It's hard to remember now, but at one time the British royal family was very sensitive about scandal. This was before Charles convened his triangular marriage with Diana and Camilla, before Andrew and Fergie went their separate wiggy ways, before Prince Harry discovered pot. To be precise, it was the 1950s, in the still lingering aftermath of the abdication of Edward VIII, when the young Queen Elizabeth II was gamely reinforcing the credibility--meaning the dullness--of the throne and her younger sister Margaret was straining at the leash.
When she died last week at 71, just hours after suffering her third stroke in four years, Margaret's place in history was assured. She was the first Diana, a woman whose life was a constant struggle with the rules of royalty. Margaret was just 14 when she became infatuated with Royal Air Force Group Captain Peter Townsend. Then 29, Townsend was a hero of the Battle of Britain and an equerry to her father, King George VI. He was also a married man with two children. But a secret romance eventually developed between them. The world learned about it at her sister's coronation in 1953, the year after Townsend had obtained a divorce, when Margaret was seen brushing a bit of dust from his jacket, not the kind of thing that royalty ordinarily does for commoners. In a nation where few had forgiven Edward VIII for giving up his throne because he insisted on marrying a divorced woman, the prospect that Margaret might wed a divorced man led to a huge public uproar.
The Windsors may be constitutional monarchs, but where the family image was concerned, they could be tyrants second to none. The Queen's private secretary contrived to have Townsend shipped off to Brussels. When he returned to London two years later, Margaret was 25 and no longer required her sister's permission to marry. But she soon was informed by Parliament that marriage to Townsend would require that she surrender her royal income, renounce her claim to the throne and leave England for at least five years. Not long after that, she issued her famous statement that "mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble," she had decided to give him up.
But she wasn't giving up everything. The approved Windsor family pursuits involved horses, hounds and foxes. Margaret preferred theater, nightclubs and long nights entertaining guests at the piano, fitting countless cigarettes into her elegant holder and keeping the royal cocktail shaker in regular motion. She gathered a circle of rich, festive companions, the "Margaret set," and traveled constantly. She discovered Mustique, a Caribbean island that belonged to one of her friends, and took up water-skiing. Try to picture Elizabeth on water skis.
In 1960 she married the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was made the Earl of Snowdon. She told friends that she decided to accept his proposal when she learned that Townsend was to wed a Belgian woman. Snowdon introduced Margaret to an even wider world of artists, actors and writers. But within seven years, their marriage was in decay. Though they would hold things together while their children, David and Sarah, were growing up, both of them were finding companionship elsewhere. For a while Margaret found some with actor Peter Sellers. She reportedly seduced him on the drawing-room sofa at Kensington Palace.