Princess Margaret, the younger sister Queen Elizabeth II, is in certain ways the ideal British royal to be be the subject of a biography. If you watch The Crown, where Margaret’s wild-child persona makes her the easy-to-love alternative to the more staid Elizabeth, you already know that. She was glamorous and beautiful and hard-living, with an interesting hint of tragedy to her story (that doomed romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend!) and a strong tendency toward camp in her self-presentation. Margaret was self-important in ways both absurd and pathetic: She was, in a perfect and very 20th-century way, pure royalty.
In the new book Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, journalist Craig Brown examines Princess Margaret in fragments. One chapter tracks her life through her birth, marriage, divorce, and death announcements; another catalogs the words that were added to the dictionary in the year of her birth and the year of her death. Throughout, Brown leafs through the diaries of the most famous people of the midcentury for the inevitable moment where Margaret swans through to say something casually outrageous, cocktail and cigarette firmly in hand — and for the moments of quiet pathos, where something monstrous is happening to Margaret and she is stiff-upper-lipping her way through it.
The biography condemns Margaret for her constant and callous rudeness, but Brown spares more than a hint of outrage for the bohemian wits she spent her time with, who used Margaret for her campy glamour, wrote scathing things about her in their diaries, and then published them. Moreover, he suggests that Margaret, who was reportedly intelligent and funny, was trapped by her birth in an empty life: As the younger sister to the queen, she had little to do with her time except fulfill second-tier royal responsibilities like opening suburban schools and filling stations, all the while knowing that she was losing status with the birth of every royal baby.
Brown’s portrait of Margaret is by turns funny and moving, and every page contains at least one telling detail about what makes Margaret such a compelling avatar of royalty. Here are the 13 most amazing facts we learned from Craig Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
1) Princess Margaret had strong feelings about which words were acceptable and which were not
“Material” is common; “stuff” is preferred. Princess Margaret never ate “scrambled eggs,” only “buttered eggs.” When creating a seating plan, she would never say “placement” — “Placement is what maids have when they are engaged in a household!” Margaret insisted on the French place à table instead.
2) Let’s not sugarcoat: Princess Margaret was a mean person
By which I mean, she once went up to the husband of an old friend, a man who’d had a disability since childhood, and said, “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”
“I think she was trying to be cheeky,” suggested one friend in Margaret’s defense, but Brown makes a convincing case that such a comment was par for the Margaret course.
3) Margaret herself never sugarcoated things either
When she made a cameo as herself on a scripted radio program, the producer asked her if she could perhaps try to sound as though she were enjoying herself more at the fictional fashion show she was supposed to be attending.
“Well, I wouldn’t be, would I?” said Margaret.
4) Teen Margaret was the subject of lots of leering descriptions from dirty old men; adult Margaret was the subject of lots of disgusted descriptions from dirty old men
When Margaret was 19, the Picture Post declared her “the most sought-after girl in England.” Ralph Ellison described her as a “hot-looking pretty girl.” Picasso wanted to marry her. The novelist John Fowles wrote in his diary about a fantasy of imprisoning her underground.
Margaret’s footman David John Payne wrote an extensive memoir of his time with her, which included long, panting descriptions of her body, like the time he saw her in a bikini: “Her supple figure was shown off to its best advantage in … a brief yellow bikini two-piece affair with a halter strap around the neck. … Her body glistened and little droplets of water trickled down from her arms and legs. … I was too astonished to speak. I simply stood and looked, my eyes taking her in from head to toe.”
Within 20 years, the tide had turned. Fashion designer Cecil Beaton crossed paths with Margaret when she was 43 and wrote in condescending horror, “Gosh the shock! She has become a little pocket monster. … Poor brute, I do feel sorry for her. … Her appearance has gone to pot. Her eyes seem to have lost their vigour, her complexion is now a dirty negligee pink satin. The sort of thing one sees in a disbanded dyer’s shop window.”
