On the Birth of Princess Margaret and the Rise of Astrology as We Know It
The Royal Family Was Really Into Horoscopes
Princess Margaret was born in 1930, the same year as air hostess and newscaster entered the language, and died in 2002, when googling, selfie, blogger and weapons of mass destruction first appeared.
Is it just me, or do a remarkably high proportion of the words that share her birthday also reflect something of her character? Blasé first made the Channel crossing in 1930, subtly altering its meaning on the way: in its home country of France, it meant “sated by enjoyment,” while here in Britain it meant something closer to “bored or unimpressed through over-familiarity.” Also from France, or 18th-century France, came negligée, with that extra “e” to show that it now meant a lacy, sexy dressing gown rather than an informal gown worn by men and women alike.
Inventions that first came on the market in 1930, thus introducing new words to the language, included bulldozer, electric blanket and jingle, all of which have a faint echo of Margaret about them. The Gibson—a martini-like cocktail consisting of gin and vermouth with a cocktail onion—was introduced to fashionable society. In All About Eve (1950), Bette Davis serves her guests Gibsons, saying, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Then again, learner-driver, washing-up machine and snack bar also came into being in 1930, yet it’s hard to relate any of them to Princess Margaret, who never learned to drive, nor to operate a washing-up machine. And, as far as I know, she never entered a snack bar.
Also making their first entries that year were to bail out, meaning to make an emergency parachute jump, to feel up, meaning to grope or fondle, and sick-making, meaning to make one either feel queasy, or vomit, depending on the force of one’s reaction. Each of these three has something Margaret-ish about it, as do crooner and eye shadow and the adjective luxury.
Two concepts dear to any biographer, but perhaps particularly dear to biographers of Princess Margaret, entered the language in the year of her birth: guesstimate and whodunnit.
There also came a word that had been around for several centuries, but which, as a direct result of the birth of the little Princess in 1930, was to take on a life of its own.
At his office in Fleet Street, John Gordon, the editor of the Sunday Express, was struggling to come up with a fresh angle on the news of another royal birth. Then it came to him: why not ask Cheiro,[*] the most famous astrologer of the day, to predict what life might have in store for her? Cheiro had, in his time, given personal readings to, among others, Oscar Wilde, General Kitchener, Mark Twain and King Edward VII. The little Princess would surely be a doddle.
Gordon telephoned Cheiro’s office, only to be informed by his assistant, R.H. Naylor, that the great man was unavailable. Instead, Naylor put himself forward for the task. His article, “What the Stars Foretell for the New Princess,” duly appeared the following Sunday.
Naylor foretold that Princess Margaret Rose would have “an eventful life,” a prediction that was possibly on the safe side, since few lives are without any event whatsoever. Moreover, it would be decades before anyone could confidently declare it to have been entirely uneventful, and by that time people’s minds would have been distracted by other, more eventful, things. More particularly, Naylor predicted that “events of tremendous importance to the Royal Family and the nation will come about near her seventh year.”
The article proved a huge success, so much so that Gordon proceeded to commission Naylor to write forecasts for the months ahead. As luck—or chance, or fate—would have it, one of his predictions was that “a British aircraft will be in danger between October 8th and 15th.” He was just three days out: on 5 October, on its maiden overseas flight, the passenger airship R101 crashed in Beauvais, France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board.
Naylor’s reputation was made. John Gordon now hit on the idea of asking him to write a weekly column making predictions for all Sunday Express readers according to their birthdays. Naylor puzzled for some time over how to incorporate 365 different forecasts into a single column, and eventually devised a more off-the-peg system by dividing the sun’s 360-degree transit into 12 zones, each of them spanning 30 degrees. He then named each of the 12 zones after a different celestial constellation, and offered blocks of predictions for each birth sign. This was how the modern horoscope came into being.
“Two concepts dear to any biographer, but perhaps particularly dear to biographers of Princess Margaret, entered the language in the year of her birth: guesstimate and whodunnit. There also came a word that had been around for several centuries, but which, as a direct result of the birth of the little Princess in 1930, was to take on a life of its own.
In the Princess’s seventh year, 1936, a series of events of tremendous significance to the Royal Family did indeed come about, exactly as predicted: the death of King George V, the abdication of King Edward VIII, and the accession of King George VI. Small wonder that Naylor was now regarded as something of a genius; before long he was receiving up to 28,000 letters a week from his bedazzled readers, anxious to know what fate had up its sleeve for them.
By now, every other popular newspaper had taken to employing a resident astrologer; according to Mass-Observation, “nearly two-thirds of the adult population glance at or read some astrological feature more or less regularly.”
