The Real-Life Story of Princess Margaret and Tony, Wild Swingers of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’
They scandalized even Swinging London, jeopardized the reputation of the monarchy, but make for riveting television.
If Meghan Markle feels she needs a primer on what can happen to Windsor princesses she would be well advised to study the case of Princess Margaret. That may seem odd since Princess Diana, as Prince Harry’s mother, is a far more recent casualty and Diana and Meghan are both examples of outsiders gaining admission to the gilded cage.
But Margaret is an equally useful study because she was the classic case of an insider wanting out, with consequences that are about to become vividly clear in the second season of The Crown.
As the past season demonstrated, Margaret’s first attempt at escape was through the love affair that triggered just about every tripwire put in place to keep her from transgression in the eyes of both the family and the old men running the country. She fell for Group Captain Peter Townsend, who arrived at the palace as a war hero to serve her father, George VI, and became a trusted family aide. He was much older than Margaret—and divorced.
We watched, spellbound, as the combined weight of the Archbishop of Canterbury and desiccated courtiers crushed Margaret’s spirit and organized Townsend’s exile to Brussels.
At first, things get more upbeat for Margaret (superbly played by Vanessa Kirby) in season two. She’s over Townsend. Forget any notion of an old flame still secretly burning. Margaret has realized that Townsend was a bit of a stuffed shirt. If she really wants a ticket out on her terms—keep all the comforts and privileges but live a life—she needs a much livelier lover.
Enter Antony Armstrong-Jones (played by Matthew Goode).
The double-barreled name indicates minor gentry but in fact this is a young man who has to earn a living. He’s making a name as a photographer and as a charming social networker with somewhat louche habits. He’s “Tony” to his chums, who are drawn from a catholic range of people including the theater, politics, business, café society and journalism. The latter include me.
I first worked with Tony as a reporter, during a spell in the New York bureau of the London Daily Express in 1958. We did an essay together on homeless guys in a Salvation Army mission in the Bowery who went uptown every day to work in department stores as Santas at Christmas. Tony had the gift of making himself invisible as he won the intimacy of his subjects, a gift essential in that kind of story.
Thereafter he got a lot of work in London for both newspapers and magazines, mostly shooting portraits of actors and actresses. Women loved him and, frequently, he loved them. Using a quaint euphemism of the time, an envious friend said Tony “was very well made.”
Sometimes a story is too close for journalists to see it. That was the case when Tony decided to embark on his romance with Princess Margaret.
After Townsend was sent to Brussels, Margaret had been seen partying with a series of dismal upper-class twits—“chinless wonders” as the tabloids called them—whom the palace courtiers deemed “safe” but she clearly found ineffably boring. She wanted someone more dangerous.
At work Tony was surrounded by editors and reporters who traded in society gossip. Some of them knew stuff about Tony that would have caused the princess’ minders to rush off for a cold shower, like the moment when his darkroom assistant, a very posh and chaste young woman, developed a roll of film she wasn’t supposed to see that featured one of Tony’s more exotic girlfriends trying out a number of pornographic poses at his direction.
Margaret had met Tony briefly years earlier but had no memory of him when an aristocratic friend of hers lined him up as a dinner party guest, thinking that something might click. It did, and quickly. Little things registered with her: other male guests had starched shirts, Tony came without a tie and wore chukka boots and drank a lot of wine. And, unlike the lanky toffs, he was only a few inches taller than she was. Nonetheless he was careful to observe protocol and addressed her as “Ma’am.”
And she surprised him. Instead of the princess who was by reputation deprecatory and aloof he found a young woman of quick wit, culturally curious, entertainingly opinionated—and, he correctly guessed, looking for someone of similar gifts.
Very soon they were addressing each other as “Tone” and “Pet.”