“You look like a Jewish manicurist,” her husband told her.
5) Margaret’s daily schedule is truly aspirational
Brown provides a detailed account of how Margaret spent her days in the mid-’50s, and truly, it is ideal.
She would wake up at 9 am to have breakfast in bed, and then lie in bed for two hours reading the newspaper and chain-smoking before her maid drew her a bath. She would have her hair and makeup done, dress, and then drink a quick vodka pick-me-up before joining her mother for an elaborate four-course lunch with half a bottle of wine each.
In the afternoon, she would write in her diary and prepare for any royal duties. Tea was at 4:30 pm, and at 5:30 pm she would begin to dress for the evening. Then her friends would come by, and they would drink and go to the theater and listen to music until 2 in the morning.
Princess Margaret knew how to live, is what we’re saying.
6) Margaret demanded very specific water with her whiskey
But it seems like she cared more because she wanted to make trouble than because of the taste. Margaret traveled with crates of Malvern water and would accept nothing else; once, when her host offered her a whiskey and water made with water from the faucet, Margaret declared, “That is not water. It is only tap water.” She required that her footman present her with a sealed bottle of Malvern water before he fixed her drink, so she would know she was getting only the best.
But, the footman confessed in his memoir — this is that leering David John Payne again — sometimes he did run out. In that case, he would fill an empty Malvern water bottle with tap water, seal it shut, and present it to Margaret before mixing her drink. She never knew the difference, he says.
7) Margaret preferred to be called “Ma’am” on casual evenings with friends
“Just like a Christian name,” she would explain. Allegedly, this preference led to an uncomfortable encounter with the actress Rachel Roberts, who drunkenly wandered up to Margaret with her husband Rex Harrison and repeated again and again, “I don’t know what I call you!”
“You call her Ma’am!” Harrison explained, but Roberts appeared not to hear, repeating again and again, “I don’t know what I call you! I don’t know what I call you!” while Harrison and Margaret chanted together, “You call her Ma’am! You call her Ma’am!”
8) Margaret had nightmares about disappointing her older sister
A novelist once asked Margaret if she ever dreamed about the queen, and she responded that yes, she had a recurring dream about her. “She dreamed that she was disapproved of,” the novelist wrote, “she knew she had done something truly awful, something that transgressed everything she had been taught to believe, something that had made the Queen angry.”
Whenever she woke up from one of those dreams, Margaret said, she would have to call her big sister, and it wasn’t until she heard the queen say “hello” over the telephone that she would know that everything was all right.
9) Margaret used to glue matchbooks to the side of tumblers so that she could light a cigarette without putting down her drink
She wanted to turn this practice into a fad so that she’d have more to do with her days, Brown reports, but it never quite caught on. No one else was on Margaret’s level, we can only assume.
10) Her husband was reportedly a monster
According to Brown, Margaret’s husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, was casually vicious to his wife throughout the later years of their marriage. He would leave notes for her scattered around the house that said things like, “24 reasons why I hate you,” or simply, “I hate you.”
The two divorced in 1978.
11) Margaret required a companion when she went swimming
She would do the breaststroke, and her companion would swim next to her doing the sidestroke so that Margaret could see their face. Brown does not provide a reason for this practice; the implication is that that’s just how Margaret lived her life.
12) She hated Princess Michael
Remember that princess who wore a racist “blackamoor” brooch to meet Meghan Markle? Margaret allegedly hated her, or, perhaps more cuttingly, didn’t care to get to know the princess well enough to hate her. She used to brag that she’d never met Princess Michael of Kent and didn’t intend to.
13) Margaret brought her characteristic eye for fabulous detail to her funeral arrangements
She planned and re-planned her funeral multiple times, once telling a friend that she rather thought she should like to be buried at sea.
“With a Union flag wrapped around your coffin?” asked the friend.
“Certainly not,” returned Margaret. “I have my own Standard.”