top of page

Plongée Profonde: The 'Dirty Duchess,' Margaret Campbell

An obsession for the infamous Duchess of Argyll.

I do not believe Margaret Campbell intended to leave this earth as an icon of devilish doings yet as time would have it, she remains the unsung hero of glamour, deviance, and gossip. Before obtaining her title of 'dirty duchess', Margaret Whigham, the high cheek-boned heiress, was born in Scotland to prominent businessman George Hay Whigham. Schooled in New York to be a well-healed society dame, Margaret was poised to become a leading albeit controversial lady.

Margaret, the future Duchess of Argyll, 1930. Getty Images.

Shortly after her primary school years were complete her family made their way back to the United Kingdom, but rather than taking up residence in Scotland, her country of birth, they migrated to London where she would finish her education. With glossy looks, charm, American glamour, and worldly whit, she found her schoolmates rather dull in comparison. Her chauffeur would gather her each day from school in the family Rolls Royce so she could take in a matinee rather than partake in sports. She would often exclaim "bye-bye you poor things" to her classmates as she exited knowing she was on to more exciting things.

With ambition and an awe-inspiring edge, Margaret quickly became an in-demand fixture of the London social scene. At just fifteen years old, while on holiday on the Isle of Wight she became intertwined with actor David Niven setting the stage for her later scandal-ridden life.

Margaret, the future Duchess of Argyll, 1934. Getty Images.

In 1930 Margaret was presented as a debutante making her official entrance into proper English society. Already a rising London it girl, the young green-eyed beauty simply dazzled. She departed from the norm by wearing a blue tulle dress designed by couturier Norman Hartnell rather than touting a traditionally white gown. The party cost over £40,000 and she would go on to be dubbed "Deb of the Year." Now a true society gal she frequented the Embassy Club on Old Bond Street and the 400 Club in Leicester Square attracting and dining with many suitors.

Margaret rapidly became entangled with numerous men. She simultaneously was engaged to both the Seventh Earl of Warwick and Max Aitken, son of newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook. All the while, she promised to marry Charles Sweeny, an American financier. Margaret Whigham became Margaret Sweeny. After three children, the couple divorced in 1947. She then became engaged to Lehman Brothers banker Joseph Thomas. They never ended up marrying and she was on to the next conquest.

In 1951 Margaret was at the height of fame becoming one of the most photographed women in society. She then married Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, solidifying her aristocratic position in society. The glamorous socialite was now a duchess adding even more cache to her name. Her primary duties included the renovation and furnishing of the family's estate, Inveraray Castle in Argyll, Scotland, and maintaining the financial well-being of the family.

Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll and Lady Edith Foxwell, 1959. Getty Images.

The scandal began to quickly ensue. The Duke and Duchess had a tumultuous relationship. Lustful beginnings that started the affair turned into erratic behavior, abuse, and drunkenness on part of the Duke. Money woes loomed large as the Duke, while charming, titled, and with numerous estates to his name, had hardly a penny in his pocket. He grew increasingly dependent on the financial donations of Margaret's father, a point of supreme tension. With stressors becoming apparent, he turned to alcohol and developed an addiction to amphetamines.

Margaret, the future Duchess of Argyll, 1938. Getty Images.

The Duchess found herself in a peculiar position of maintaining her image, and title, and keeping her marriage afloat just well enough to keep her husband at bay and societal position held. While the Duke had troubling qualities and created a severe strain on their relationship, the Duchess was not without her pitfalls. In an attempt to forever engrain herself into the aristocratic family, Margaret forged a letter from the Duke's second wife claiming his sons were illegitimate. Without legitimate heirs, Margaret would be the sole inheritor of the Argyll estate and her beloved Inveraray Castle.

Fractures in their relationship did not stop there. With the Duke of Argyll becoming progressively distant with a nasty habit of aggression and drug use, Margaret slipped into her old ways. She began focusing her energy on men.

Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll on the June 1969 Tatler cover.

The Duke grew increasingly suspicious of his eccentric wife. While Margaret made a jaunt to New York, he hired a locksmith to break into her private drawers. Out flew countless Polaroids of Margaret with other men, and letters, revealing her salacious infidelities. Mon Dieu! In later divorce proceedings she would be accused of having affairs with over 88 men earning her the nickname 'dirty duchess.' The Duke strong-armed her for a handsome sum.

Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll and Margaret Campbell, the Duchess Of Argyll. Getty Images.

Seared into British history, the Duchess's reputation would become forever tarnished and her every step fraught with extreme scrutiny by the British press. It was even suggested that her near-fatal fall down a 40-foot elevator shaft twenty years earlier had triggered nymphomania in the Duchess. The Duke's actions would never be questioned and he would go on to marry just four months later.

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy, A Very British Scandal.

Almost 60 years later, the notorious event has become the subject of season two of "A very British Scandal." Claire Foy portrays the Duchess in a beguiling, enigmatic, and salacious way. With the scandal's original events now decades past, cultural attitudes have shifted. While the Duchess was never an image of piety, she was a woman of conviction.

She demonstrated intelligence, savvy, and a knack for the extraordinary. She understood what she wanted and no matter the heartache, she never wavered. And never without perfectly quaffed hair and a set of pearls. One cannot help but to be completely entranced by her charm. Margaret Campbell will live on in the cornerstone of our minds as a devilish, camp, and oh-so-glamorous icon.

Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, 1990. Getty Images.

If curiosity has captured the best of you, I highly recommend reading Margaret Campbell's intriguing 1975 memoir Forget Not and the alluring biography The Duchess Who Dared The Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

Follow Natalie on Instagram: @natalieealdridge

x Natalie

Images: Getty Images

bottom of page