Andrew Morton’s biography Elizabeth & Margaret: The Intimate World of the Windsor Sisters (Grand Central) looks at the dynamic between these two royal sisters and how their lives were forever changed by a king’s abdication. Just as Margaret supported her sister, so, too, the queen ignored the endless criticisms of Margaret, appreciating her loyalty and support during the difficult days of her reign.
Decades before Prince Harry and his actress wife, Meghan Markle, were flagbearers of the exotic, progressive, and global, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were established as Britain’s hippest couple, peerless representatives of the “Swinging Sixties” and living proof that the monarchy could be both traditional and modern.
According to Lord Ardwick, editor of the Daily Herald, the Snowdons signified “a new kind of royalty,” arguing, “they had far more contacts among writers and artists and so forth, not among stuffy courtiers. They became the new family model of fast traveling, hard-working, affluent young people—but at a price, a cost that was not always welcome.” Together, this bohemian couple raced through the streets of London on Snowdon’s motorcycle or in his new Mini, visiting street markets, jazz clubs, and theaters.
Such was their appeal that even First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was deeply disappointed when neither the princess nor her husband was present at a dinner in honor of President Kennedy, which was held at Buckingham Palace in June 1961. Internationally, they were the royal version of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—sophisticated, artistic, and raffish. Once Margaret tried on the 29.4-carat diamond ring that was given to Taylor by her third husband, Mike Todd. She joked that it was “vulgar.” Liz replied, “Yeah ain’t it great.” Vibrant, dynamic, and glamorous, Margaret and Tony captivated the nation in the early years, injecting new life and energy into what Prince Philip called “the Firm.”
Everything from their fashions to their crowd—naturally “in”—was a playful counterpoint to the queen and her court. If the Snowdons were deemed “hip plush,” the queen was “starchy matron”—her fashions were still chosen by her dresser since childhood, Bobo MacDonald. Just as her father had done, it was Tony who guided Margaret’s style, urging her to adopt simpler, skimpier trends to mirror the taste and temper of the time. Though she never wore miniskirts, her skirts and dresses were still much shorter than those of other royal women. She also experimented with caftans, lace stockings, and modern costume jewelry, and at one point the princess was voted just behind Grace Kelly in the annual “World’s Best Dressed Woman” contest.
Unlike the queen’s unalterable look, Margaret’s hairstyle was constantly changing, from glossy bobs to elaborate, high-reaching coiffures adorned with hairpieces. Nor was she afraid to showcase daring trends: pale lipstick, heavy eyeshadow, long earrings, and a provocatively low neckline. Tony’s clothes were just as modish: velvet jackets, voile shirts, and barrow boy caps. He even wore a white polo neck instead of black tie to formal events.
While the queen and Prince Philip remained on British soil for their holidays, Margaret and Tony quickly became members of the international jet set and were much sought-after guests of the rich and powerful. At a time when travel abroad was exclusive and expensive, their holidays on a millionaire’s yacht or villa excited awe and jealousy in equal measure. In September 1963, when the queen and the rest of the royal family were at Balmoral, the Snowdons holidayed on a private Aegean island owned by Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos, which came fully stocked with game birds for shooting parties. The following year it was the turn of the British-born Aga Khan IV to fly them on his private plane to the exclusive resort of Costa Smeralda on the Italian island of Sardinia, where they were able to water ski, sail, snorkel, and sunbathe in relative privacy. They returned to the island often. On one occasion, Aga Khan IV’s yacht, the Amaloun, hit a rock and started to sink. Tony dove into the water, and the others took to a life raft, from which they were rescued by a passing boat. Significantly, the first person Margaret contacted to say all was well was the queen.
That escapade did not dim their enthusiasm for all things Italian, and it became a favored holiday destination. In the summer of 1965, for example, the couple drove to Rome in Tony’s Aston Martin to see the sights and to be received by the pope in a private audience. The paparazzi, which began in Rome, stalked them constantly, one photographer observing, “You have to remember that Princess Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor are the two most wanted women in the world.”
Most years thereafter, Margaret would visit the pope’s private garden. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, the beginning of what would become a long flirtation with the Church of Rome. Margaret was a high church Anglican, which was also known as Anglo-Catholic, a branch of the Church of England that adhered closest to Catholicism in its formality and resistance to modernization.
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