Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Princess Margaret

In Memoriam. 2.11.02 — When I was a kid, a half-generation younger than the two English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, a biography written in the form of a memoir by their nanny (a woman named Marion Crawford) was popular reading for American schoolchildren. In memory, the book was little more than a fairy tale about the two English children who lived in palaces. However, it was more than frowned upon by her former royal employers. Because it dissolved the agreed upon wall around Royal privacy. Forever, as it turned out.

That was then. And the Now wasn’t far behind. Because, beginning with the coming of age of Princess Margaret, those walls not only came down but the lights and cameras came up. To stay. Princess Margaret was the great international celebrity royal after her uncle, the Duke of Windsor.

She was portrayed as the girl in the ivory tower. She could not marry Capt. Peter Townsend, the man she loved, because of his divorce and her relationship to the throne in which she was second and then third and then fourth, etc. in line. Whether or not she ever put much weight in the possibility of becoming queen, the public was told that it influenced her decision not to marry the man. She later married a very nice man, Antony Armstrong-Jones, a fashion photographer whose context was adequate for bearing children, if not princely (he was later made Earl of Snowdon), and they remained married for seventeen years.

When I was no longer a kid, and living in the great big world also inhabited by people like Princess Margaret (whom I never met), I came to know a lot of people who knew her, socialized with her, dined with her, listened to her play the piano and sing on into the night; people who shared cocktail hours, and yachting trips, people who waited on her, kept her company, cajoled her, put up with her and at long last lamented her physical disintegration.

Princess Margaret, 1962.
Life for the British royals is an odd way of life when you think of it in modern terms. Human beings accorded a social privilege based on a completely defunct political notion, decorated in priceless heirlooms and antiquities. Margaret likened it to living in a goldfish bowl. It was probably more like a gilded cage.

She played the royal card to the hilt with all those around her. On Britannia, my dear. There was the business of addressing her at all times as “Ma’am,” a now peculiar custom. There was the royal “we,” for whom others were expected, assumed to automatically delay lunch, dinner, and even departure until she deigned to partake or depart as the royal first, we-myself-and-I.

PM, as she was often referred to publicly and privately, liked being the center. In real life, she liked her whiskey, her cigs. She loved to play the piano and sing her Cole Porter, and she liked to be amused. In the late 70s on a trip to Los Angeles, visiting an old family friend, Lady Sarah Churchill, then living in Beverly Hills, she only wanted to meet John Travolta – who was the hottest male star in the world at the time.

After her divorce from Snowdon and later “romance” with an English landscape designer named Roddy Llewellyn, her existence was not unlike that of a lot of women in middle age who are rich and single. Her position and the “responsibilities” required of her kept her out in the world and allowed her the luxury of meeting new people, although being a single woman of a certain age, living in a gilded cage, curtailed a lot of freedoms.

However, the Royal households of PM and the Queen Mother, have long been favored with a band of loyal footmen. This is to the credit of the QM, who is beloved by her staff. A former footman, now a major domo in a prominent American businessman’s household, told me that there was no one who was kinder and more caring than the Queen Mum when it came to staff. She treated them like family, always concerned about their health, welfare and their state of mind. She also was in the habit of enjoying and sharing their jolly camaraderie during cocktail hour and, in the days gone by, at the hour of the nightcap.

Princess Margaret, left, the Queen Mother and the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during the celebration for the Queen Mother's 100th birthday. Photo: Kent Gavin/PA.
The Royal Household staff is a relatively small number of men who devote their youth to the Royal Family. They are brilliantly trained, and many stay, although many often go on to very high paying positions all over the world. Like any household staff, they know their employers on a domestic level of intimacy. Many are single men (known as footmen), and many will probably never know the bonds of matrimony (unless it’s a same sex marriage).

A number of years ago, one of PM’s staff went out one night to a gay club in London and picked up a lorry driver, whom he took home only to be rolled and robbed. The story hit the front page of the tabloids. “PM’s Footman Rolled in Sex Romp With Lorry Driver.” Something scandalous like that. PM was hardly scandalized, however. Her sole concern was for the well-being of her devoted footman. He recovered, and remained on staff.

In the later years, it was not unusual for PM and the Queen Mother to go up to the Royal Lodge at Windsor for the weekend with some of the boys from the staff. There the royal mum and daughter could kick back. PM could entertain the royal crew with her not-so pianissimo pianoforte, and songs with a style that reminded some of the late great Ethel Merman. There, with whiskey, gin, cigs and jokes, and some of the best party mates a crown can buy (or command), she could have fun. And she did.