Given this stance Margaret’s mother Helen thought it best to present Margaret at court in the summer before her eighteenth birthday, rather than waiting another year. Thus toward the end of 1929 she sent an application to the Lord Chamberlain, asking for permission to do so. It was a decision which pleased Margaret, and it would be one of the few occasions in which she benefited from her mother’s controlling nature. Helen also gave Margaret a piece of advice, which she took to heart: ‘This is the only time of your life that you will be completely carefree. Be sure to make the most of it.’
Although Helen’s decision to hold Margaret’s dance on 1 May, the very first day of the season, was an ambitious one for a girl lacking an aristocratic pedigree, it reflected how the Whighams, and Margaret’s father George in particular, did things. His entire fortune was, after all, founded on taking risks. Margaret herself said her mother was taking a gamble, for after the other girls had attended her party there was a chance she would not be invited to theirs. Were they attending out of curiosity? Helen might have wondered. And, if they were, she would not let them down. The party cost £40,000, and it brimmed with new money: Helen’s jewels sparkled whereas the tiaras and diamonds worn by aristocratic mothers were dull from languishing in bank vaults; the house had been decorated especially for the dance; and Ambrose, the big bandleader, was engaged to entertain the 400 guests.
Margaret made her entrance as Ambrose’s orchestra struck the first chord, dressed in a Norman Hartnell turquoise tulle dress with a tight-fitting bodice embroidered with diamantés, translucent crystals and pearls. The dress itself should have been an indication as to how Margaret’s social season would progress, for Helen insisted she wear white, the traditional colour for debutantes. However, Margaret wanted to stand out from the others, and moments before joining her parents to greet their guests she purposely stained the skirt of her white dress and had to change into the turquoise one. Given all that had happened, Helen did not quarrel with Margaret, and Margaret herself pretended the ruining of her original dress was an accident. After all, she had been terribly nervous, had she not? Margaret achieved her own way, the only thing that mattered to her. She was the unrivalled belle of the ball and society columns praised her as ‘one of the most beautiful girls’, with another writing that ‘[she] shone out above everybody else, as is only fitting for the heroine of such an evening’.
Margaret’s crowning moment came three weeks later when, on 27 May, she was presented to Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. For this she adhered to the Lord Chamberlain’s strict dress code, and wore a custom-made Norman Hartnell gown of white tulle and silver embroideries, with silver shoes, elbow-length gloves, and on her head she wore Prince of Wales feathers. Helen, who was presenting Margaret, wore a parchment-coloured gown and a diamond tiara, a gift from her husband George. As the wait was long, owing to the cavalcade of cars along the Mall waiting to enter the palace gates, many debutantes and their mothers brought sandwiches and knitting.
Once inside there was a further wait in an anteroom, filled with pale pink hydrangeas and spring flowers, while a footman called the names of the debutantes and the women who were presenting them. The guests totalled 800 – one of whom was Thelma Viscountess Furness, mistress of the Prince of Wales – and there were five courts that season to cope with the demand of girls wishing to be presented. With rules becoming relaxed (though strict rules about formal behaviour and dress code were still adhered to) as to who could be presented, it might have later inspired Princess Margaret’s infamous quote: ‘We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in.’
Music was provided by the Welsh Guards, and the girls could take a seat, drink coffee, or practise their curtsey which was, in Margaret’s case, taught by Madame Vacani who insisted her pupils wear long curtains on their backs to mimic trains. The presentations at court were quicker than usual, as King George V was absent due to an attack of rheumatism, and Queen Mary was accompanied by her son, the Prince of Wales. The absence of the king was a disappointment to many debutantes, but not to Margaret. When she was called to the throne room she curtseyed to Queen Mary, and as she rose her eyes met with a handsome stranger standing behind the queen in a white tunic and turban adorned with an enormous emerald. He was Prince Aly Salman Aga Khan, eldest surviving son of the third Aga Khan. ‘I looked at him and he looked at me,’ Margaret later recalled, ‘and then I passed down the line.’
The following evening Margaret attended a ball at Brook House and was formally introduced to the 19-year-old Prince Aly Khan, and she thought it love at first sight. They spent the evening dancing and at spent time together at every party thereafter. She went to the Derby with him, a memorable day owing to the Aga Khan’s horse, Blenheim, winning the first big race. The Daily Express column ‘The Talk of London’ mentioned her coral-coloured dress, which infuriated Margaret, as her dress was salmon pink.
At the end of race week Aly asked George for permission to marry Margaret. George reacted furiously and thought it an opportunistic and indecent proposal. His answer was a simple one: he forbade Aly from marrying Margaret, and in turn he told her she could never see him again. Margaret could have imitated her mother and married the man she loved, regardless of her father’s wishes, but she had to wait almost four years before she came of age to marry without parental consent. Perhaps she would have been happier married to Aly, and maybe she would not have become the subject of social ridicule and scandal when she divorced her second husband, the Duke of Argyll, years later...
Extracted from The Grit in the Pearl by Lyndsy Spence