As a patriotic American and cultural Anglophile, I’ve always considered it my duty to be disgusted by the Royal Family. Hearing hosts on The Today Show gush about the latest Royal Wedding never fails to get me cursing until I’m banished from the bedroom. Isn’t this why we had a revolution in the first place? I sputter. So why would I bother to pick up a biography of the late Princess Margaret, sister of England’s ageless Queen? In fact, I not only read Ninety Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown, I enjoyed it.
As the title suggests, Brown’s study is neither straightforward life history nor rapt hagiography. Researched and/or “curated” from around two hundred previously published biographies and memoirs, this book is a meditation on changing attitudes towards class and celebrity over the last century or so. The cumulative portrait that emerges from ninety-nine chapters (geddit?) of varying length, content and tone is never flattering yet always feels fair, even humane, though it’s far from sympathetic. Empathy for a subject (no pun intended) so above-it-all is of course is out of the question. Brown is a veteran British journalist and author with a penchant for irony, satire and terse prose. All of which are entirely appropriate to the task at hand, and put to entertaining use.
Born in 1930, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon existed for the next 72 years in the shadow of her older sister and only sibling Queen Elizabeth II. However, Margaret never shied from the limelight. Petite and pretty, at least as a young woman, over the course of her life she progressed from being considered a national, even international sex symbol, lusted after by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Peter Sellers, to earning a well-documented reputation as a interpersonal nightmare.
After the Royal Family scuttled her engagement to divorced war hero Peter Townsend, Margaret was set adrift, at least romantically. Eventually she married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) whom she divorced in the Seventies, setting aristocratic tongues a-wag, naturally. Later she became involved with failed pop singer and “loose cannon” Roddy Llewellyn, a hapless figure of ridicule.
Although she was attracted to a set of people Brown identifies as “well heeled Bohemians,” Princess Margaret never shook loose her from her privileged roots. By all accounts she was professional snob, virtuoso snubber, Olympian fussbudget and houseguest from Hades. And the accounts were legion. In Craig Brown’s words:
“Princess Margaret felt most at home in the company of camp, the cultured and waspish. It was to be her misfortune that such a high proportion of them kept diaries and more over, diaries with a view towards publication. To a man they were mesmerized less by her image than the cracks found in it. They were drawn to her like filings to a magnet, or perhaps more accurately, cats to a canary.” MEOW!
The Royal Dwarf, as she was called behind her back, vacillated between “easy-going and hoity-toity.” The latter usually won out. She insisted that her breakfast of scrambled eggs be referred to as “buttered eggs” in her presence, amid literally hundreds of other absurd verbal protocols. A human smokestack, she puffed on cigarettes throughout the meals she declined to consume while imbibing single-malt whiskey and gin by the fifth. Chronically late for engagements, she expected her companions to abide by the dictate that nobody could leave until she was finished. And so on, until the break of dawn.
“As she grew older,” Brown relates, “Princess Margaret turned pickiness into an art form, snubbing hosts who offered her items of food and drink that were not exactly what she wanted.” This is almost incredible, as she already seemed to be a master at the craft. “‘I am unique’ she would sometimes pipe up at dinner parties. ‘I am the daughter of a King and sister of a Queen.’ It was not an icebreaker.” Yet despite her rudeness and shallow pronouncements, those well-heeled Bohemians remained sycophantic followers, at least when they were in earshot. The expatriate American author Gore Vidal, unsurprisingly, takes the booby prize here, sucking up to the Princess far beyond the call of social duty.
Still, reaching middle age is no picnic for any of us, to the manor or tenement born. The Eighties were especially unkind to Margaret, as the new celebrity culture displaced and distorted the old class system. “Born in an age of deference,” Brown writes, “the Princess was to die in an age of egalitarianism.” She got into a tabloid slanging match with Boy George and a public one-upping showdown with Elizabeth Taylor. Eclipsed by another, younger Princess, the former Lady Diana Spencer, Margaret’s media profile faded as her health began to fail in the Nineties.
One question remains: why write (or indeed, read) a book like this in the first place? Craig Brown divides Royal biographers into two camps: the fawners and the psychos. The fawners study their subjects and deduce that they are Just Like Us. “They chat, they squabble, they breakfast, they barbecue: praise them! praise them!”
Meanwhile the psycho-biographers “blame the Royal family for all that is wrong with the world, and attribute diabolic motives to everything they do. In this way, they invest them with superhuman powers.”
If this sounds like the way we regard celebrities in the 21st Century, well, it should.
Ninety Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret lands squarely between these two extremes. Craig Brown is neither fawner nor psycho. As for Princess Margaret, she was far from superhuman and nothing like anyone you know. I hope.