Fact vs fiction

It’s history – but if you wrote it as fiction, I doubt anyone these days would imagine it had a basis in fact.

I’ve been reading law recently, for a number of reasons some of which are loosely connected with the second of a series of three paranormal novellas (the first one should be out in the next couple of weeks, I’m waiting on a cover image and publication date). But while doing so I came across Argyll v. Argyll, or to give it its full legal reference, Duchess of Argyll v. Duke of Argyll [1967] Ch302.

That case is about a legal injunction, but I’ll try to tell the whole story chronologically.

Ethel Margaret Whigham – known as Margaret – was born in 1912. Daughter of a Scottish millionaire with interests in both the UK and US, she was brought up in New York. She had several youthful romances and in 1930 became a debutante (and noted society beauty) in London. In 1933 she was married to Charles Sweeney, an American golfer, with whom she had three children (one was stillborn, two survived).

In 1943, she was visiting her chiropodist in Bond Street, London, and had a forty-foot fall down an elevator shaft that left her very seriously injured, including a blow to the head. On recovery, her friends reported that she had lost her senses of taste and smell due to nerve damage, but had also become ‘sexually voracious’. How accurate that claim was remains debatable – not so much in terms of her sex drive, but in terms of whether the fall and blow to the head had caused it. There were claims and rumours about various romantic liaisons in her past that suggested (I quote Wikipedia here) that the injury had resulted in a ‘change of degree rather than basic predisposition’.

She and Charles Sweeney divorced in 1947. She had a few affairs, but then in 1951 married Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. She was his third wife. However, while the ancestral home of the Argylls was Inveraray Castle, about 60 miles north-west of Glasgow, she – now the Duchess of Argyll – apparently preferred to live at 48 Upper Grosvenor Street in London, a house that had been in her own family since at least the 1930s. There she conducted a string of affairs with men in the upper echelons of British, and indeed international, society.

In 1959 her husband filed for divorce and the legal hearings ran until 1963. In that year, the Duke raided her house, seizing private diaries and Polaroid photographs which were used as evidence in the proceedings and led to separate hearings for an injunction to restrain him from publicly speaking or writing about these materials and other ‘marital secrets’, or allowing or enabling them to be made public. There was also an interlocutary injunction against the editor and publisher of the People newspaper to restrain them from publishing details, including the allegations made in the petition for divorce.

The key part of this debate concerned what came to be known as the ‘headless man’ photographs. These were a series of Polaroid photographs taken, according to the dates printed on the reverse of the pictures, in 1957. They’d been captioned in handwriting: ‘before’, ‘thinking of you’, ‘during’, ‘oh’, ‘finished’. And they showed a woman, naked apart from a distinctive pearl necklace, performing oral sex on a man whose head was not in shot while another man, whose face was also obscured, apparently masturbated in the background. The fact it was a Polaroid camera, and the handwriting on the pictures, became significant later on.

Diaries and the photographs were both used in evidence in the divorce proceedings. The former enabled the Duke to produce a list of 88 men with whom, he alleged, the Duchess had had sexual relations – the 88 were reputed to have included two government ministers and three royals. The latter rather graphically illustrated these relations and there were issues about, ironically, whether their explicit nature meant they were suitable for production as evidence in open court (they were, eventually).

Matters even reached the point at which Lord Denning, just appointed as Master of the Rolls, was asked to conduct an enquiry to determine the identity of the headless men. (Denning, incidentally, was asked to lead another enquiry into sexual matters in mid-1963: this was into the ‘circumstances leading to the resignation of the former Secretary of State for War, Mr J. D. Profumo’.)

The original list of 88 men was reduced to five headless man ‘suspects’, two of whom were Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Duncan Sandys, in 1957 Minister of Defence and by 1963 the cabinet minister responsible for the Commonwealth Relations Office. Sandys was exonerated by Denning on the basis of a medical examination that compared his pubic hair to that of the masturbating man in the photograph; Fairbanks was believed to be one of the men involved based on a comparison of his handwriting with that on the Polaroids.

As a footnote to that, the divorce court didn’t proceed with the claim that the Duchess has committed adultery with 88 men – that would have been overkill – and took evidence in relation to three, one of whom was Fairbanks. He denied his involvement to the end of his life. Sandys was dropped as a suspect ‘headless man’; but towards the end of her life, the Duchess pointed out something interesting to a friend of hers: ‘Of course, sweetie, the only Polaroid camera in the country at this time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence’. Erm… who had been the Minister of Defence at that time? (There’s more discussion in a Guardian article from August 2000, reporting on a TV documentary about the affair: ‘”Headless men” in sex scandal finally named’).

The end of the story is rather sad. The issue about injunctions and non-publication of ‘marital secrcets’ rolled on for several more years (hence the reference above to the 1967 court hearing). The ex-Duchess, as she became, never remarried, continued to live somewhat beyond her means and became increasingly poor, and died in 1993 in a nursing home in London.

So, on reflection and in conclusion, imagine someone (perhaps me) writing a piece of fiction about a woman in her forties whose sexual appetites had resulted from a serious injury and a blow on the head; that involved 88 lovers with whom she committed adultery, including group sex; that at least one of those lovers would be a government minister; that a scandal would unfold when compromising pictures came to light by an aggrieved husband raiding his wife’s London home; and that those pictures were taken on a camera that the minister’s department was secretly testing. You’d think that was a pretty far-fetched piece of erotic fantasy, wouldn’t you? You’d think it was the product of a sick writer’s imagination and some tired plot turns – please, not that stupid bang-on-the-head idea again.

Enough said.


In addition to the sources sited above, you can read more at the Fascinating History Blogspot blog. And probably a bunch of other places as well.

And the other court case that attracted my attention, and that I might actually use in the paranormal novella I’m writing, was a French case from 1858 – the ‘Rachel affaire’ – which concerned the rights to privacy of deceased persons.

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