10 February 2012

Flashback Friday: The Fabulous Princess Margaret

In her life, Princess Margaret knew every kind of fabulous, from that which captivates the world around you to that which turns the tide against you and ultimately drowns you. I've always had a great affection for the late princess (then again, I've always had a high tolerance for fabulousness).  But she's unpopular in many eyes - it's far easier to take shots at her than to try and understand this complex woman who was perpetually caught somewhere between the trappings and expectations of old school royalty and the world of modern royal celebrity.

Princess Margaret Rose was born in 1930, the younger daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York who were destined by the twist of fate that was King Edward VIII's abdication to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. As the younger sister of the steadfast future queen, Princess Elizabeth, Margaret was bound to be saddled with the stereotypical opposite characterization. As it happened, she was particularly well suited for it. Elizabeth was careful; Margaret came prepared to charm her way out of any punishment that might dare come her way. Elizabeth was dutiful, but Margaret was vivacious, and this naturally caught the attention of the British public. Her style in particular was trendsetting right from the beginning. She loved fashion and cared about the image she presented to the world, and girls watched and copied. She's even credited with helping usher Dior's full-skirted New Look into Britain.
But it wasn't just her style that people were eating up - it was her whole life, including her loves. And on that front, Margaret delivered years worth of gossip. Devastated by her father's early death, Margaret sought comfort in his former equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. Townsend proposed marriage, but he was divorced. The country watched and waited as she decided if she would accept his proposal; both the government and the church were adamantly against a marriage. Finally, a statement was issued: Margaret had chosen duty over love.
L to R: Margaret and Townsend, Margaret around the time she announced their relationship was over, and Margaret and Armstrong-Jones engaged and married
Public fascination with Margaret grew with this new tragic angle. Her life grew ever more fabulous - she partied and smoked and drank unabashedly. She was a reckless young royal just like we have today, complete with paparazzi problems (Italian snappers caught the princess in - gasp! - a two-piece bathing suit, absolutely unthinkable for a royal). She surprised the lot with her engagement to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960 - announced not long after Townsend announced his own engagement to a Belgian girl - and their marriage in Westminster Abbey kicked off a new decade fabulousness for Margaret.

With Armstrong-Jones (soon to become the Earl of Snowdon) by her side, Margaret was a 1960s idol. The creative couple had fancy friends and fit right in with celebrity culture. As ever, her mixing of trends and princess traditions made her a style icon.

But what goes up must come down, and Margaret began to experience backlash from her fabulous heyday. A new crop of young royals popped up with a new round of exploits, and Margaret's antics began to be seen in a particularly frivolous light. Her marriage collapsed around her, ending in a bitter split and divorce in 1978. She appeared to be carrying on with a man 17 years her junior, Roddy Llewellyn. Her frequent vacations to her home in Mustique began to be seen as intolerable excess, particularly when compared with her sister's sensible Balmoral holidays. She dropped from one of the most popular royals in the family to one of the least.
Descriptions of Margaret range from friends that recall her humor and her loyalty to those that found her rude and detached. To me, it has always seemed that her main issue was being caught between two royal worlds - that of the old school, wherein you're always above all others, and the new, down-to-earth, school.
Many that met her said she was intelligent and intellectually curious and some have posited that were she allowed to go to actual school, rather than being taught at home by a governess who focuses on manners first, and university (as the new school of royalty would encourage) she might have found fulfillment. But her mother (old school) didn't see the point. And so she ended up bored, I think, with the royal rota. And she didn't necessarily mask that boredom. And she also had a sharp tongue, a combo which marked her as the Rude Princess.

For all her partying and scandals - definitely a mark of the new royal world - she clung to the some of the formality of the royal world of her youth, insisting even friends call her Ma'am, which seemed hopelessly out of touch in her last decades. She also, it seems, clung to the idea that she was above others and beyond reproach. It's a notion that makes it easy to drudge up hypocritical examples from the Margaret archives, like the time she wrote a scathing letter reprimanding the Duchess of York for daring to send her flowers when she hadn't even apologized for the scandal her behavior and her divorce had brought on the family. Rich indeed, coming from a woman whose love life had provided headline gold for decades.

In the end, all that fabulousness turned right around and swallowed her whole. The years of hard partying, drinking and smoking did exactly what it does, and she spent the last part of her life struggling with health issues. Princess Margaret died on February 9, 2002, after the last of a series of devastating strokes. Her last public appearances bore almost no resemblance to her stylish, elegant, and stunningly beautiful youth, a fact which makes it ever more appropriate to honor her by remembering when she was at her most fabulous.