And yet none of us merry bunch of hacks who assigned Tony to shoot celebrity portraits got a whiff of the romance. One reason—at least, in my case—was that we knew that Tony had a gorgeous mistress, a model and talented dancer named Jacqui Chan. She was often seen at the combined flat and photography studio Tony had fashioned out of a small ironmonger’s shop in the trendy quarter of Pimlico—since he so obviously mixed business with pleasure there was little chance of his being discreet, especially with a bombshell of this dimension.
We didn’t even begin to smell the story when Tony suddenly moved to a riverside loft in London’s docklands, about as far from fashionable neighborhoods as you could get without ending up in the river. It gave him much better cover for trysts with Margaret as the affair developed out of sight.
However, my editor at the Daily Express, a sagacious and world-weary observer of all forms of decadence, said to me, “Something is going on with Tony. He’s dropping a lot of the old crowd. He seems to have dumped Jacqui. See what you can get out of him.”
There was a huge clue, literally staring us right in the face. In the summer of 1959 Tony was chosen to take the official portrait of Margaret on her 29th birthday. Until then royal portraiture had tended toward the style of the waxworks dummy, everyone dutifully presented in suitably regal garments. Margaret’s 21st birthday portrait had been taken by Cecil Beaton, who loved opulence and despised simplicity. He drained Margaret of life, reducing her to a piece of furniture in an over-decorated salon.
Tony’s portrait was cropped into a close-up with no furniture and suddenly here was a princess looking like a real person and something of a beauty. It was seen as great coup for Tony—a good move for his brand that would alert many a mother of a debutante to his imaginative gifts. We still didn’t get it.
And clearly I didn’t get anything out of him. Together with about 50 million other Brits I was gobsmacked in February 1960, when the palace issued the official statement:
“It is with the greatest pleasure that Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother announces the betrothal of her beloved daughter, The Princess Margaret, to Mr. Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones, son of Mr. R.O.C. Armstrong-Jones, Q.C., and the Countess of Rosse, to which union the Queen has gladly given her consent.”
The few friends that Tony had trusted to be in on the secret, and his father, had warned him that the marriage would not last, that the pressures on them both of trying to live normally while being members of a family that was, by definition, unable to live normally, would simply be too much. Tony ignored them.
In the context of the royal family’s evolution the timing of the marriage was significant. In Britain the 1960s would see profound and lasting social change, some of it engineered by a swing to a socialist government and some of it the result of an astonishing cultural insurrection in the arts, tossing out official censorship and releasing a surge of creative energy that was led by London—the new Swinging London that was the greatest rebranding of a capital city ever seen.
The royal family needed rebranding, too. Inadvertently Tony and Margaret found themselves presented as the promising new face of a modern monarchy in a way that the young queen, still trapped in the grip of old men resisting new ways, could not herself duplicate.
As it soon turned out, Tony and Margaret represented modernity with their libidos more than with any progressive intellectual ideas. Tony introduced Margaret to a bohemia that she naturally embraced—writers, actors, artists, and even journalists. It was a very sexy set that included, whether Margaret realized it or not, a number of bisexual men who had been Tony’s lovers. The royal couple were openly hungry for each other. One friend, asked what they had in common, replied “sex, sex, sex. They can’t keep their hands off each other, even with other people present.”
What did seem refreshingly modern to a public unaware of their steamy passions was that Tony kept working.
His eye as a photographer was not original. His portraits copied the direct, stripped down effects of Richard Avedon without Avedon’s insights. The real revelatory photography of Swinging London was by David Bailey, an impertinent spirit truly at one with the class-smashing mood of the time.
But Tony, now elevated through the marriage to the title of Lord Snowdon (for a small mountain in Wales) and who signed his work with lofty simplicity, “Snowdon,” had the opportunism and instinct of the advertising brand manager. Given the royal seal of approval, he did his best to portray the family, from the queen down, as thoroughly modern people.
Later, when asked why she had married Tony, Margaret told a friend: “I didn’t really want to marry at all. Why did I? Because he asked me. Really, though, he was such a nice person in those days. He understood my job and pushed me to do things. In a way he introduced me to a new world.”
