by Kitty Kelley
The book cover shouts “rollicking, irresistible, un-put-downable.” The blurbs trumpet “original, hilarious, memorable,” even “a level of genius.” Even if all that praise for Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown comes from his pals in London, including the exalted likes of novelist Julian Barnes — who pronounced the book “roistering” — I could hardly wait to start reading.
Having never heard of the author or the 18 books he’s written, I raced to remedy my ignorance. Apparently, Wikipedia has the same problem, because information is scarce. Brown identifies as “a parodist and a satirist,” and his books appear to be in that genre: The Private Eye Book of Craig Brown Parodies, The Craig Brown Omnibus, This Is Craig Brown, and, of course, Craig Brown’s Greatest Hits.
This man definitely understands the art of branding. The British comedian Stephen Fry claims Brown is “the wittiest writer in Britain today,” and an example of that wit from his 10th tome, The Little Book of Chaos, presents his advice on coping with vexation: “Regain your inner child: Pull a colleague’s hair.”
Not roistering enough for you? Well, never mind. In this somber era of Trump, I long for any amusing escape, and what could be more humorous than reading about our betters across the pond, especially the princess who teased her hair to helium heights, wore platform peep-toes, and wrapped herself in parachute silks?
So, I looked forward to a joy ride with this book, imagining myself breezing along in a sleek, vintage Jaguar XK convertible — top down, laughter rising to the skies.
But midway through, I felt stuck in a dilapidated jalopy, gears jammed with sludge.
My fault, I’m sure, for not finding humor in the grotesquerie of a spoiled brat so blinded by entitlement that she flicks cigarette ashes into a servant’s hand because she can’t find an ashtray; who announces at a dinner party that the host’s food looks like upchuck.
She derides Jews, detests Americans, denounces the Irish as pigs, and despises politicians of all stripes. “I hate them,” she said. “They never listen to anything I say or answer my questions. Even Sir Winston Churchill would just grunt.”
I don’t doubt the accuracy of Brown’s unsparing characterizations of HRH, the Princess Margaret, whom he refers to as “the royal dwarf” and labels: short, fat, rude, blunt, boorish, acid-tongued, boozy, haughty, chain-smoking, and gauche. But “hilarious” and “rollicking”?
Brown gives many glimpses into the supposed amours of Queen Elizabeth’s errant sister, including an affair with Pablo Picasso, when he was 85 and she was 26. Brown also writes that “Ma’am, Darling” — as his book is titled in England, a cheeky reference to “ma’am,” the day-to-day form of spoken address used with an adult female royal — did not sexually limit herself to men:
“After [the] death [of singer Dusty Springfield] rumors circulated that she and Princess Margaret had once been an item. This seems improbable, but then again improbability is no barrier to gossip.”
Continuing, he provides a list of “those with whom Princess Margaret was…rumored to have had sexual relationships.” In alphabetical order, he names two women and 21 men, including Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, David Niven, Peter O’Toole, Prince Philip (the queen’s husband), Peter Sellers, and a former prime minister of Canada.
For me, this book becomes a glimpse too far when Brown makes forays into the bathroom. He writes about one man’s pride in being able to sit on the same lavatory seat vacated by a member of the royal family, and then reports another who fishes a royal elimination from the toilet, which he proudly displays in a specimen jar in his home. Yech!
Perhaps Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses is intended to be an indictment of the British monarchy and its pernicious class system. If so, he’s written a masterpiece, especially for those disinclined to crack a knee and curtsy to the crown. He is highly skilled at dissecting the cruel crevices of class in the U.K.
For instance, before you become too impressed by the distinguished photographs of Lord Snowdon, the princess’ former husband, Brown cautions: “The social status of a photographer [is] roughly on a par with that of a tailor — above a hairdresser, but below a governess.”
What Brown has accomplished with his book is a new form of biography — a hybrid of sorts. His “glimpses” are the literary version of mating a donkey to a horse and getting a mule: nothing short of jackass brilliance. He dodges the drudgery of cradle-to-grave chronology, avoids time-consuming interviews, and disregards all documentation, including chapter notes.
Instead, he scours the public record — books, newspapers, magazines — skims the froth off the top, and tra-la-las to publication with a colorful collage of cut-and-paste bits from previously published sources. No index, no bibliography, and, not to put too fine a point on it, no need.
With the princess safely departed (she died in 2002), Brown does not have to contend with the draconian laws of his country, where an insult can be libelous and, if litigated, the loser pays all — judgment, plus lawyers’ fees for both sides.
As sad as Margaret’s wastrel life was her lonely death at the age of 71. After a series of strokes, she boarded herself up in her residence at Kensington Palace, spent most of her time in bed, and refused to see anyone, especially men. “I look so awful now. I don’t want them to remember me like this.”
On the morning HRH Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, died, the queen’s office consulted the prime minister’s office and, with bone-chilling cynicism, discussed “the appropriate level of grief and how to stage manage it.” Between them, they kept tributes to a minimum.
Years later, Margaret’s two children staged a two-day auction at Christie’s to sell her worldly goods. Among her royal possessions was a tiny porcelain box inscribed with the words: “May the King Live to Reward the Subject Who Would Die for Him.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books