When it comes to British scandals, there’s no better place to start than the “Dirty Duchess,” Margaret Campbell. She was infamous among the high-society set before she even married the Duke of Argyll—but after their incredibly messy divorce, she became one of the most notorious women in England. After all, the Duchess had one enormous skeleton in her closet.
1. She Was An Heiress
Margaret Campbell’s young life more than set her up for her raucous adulthood. Born to a Scottish millionaire, she grew up in New York City and attended some of the most exclusive private schools in the country alongside some of the best, brightest, and definitely wealthiest heirs and heiresses of her day. But scorching scandal hit her incredibly young.
2. She Met A Soon-To-Be Famous Actor
By the time Margaret was 15 years old, she was an undeniable stunner. Even at this tender age, men went absolutely gaga about her, and Margaret soon learned just how good it felt to soak up their attention. In fact, in the summer of 1928, Margaret caught the eye of an older boy: The 18-year-old David Niven, who later became a Hollywood actor.
But it’s what David and Margaret were about to get up to that was worthy of a dramatic screenplay.
3. She Had A Holiday Romance
David Niven met Margaret while the two of them were on holiday on the Isle of Wight. It was the perfect recipe for disaster. With their parents and chaperones otherwise occupied with their own vacation, the teenagers managed to find ample time to, er, explore their personal landscapes. Which is exactly how Margaret ended up jumping into bed with David…and suffering horrible consequences.
4. She Was A Teen Mom
Although Margaret’s experiences with Niven were her first time with a man, one time in her case was very much enough. She got supremely unlucky and, months later, discovered her pregnancy. For the beautiful daughter of a millionaire, it spelled instant infamy and would likely damage her reputation forever if it got out to her peers. She had only one option.
5. Her Parents Found Out Her Secret
1928 was a terrifying time to be an unwed mother, so Margaret took drastic action. She told her parents all about her romp with Niven, as well as the scandalous results. As one maid who worked for the family put it, “all hell broke loose” at that point. Her father, in particular, was beside himself with rage. But as soon as they were over their shock, Margaret’s parents knew exactly what they had to do.
6. She Had A Terrifying Operation
Margaret’s family was eminently respectable, and they couldn’t have a single whiff of their daughter’s so-called “disgrace” getting out. Accordingly, they packed her up and sent her to a London nursing home, where attendants performed a very hush-hush operation to terminate. It was so secret that Margaret completely omitted this episode from her memoirs.
Still, compared to the next part of Margaret’s life, these youthful indiscretions look like absolute child’s play.
7. She Pretended To Be Something She Wasn’t
Just two years after this episode, Margaret pulled a fast one on society. In 1930, her parents presented her at court as a “debutante,” which was basically their way of saying she was ready to mingle with men and get married. You know, this despite the fact that Margaret had certainly been out among men for quite some time. Even so, it paid off in a big way.
8. She Made A Mark On High Society
Margaret had only grown more beautiful as the years passed, and when she made her debut she was almost too gorgeous to look at. Not that men didn’t try: By the end of the season, the court named her their debutante of the year and Margaret had her pick of suitors, any of whom would eat out of the palm of her hand if she’d asked. Unfortunately, when it came to Margaret, having so many romantic options always meant trouble.
9. She Was A Flirt
Around this time, Margaret’s behavior behind the scenes sent tongues wagging. Namely, although she was ostensibly looking for marriage and stability, she sure wasn’t acting like it. The beautiful girl entertained flirtations—and more—from high-powered men like Prince Aly Khan and daring aviator Glen Kidston. And when it came to Kidston, she was particularly ruthless.
10. She Was A Homewrecker
Although Prince Aly Khan loved to shower Margaret with affection and gifts, it was Kidston who really took her fancy—even though it was Kidston who was most dangerous of all. After all, the flyboy was already married and had a young toddler at home. Still, Margaret dove in headfirst anyway, solidifying her reputation as something of a Helen of Troy.
Only, before she could do irreparable damage to the Kidston union, disaster came knocking.
11. Her Lover Met A Brutal End
In the spring of 1931, Margaret’s carefree life came to an abrupt halt. That May, she got word that her lover Glen Kidston had perished in a horrific plane crash. He had been flying through a dust storm when his entire plane broke apart beneath him, sending him to his end. Margaret was utterly devastated…but she didn’t deal with her grief in the best of ways.