Indeed, where he could, Tony used his new status to shake up some of the country’s industrial establishment—attempting to emulate Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, as a renaissance man. He was a prescient promoter of a maverick car designer named Alec Issigonis who, tired of the mediocre engineering of most British sedans, sketched a revolutionary small car on the back of an envelope that became the amazingly enduring Mini—and, in Swinging London, was a must-have accessory for modish people like Tony and his pals. He also found development projects for promising young architects, and pushed industrial designers to consider the needs of the handicapped.
In the end, though, like the Mini, Tony’s tastes were too racy for the palace. Some courtiers saw him as a bad influence on Margaret whose wild partying was becoming too public and a source of annoyance for her sister, the queen, and the Queen Mother. This was unfair to Tony. Margaret, unleashed, was becoming promiscuous. To begin with, she had an affair with one of Tony’s old friends while he was away in India on a photo assignment. It was to be the first of many.
She was clearly a very compelling seductress who understood and deployed the lure and mystery of royal power in the bedroom. She could also be suddenly cold and heartless to discarded lovers. I saw this at first hand when she ended an affair with a friend of mine, Robin Douglas-Home. He was the nephew of a Tory prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and a writer with extensive social and political connections.
Notably for me, he had been an early source in the greatest political scandal of the time, the Profumo Affair—he tipped me off that the defense minister, John Profumo, had shared the young woman at the center of the scandal, Christine Keeler (who died this week) with a Russian spy. He wrote a biography of Frank Sinatra and introduced Sinatra to Princess Margaret, with whom Robin was falling deeply in love. But after a brief fling she tired of him, cutting off all contact. A few years later Robin committed suicide, never really having recovered from the affair.
By the end of the 1960s Tony and Margaret’s marriage was a sham. By tacit understanding between them, both moved from lover to lover, confident that the gossip columns would not expose them. The façade remained in place for a while but times had changed and their behavior was so blatant that it could no longer remain private. They announced their separation in 1976 and divorced in 1978. Divorce, the stain that the palace had invoked to cast out Peter Townsend, was now acceptable in the royal family when faced with such an intractable failure.
Margaret’s velocity was always driven partly by something deep inside her, unsated and rebellious. Though she enjoyed a generous allowance provided by the state she seemed frequently peeved that she was required to perform the kind of robotic public duties that her sister had long ago accepted as her destiny. Politicians singled her out for her extravagant tastes, sometimes using her as a rod with which to whack the whole royal family. She really wanted out of the cage but not without all the creature comforts to which she had become accustomed.
As a wedding present an old friend had given her a 10-acre lot on the Caribbean island of Mustique. At the time the island was undeveloped. The spot was idyllic and Margaret built a house there (her donor had shrewdly calculated that her presence would be a magnet for other rich people to follow) and over the years Mustique became her ultimate escape from the rest of the royal family—and from any lingering obligations of duty. She was there for months at a time in a haze of booze, drugs and sex.
For her, the cost of escape often looked like self-destruction. And yet in her rare public appearances she maintained a strange sense of propriety about how a princess should behave, as though in some way she was still in the palace of her childhood.
When she returned to London in 1997 for the funeral of Diana people noticed that as the cortege moved slowly past the queen and other members of the royal family Margaret was the only one who did not bow her head. She had fallen out with Diana because, she said, Diana had protested too openly about how the family had treated her and, particularly, about Prince Charles’ duplicity. She had even objected to Diana having a royal funeral.
When she died of a stroke at the age of 71 in February 2002, she was largely a forgotten figure. In contrast, her sister, the queen, had restored public faith in the monarchy through decades of selfless public service, eventually becoming Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
Antony Armstrong-Jones died in January 2017, at the age of 86. Tony was still Tony. Six years earlier he confessed to having fathered an illegitimate daughter who was born three weeks after his marriage to Princess Margaret. In 2000 it was revealed that he had fathered an illegitimate son at the age of 67, during a second marriage that ended in separation.