Philip Ziegler

Work and sex

Philip Ziegler reviews Anne de Courcy's biography of Lord Snowdon

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Anne de Courcy

Weidenfeld, pp. 404, £

Ordinary mortals marrying into the upper reaches of the Royal Family are usually in for a rough ride. Their best chance seems to be to come from one of those families which privately consider that they are every bit as good as the House of Windsor: Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott (though the formula proved a conspicuous failure in the case of Lady Diana Spencer). Otherwise they must decide whether they will opt for the deferential role, sidling through life perpetually two steps behind their royal spouse, or try to retain an independent career and existence. To do the latter successfully calls not merely for strength of character but a high degree of tact and patience and a capacity for unobtrusiveness. To judge from this book, these were qualities in which Lord Snowdon was notably deficient.

‘The twin motors that drove him throughout his life,’ Anne de Courcy tells us more than once, ‘were work and sex.’ The trouble about the work element is that photography — unless the author is going to indulge in a lot of technical detail, which de Courcy mercifully spares us — is not really suited to descriptive writing. Snowdon was undoubtedly an innovator who pioneered a new informality of approach far removed from the formal poses against stagey backgrounds beloved by his predecessors, but for the most part what this book offers is a roll call of celebrities whom Snowdon photographed, padded out with often trivial anecdotes. Of Peter Sellers, de Courcy tells us:

On good form, no one could be a more entertaining companion. One evening Sellers took Tony to a tiny one-room restaurant run by a young Italian couple, Lorenzo and Mara Berni, who would also become friends. Later their establishment, greatly expanded, would become known as the chic and sophisticated San Lorenzo, of Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge.

End of story.

So we are left with the sex. Snowdon, de Courcy tells us with that gift for finding the predictable phrase which marks her writing, ‘was irresistible to women. From his earliest days they had buzzed around him like bees round a honeypot’. The word ‘fidelity’ or, for that matter, ‘consideration’ did not figure in his vocabulary. His appetite was insatiable; as one of his friends remarked, ‘the emotional map is that of a ten-year-old, coupled with a vast appetite for work and a huge sex drive’. Though his extraordinary charm and vivacity meant that many women stayed loyal to him long after they had been betrayed and passed over, the catalogue of these squalid liaisons makes dismal reading.

His marriage to Princess Margaret is, of course, at the heart of this book. Though they enjoyed some years of genuine happiness, the relationship was doomed from the start. They were both used to the limelight and to having their own way and were too selfish and self-obsessed to be able to adapt so as to accommodate the other. Princess Margaret, it comes as a slight surprise to discover, seems to have been more sinned against than sinning. Snowdon savagely repelled any attempts by his wife to invade what he saw as his private or professional life. He mocked and insulted her, making lists of ‘things I hate about you’ and leaving them lying around for her to discover. The most famous, de Courcy tells us, was: ‘You look like a Jewish manicurist!’, a message found in her glove drawer. The comment is the more remarkable, coming from a man who was himself partly Jewish. One way of easing the tension between them was to lead a relentlessly active social life, so that they were rarely alone together. They made outrageous demands on their hard-pressed staff. ‘Would it be possible for there to be one day in the week (say Wednesdays) when you do not entertain?’ pleaded the equally hard-pressed Private Secretary.

There are plenty of excuses to be made for Snowdon’s character. His mother was a chilly snob who largely ignored him except when his marriage temporarily earned him some attention. The polio which he contracted when still at Eton left him with a withered left leg an inch shorter than the right one. As a young man he was despised by the hearties as being effete, probably homosexual and certainly a photographer — emphatically not at that time a career for gentlemen. ‘Jennifer’, the social columnist of the Tatler, who saw herself as guarding the portals of polite society, once hissed angrily at him: ‘Don’t ever dare speak to me! I never speak to photographers!’ Snowdon was debagged, thrown into goldfish ponds and generally maltreated. ‘It may have been funny to some,’ he said later, ‘but to me it was unforgivable.’

He also had a well-developed social conscience and lavished on the afflicted of Aberfan or Biafra the sympathy and affection which he denied his wife. His work for the disabled was sustained and successful; he did as much as anyone to improve their lot and used his celebrity and royal connections with a resourcefulness which would have been distasteful in other circumstances but here was wholly admirable.

In her Acknowledgements de Courcy describes Snowdon as

the perfect biographical subject, not only because of his brilliant talent, campaigning work for others, colourful life, complex and interesting personality, and kindness giving up hours of his time to lengthy taped interviews but because he never once attempted to influence what I wrote.

He has indeed been courageous in authorising this portrait in which the warts sometimes threaten to obscure any redeeming features. One must hope that, when he surveys the final picture, he does not regret his liberality.