12. She Went On The Rebound
Rebounding from a breakup is always risky, and Margaret was rebounding from a full-blown tragedy. Is it any wonder she got herself into a royal mess? Following Kidston’s passing, she got hastily engaged to Charles Greville, the uber-wealthy Earl of Warwick…and accepted the proposal of another man, the publishing scion Max Aiken, near-simultaneously. Thing is, that wasn’t even the most scandalous part.
13. She Dumped Her Fiancés
Obviously, Margaret had to choose just one man—but she threw a cruel curveball at her lovers. Instead of going for either Greville or Aiken, she dumped them both and went with another man entirely: The businessman and avid golfer Charles Sweeny. But don’t take this to mean Margaret was settling down. She actually used her upcoming nuptials to cause even more drama.
14. She Stopped Traffic
Margaret had always had an innate sense of style, so when the public got wind of her upcoming wedding day, everyone was salivating to know what dress she would wear. To say “everyone” is no exaggeration, either. The promised sight of Margaret in her Norman Hartnell wedding dress gummed up traffic in the surrounding area of Knightsbridge for three hours.
As she walked back down the aisle with her new husband, it may have seemed that Margaret was off toward happily ever after. But, no.
15. She Struggled To Have Children
In the early days of Margaret’s married life, she happily anticipated bouncing babies and domestic bliss. She got a nightmare instead. As a teenager, Margaret had gotten pregnant all too easily, but when she tried to have children with Sweeny it resulted in a heartbreaking eight miscarriages. And when she did finally become pregnant for more than a handful of months, it somehow got worse.
16. She Suffered A Silent Tragedy
In late 1933, Margaret was eight months pregnant and readying herself to give birth to a healthy child at last. It wasn’t meant to be; she had a stillborn little girl instead. Despite the tragedy, Margaret tried again—eventually having two more children with Sweeny by 1940—but her difficulties left lasting psychological scars. Then, in 1943, everything changed once more…and not for the better.
17. She Was In A Freak Accident
Some people’s lives get strictly divided into “before” and “after”—but nothing can hold a candle to what Margaret was about to experience. When she was in her late 20s, Margaret was visiting her doctor on Bond Street when she fell a whopping 40 feet down an elevator shaft in a freak accident. From that point on, nothing would be the same again.
18. She Nearly Died
When the dust cleared, luck prevailed. Rescuers located Margaret, and, miraculously, she was still alive. But there were disturbing indications of what really happened. As Margaret recalled, doctors thought she must have grabbed onto the elevator cable—this is what likely saved her life—because her fingernails were torn and bloody.
As Margaret later related, “I apparently fell on to my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall". The most extensive damage, however, was somewhere no one could yet see.
19. She Had Lasting Damage
After 33 stitches to her head and days spent recovering, doctors allowed Margaret to go home to her husband Charles Sweeny and their young family. But according to Sweeny, the woman who returned was not the wife he had known before. Instead, Margaret had become erratic and impulsive with, most alarmingly, “nymphomaniac tendencies”. Looking back, this may have been the point it all began to unravel.
20. She Went Through A Bitter Divorce
In 1947, just a bare four years after her traumatic accident, Sweeny and Margaret filed for divorce. The reasons behind it were eye-opening. While Margaret may have been less than a perfect wife, she later blamed the split on Sweeny’s controlling nature. As she put it, “All Charlie wanted in a wife was a pretty, brainless doll”. And once she was finally free, Margaret let loose.
21. She Dated Powerful Men
The next years of Margaret’s life paved the way for the infamy she was about to achieve. She dated around whenever and wherever she could—and with a face like Margaret’s, she certainly wasn’t spending her time with normies. Among her conquests was a broken engagement with the Texan banker Joseph Thomas as well as a dalliance with the curator for the Met, Theodore Rousseau.
But these boys were just practice for the man she was about to meet.
22. She Had A Romance With A Duke
Soon after disentangling herself from these lovers, Margaret met the man who would ruin her life. Ian Duncan Campbell, the dashing Scottish peer known as the Duke of Argyll, sure fit the part: With a forbidding face and a brusque manner, Campbell seemed every bit a Byronic hero, and Margaret fell head over heels. Campbell even had a crumbling abode, Inveraray Castle, to match his moodiness.
