Unmasking the Dirty Duchess's secret lover
Revelation of true identity of'the headless man' in a raunchy Polaroid is called into question, writes John McEntee
All the participants are now dead. The sensation of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, and the so-called headless man is as historical as the assassination of JFK.
Yet despite the now ancient vintage of the 1963 scandal, it persists in its fascination. Margaret's salacious behaviour and subsequent divorce case continues to hold a vice-like grip on the British Establishment. Dead for more than two decades now, the allegedly nymphomaniac duchess and the stories of her lovers, her behaviour and her ultimate descent into poverty continue to enthrall.
But at the heart of this saga of power, privilege, sex and decadent aristocrats lurks the intriguing mystery --the identity of the 'headless' man.
Who was the naked male, his face obscured, captured in a Polaroid, with the duchess on her knees performing fellatio?
Was it British government minister Duncan Sandys or Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Jnr?
Last week, Margaret's former stepdaughter-in-law Lady Colin Campbell, herself an exotic creature, claimed that the duchess had confided the true identity of the man in the photo as Pan American Airlines executive Bill Lyons.
Lyons was a "scion of a wealthy family" and was the duchess's lover for six years.
Lady Colin claims to have chosen to reveal the identity of the headless man to restore some measure of justice to the duchess. An opera about the duchess, Thomas Ades's Powder Her Face, portrayed her as the 'Dirty Duchess', a "lady of loose morals".
"The mystery of the Headless Man distorted Margaret's life while she was alive, and it threatens to distort her memory in death ... It is to restore some small measure of justice that I have decided to end the mystery and reveal who it was in the picture with her, and why. I know the answer for a fact because, in the course of our long friendship, it was Margaret who told me," says Lady Colin.
Polaroid cameras were a very new technology at the time, a fact that had been used to attempt to narrow down the identity of the man. But Lady Colin says: "Margaret was a genuine neophyte. If it was new, she had to have it ...
"It should, therefore, come as no surprise she managed to own one of the first Polaroids in England.
"And she used it, in all innocence, to record a loving encounter with the man who replaced Big Ian (The Duke of Argyll) in her affections after he began divorce proceedings against her. Or, to be more accurate, the man rigged up the timer and they recorded a memento of their love for each other."
The claims of Lady Colin, 63, known as Georgie, have been comprehensively rubbished by Royal author Michael Thornton, a friend of the late duchess.
He says: "Margaret first met William Hart Lyons at a dinner party in Lisbon on August 24, 1961. During the Argyll divorce case, it became a matter of established forensic proof that the Polaroid photographs, two of which showed the Duchess with the so-called 'Headless Man', were taken during 1956. We know this from the serial numbers of the Polaroid film used, and also its expiry date. I think you will agree that it would be a difficult feat to have Polaroid photographs taken with a man she did not even meet until five years later!
"Lady Colin Campbell's dubious scenario, therefore, falls to the ground, like almost all her preposterous assertions in her recent 'biography' of the Queen Mother," he adds.
Thornton's remarks have infuriated Georgie, who says: "Thornton is a nasty pain in the backside. He seems to know more than the duchess. He is right that Margaret and Bill didn't meet until 1961 but no one had Polaroid cameras in 1956. The pictures were taken much later."
Thornton claims he knows the true identity of the headless man and will reveal it in a forthcoming book. He says: "The 'Headless Man' was not an American. My book, which includes interviews with Lord Denning, will reveal exactly who he was, and he was most certainly not William Hart Lyons, who had not appeared at all in the duchess's life at the time the Polaroid photographs were taken."
The duke was Margaret's second husband and Lady Colin said that the duchess referred to Lyons as her "third husband" and that they were widely accepted as a couple.
But he was already married to a woman who threatened to kill herself each time Lyons attempted to leave her for the duchess -- a factor that eventually brought the relationship with Margaret to an end.
At the divorce trial, the Duke of Argyll -- who had been married twice previously -- claimed that his third wife, the duchess, had as many as 88 lovers. There were suggestions that she had developed nymphomania after falling down a lift shaft in her Mayfair home.
Lady Colin alleges that the Duke and his daughter Jeanne broke into the duchess's house to find evidence of the infidelity and found the photos in his wife's writing desk which showed her naked, wearing only a three-strand pearl necklace. They also found the duchess's appointments diaries. The men listed in the diaries had been widely interpreted as her lovers.
The divorce trial judge Lord Wheatley, in his judgment on the case, said: "There is enough in her own admissions and proven facts to establish that, by 1960, she was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men."
Whatever the truth -- and the smart money remains on the late Douglas Fairbanks junior as the Headless Man -- Margaret continued to enrich the gossip columns until her death, aged 80, in 1993. She died in penury in a London nursing home. But in true Duchess style, after the notorious divorce and her split from Pan Am bigwig Bill Lyons, she declared: "I'll never fly Pan Am again. From now on, its TWA for me."