The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy

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Swinging Sixties be damned – when a Polaroid was released in 1963 of the Duchess of Argyll wearing nothing but a three-strand pearl necklace while performing oral sex on a faceless man, British society was scandalised. Not least because the photograph had been revealed by her then husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll, as evidence of her adultery.

The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy
© BBC Claire Foy – BBC

Margaret Campbell’s reputation never recovered after being branded a nymphomaniac by the Duke, who claimed she’d had 88 lovers over the course of their marriage. The details of their divorce electrified a still socially conservative Britain: the judge described the Duchess as having a “sex perversion” and said she was “a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men”. Counsel went so far as to earnestly submit that an allegation of sex taking place “as early as nine o’ clock in the morning” was extremely unlikely.

All this is set to be dramatised in a follow-up to the highly acclaimed BBC drama A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw. Now dubbed A Very British Scandal (because the Duchess was Scottish), the series focuses on the acrimonious divorce that rocked the aristocracy and delighted the tabloids with its salacious details. Claire Foy is taking on the role of Margaret Campbell, and Paul Bettany is playing her vengeful husband in a show that will air on the BBC early next year. 

The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy
© Provided by The Telegraph The Duchess of Argyll in 1930 – Getty

It is the perfect story for the small screen, not least because the titular scandal began early for Campbell. She was born Margaret Whigham in 1912, the daughter of a Scottish millionaire who moved the family to New York when she was a baby. Her mother struggled with her father’s endless affairs, and as a result was cold to their only daughter – one of the Duchess’ biographers has claimed that her difficult upbringing left her with a lifelong preference for men.

At 15, shortly after the family returned to the UK, Campbell fell pregnant on holiday in the Isle of Wight following a fling with an 18-year-old David Niven, who would one day become a major Hollywood star. Decades later, their cook wrote about the fall-out from that event (“all hell broke loose”) and how the teenager was rushed to a London hospital for a secret abortion. Understandably, Campbell didn’t include the traumatic incident in her 1975 memoirs.

Pre-marital sex was still a taboo and this would have been a considerable scandal had it come out, but the entire affair was contained and Campbell was still presented at court as a debutante in 1930 and even chosen as ‘deb of the year’. Widely regarded as one of the most beautiful young women in London, nobody was surprised when she quickly became engaged to the very eligible 7th Earl of Warwick.

The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy
© Provided by The Telegraph Claire Foy in the BBC drama – BBC

They were probably more surprised when she was the one to break off the engagement after falling in love with an American businessman, Charles Sweeny. Their later marriage was a difficult one, and was beset by issues with fertility – Campbell suffered numerous miscarriages and gave birth to a stillborn daughter – and rumoured infidelity on both sides. Eventually they had a son and a daughter (the latter would go on to marry the Duke of Rutland) but divorced quickly afterwards. 

At 35, Campbell found herself single and a subject of fascination once more. Rumour had it that she had already bedded some of the most powerful men in Britain, including the married Duke of Kent and the film star Cary Grant. Known as one of the great beauties of London society, she was regularly featured in magazines and rarely seen without the three-string pearls she had inherited from her grandmother – she wore them both in the day with tweed suits and at night with off-the-shoulder ball gowns.

During this time, Campbell was courted by American investment bankers and art dealers – and memorably wrote that she learnt that it was key “to go to bed early and often” in a relationship. But none of her liaisons stuck until she met Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, who was allegedly ‘bewitched’ by her and – according to some of the harsher critics of their union – the money she brought to the marriage. 

The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy
© Provided by The Telegraph The Duchess in 1953 – Getty

He already had two sons – the requisite heir and a spare – so there was no pressure on the couple to have children. They married in 1951 and quickly began a globetrotting life, wintering in St Moritz, summering in Saint Tropez and spending the rest of the year between London and his ancestral seat of Inveraray Castle. “‘The top’ was where I was supposed to be,” she later wrote. “I had become a duchess and mistress of an historic castle. Life was apparently roses all the way.”

Fashion designers certainly thought so: French couturiers clamoured to dress the Duchess, who – much like Princess Margaret – never rose before 11am, when she would get her daily manicure and pedicure. Cracks in this life of leisure, however, quickly began to appear. Famed for her charisma, beauty and style, the Duchess began spending time in London and New York without her husband and entertaining men including comedian Bob Hope and French singer Maurice Chevalier. Allegedly, she once invited a 17-year-old boy into Inveraray Castle for a bath and a drink, and then took off her clothes and climbed in with him. 

The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy
© Provided by The Telegraph The Duchess in 1953 – Getty Images

By this point, the Duke and Duchess lived separate lives. He petitioned a court for an injunction barring her from the castle and began divorce proceedings in 1959. Wanting to give as little money to his wife as possible, the Duke (who allegedly referred to her as “S” for Satan) started looking for proof of her adultery. In order to get it, he employed a locksmith to break open a cupboard at their Mayfair home, which was where he found the 13 Polaroids that sparked off what was then the longest and costliest divorce in British history.

One of these photographs showed the Duchess engaged in oral sex with a man, another showed her standing next to a different naked man whose face is obscured. In both she is wearing her signature pearl necklace (ironically, really, given the modern day usage of the term). A replica of the piece of jewellery is seen in early production photographs of Claire Foy in character. 

In the court proceedings, Duncan Sandys, then Secretary of State for the Colonies and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, was named as the man receiving oral sex, while film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr was named as the other man. Both denied it, and the Duchess, who died penniless in 1993, never made their identity public. 

The pearl necklace at the centre of a sex scandal that rocked the aristocracy
© Provided by The Telegraph The Duke and Duchess and their children – Getty

She also never recovered from the scandal created by her divorce and after spending all of her remaining inheritance on living in the Grosvenor House Hotel, spent her last years in a small flat in Pimlico. Notably, she kept a ladies’ maid until the very end, who was paid for by friends and family because she had never learned to make a cup of tea. 

No matter what age she had been born in, the transgressions of the Dirty Duchess – as she cruelly became known – would have probably raised eyebrows. But she is also a fascinating character and the upcoming BBC series will hopefully captivate the nation almost as much as the original scandal. 

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