Prime Minister

The Sexy Side of Maggie: How Thatcher Used Her Softer Quality

Britain’s legendary prime minister may have been known as the Iron Lady, but she had a softer side—and was not shy about using it to her benefit, surrounding herself with tall, virile men, and unnerving officials with her sexy, hands-on attentiveness. It is a quality Meryl Streep deftly captures in the new film, says Gail Sheehy.

01.11.12 9:45 AM ET

The Iron Lady had a softer side, her secret weapon. Approaching her 10th year as prime minister, a fearsome force hell-bent on putting the spine back in Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher exuded a strong, sexual charisma. And she was not shy about using it. Ordering Aquascutum to revamp her entire wardrobe, she had her skirts pulled up, her décolleté lowered, and began showing more of her good legs. During Question Time, I noticed she would often rub the back of one black-stockinged calf with the other foot, presumably for the delectation of the frontbenchers sitting behind her.

While interviewing the PM along with 54 male members of her coterie for a profile in Vanity Fair, I heard stories of how she used this surprising weapon. She encouraged her star boys to compete in making a fuss over her. And she fussed over them. Once, when all her party officials were lined up for a photo op, she stopped the proceedings. Her eyes fell on a handsome young buck of an Irishman, a member of her economic think tank, who would later become a television producer. His double-breasted jacket was not buttoned up. He felt her hand on his tie, slowly sliding to the top. Then her hand inside his jacket, feeling for the inside button. Then she purred, “John, if you wear a double-breasted jacket, you must always keep it buttoned.”

“The sensation was one of hardening of the organs,” he chuckled in the retelling. “She is sexy and very interested in sex. You feel it when you work for her.” He speculated that, given her strict background, “she’s never had enough sex, and now that Denis is a little old and a little louche, she’s more demanding of other men. She seems to be always searching for a man who can stand up to her.”

What prompted this change?

When she was elected the first female prime minister, she was a shrill, shiny-faced, menopausal woman of 53. A middle-class woman to boot, she ran the gauntlet of upper-class men marinated in sexism and class prejudice. She acknowledged to me, “For the first six years, one had to go really as an act of faith that what we were doing was right.” By her early 60s, she was secure in her rule and convinced that she was always right. There was a new bloom on her fine, unlined skin. Her energy was more ferocious than ever. She appeared to be reveling in a second girlhood—or maybe her first.

The tall, virile, silver-haired civil servants with whom she surrounded herself resembled American male movie stars of the ‘30s. Some were slightly caddish. Into the wee hours at Downing Street she sat up with them working, drinking whisky, and laughing at raunchy jokes. One of her courtiers bet that Clark Gable as Rhett Butler would be her ideal, “a privateer, a romantic, and a fabulous cad.” To travel with her, she tapped Charles Powell, also tall and virile but only 47, “a smoothy” she called him. He was described as a “surrogate son” by The Observer, “charming, bright…Oxford, not the kind of chap who’d fail his accountancy exams and get lost in the Sahara,” like her real son, Mark, a hopeless bumbler for whom she always made excuses.

One of her top ambassadors told me how amused he was by Thatcher’s hands-on attentiveness. She arranged to meet his plane on his return from foreign trips in her Daimler limousine. With the flick of a button she would drop them back into full recline, where they could share a tete a tete, limb to limb, over gossip and state secrets.

Behind her late middle-age rejuvenation was the spell of a Hindu practitioner of ancient Ayurvedic arts. Madame Veronique, as the Indian woman called herself, could only be found by recommendation from her high-status clients. She was even bossier than the PM and not afraid to stand up to her. She received Thatcher roughly every six weeks in her flat in a shabby suburb of London. Directing her to disrobe, she would poach her in herbs in a hot tub and then literally electrify her. You read it right. Madame’s secret was an electrical bath. Standing at the foot of the tub, Madame would turn the amps up to .3 on the baffle plates that lined the bath, to “recharge the nervous system and release blocked energy.” After an hour’s electrification, she would rub down the tingling body with natural flower oils. A session was $1,000 a pop.

Why would the famously thrifty grocer’s daughter submit to this tender torture and shocking price tag?

I had to take a treatment to find out. When I shrank, trembling, at the top of Madame’s tub steps (there’s only so far one must go to validate a story!) her shrill voiced shamed me: “I have the most high-powered women in the world in my tub—prime ministers and ambassadors, plus kings, princes and little bitty emirs—you have nothing to fear.” She bragged on clients from the Churchill family, Pamela Harriman, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who she said was sent by Thatcher.

“Mrs. Thatcher is a very, very feminine woman,” she told me. “We are strong, but not hard. We know what we think and where we want to go—that’s why some men run from us. But away from the public eye, at home, the man is boss.” The film, The Iron Woman, drives this point home: Margaret Thatcher was dependent on her doting, slightly dotty husband Denis, and devastated by his loss.

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THE ION<cq> LADY! blared the Daily Mail front page the day after my article came out. Rivals as well as the Opposition taunted the PM with the baths during Question Time. She stood fast.

Watch carefully the scenes toward the end of the film. Meryl Streep’s uncanny channeling of Thatcher does not miss giving a hint of her late-blooming powers of sexual manipulation. Streep/Thatcher is being fitted in a gown of almost daring décolleté. Surrounded by her all-male ministers in her private quarters, she deliberately allows her maid to reveal her bra and sew a button over her tit. All the while, she dismisses the men’s arguments that she should not fly off for a celebration of the end of the Cold War. They warn her to stay home and defend herself at the Conservative Party election. The intoxication of power has overwhelmed her. She chooses to stride at the head of a phalanx of 36 male world leaders, the only woman, the most powerful woman in the world, and ignore the treachery back home. For that blind vanity, she would be destroyed by the very colleagues who once adored her.

Or did they?