My dinner with Margaret -- the country's top columnists remember
I could never put it into print at the time, I was -- I now realise -- Princess
Margaret’s closest male friend. It is correct in the strictly legal sense to say
that we were never married -- but ours was without doubt the deepest
relationship of her life.
I know for certain she would read my column over breakfast in bed. “I can’t
start the day without William Hickey!” she confided in a mutual friend. This was
our code word for Nigel Dempster. She was always a terrific tease -- and an
Meeting me was something for her to treasure for the rest of her life. On an
official tour of the Daily Mail offices in October, ’73, she was guided
inexorably towards me -- 35th in a line-up of just 43.
“And this,” intoned Lord Rothermere, “is our diarist, Nigel Dempster.”
Electricity crackled through the air. Our eyes locked -- and within second our
hands were clasped tight together, one against the other, in urgent passionate
almost convulsive shakes -- up, down, up, down, UP, DOWN -- but somehow our
hearts kept beating.
“And what –“ she purred breathlessly through those haughty, pouting Royal lips,
her eyes sinking ever deeper into mine, “and what... do YOU do?”
In the intense emotional drama of the moment -- swept away in a swirl of romance
-- I have lost all memory of the exact words I used in reply. Sometimes language
transcends mere words. But we both knew what I meant.
“Keep you... BUSY -- do they?” she continued, her breasts heaving tremulously
beneath her navy blue coat, its bright gold buttons catching my reflection in
But before I could reply, she was led away by my proprietor to a deluxe luncheon
-- smoked salmon, chicken vol-au-vents, chocolate roulade, choice of fine wines
-- in the Executive Dining Suite.
We were never to meet again, but as my eyes trailed after her, I knew from the
way her legs moved back and forth that her thoughts would always remain of me --
and of me alone.
it was because I was Editor of the Times, no less, that she expected me to know
which one she was. If so, she had another thought coming. I had her down as
Princess Alexandria, the one who married that Mark Phillips bloke. Whoops! What
a right Royal clanger! Anyway, throughout our meeting, she made it pretty clear
that she was the Royal, and I was very much the commoner. The fact that I also
just happened to be Editor of The Times failed to raise me to Royal status in
her eyes. She made that abundantly clear by the snooty way she said, “How do you
do?” and then waited testily for an answer. I forget my reply now -- possibly
something about being very well thank you -- but by the time I had finished she
had passed on down the line. So much for Royal grace and decorum, thinks I!
We met as equals. I, too, am a member of the British Royal Family, through my great, great uncle Bore Vidal, who was, I believe, married, on and off, to the late Queen Mary. This, I understand, means that I, too, could have become Queen, but I elected not to, finding the prospect frankly tedious, and graciously allowed the title to revert to poor dear cousin Lilibet.
And so to poor wee Princess Margaret, late of that parish. She was, of course, the most brilliant mimic. Prior to our first meeting, I had been alerted to this notable talent by mutual friends. I arrived prepared to be amused. Margaret’s comic timing was, it behoves me to say, impeccable. As we paraded into luncheon together, I said, “I hear you are the most marvellous mimic.” Margaret opened her mouth, and, reeling around, delivered a series of high-pitched squawks. I dutifully roared with laughter.
“The best drunken cockatoo I have heard in all my born days!” I exclaimed.
“But I haven’t started yet,” she complained.
SIR ROY STRONG
She may have been the teensiest bit COMMON, bless her, but my goodness she had RAZZLE DAZZLE. In so many ways, Margaret personified the sheer devil-may-care spirit of the Sixties. I shall never forget a spectacular luncheon party she threw on the Isle of Mustique in August, 1969. Everyone who was anyone in the Sixties was there. Tripping around the exquisitely mown lawn on my allotted golf-buggy before the serving of the Piña Coladas, I remember overtaking Gerry and the Pacemakers, all crammed into one little buggy, and Sir Gerald Nabarro, Frank Ifield and Freddy “Parrot-Face” Davis having a whale of a time in another.
Luncheon was a delightful affair. One now forgets what the Princess was wearing, but I myself was wearing a crushed-velvet suit in the most beautiful deep purple, with a Burlington Bertie smock to match. Prompted by sheer JOIE DE VIVRE into perfectly SHAMEFUL indiscretions, I hugely amused the Princess with my running commentary on all the latest goings-on among the senior heads of department in the British Museum. The Princess sat fixed to her seat, her head cocked to one side, her eyes tight-shut, so as to soak it all in. It is greatly to her credit that she would surround herself with people far more intelligent than herself.
After a sumptuous luncheon, a vast cake was wheeled out by the most magnificent pair of coloured gentlemen. And then
-- PURE THEATRE! -- Kathy Kirby and Norman Wisdom leapt out and proceeded to polka the afternoon away to the music of Burl Ives. MAGIC!
Margaret -- who I will always remember
as one of the most intensely musical figures
of that era -- clapped quite brilliantly in
time, getting almost every single clap exactly right.