Yet those were only his picturesque qualities. He had much darker ones, too.
23. Her Suitor Had Huge Red Flags
While Margaret had been married once before when she met the Duke, Campbell had already gone through two wives—and his track record was far from reassuring. He was a notorious drinker and gambler, and was hooked on prescription medications to boot. More than that, all of his wives claimed he had mistreated them during their marriage.
In short, Margaret should have run away. Instead, she ran right towards him and her doom.
24. She Was An It Girl
Margaret married Ian Campbell in March of 1951 and became the Duchess of Argyll in the process. On the surface, it looked like she was on top of the world. She was the belle of yet another society wedding, she had a title and a powerful husband, and people still considered her one of the best-dressed women in the world. But behind the scenes, she was already living a horror story.
25. Her New Husband Used Her
Marrying Ian Campbell was like signing a deal with the Devil, and the Duke made sure Margaret knew it before the ink on their marriage contract was even dry. In a move he had likely pulled before, Campbell began siphoning off the money Margaret brought into the union to restore his ancestral seat at Inveraray Castle. To him, she was just a bank account.
Then again, right around this time, Margaret went off the deep end herself.
26. She Had A “Bird Brain”
Traumatic elevator accident or not, Margaret’s personality had always been…odd. Actually, that’s putting it kindly. Even her friends thought she completely lacked a sense of humor, and she called herself a “bird brain”. As someone who self-identified as “always vain”, Margaret always cared much more about her beauty than anything else.
Well, guess what? This laser focus on how she looked and not how she acted got her into big trouble.
27. She Was No Fun
In one infamous exchange, a partygoer of Margaret’s once picked up a cushion and said gleefully, “What a fun party, Margaret, let’s swap gossip”. Margaret’s reply was cutting. She looked the woman up and down then drawled, “It’s not that sort of party”. Then, looking at the cushion, “And it’s not that sort of cushion”. Still, don’t let her party fouls fool you: When Margaret wasn’t being dour, she was downright scandalous.
28. She Made A Big Mistake
Within just a few months of marrying the Duke of Argyll, Margaret had already realized she’d made a mistake. Margaret may have been one of the most beautiful women of her generation, but to the Duke, she was just another wife he could intimidate, push around, and demean. More than that, Margaret was having further difficulty giving him a child, which didn’t help matters.
At the end of her rope, she came up with a diabolical plan.
29. She Forged Important Documents
One day, Margaret must have been feeling particularly insecure about her fertility issues. That’s when she crossed a line she could never come back from. Reportedly, the duchess began taking aim at the duke’s sons from his previous marriage, even going so far as to forge letters that claimed the boys were illegitimate. It was a (failed) ploy to safeguard her own power—but if you think that Margaret stopped there, you’re extremely wrong.
30. She Tried To Buy A Newborn Baby
Margaret learned the hard way that money can’t buy you happiness—but she sure did try. In fact, during this time she desperately tried to get people to sell her an entire baby boy. Her plan? She was going to take the child in and somehow pass him off as her own, therefore making him the true “legitimate” heir of the duke. Clearly, her second marriage was in deep trouble…but no one had any idea what was really around the corner.
31. Her Husband Wiretapped Her
The Duke of Argyll had always been suspicious that his wife had a roaming eye—spoiler: he wasn’t wrong—but he’d never quite been able to prove it. So when Margaret started staying out extra late and getting more distant, the Duke committed a creepy breach of trust. He had Margaret’s car wiretapped so he could know where she was at all times.
Still, that wasn’t quite enough for him. His next idea would be the couple’s downfall.
32. She Had A Secret Cupboard
Starting in the late 1950s, the Duke of Argyll had enough of waiting for his wife to get home. Plus, there was another disconcerting sign: Margaret had a locked drawer in their home, and his dark fantasies about its contents drove him mad. So one day while she was away in New York and he had ample time to sit and get more paranoid, he called up a locksmith and asked him to break into it.
To say this was opening a Pandora’s box would be an understatement. For Margaret’s secrets, it was the apocalypse.
