth. Margaret saw him as a handsome boy in a white suit and an emerald. At twenty she married good-looking young American tycoon Charles Sweeny, described as a JFK lookalike. The year was 1933, and Hitler had just come to power. The world was changing.

Cole Porter’s popular “You’re the Top” was revised to memorialize Margaret Whigham Sweeny before her duchess days, as an exorbitant metaphor: You’re Mussolini/You’re Mrs. Sweeny/You’re Camembert.

Throughout her life (December 1, 1912-July 26 1993) Margaret was hounded by scandal, ill health and mishap. Deathly ill at one point, she revived only after a priest administered last rites. Swimming in the Hamptons, she was swept out to sea where she almost drowned. She fell forty feet down an elevator shaft, breaking her fall by clinging to the cables and tearing off her fingernails, terrified of being crushed by the next descending car. She was hospitalized for three months, needing thirty stitches in her scalp. In her young life, she wrote, she suffered eight miscarriages; near the end her biographer tells of her six strokes.

Married and divorced twice, Margaret complained about both her husbands. She embarked on her naughty-duchess role when husband Charlie Sweeny began having affairs. He only wanted her to be “a pretty, brainless doll,” she wrote, and she flew from her “not so gilded cage.”

With her second husband, Ian, the duke of Argyll, she didn’t like being stuck in the clammy Scottish castle of Inveraray. “You and your old castle! I couldn’t live there and I told you so!”

One evening the Duke needed to borrow a comb from Margaret’s bedroom, and he happened to see her red leather date-book on her dressing table. Naturally he read it. There she had inscribed her lovers, among them a German ambassador. The duke was foggily aware of some of these goings-on, but here was ocular proof. Margaret’s diaries were idiosyncratic. Each covered a four-year period so she could compare what she’d been doing on the same day in earlier years. She kept bundles of letters, diaries, and photos of herself–shocking, nude photos, with a man in the same condition; in fact, she had albums of men in the buff snapped in a Paris hotel with a Polaroid instamatic.

As one judge declared, she wasn’t only immoral, she was promiscuous. Or was it the other way around?

Delectable, disagreeable, and disreputable, Margaret was called many unflattering things: a heartless liar, a rude, mean, impudent, “dirty duchess.” She didn’t respect anybody, and she didn’t care about the law. She wrote poison-pen letters. She framed forgeries saying her husband’s sons were illegitimate. With all her dreadful bad-mouthing of people, no wonder she was forced to pay out small fortunes to settle claims of libel and slander brought against her.

Reading between the lines of Margaret’s detractors, can’t we see that Margaret was a wretched little rich girl? Despite her furs and jewels and title, despite the yachting cruises and Atlantic crossings, the caviar and champagne lunches, the benzedrine–despite her circle of stylish acquaintances that included the Duchess of Windsor and Helena Rubinstein, the Ray Millands and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., she was not a happy post-debutante. She suffered insecurities from her neglected childhood. She felt betrayed when her father got re-married to a woman slightly younger than herself. Her beauty and her money were just not enough.

Born in Scotland, Margaret was brought to New York by her parents. She didn’t get into Brearley, so she attended Miss Hewitt’s classes. She left America at thirteen, but always wanted to come back. Early in 1939, she and husband Charlie returned to New York. They saw “Hellzapoppin” on Broadway, and the shows at Radio City. They partied at the Colony, the Stork Club, El Morocco and “21.” They took the Florida Special night train to the sultry mugginess of Palm Beach. Every night there were parties of forty to fifty people in palatial little homes. Nights ended at the Everglades Club, with dancing to Paul Whiteman’s orchestra–dancing under the stars. Shades of a sad, fraying, latter-day F. Scott FitzGerald world.

All that year the coming war in Europe cast its shadow.

Back in New York for the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in March 1939, Margaret remarked on the distant echoes of Hitler’s troops tramping through Czechoslovakia. She and Charlie sailed back to Europe on the Queen Mary.

In Monte Carlo, where Margaret and Charlie were guests of Norma Shearer and George Raft, they all listened to the news about the “German-Polish crisis.” Margaret and Charlie encountered friends who’d just come back from Venice, where the friends related how they had run into Josef Goebbels, the new Propaganda Minister in Hitler’s government. Darkly, Goebbels assured the friends: “I’ll be seeing you in New York.”

In London she dined with American ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, future father of President JFK. Gloomily the ambassador predicted of England, “This country is finished. It will be overrun by Germans in a matter of weeks. All the roads will be blocked with refugees just as they are now in France.” He warned Margaret and Charlie as Americans to get out fast. They’d be crazy to stay. Margaret’s father, on the other hand, told her if she left Britain he’d never speak to her again.

Margaret packed her two children to board with a friend in Wales, while she stayed in London serving as a uniformed volunteer with the Red Cross. She waited tables at the Beaver Club, which was run for Commonwealth troops. When she was photographed in her good pearls, she stirred the rancor of a senior officer who growled, “Who the hell is that dame wearing pearls with her uniform?”

For the coronation of Elizabeth, Margaret didn’t have a proper coronet and had to borrow one from a duchess friend who owned two. During the ceremony she and husband Ian chewed supplies of Horlicks Malted Milk tablets to keep their energy going. She worried that the paparazzi would photograph her with munching jaws.

Apart from widespread media reports of her sensational frolics, Margaret’s life is documented in her autobiography Forget Not (1975), and by authorized biographer Charles Castle in The Duchess who Dared: The Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (1995). Both lives are peppered with anecdotes and vignettes that illuminate her chaotic personality, as well as the bygone era in which she scandalized the world.

To buy tickets for the opera go to BAM.

Copyright 2013 Marcelle Thiebaux