When William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, moved into Apartment 1A at Kensington Palace in October 2013, they entered a home rich in history
efore the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge moved in, the last married couple to live in the most storied royal flat in Kensington Palace, in London—and the first to reside there in more than 100 years—was Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, and photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, known as Lord Snowdon. Their glamorous and tempestuous union mirrored the turbulent decade of the Swinging Sixties, and during their stay, the apartment was visited by some of the century’s most interesting people.
The entry to and facade of Apartment 1A, seen in 1960 at the time the royal couple moved in
Located in the palace’s 17th-century Clock Court, Apartment 1A is essentially a four-story townhouse with more than 20 rooms. It also served as the inspiration for the Fall/Winter 2013 Ralph Lauren Home collection called Apartment No. One. After the royal family designated Buckingham Palace as its official residence in 1837, Kensington Palace came to house generations of dowagers and aging royal aunts, with King Edward VII eventually nicknaming it the Aunt Heap, sources say. Rotten from desuetude, Apartment 1A was considered a curious choice when Princess Margaret announced it would become home to her and her new husband, the first male commoner to wed a royal lady in 400 years.
According to reports, the couple first met through Margaret’s lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Cavendish, but a rapport developed when a friend suggested the princess should sit for the future Lord Snowdon, a charming new portrait photographer who was quickly making a name for himself. Then 28 years old, Princess Margaret was “poised, stylish and groomed to perfection,” writes Anne de Courcy, author of a recent biography on Lord Snowdon. “Swathed in furs and glittering with diamonds, [she was] an icon of glamour, exuding an aura of sophisticated, challenging sexuality.” In addition to being beautiful, Margaret was “intelligent, capricious, willful, often flirtatious, sometimes freezing, easily bored, but witty.” As for Lord Snowdon, he was immensely charismatic and driven by two powerful motives: work and sex.
n 1960, the couple married and took up residence in Apartment 1A. Although Lord Snowdon quickly learned royal protocol, de Courcy says, his common lineage earned him the scorn of many in their circle, including the servants. Ruby, the princess’s dresser, was charged with bringing tea and juice to Princess Margaret each morning, yet she never brought anything for Lord Snowdon. Not content to be a kept man, Lord Snowdon soon took a job at the Sunday Times, earning acclaim for his documentaries on the poor and elderly, as well as his chronicles of society. Although the couple’s love and passion for each other were palpable, Princess Margaret was used to getting her way, and any feeling of suffocation made Lord Snowdon retreat deep into his work. A few years into the marriage, cracks began to form beneath their glittering façade.
Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, shown here on their way to a ball in London in 1962, were frequent targets of the paparazzi’s lenses
But what a façade it was! De Courcy writes that Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were consummate entertainers, and because they were considered the most bewitching couple in England, invitations to their parties were highly coveted. Each event was so dazzling and rarified that cartoonist Osbert Lancaster’s hand shook as he held his cocktail, and Anne Scott-James, famous for her poise as editor of Harper’s Bazaar, blushed when Margaret addressed her. The couple’s soirees mixed established society folk with the newly emerging jet set—people socially prominent not for their noble birth but for their talent, looks and sex appeal—and even inspired jaded man-about-town Noël Coward to dub the parties “charming.” While actor and comedian Dudley Moore played piano, actor Peter Sellers (one of Lord Snowdon’s dearest friends) would act out characters, and poet John Betjeman told stories.
Despite being at the center of Europe’s new beau monde, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon viewed it all with a certain detachment, one source says, inventing a diversion they called the bread game to play secretly at dinner parties. Whenever anyone spoke a cliché, Princess Margaret or Lord Snowdon would tear off a small piece of bread and place it on the table. The person with the most pieces in front of him or her at the end of the evening won. “Part of the magic of the game was that no one else even realized it was being played,” writes Tim Heald in his book Princess Margaret: A Life Unravelled. “It was [their] private way of cocking a snook at the rest of the world.”
As the ’60s dragged on, the marriage (which had produced two children, Sarah and David) increasingly reflected the era’s stormy social change. Sources say that Lord Snowdon began to use drugs, while Princess Margaret drank. According to lore, she had a brief, impassioned fling with Robin Douglas-Home, an aristocrat and nightclub pianist who committed suicide shortly after the affair ended, and soon after, Lord Snowdon had a serious love affair of his own with Lady Jacqueline Rufus-Isaacs, daughter of the Marquess of Reading. Life at Apartment 1A eventually fell into open warfare, according to a member of the household staff. It’s said that Princess Margaret’s next love was Roddy Llewellyn, 17 years younger than she, with whom she spent time on the small Caribbean island of Mustique, where she was always happiest. Lord Snowdon reportedly then commenced an affair with television producer Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, whom he married in 1978, soon after he and Princess Margaret divorced.
Princess Margaret never remarried and continued to reside in Apartment 1A until her death from health complications in 2002. “The divorce, the affairs, her subsequent illness and defiant drinking and smoking would make Princess Margaret a rather melancholy figure who increasingly shunned the public eye,” says James Sherwood, royal fashion historian and author of Fashion at Royal Ascot: Three Centuries of Thoroughbred Style. “It is sadly ironic that the beautiful young bride who moved into Apartment 1A in 1960 would end her days alone in the palace […] christened the Aunt Heap.”
From Princess Margaret’s death until the fall of 2012, Apartment 1A was used as office space, classrooms and a temporary display of dresses worn by Princess Diana. After extensive renovations and as of October 2013, it once again serves as the home to the world’s most famous royal couple.
CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD is coauthor of Ivy Style: Radical Conformists (Yale University Press).