Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (born Ethel Margaret Whigham, 1 December 1912 – 25 July 1993), was a well-known British socialite, best remembered for a celebrated divorce case in 1963 from her second husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll, which featured salacious photographs and scandalous stories.

Divorce from the Duke of Argyll

Within a few years, the marriage was falling apart. The Duke suspected his wife of infidelity, and while she was in New York, he employed a locksmith to break open a cupboard at their Mayfair pied-à-terre, 48 Upper Grosvenor Street. The evidence discovered resulted in the infamous 1963 divorce case, in which the Duke of Argyll accused his wife of infidelity, and included a set of Polaroid photographs of the Duchess nude, save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, in the company of another man. There were also photographs of the bepearled Duchess fellating a naked man whose face was not shown. It was speculated that the "headless man" was the Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys (later Lord Duncan-Sandys, son-in-law of Winston Churchill), who offered to resign from the cabinet.

Also introduced to the court was a list of as many as eighty-eight men with whom the Duke believed his wife had consorted; the list is said to include two government ministers and three members of the British royal family. The judge commented that the Duchess had indulged in "disgusting sexual activities". Lord Denning was called upon by the government to track down the "headless man." He compared the handwriting of the five leading "suspects" (Duncan-Sandys; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; John Cohane, an American businessman; Peter Combe, a former press officer at the Savoy Hotel; and Sigismund von Braun, brother of the German scientist Wernher von Braun) with the captions written on the photographs. It is claimed that this analysis proved that the man in question was Fairbanks, then long married to his second wife, but this was not made public. Granting the divorce, Lord Wheatley, the presiding judge, said the evidence established that the Duchess of Argyll "was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men".

The Duchess never revealed the identity of the "headless man", and Fairbanks denied the allegation to his grave. Long afterwards, it was claimed that there were actually two "headless men" in the photographs, Fairbanks and Sandys, the latter identified on the basis of the Duchess's statement that "the only Polaroid camera in the country at that time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence". In December 2013 her ex-daughter-in-law Lady Colin Campbell claimed that she had been told by the Duchess herself that the headless man was William H. "Bill" Lyons, then sales director of Pan American World Airways.

The Duke of Argyll remarried in 1963, for the fourth time, to an American, Mathilda Coster Mortimer Heller, and died of a stroke in 1973, aged 69.

In culture

Powder Her Face, a chamber opera based on major events in the Duchess's life, received its premiere at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 1995. The English composer Thomas Adès wrote the music, and novelist Philip Hensher contributed the libretto; the Festival, along with the Almeida Opera, commissioned the piece. Performed in dozens of productions since, the opera has prompted sharply polarized, if mostly positive, comment from critics on the question of its depiction of Margaret.

The opera's Duchess character, an image of the real woman refracted through an astringent Camp sensibility, invites both sympathy and contempt for her by design. In the fourth of the opera's eight scenes, the soprano who plays the Duchess must recreate one of the notorious "headless man" photographs with a hotel waiter, simulating fellatio as she hums a brief, ecstatic passage; the opera owes some of its fame to this wordless aria.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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