33. She Kept Incriminating Photos
Years ago, if you’ll remember, Margaret’s first husband Charles Sweeny claimed that her fall down an elevator shaft had fundamentally changed her personality and turned her into a nymphomaniac. The contents of her locked cupboard revealed the whole, sordid truth. In it, among other things, was a set of extremely damning and risqué polaroid photographs.
When the Duke realized what he was looking at, nothing was the same ever again.
34. She Was In A Compromising Position
To describe this series of Polaroids in any way decent enough to publish is a Herculean effort. After all, some of the photographs depicted intensely intimate positions, with Margaret completely undressed. And although her face was usually obscured, the duke could recognize her by one tell-tale sign: Her favorite necklace made up of three strings of pearls.
Margaret’s presence in the photos shocked the duke—but more was on the way.
35. She Had Mystery Men
The most ruinous aspect of these photos wasn’t Margaret’s undressed state. It was something much worse. In the photographs, the Duchess of Argyll was very much not alone. Indeed, she was usually performing acts on men who were not the Duke of Argyll. Frustratingly enough—and key to everything that followed—the men’s heads were often out of frame, making them impossible to identify.
All that the duke could do at first was stare, inchoate with rage, at the evidence of his wife’s infidelity. And then he got cold, cruel revenge.
36. Her Husband Attacked Her
Upon finding this evidence, the Duke of Argyll turned right around and started divorce proceedings against Margaret. Which, sure, is certainly understandable. But in the months that followed, he truly exacted his pound of flesh. In his court papers, Argyll accused Margaret of sleeping with no fewer than 88 men over the course of their marriage.
With this, the flood gates opened—but Margaret had her own stunning revelation waiting in the wings.
37. She Made A Chilling Accusation
In light of her husband’s allegations and jaw-dropping evidence, Margaret couldn’t just sit back and take it. Instead, she accused him of a heinous act. In a countersuit, she claimed that the duke had been unfaithful too, but not with just anyone. She claimed he had slept with her own stepmother, Jane Corby Whigham. Until, that is, it blew up in her face.
38. She Had A Public Disgrace
Margaret seemed poised to take the duke down with her, but on the very day of her hearing about his infidelity, she couldn’t find a witness and had to drop her case. It was a public egg on her face and did nothing to bolster her reliability—not to mention she had to pay her stepmother huge damages. But further investigations only proved more incriminating for Margaret.
39. She Earned A Dubious Nickname
The Duke and Duchess of Argyll were so high-society that any split between them was going to be a matter of public interest. So when the press got wind of the truly sordid details of the case, all bets were off. Over the four years that Margaret and her duke were facing off against each other in court, the press speculated wildly about all of Margaret’s sins, dubbing her “The Dirty Duchess”.
And there was one point in particular that nobody could get over.
40. One Photograph Haunted Her
Because Margaret’s private stash of photos was now public evidence, newspapers of the day got a full view of the single most infamous snap in Margaret’s collection: One where she was kneeling down in front of a headless man. Incredibly, his identity was still a mystery after all this time, and journalists tried to guess who he might be. In their efforts to guess at the man, they dug up even more dirt on the duchess.
41. Her Lovers Were Powerful Men
With 88 possible lovers to choose from, the press had a field day hunting down who the man could be. The answer they narrowed it down to nearly broke the country. One man who kept popping up in Margaret’s history was the Minister of Defense for Britain, Duncan Sandys, who would also go on to become Winston Churchill’s son-in-law.
Whether or not Sandys was the headless man, he was certainly a lover of Margaret’s, and offered his resignation when the scandal broke. Yet there was a far more likely culprit.
42. She Had An Illicit Hollywood Romance
There is still much speculation about who exactly the “headless man” was, but some historians believe we can put the answer to bed. According to them, the man is almost certainly Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr—a married man, at the time. Although the higher-ups managed to keep his identity hush-hush, Fairbanks’ handwriting reportedly matches the writing found on the photograph.
Margaret’s reaction to all this, however, wasn’t what you might expect.
43. She Kept A Big Secret
Margaret Campbell might have been thrust into the spotlight, but she wasn’t about to drag anyone else there with her. She kept mum on identifying any of the men she was in the photographs with—though there might have been a scandalous reason for this. Some of the people she was accused of sleeping with were actually closeted gay men, yet if Margaret denied any of them as her lovers on those grounds, their (at the time criminal) secret would get out.
