Partying till dawn, lie-ins till lunchtime, waited on by an army of flunkies… The Crown’s portrayal of Princess Margaret has made her a poster girl for gin-fuelled hedonism. But was it all that much fun? Sophia Money-Coutts tries her silky PJs and extra-strength cigarettes for size.
Princess Margaret makes an unlikely cultural pin-up. A complex character, as portrayed in Netflix’s The Crown (back on our screens with series three today), she could be wickedly amusing one minute but bitter and brutally rude the next. Yet she’s recently become a cult heroine – applauded and celebrated online – for her devil-may-care attitude and languorous approach to life, spending her mornings drifting from bed to bath before drinking and smoking all afternoon and well into the night. In an age where we rush from alarm clock to bus to office to spin class and then crawl home again, Princess Margaret’s lethargy seems almost admirable. But what was a day as the princess – as detailed in Craig Brown’s glorious biography Ma’am Darling – actually like? Should we really all #BeMoreMargaret? Well, up to a point, but it was harder work than it looked. Especially on her poor old liver..
Morning soak & smoke
9am Wake up and feel instantly guilty at the late hour. So idle! Office workers will already be at their desks eating sad pots of porridge. Remind myself to be more Princess Margaret and less worried about the little people. Margaret was always woken at nine by a servant carrying in papers and breakfast on a tray. But scrambled eggs weren’t on the menu (too common!); instead she only ate ‘buttered eggs’. Am momentarily annoyed that I don’t have a servant, so I text my flatmate demanding that he goes to Tesco for bread and eggs. And newspapers. And cigarettes, since Margaret chain-smoked in bed all morning, like a posh Dot Cotton.
9.06am Flatmate texts back. ‘You joking? No. But you can borrow my vape if you like.’
9.22am Go to Tesco myself, come back with supplies. Google ‘buttered eggs’. Turns out it means scramble them with ‘two to three tablespoons of butter’. Go back to bed with plate of eggs, newspapers, mug of tea and packet of Chesterfield Blue (Margaret smoked up to 60 Chesterfields a day, despite royal physicians’ pleas for her to give them up). Flick on radio.
10.15am Have read all the papers, even the boring bits about takeover bids at the back, and scattered them around my bedroom floor as Margaret did because someone else would pick them up for her. My tea has gone cold and there are crumbs in my sheets. Try my first Chesterfield, smoked through my grandmother’s old Cartier cigarette holder. Exhale first drag through narrow gap in bedroom window. Feel sick, throw rest of fag outside into garden. Get back under my duvet because I have to stay here until 11am when Princess Margaret actually got up. Two hours in bed every morning might sound dreamy but I feel a creeping sense of shame at having achieved so little. Wonder if she ever developed bed sores?
11am Morning bath, run for Margaret by her lady’s maid. Debate texting my cleaner to see if she’d pop over to turn on the taps, then decide she probably has better things to do. Run bath by myself. Myself! Get in and try to channel the glamour of Princess Margaret when she was famously photographed in the bath wearing a tiara by her husband – Antony Armstrong-Jones, who became the Earl of Snowdon on their marriage – in the early, happy days of their relationship.
11.52am Have been in the bath so long my fingers have gone wrinkly, but I need to stay in character for another eight minutes.
Lunchtime snifters & bickers
Midday Despite having been awake for three hours, only now would Margaret choose her clothes and jewellery for the day. She never wore her clothes more than once without having them cleaned (with her cigarette habit, they were literally ‘smoked’), and her cigarette lighters were polished every morning, too. In her youth, thanks in part to her picky eating habits, Margaret had a fabulous hourglass figure with a 23-inch waist. Alas, mine is slightly larger, but I heave myself into a 1950s satin suit. For the purposes of this role, I have borrowed various natty couture numbers and The Dorchester has allowed me into its Oliver Messel suite, decorated by the flamboyant, 20th-century stage designer. Designed in 1953, the suite looks like a set itself – think rich yellow wallpaper, maroon furniture, gilt mirrors, doors painted with flowery murals and (my personal favourite) a gold, scalloped loo seat. It is perfect to prance about in as Margaret (especially as it comes with a secret glass bar, hidden behind a bookshelf), and very apt, since Messel was Snowdon’s uncle and later designed Margaret’s beloved house in Mustique.
In London, Margaret’s hairdresser René would sometimes visit her at Clarence House in the morning. Later, after she was married, her driver of 26 years, David Griffin, would often take her to a hair salon in South Audley Street, in London’s Mayfair, before lunch. I back-brush my hair into a wobbly beehive. Never mind if it’s a bit Amy Winehouse.
12.30pm First drink! Pour myself a vodka and orange since Margaret often had her first ‘pick-me-up’ around now. Important to maintain vitamin C levels, after all. If not vodka, it might be gin and tonic or whisky. When she lived with the Queen Mother at Clarence House, Margaret would come downstairs for this drink, before an ‘informal’ four-course lunch served on silver dishes, plus a cheeseboard and half a bottle of wine. She was often foul to her mother. According to biographer Anne de Courcy, she berated the Queen Mother’s wardrobe (‘Why do you dress in those ridiculous clothes?’), and if she found her downstairs in front of the television, ‘Princess Margaret would simply switch it to another channel without a word if she did not like what the Queen Mother was watching’. After Margaret had married in 1960 and moved to Kensington Palace, she often lunched for up to three hours at the Ritz or a ‘nice restaurant’ such as Maggie Jones’s, named after her, tucked behind the palace.
