Lord Snowdon Villa in Kensington ... retreat from an adventurous life
The World of Interiors, january 2009. Photographs by Dylan Thomas
Lord Snowdon to tell all on Royal marriage
Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. His biography details how the couple divorced after growing apart By Andrew Alderson, Chief Reporter 06 Jan 2008 The Telegraph In their day, Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret could rival anyone for sheer glamour. Thanks to a stormy marriage and reports of extra-marital affairs, they led the field in the society gossip stakes, too.
Now, after decades of silence over the rumours about his private life, the Earl of Snowdon, 77, has decided to reveal all about his troubled marriage, his bitter rift with one of Princess Margaret's closest friends, and other aspects of his remarkable life.
He has secretly spent four years co-operating on a biography that promises to be the most sensational royal book for years.
"I am now happy for people to know about my life and I want to put the record straight on some things," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
His engagement to Princess Margaret in February 1960 was a surprise, as some considered she was still on the "rebound" from her ill-fated relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend.
The then plain Anthony Armstrong-Jones was a "commoner": a motorbike-riding photographer, albeit one educated at Eton and Cambridge. The couple married in May 1960 and, in the "swinging sixties", they mixed with actors, artists and pop stars.
Neither was faithful. In the past, Lord Snowdon, who was given his title the year after his marriage, has admitted to "flirtations", but the new book will reveal that they both pursued affairs, even though they remained "deeply in love" for many years.
A friend said: "When they met, Tony was astounded by Princess Margaret's beauty. He also thought she was great fun. Even now, he never has a bad word to say about her."
Lord Snowdon remains close to his children from the marriage, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto.
The book will detail how the couple divorced in 1978 after they had grown apart. Afterwards, Lord Snowdon continued to enjoy a good relationship with senior members of the Royal Family.
"Tony loves professionalism. No one is more professional than the Queen and also she is very nice," said a friend.
"Prince Philip was always very kind to Tony, particularly when he had just got married." Even now, the Queen and her husband choose Lord Snowdon as the photographer for many of their official portraits.
Traditionally, official biographies of members of the Royal Family are only published after their deaths in order to spare embarrassment to the individual and others.
Yet Lord Snowdon, in his twilight years, has been working with Anne de Courcy, the author of the biography, seeing her many times at his London home. He has also allowed her access to his letters and papers, and to interview family and friends.
However, he has not been given copy approval, so the biography will not be fully "authorised". Snowdon: The Biography will be published in June.
According to those close to Lord Snowdon, the book will detail his dislike of Princess Margaret's friend Colin Tennant - now Lord Glenconner - who once owned the Caribbean playground island of Mustique.
Princess Margaret, who died in 2002, always retained a love for Mustique. Lord Snowdon, however, only spent one night there - on his honeymoon - and called it "Mustake". He resented the fact that the landowner gave a plot on Mustique as a wedding present - but only to Princess Margaret, not to them both.
Lord Snowdon's life has often been blighted by tragedy. On New Year's Eve 1996, Ann Hills, his long-term mistress, committed suicide. "Tony was devastated by her death," said a friend.
The biography will tell the story of Lord Snowdon's troubled childhood. His parents divorced when he was five and he had an uneasy relationship with his aloof but glamorous mother.
After the divorce, Lord Snowdon married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, the former wife of a film director, in December 1978. Their only child, Lady Frances Armstrong-Jones, was born the following year.
The couple divorced in 2000 after it emerged that the earl had fathered a son, Jasper, out of wedlock with Melanie Cable-Alexander, a journalist.
The book will also detail Lord Snowdon's charity work for disabled people. Today he is frail and has to use a wheelchair, or sticks, because of a recurrence of childhood polio.
Anne de Courcy declined to comment on the contents of the biography. "He has had a great life, but you will have to wait until the book is published," she said.
June 15, 2008 Snowdon: The Biography by Anne de Courcy An alarmingly candid biography of the lusty lord The Sunday Times Review by Richard Davenport-Hines
How refreshing to read a biography in which the author is half in love with her subject. There are none of the usual patronising putdowns, envious backbiting or mean-spirited cavilling in Anne de Courcy’s portrait of the Earl of Snowdon. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt — her hero most of all. He is “the perfect biographical subject”, she writes, “because of his brilliant talent, campaigning work for others, colourful life, complex personality”. The driving forces of his life, she continues, “were work and sex, both backed by immense, charismatic charm and a determination unfettered by many of the usual constraints”.
Born in 1930, Antony Armstrong-Jones had exotic ancestry and a disturbed upbringing. His father was a barrister whose wild swings of fortune meant he moved house 27 times. His mother was a glamorous ice-maiden who eventually married a gentle Irish earl and sank into dipsomania. He was the favourite nephew of Oliver Messel, the theatre designer, who lived with a huge, foul-mouthed lover known as the Great Dane and installed two-way mirrors in his guest bedroom. One grandfather was a lunatic asylum superintendent and the other Snowdon recalls as “a grumpy little bugger, very self-important, very Jewish”.
