I met the Queen once. She came into the library of my boarding school, where a dozen or so of us were standing in dismal hairbrushed anticipation, and said, “Ah, the library.” I should explain, for my excitable American readers, that if you’re British there’s nothing particularly special about meeting the Queen; in her 66 busy years on the throne, launching ships and nodding at sculptures and plodding dutifully through renovated hospital wings, she has met (my own estimate) 71.4 percent of the population. The rarer thing, in fact, is to have managed to avoid her.
But I never met Princess Margaret (who died at 71 in 2002). Oh no. Margaret, the naughty younger sister, moved in a different world. Not for her the blend of ageless mystique and everyday English stodge that Elizabeth may be said to have invented (and which will probably die with her). Margaret liked drinking, smoking, staying up late, being rude, being regal, singing Cole Porter songs, and hanging around with celebrities. There she is, for example, in the index to Andy Warhol’s diaries: Margaret, Princess, not far from Mapplethorpe, Robert, and right next door to Marcos, Imelda.
This last little data point I gleaned from Craig Brown’s brilliant meta-biography 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which pays a lot of attention to diaries, gossip columns, trashy memoirs, and wagging tongues—appropriately, these being the media in which Margaret’s semi-scandalous life was most thoroughly memorialized. “A little pocket monster,” hisses the designer and royal photographer Cecil Beaton to his journal in November 1973, after a ball at Buckingham Palace. “Poor brute … Her appearance has gone to pot. Her eyes seem to have lost their vigor, her complexion is now a dirty negligee pink satin.” At the other end of the spectrum—or is it the same end?— we have the gloopy, trembling-eunuch tones of her footman David John Payne, excerpted from his perfidious tell-all My Life With Princess Margaret: “She looked her very loveliest lying there in a midnight blue sequined cocktail dress with a tight bodice and flared skirt … Her shoulders above the low-cut neckline shone silkily in the soft lights. On the table by her side stood a half-glass of whisky and water and in the ashtray there were two or three inch-long stubs.”