To quote Sunday’s New York Times’ Book Review: “Picasso desperately wanted to marry her. Peter Sellers would have settled for an affair. John Fowles publicly fantasized about abducting her and keeping her as a prisoner.” With so many A-plus list courters, it would seem the love life of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s late sister, would have been an endless swath of romance alongside the royal equivalent of long walks on the beach.
But Margaret had the misfortune of being born both too late and too soon – too late to be the queen, and too soon to make her own life choices. Although Margaret was the niece of Edward III, who famously gave up the throne for twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, Margaret, who supposedly claimed that “Disobedience is my joy,” couldn’t go that extra inch to cut ties with the monarchy and marry her own divorcé, Captain Peter Townshend. (Dismissed for being previously married.)
It’s her inner push and pull that forms much of Craig Brown’s “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret,” due August 7th from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Denied the chance to live happily ever after, the princess marries possibly one of the worst men in the UK, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, known for leaving little letters at her bedside cooing, “I hate you.” Soon a divorcée herself, Margaret lived out her days with too many cigarettes, cocktails, affairs, and heartbreak, before she died after a series of strokes in 2002 aged 71.
If Queen Elizabeth has left her mark as the last of a royal breed, one who toed the line and followed the rules, and had the good fortune to fall in love with someone who just measured up to the Windsors’ approval, then Margaret left her mark as the one who broke a lot of the rules, but couldn’t break the one that might have led to a happy ending. Then again, doing so would have cut her off from much of her fortune, and if Edward III is any example, the royals hold grudges with long memories.
Recently, Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, an older, divorced, mixed-race American. Though he’s currently fifth in line to the throne, can one imagine that happening in the 1950s? Or even the 1980s? And yet, it happened this year, and the world is still turning.