Even so, the court didn’t thank Margaret for her classy silence. Instead, they humiliated her.
44. Her Divorce Got Ugly
Unfortunately for the Duchess of Argyll, Britain at the time was nowhere near progressive, and she’d landed a particularly conservative judge in Lord Wheatley, who presided over the case. So when Wheatley eventually granted the divorce, he did it with biting cruelty, sneering that she was a “completely promiscuous woman” and “wholly immoral” in his final judgment.
It was the last nail in the coffin of Margaret’s respectability: She was now a free woman, but her name was officially mud. It only spiraled from there.
45. She Had A Fall From Grace
As the 1970s dawned and free love became a more accepted concept, you’d think Margaret’s image would get re-habilitated. Sadly, that’s not what happened, and Margaret may have been her own worst enemy. Strapped for cash, she wrote a memoir, Forget Not—but people considered it embarrassing and too full of name-drops. With this disappointment in her wake, Margaret turned to a desperate ploy.
46. She Turned Herself Into A Sideshow
Sure, Margaret never divulged the names of the “headless man” or her other lovers, but she sure did try to cash in on her own scandal. Again, fair enough. Except the way she did it was cringeworthy: Soon, Margaret was giving paid tours of her home at 48 Upper Grosvenor Street, AKA the home where her ex-husband had first found those infamous photographs.
Oh, Peggy. But there was more hope to lose.
47. She Was Cruel To Her Employees
Margaret’s dignity took a hit in her later years, but her personality seemed to curdle as well. Friends claimed that, of all the people in her life except family, Margaret only trusted her pets. Yet far from empathy, this led her to acts of cruelty; a maid of hers once said she treated her dogs better than she did her staff. Well, karma comes for us all, and it was coming for Margaret.
48. She Had To Give Up Her Favorite Things
Somehow, Margaret simply couldn’t make her bank account match her extravagant tastes, and she eventually had to move out of her notorious home, swapping it first for the Grosvenor House Hotel and then, at the urging of her children and her first husband Charles Sweeny, a meager apartment building. Her last shred of dignity went soon after.
49. She Found A New Way To Make Money
In the late 80s, the Dirty Duchess found a new way to make some quick cash. She began appearing on television programs, making a cameo appearance on the talk show After Dark to discuss the Grand National horse race. On brand for a high-class woman, and Margaret even quipped she was there to, “put the point of view of the horse”. Still, it took a dark turn.
50. She Walked Off A TV Set
Mid-way through the After Dark broadcast, Margaret had to bail out of her commitment and walk off stage because, as she claimed, she “was so very sleepy”. Although the former Duchess of Argyll was well into her 70s at this point, and might be excused for an early bedtime, it did point to an overall decline in her health. A decline that would end in a shocking incident.
51. Her End Was Horrific
By the early 1990s, Margaret was no longer able to take care of herself, and her children placed her in a nursing home. But it was here that tragedy struck. While in the nursing home bathroom one day, Margaret had a severe fall that broke her neck. Unlike like her shocking accident in the elevator, this time Margaret was far too frail to survive. She passed on July 25, 1993.
Her legacy, nonetheless, lives on.
52. There’s A Television Show About Her
Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, remains fascinating among a certain set. Amazon has even produced a series in 2022, A Very British Scandal, based on her electrifying court battle with her husband—in it, Claire Foy plays Margaret, while Paul Bettany plays Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. One can only assume that the Dirty Duchess would be loving the Hollywood treatment.
53. She Had Legendary Quips
For all that her name is synonymous with scandal, Margaret Campbell obsessed over class and often held court about the proper way to display yourself to the world. As she once summed up, referencing both her love of animals and her signature pearls, "Always a poodle, only a poodle! That, and three strands of pearls! Together they are absolutely the essential things in life”.
54. She’s In A Famous Song
As a testament to just how popular Margaret was during her day, one version of the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top” mentions her by name—at least by the name she had in her first marriage. As the lyrics go: "You’re Mussolini / You’re Mrs Sweeny”. For what it’s worth, yes, Margaret was very aware of the homage to her and mentioned it in her memoirs.