One of the beauties of the horoscope, from the point of view of the astrologer, is that its followers are more than willing to forget or ignore any prediction that turns out to be wrong. In future, Naylor would be the beneficiary of this impulse to turn a blind eye. At the beginning of 1939, for instance, he confidently declared that “Hitler’s horoscope is not a war horoscope. . . if and when war comes, not he but others will strike the first blow.” He also pinpointed the likely danger areas as “the Mediterranean, the Near East and Ireland.” Furthermore, he declared that the causes of any potential conflict would be: “1) The childless marriage; 2) The failure of agriculturalists. . . to understand the ways of nature and conserve the fertility of the soil.”
Within months, all these predictions had gone awry, but Naylor’s reputation remained rock-solid. Nearly 90 years on, the horoscope is quite possibly the most formidable legacy of HRH the Princess Margaret, who shared her birthday, 21 August, and her star sign, Leo, with a varied list of famous characters, including Count Basie, King William IV, Kenny Rogers, Aubrey Beardsley, Dame Janet Baker and Joe Strummer of the Clash.
In my biographer’s delirium, as I looked at the list of Princess Margaret’s fellow 21 August Leos I began to notice spooky similarities, and then to think that, actually, she was just like them in every way: after all, King William IV was family, and Dame Janet Baker looked a bit like her, as well as being a near-contemporary (b.1933). The two of them were chummy, too: Dame Janet remembers the Princess saying, “Good luck, Janet—be an angel,” to her before she sang the part of the Angel in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in Westminster Abbey. Moreover, the Princess was a great fan of Count Basie, and vice versa: in 1957 Basie and his orchestra recorded “H.R.H.,” a song dedicated to her. Margaret also shared a louche, camp, decadent streak with Aubrey Beardsley, and might have identified with Kenny Rogers’ songs about being disappointed by love: “You picked a fine time to leave me, Tony.”
And as for Joe Strummer, if the Margaret/Townsend romance were to be set to music, could there ever be a more perfect keynote duet than this?
PETER TOWNSEND: Darling, you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
PRINCESS MARGARET: If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
BOTH: So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
By now I was hallucinating. The Princess was everywhere and nowhere. It seemed as though everyone I bumped into had met her at one time or another, and had a story to tell, generally about her saying something untoward and an uneasy atmosphere ensuing. At the same time my brain was becoming entangled with the spaghetti-like argy-bargy of the Townsend affair, as knotted and impenetrable as the causes of the First World War.
I would spend hours puzzling over the same not-very-interesting anecdote told about her by different people, each contradicting the other. Should I go for the most likely, the funniest, the most interesting, or even, as part of my noble effort to write a serious book, the dullest? And which was which? I found it increasingly hard to judge. Should I favor one version of events over the other, or should I risk boring the reader by doggedly relaying every variant?
Just as the writers of the four gospels of the New Testament offer contrasting views of the same event, so do those who bear witness to the life and times of Princess Margaret. To pick just one example, here are two different versions of a quite humdrum little story about Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret, a cigarette and a cushion. I have put them side by side, for the purposes of compare and contrast.
The first is from Of Kings and Cabbages (1984), a memoir by Peter Coats, former ADC to General Wavell,[*] boyfriend of Chips Channon, and editor of House and Garden magazine, widely known by the nickname “Petti-Coats”:
Tony Snowdon was having a mild argument with his wife, Princess Margaret, and, having lit a cigarette, flicked the match towards an ashtray and it fell into Princess Margaret’s brocaded lap. HRH brushed it off quickly and, rather annoyed, said, “Really, Tony, you might have burned my dress.” To which came the reply, “I don’t care. I never did like that material.” The princess drew herself up and said very grandly, “Material is a word we do not use.”
I admit to having told this story several times, and it always arouses a storm-in-a-cocktail-glass of discussion. What other word? Stuff, perhaps?
So there we are. Now take a look at this second version of the same event, which comes from Redeeming Features (2009), an enjoyably baroque memoir by the interior decorator and socialite Nicky Haslam:
We joined a party at Kate and Ivan Moffat’s, where the growing distance and determined one-upmanship between Princess Margaret and Tony Snowdon was all too evident. Bored, Tony played with a box of matches, flicking them, lit, at his wife. “Oh, do stop,” she said. “You’ll set fire to my dress.” Tony glowered. “Good thing too. I hate that material.” Princess Margaret stiffened. “We call it stuff.”
Which to pick? The Coats version is milder, the Haslam version more extreme. Coats has Snowdon lighting a cigarette and flicking a single match with the intention of making it land in an ashtray; Haslam has him playing with an entire box of matches out of boredom, and aiming and flicking the lit matches, one by one, at Princess Margaret.
According to Coats, the Princess says,
“Material is a word we do not use.”