I text my mother telling her I’ve already had two drinks and am going out for lunch with friends. ‘Darling,’ she replies instantly, ‘are you OK?’
1pm Meet friends at a pub near Holland Park. Order a bottle of wine before I even sit down.
‘What should we call you?’ asks my friend Dave, when I explain that I am being Margaret for the day.
‘Ma’am,’ I tell him firmly, as Margaret insisted most of her friends did. Another friend, Amy, has brought her baby to the pub, so I spy an opportunity for a Princess Margaret-style slap-down and ask if he’s said his first word yet. For someone who seemed curiously unmaternal, Margaret once scoffed at a friend who claimed their child’s first word was ‘Mama’ by declaring that her son’s was ‘chandelier’. Amy looks peeved and says, no, he hasn’t said anything yet.
1.15pm Margaret generally liked plain food – ‘lamb or chicken in watery gravy’ – so I order the chicken. Ask waiter if it comes with any ‘disgusting’ sauces, since Margaret was often rude about food and once described a chicken dish as ‘looking like sick.’ Waiter sighs and tells me the sauce can come ‘on the side’.
2pm Eat half my chicken and ignore the potatoes. This is almost impossible since I am exceptionally greedy. At friends’ houses, if Margaret refused certain dishes – such as potatoes – the hosts might withdraw the offending food altogether so nobody else could eat it. Fellow guests were also supposed to stop eating when she’d finished, meaning that those who ate slowly had to leave half their plate. She often chain-smoked throughout meals and would leave her cigarette holder, ash burning at the end, leaning on a side plate. But on no account should you have offered to light a cigarette for her. ‘You don’t light my cigarette, dear. Oh no, you’re not that close,’ she told Sir Derek Jacobi, the actor, when he once sat next to her and held up a lighter during a dinner in Covent Garden.
3pm The bottle of wine is finished, so I demand that we order a bottle of sauternes pudding wine and a cheeseboard. Feel very perky after so much wine and try another Chesterfield. It still makes me feel sick. Suspect that Margaret must have had very bad breath.
4pm Go home again and email my sister ahead of her birthday dinner party tonight to ask about the place à table (she despised the word ‘placement’), saying I need the best seat at the table since I’m being Princess Margaret.
‘But it’s my birthday,’ she replies.
‘I know,’ I text back. ‘But I am a princess.’
She doesn’t answer.
5.30pm Drink gin and tonic while I get ready for dinner. All this drinking has made my eyeliner very skewwhiff. Put on pink party dress, plastic tiara I bought from a toy shop and long-sleeved, kidskin evening gloves. Spend ten minutes trying to fasten the fiddly pearl buttons on my gloves, swearing and wishing that I had a lady’s maid. Realise it is impossible to do anything by yourself once you have leather evening gloves on. Even holding a cigarette holder is awkward. How on earth did she manage in the loo?
Whisky & frisky tricks
7.30pm Arrive at sister’s for dinner party. She immediately asks why I’m wearing a tiara. ‘Because I’m being Princess Margaret,’ I tell her.
‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘I forgot. Would you mind helping pass round the crisps?’
7.51pm ‘Would you like a glass of champagne?’ asks my brother-in-law. He has bought several bottles of expensive Louis Roederer champagne especially for tonight. Margaret preferred wine to champagne so I wrinkle my nose.
‘No, I expect it tastes exactly like petrol,’ I say, deploying the snarky line Margaret once used when offered a glass of precious 1836 madeira by a friend. My brother-in-law bows and backs away, looking suitably cowed. Ha!
8.35pm Sit down for dinner. Ask if they have bottled Malvern water, the only water Margaret would drink with her whisky. ‘No, sorry, only tap,’ says my sister.
‘I’ll just have wine then,’ I say, trying to sound cross.
10.04pm Princess Margaret had a short concentration span and adopted a zero tolerance policy towards conversation she deemed boring, so I decide to interrupt a discussion about Brexit at the dinner table. ‘This is very dull,’ I shout. Turn to one of my sister’s friends, a man called Harry, on my right. ‘Can you balance a pint glass on your penis?’
He mishears me.
‘Can I balance a night bus on it?’ he asks.
I cackle with laughter and explain that the pint glass trick was a favourite of John Bindon, a London gangster known as ‘Big John’ who could supposedly hang five half-pint glasses off his, ahem, manhood. He was rumoured to be one of Princess Margaret’s lovers in later life and was photographed next to her on the beach in Mustique.
11.20pm Realise that being Princess Margaret is not only aimless, it is simultaneously exhausting. I’m desperate to go home to bed but I can’t, since Margaret often stayed up until 4am, smoking, dancing, drinking and playing games. In an effort to stay awake, I suggest a game of Bananagrams. Margaret once became so infuriated during a game of Trivial Pursuit that she tossed the board in the air, sending everyone’s pieces flying. As a deeply competitive person myself, I sympathise. Am annoyed when my brother says I can’t have ‘India’ since it’s a proper noun.
12.15am As everyone starts leaving, my sister says I have to go home, too. Am secretly delighted that I don’t have to stay up any later. Margaret’s chauffeur would shuttle her back to Kensington Palace so I order an Uber. I have drunk my weekly booze allowance, am tired, hungry and feel a pang of guilt at having spent my day so frivolously. My mouth feels like a furry dustbin.
Get into the Toyota Prius, forgetting that I’m still wearing my plastic tiara.
‘I like the hat,’ says my driver. I don’t think he gets it at all.