As a rule-breaking Eton schoolboy of 16 he was struck by polio, spent six months incarcerated in a Liverpool hospital (partly in an iron lung) and emerged with a limp. This trauma left him with a lust for experience and a fierce resolve to be self-sufficient. At 20 he set up as a society photographer. “Tony Snapshot” surprised everyone by having the business gumption of his ancestor Aaron Messel, the Darmstadt banker — in de Courcy’s words, “meticulous attention to detail, impeccable organisation, persistence, compartmentalism in both his private life and his work, and the ability to exploit, often ruthlessly, some potentially lucrative situation, often . . . gleaned from a chance remark.” As a young man, “always at the centre of things, he was mercurial, charming, lithe and fit, startlingly good-looking with white teeth and vivid blue eyes in a tanned face”. He was sexually insatiable. “If it moves, he’ll have it,” a friend said. In the early days he enjoyed boys, “who were fun to do things with”, as well as girls. “I didn’t fall in love with boys,” he told his biographer, “but a few men have been in love with me.”
Brazen and shameless, he was the epitome of bisexual chic with his Gauloises and dark shades when in 1958 he met Princess Margaret. In de Courcy’s words, “PM” was “intelligent, capricious, wilful, often flirtatious, sometimes freezing, easily bored but witty, sparkling and gay when with those whose company she enjoyed . . . If all this was not enough, she was gilded with the mysterious, mythic aura of royalty”.
Margaret was intrigued by Armstrong-Jones’s bohemian world. She was the first princess to go a-courting in Rotherhithe, where he had a flat, from which they and Noël Coward once threw empty Cointreau bottles into the Thames. In 1959, as DNA tests confirmed 40 years later, Armstrong-Jones conceived a child while enjoying a threesome (fuelled by booze and amyl nitrite) with a married couple called Camilla and Jeremy Fry. A few days later he made his first visit to Balmoral. He and PM became engaged while on a visit to the Frys later in the year.
They married in Westminster Abbey in 1960. Sixpence was deducted from the pay of every serviceman towards a wedding present. “Tony and the princess,” says de Courcy, were “as good-looking, photogenic, romantic, exciting and deeply in love as the hero and heroine of a fairy story.” At Kensington Palace they held parties at which Dudley Moore played the piano, Cleo Laine sang, Peter Sellers did comic voices, Spike Milligan showed off and John Betjeman told stories, while PM belted out tunes from the musicals she loved. To judge from this book, neither Snowdon nor PM had much of interest to say about the creative people whom they met. “He scared the shit out of me,” is almost all Snowdon is quoted as saying of Lucian Freud.
After their daughter Sarah’s birth in 1964, PM “could hardly bear him out of her sight”. Her hysterical possessiveness was intolerable, for “Tony, at the best of times, needed space — and could turn on those who threatened it”. To escape her clutches, he engineered overseas photoshoots for the Sunday Times; while he was abroad she “grew correspondingly more frantic in her efforts to track him down”.
Snowdon’s troubled upbringing produced a man of great emotional imagination and sensitivity (he was superb in the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster in which 116 primary-school children were killed in 1966) who felt safest in dealing pre-emptive hurts and humiliations to the women in his life. He revelled in browbeating PM — telling her to shut up and let someone intelligent talk if she offered an opinion — and his lies, an essential accompaniment to his adulteries, were doubly painful for being so deliberately transparent.
After years of infidelities and tantrums the Snowdons divorced in 1978. He was unscathed by the publicity — his success as a lothario tended to be admired by journalists — while PM was pilloried because she was a woman of a certain age with a younger boyfriend, Roddy Llewelyn. In the 30 years following the divorce Snowdon maintained his world-class reputation as a photographer, became an active rector of the Royal College of Art and a doughty campaigner on behalf of the disabled. The long-term exclusion of wheelchair users by British Rail was a particular bugbear. The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 embodied many of his hopes.
His crusading and his hard work, though, recede in de Courcy’s tale amid the serial adulteries. Once divorced, he could not avoid marrying his girlfriend Lucy Lindsay-Hogg. But he had many other entanglements, notably with a sexually voracious journalist who committed suicide after writing a textbook on adultery. Another important affair with Melanie Cable-Alexander produced a son (born when Snowdon was 68). His wife Lucy obtained a decree nisi in 2000, but the divorce has never been made absolute, protecting him from girlfriends who might insist on becoming the new countess. In his late seventies he still ran two regular mistresses and engaged in other devious diversions. At best this seems caddish — “Tony showed me letters from women still in love with him,” admits de Courcy — and at worst cruel.
Anne de Courcy rightly stresses the Jewishness of Snowdon’s background, but never shows how it has mattered to him. Similarly, though she has recorded countless hours of interviews with Snowdon, in which his candour at first seems startling, his comments are superficial, and de Courcy doesn’t seem searching. She neither asks him nor explains what drives a man in his mid- seventies to one-night stands and affairs. It can’t, at 75, be imperative, pounding lust. Is it vanity, fear of death, force of habit, physical loneliness or braggadocio?
Lady Sarah Chatto, Snowdon’s daughter by PM, is renowned for her unshakeable sanity and cheerful scepticism about other people’s motives. She alone of those close to him has not co-operated with de Courcy, but otherwise his son, half-brothers, former girlfriends and employees have been encouraged by him to speak with devastating candour. Even his current cleaning lady talks of the nameless women whom she finds curled up asleep under his duvet.
His publishers must be delighted by the naked frankness of the biography, but, as with Andrew Morton’s book on Princess Diana, nobody emerges undamaged from the story — and his reasons for co-operating with de Courcy are mystifying compared with Diana’s. Snowdon’s honesty is not so much disarming as dismaying.