Cigarettes and whisky and bad luck in love



Lives: Kensington in London and Mustique in the Caribbean

Age: 67

Why she's in news: suffered a mild stroke on Mustique and is recovering in a London hospital

Princess Margaret is lying in another private room on another hospital bed, and everybody is feeling terribly sorry for her. On a normal day nobody pays much attention to the queen's younger sister, but when she gets sick, as she sporadically does, we are reminded how she is to be pitied and what a tragic figure she is.

Margaret is getting the very best of medical care in the Edward VII Hospital. Hopefully she will soon return to her home in Kensington Palace, affectionately known as the Aunt Heap.

Meanwhile, her mild stroke suffered at a dinner party with friends has resulted in acres of column inches being devoted to her life. If she bothered opening the British papers this week, she would have been forgiven for thinking that she had died.

Margaret, the story goes, developed a fondness for alcohol from her mid-20s when she was denied her first true love, a situation she tried to cope with by entering failed romances and smoking copious numbers of untipped cigarettes, up to 60 a day.

She was the good-time princess who had a bunch of friends called the Margaret Set. She married a photographer and later divorced him. She had a couple of boyfriends, a wonderful holiday home in a corner of the Caribbean and two successful children.

She is, say the columnists, "a lonely woman", "dogged by sadness", "unlucky in love", whose life "seemed like one long party". With an elegant cigarette-holder in one hand and a large whisky in the other, she took life's blows and miraculously remained standing. How much longer, though, is the undeniable undercurrent, before that racy, reckless life takes its final toll?

It's not that any of it is strictly untrue, but in recent years life appeared to have improved for Princess Margaret. She has several close friends and, while she has ditched the ciggies - allegedly - and cut down on the drink, she still knows how to enjoy herself with art, ballet and jazz. Time heals most wounds, and it is, after all, more than 40 years since she was forced to choose between her future romantic happiness and her right royal background.

Group Capt Peter Townsend, a penniless Battle of Britain hero, was her father's equerry when Margaret first encountered him at the age of 14. By 25 she had fallen in love and wanted to marry him, but Townsend was divorced, and so a union was unthinkable. The royal family was still licking its wounds over the abdication of Margaret's uncle, Edward VIII, for a twice-divorced woman, Wallis Simpson.

Margaret disappeared from public life for a while and in the late 1950s met a handsome photographer, Tony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon. They were a glamorous, Swinging Sixties couple, but their marriage went wrong. One royal writer spoke of Snowdon's tendency to spy at his wife through a hole in the wall and to leave her insulting messages.

At one stage she is believed to have told friends she was going to throw herself out of her bedroom window. The queen was called and was said to have replied: "Carry on with your party. Her bedroom is on the ground floor."

"Throughout the Seventies," says one royal commentator, "Margaret was viewed as a faintly embarrassing aunt." She was attacked as a chubby playgirl when she went out with Roddy Llewellyn, a man 18 years her junior. She had also had a brief affair with Alec Douglas-Home, nephew of a former prime minister. He later committed suicide.

Margaret was at her lowest ebb. She smoked incessantly and was drinking Famous Grouse whisky at an alarming rate. Her marriage to Lord Snowdon resulted in a nervous breakdown, but her most serious health scare was to come.

In 1985 surgeons removed part of her lung. It was found to be benign, but it signalled the beginning of the princess's deteriorating health and regular visits to hospital. She has had gastric problems, pneumonia and bronchitis. In 1992 she was admitted to hospital with "feverish infections" and a "feverish cold".

As a woman who has lived constantly in the shadow of her goody-two-shoes sister Elizabeth, she has held fast to the trappings of royalty and has often exploited her position.

Dinner parties do not end before Margaret has left. Visits to friends often occur unannounced. Even her closest friends must call her Ma'am, or if they are very close, Ma'am darling.

When she suffered her stroke this week she was dining with, among others, Irish property millionaire Ned Ryan. His name has popped up before. Nigel Dempster, a biographer of the princess, described him as the "tubby balding son of a Co Tipperary farmer".

"With his thick Irish accent and bog background, he was an unlikely escort, but he was courteous and amused the princess no end." Let's hope he, her friends and her children, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, keep the princess laughing.

She is said to adore her island home on Mustique, a wedding present from Lord Glenconner, a place which is thought to have beneficial effects on her temperament as well as her medical condition.

She will remain a woman who speaks her mind - berating Sarah Ferguson, calling the Irish pigs or dismissing Boy George as an over-made-up tart - while still eliciting sympathy. She enjoyed a close relationship with Princess Diana, perhaps seeing in her the royal rebel that she once was.

Maybe if Diana had suffered from hepatitis or pneumonia or had had a stroke like Margaret, things would have been different. Maybe Tony Blair would have dubbed her the People's Princess while she was still alive. Maybe if the world had come merely close to losing her, its love would have found expression without the catalyst of a flower-strewn coffin.

We might have left her alone, and Diana, like Margaret, might have lived to a ripe old age.