Sex, Scandal and Private Polaroids: The Duchess of Argyll’s Notorious Divorce | History Hit

Sex, Scandal and Private Polaroids: The Duchess of Argyll’s Notorious Divorce

17/10/1962 : The Duchess of Argyll pictured in London after the hearing of the High Court action in which it is alleged that she detained many Argyll heirlooms at her home in Upper Grosvenor Street, London.
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A wealthy heiress and one of the most colourful figures of the swinging sixties, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, married the Duke of Argyll, her second husband, in 1951. 12 years later, the duke sued for divorce, accusing Margaret of infidelity and producing evidence, in the form of Polaroid photographs of Margaret engaged in sexual acts, to prove it.

Dubbed the ‘divorce of the century’, the subsequent swirl of rumours, gossip, scandal and sex captivated the nation. Margaret was publicly humiliated as society first fed on, and then utterly condemned, her sexual relationships.

But why was this divorce case particularly scandalous? And what were the infamous Polaroid photos that proved so contentious?

Heiress and socialite

Born Margaret Whigham, the future Duchess of Argyll was the only daughter of a Scottish materials millionaire. Spending her childhood in New York City, she returned to London around the age of 14 and subsequently began a series of romantic relationships with some of the biggest names of her day.

In an age where aristocratic women were primarily simply required to be beautiful and wealthy, Margaret found herself with no shortage of suitors and was named debutante of the year in 1930. She was briefly engaged to the Earl of Warwick, before marrying Charles Sweeny, a fellow wealthy American. Their marriage, at the Brompton Oratory, stopped traffic in Knightsbridge for 3 hours and was declared the wedding of the decade by many in attendance.

Margaret Sweeny, nee Whigham, photographed in 1935.

Image Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

After a series of miscarriages, Margaret had two children with Charles. In 1943, she fell nearly 40ft down a lift shaft, surviving but with a significant trauma to her head: many say the fall altered her personality, and that she was a different woman afterwards. Four years later, the Sweenys divorced.

Duchess of Argyll

After a string of high profile romances, Margaret married Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, in 1951. Meeting by chance on a train, Argyll told Margaret of some of his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War Two, omitting the fact that the trauma had left him reliant on alcohol and prescription drugs.

Whilst there may well have been an attraction between them, Margaret’s money was a key factor in the decision to marry: the Duke’s ancestral home, Inveraray Castle, was crumbling and badly needed an injection of cash. Argyll forged a deed of sale before their marriage to gain him access to some of Margaret’s money.

Inveraray Castle, the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Argyll, photographed in 2010.

The pair’s marriage disintegrated as quickly as it came about: both husband and wife were serially unfaithful, and Margaret forged papers suggesting her husband’s children from his previous marriages were illegitimate.

Argyll decided he wanted to divorce Margaret, accusing her of infidelity and providing photographic evidence, in the form of Polaroids, of her engaged in sexual acts with a series of anonymous, headless men, which he had stolen from a locked bureau in their house in Mayfair, London.

The ‘Dirty Duchess’

The ensuing divorce case was splashed across newspaper front pages. The sheer scandal of photographic evidence of Margaret’s blatant infidelity – she was identifiable by her signature three-strand pearl necklace – was shocking to a world which, in 1963, was on the cusp of a sexual revolution.

The headless man, or men, in the photographs were never identified. Argyll accused his wife of infidelity with 88 men, compiling a detailed list which included government ministers and members of the royal family. The headless man was never formally identified, although a shortlist included the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Churchill’s son-in-law and government minister, Duncan Sandys.

Many of the 88 men listed were in fact homosexual, but given that homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time, Margaret stayed quiet in order not to betray them on a public stage.

With irrefutable evidence, Argyll was granted his divorce. The presiding judge, in his 50,000-word judgement, described Margaret as a “completely promiscuous woman'” who was “wholly immoral” because she engaged in “disgusting sexual activities”.

Many have retrospectively described her as the first woman to be publicly ‘slut-shamed’, and whilst the term is somewhat anachronistic, it was certainly one of the first times a woman’s sexuality was quite so publicly, roundly and explicitly condemned. Margaret’s privacy had been violated and sexual desires condemned because she was a woman. Women who had watched proceedings from the gallery wrote in support of Margaret.

In 1963 the resignation of John Profumo rocked the government as his affair with Christine Keeler was exposed to the world. In the aftermath of the scandal, Lord Denning was tasked with investigating whether any breaches of national security had been caused by Profumo's tryst with Keeler.
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Lord Denning’s report

As part of proceedings, Lord Denning, who had compiled a government report on one of the decade’s other scandals, the Profumo Affair, was tasked with investigating Margaret’s sexual partners in more depth: primarily this was because ministers were concerned Margaret might be a security risk if she had been involved with senior government figures.

After interviewing the 5 main suspects – several of whom underwent a medical examination to determine whether they matched up to the photographs – and Margaret herself, Denning ruled out Duncan Sandys from being the headless man in question. He also compared the handwriting on the photos with handwriting samples from the men, and did apparently determine who the man in question was, although his identity remains a secret.

Lord Denning’s report has been sealed until 2063: it was reviewed after 30 years by the then Prime Minister, John Major, who decided to keep the testimonies firmly sealed for a further 70 years. Only time will tell exactly what was inside them that was deemed so sensitive.

Sarah Roller