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'Ninety-Nine Glimpses Of Princess Margaret': The One Who Wouldn't Be Queen


She was the one who would not be queen. Princess Margaret was glamorous where her older sister Elizabeth was, well, sensible. She was acid-tongued where Elizabeth was unfailingly, royally polite, scandalous where Elizabeth could never dream of it. For many years, Princess Margaret seemed to be everywhere. There she was posing with Jack Nicholson in Hollywood, hobnobbing with Mick Jagger on the island of Mustique, enticing admirers from Picasso to Peter Sellers and brutally insulting everyone from Twiggy to Elizabeth Taylor. As she told a BBC interviewer in 1981, the press did her no favors.

PRINCESS MARGARET: I think since the age of 17, I've been misreported and misrepresented.

BLOCK: The author and satirist Craig Brown sets out to decode this puzzling figure in his biography "Ninety-Nine Glimpses Of Princess Margaret." And first, he gives us a lesson in how to mimic the plummy speech of the late princess.

CRAIG BROWN: Well, you've got to repeat after me. It's just three words. OK, say the word air.

BLOCK: (Mimicking British accent) Air.

BROWN: And then you've got to say hair.

BLOCK: (Mimicking British accent) Hair.

BROWN: And then you've got to say lair.

BLOCK: (Mimicking British accent) Lair.

BROWN: Now say all three.

BLOCK: Air, hair, lair.

BROWN: Oh, hello.


BLOCK: It wasn't just the way she spoke that drew Brown to Princess Margaret. It was what her life represented and the course it took.

BROWN: I was interested in her just as a sort of social phenomenon. I was also interested in writing a book about a life which sort of went off the rails because in biography, people only choose to write biographies of people who are successes. You know, successful sportsmen or artists or that sort of thing, or the queen, for instance, who's successful at being a monarch. And I was interested in writing a book about someone who wasn't - whose life wasn't a great success, didn't really turn out as she wanted it to.

BLOCK: It must be a strange thing, when you're in the position as Princess Margaret was, to watch your distance from the throne get greater and greater. So at one point, she's second in succession after her sister, but then she drops, over the years, down to 11th place and is just...

BROWN: Yes. In a way, her life peaked at the age of 6, and then - by the nature of things - and when Prince Charles is born and Princess Anne and all the other royals and then they have children. And so throughout her life, she was kind of, like, dropping in the book charts or dropping in the pop charts. And so she was becoming more and more obscure. And worse than that, new people, you know, marrying into the royal family, she - would be above her in the pecking order. And she would be curtsying to them and that kind of thing. And I think that affected her a great deal. And so in a way, her rudeness - it was a way of kind of fighting back against this progression of obscurity.

BLOCK: Some of the spiciest parts of your book are where you describe Princess Margaret's brutal putdowns. And as you describe it, you call it a royal form of Tourette's syndrome, causing the sufferer to be seized by the unstoppable urge...

BROWN: (Laughter).

BLOCK: ...To say the wrong thing. What do you think are some of the most notorious putdowns that she's...

BROWN: Well...

BLOCK: ...Responsible for?

BROWN: ...A friend of mine, who was also a friend of hers, who has a disabled husband who's a very talented architect - but he had polio as a young man. And Princess Margaret, even though she had known him and - both of them for quite a long time, she once said to him, have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?


BROWN: There are other ones which sort of seem comic, but you wouldn't like to have been on the receiving end of them. And for instance, there's a former Conservative politician, now a very successful journalist, Matthew Parris, remembered - when he was an MP, taking her around an old folks' home. And these old ladies had cooked her a chicken dish. And she took one look at it and said, that looks like sick. I mean, you can't imagine the queen ever saying that kind of thing.

BLOCK: And somehow she got away with it.

BROWN: She got away with it because, I think, people were a lot more deferential then, you know, though she got sometimes a raw deal with the press.

BLOCK: It's easy - isn't it? - to think of Princess Margaret as a caricature - the chain-smoking, heavily drinking, putdown artist. Did you come to see her as much more than that caricature? Did you like her maybe more at the end of the writing process?

BROWN: To be honest, I didn't really like her more and that I wouldn't really have wanted to spend much time with her. I mean, though, she could be fun in a kind of camp way. You know, she'd sort of - she could be sort of larger than life and everything. But there were too many spiteful things about her. You know, she liked surrounding herself with people like Gore Vidal, people who are very witty. I think part of her rudeness was her trying to be kind of witty but it coming out wrong. And so she couldn't be ironic because she wasn't as nimble as the people that she surrounded herself with. And so it just came out as rude rather than, you know, something from Oscar Wilde. Probably in the end, I did exactly what she wouldn't have wanted, which was I started pitying her.

BLOCK: Pitying her. Yeah.

BROWN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: Do you think that Princess Margaret, in a way, was ahead of her time? I mean, if - can you imagine her in the royal family now and having a much happier life?

BROWN: One of the things about my book, it's - in a way, it's a portrait of an era, and that era has completely passed. And so you can't really start saying, oh, well, if 1947 had been 2019, would things have been different? Well, they would have been, but they'd have been so different for everyone that - but, I suppose, she was a victim of a certain kind of stuffy, conservative outlook by the public and by the monarchy. And life is a lot less stuffy and conventional now. And so I suppose she'd have fitted in. I - but I also think she'd have still had to conform in the way that Meghan Markle has to conform to some extent in that she can't, you know, do a next episode of "Suits" and things.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

BROWN: And so...

BLOCK: Well, she could (laughter).

BROWN: ...You know, there are still - it's still a bit of a straitjacket, the royal family.

BLOCK: Yeah. Some things never change.

BROWN: Yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: Craig Brown, author of "Ninety-Nine Glimpses Of Princess Margaret." Thanks so much.

BROWN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN'S "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.