Coats then speculates about a feasible substitute. But Haslam makes no mention of her declaring “Material is a word we do not use”; he simply has her observing,
“We call it stuff.”
We will never know which version is true, or truer, or if both are false, or half-true and half-false. If you could whizz back in time and corner both men as they left the Moffats’ house, I imagine that each would swear by his own story, and someone else emerging from the same party—Lord Snowdon, or Princess Margaret, or one of the Moffats, for instance—would say that both of them had got it wrong, and the truth was more mundane, or more civilized, or more outrageous. To me, as the self-appointed theologian of that particular contretemps, Coats’ version sounds marginally the more probable. A succession of lit matches flicked across a sofa strikes me as a little too chancy and hazardous, particularly if flicked in someone else’s house.
Moreover, “Material is a word we do not use” sounds more imperiously Princess Margaret than “We call it stuff.” On the other hand, Nicky Haslam is a keen observer of human behavior, and has a knack for detail.
“By now I was hallucinating. The Princess was everywhere and nowhere. It seemed as though everyone I bumped into had met her at one time or another, and had a story to tell, generally about her saying something untoward and an uneasy atmosphere ensuing.”
Even if we agree to settle for a judicious mish-mash of the two accounts, we are still obliged to embark on a discussion of late-20th-century royal linguistics. Both accounts agree that ‘material’ was a word offensive to Princess Margaret, and perhaps even to the entire (“we”) Royal Family. But why? As words go, it has a perfectly good pedigree: it dates back to 1380, and was employed by Geoffrey Chaucer. On the other hand, though “stuff” may sound more aggressively modern, coarse and general, it in fact predates “material”’ by 40 years. “Stuff” originally meant fabric—in particular the quilted fabric worn under chain mail. It was centuries before it was demoted into a catch-all term applied to anything you couldn’t quite remember the right name for. So the Princess’s etymological instinct turns out to have been spot-on.
Or—forgive me—was her preference for “stuff” over “material” an unconscious throwback to her family’s Germanic roots? The German for material is “Stoff,” so it’s possible the Royal Family’s liking for “stuff” has been handed down from generation to generation, its basis lost in time.
So much for that. As you can see, when push comes to shove, even the most humdrum royal anecdote can open up any number of different avenues of inquiry. For instance, who on earth were the Moffats? It would be easy to find out, and a true scholar would probably include their CVs either in the text itself or in a learned footnote. But there is only so much a reader can take. Does anyone really need to know?[*]
And what about all the other words Princess Margaret didn’t like? Should I squeeze them in too? After all, she could take fierce exception to words she considered common—but she chose those words pretty much at random, so that people who weren’t on the alert would utter one of them, and set off a booby trap, with the shrapnel of indignation flying all over the place. The Princess strongly objected to the word “placement,” for example, yet it’s just the kind of word her friends and acquaintances would have instinctively used while dithering over who to place where around a dining table, probably thinking the word was rather classy. But no! The moment anyone said “placement”—ka-boom!—all hell would break loose. “Placement is what maids have when they are engaged in a household!” Princess Margaret would snap, insisting on the expression “place à table” instead. And the nightmare wouldn’t end there. Even those who had managed to shuffle to their allocated seats without uttering the dread word were liable to be caught out the next morning, at breakfast time, when the Princess would reel back in horror if she heard the phrase “scrambled eggs,” declaring irritably, “WE call them ‘buttered eggs’!”
And so a biography of Princess Margaret is always set to expand, like the universe itself, or, in more graspable terms, a cheese soufflé, every reference breeding a hundred more references, every story a thousand more stories, each with its own galaxy of additions, contradictions and embellishments. You try to make a haybale, but you end up with a haystack. And the needle is nowhere to be seen.
[*] Born William John Warner (1866–1936), he also went by the name of Count Louis Hamon. Cheiro combined his careers as a clairvoyant, numerologist and palmist with running both a champagne business and a chemical factory, though not from the same premises.
[*] Field Marshal Wavell (1883–1950) once sat next to Princess Margaret over lunch. Tonguetied at the best of times, he struggled to think of something to say. At last, he was seized by an idea!
“Do you like Alice in Wonderland, Ma’am?”
[*] Oddly enough, the answer is probably yes. As it happens, Ivan Moffat was a film producer and screenwriter (A Place in the Sun, The Great Escape, Giant). Born in Cuba in 1918, he was the son of the actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the nephew of Sir Max Beerbohm, and the uncle of Oliver Reed. In Paris in the 40s, Moffat was friends with Sartre and de Beauvoir, and he had affairs with two notable women who appear elsewhere in this book—Lady Caroline Blackwood and Elizabeth Taylor. Kate, his second wife, was a direct descendant of the founder of W.H. Smith, and a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother. So now you know.
From Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Craig Brown.