F.for most of 1991 I was the secretary of the Dowager Duchess of Argyll, fourth and last wife of Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke. Mathilda was the woman after the more famous Margaret, the subject of A very British scandal‘Sarah Phelps’ brilliant and frankly terrifying BBC three-part drama. When I talk about Mathilda, I usually have to make it clear: “Not the Duchess, the next one.”
Margaret always casts a shadow, or as she puts it briefly and dryly in her autobiography do not forget, published in 1975: âThree weeks after our divorce became final, Ian Argyll remarried Matilda Heller for the fourth time. She was in Ian’s life for a few years before we got divorced. “
Presumably the misspelling of Mathilda’s name was intentional. By 1991, the Duke’s first son by second marriage had inherited the title and the castle, and none of the later wives were regular guests. Occasionally, however, the two women spoke on the phone.
“Totally sad,” said Mathilda and gently hung up the phone. “Poor woman, thinks she’s on an ocean liner.”
“Where is she?”
I had this job because in the days before the keyboards anyone could go in anywhere. At the age of 27, I drove past Oxford University’s career building on my regular route to an apprenticeship that wasn’t really me. One day I stopped and wandered in and immediately fell on a folder that said Miscellaneous. That afternoon I applied to Paul McCartney’s son and for some espionage in West Africa, but ended up a few months later on the west coast of Scotland in a miniature castle at the end of a well-worn path.
Mathilda rented the top two floors of Lunga House, a 16th with battlements and towersthat Century owned by the local landlord. She offset the heavy Scottish masonry with light interiors and hand-painted chinoiseries wallpaper, while from her bedroom (in a real tower) she had a view over the Atlantic to the Jura.
Mathilda was 65 at the time and “famous for serving the best food in Scotland”. Her face was softened with butter and cream, but her blue eyes sharpened as she went through her halfies policy. At dinner, when she finished her plate first, she could say “half” and take half of what was left on my plate.
As she really was, in those days before the internet, I mostly knew what she was trying to tell me. In her own judgment, Mathilda was what Margaret was not. Her 10 years at Inveraray Castle were happy, scandal free, and she was delighted to have the Duke’s photo on her many side tables. To them, Ian Campbell was not the dark soul of his reputation. She was his fourth wife, yes, but also the Dowager Duchess. Like Catherine Parr, Mathilda was the survivor, loyal to the new Duke (like the old Duke), though she wished he would take her out to dinner more often.
So I knew all of this and then the gossip. Margaret was a mix of gossip in the 1990s – erotic pictures, fake letters, headless nude Hollywood stars – and Mathilda couldn’t quite distance herself. Described as an “American Heiress” in the BBC drama, I heard whispers that she too was a sacrificial bride. “Pay the bills,” as Paul Bettanys Duke in Claire Foys Margaret in. spits A very British scandal, “that’s what you’re here for”.
It just wasn’t that easy. Mathilda grew up with her grandparents in France, was previously married to an Austrian intellectual and had a polished British accent in addition to her three other languages. She’d studied at Radcliffe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she wasn’t exactly fresh off the boat. Perhaps she had evaded her husband’s worst, and her reward was a contented retirement as a widow in a scaled-down version of her former marriage home.
Part of my job was to keep that illusion intact. I was getting 70 guineas a week, which means Â£ 77 “all found,” including a house in the nearby village of Craobh Haven and an unlimited account in the store.
The original job description was vague, but mostly because of the ghostwriting, I came here. Mathilda had a contract with publisher John Murray for her memoir, and for one simple reason: Everyone was interested in Margaret. Ruby Wax was hoping for a TV interview, and it was talked about Wogan. Thirty years later, a three-part drama can still be presented to the BBC because photos of a duchess dressed only in her pearls do. Mathilda was the other woman; It had an angle.
However, your book would never be finished. Mathilda didn’t want to write about it Argyll versus ArgyllBesides her success in escaping the press, she and the Duke dare the hills of Provence in a classy Sunbeam convertible. She preferred to ponder her sunlit pre-war life as a child and her evacuation to the States on a ship with a large carousel on deck. She was always open to remembering her married life at Inveraray Castle. The balls, the pomp, the pure serenity of a duchess castle with the unusual duchess ingredients.
Every morning I watched her complicated breakfast go up the stairs to her bedroom and then took dictation from her bed. I wrote letters. We worked on the memoir, usually the Inveraray section. We struggled over menus, played with travel plans, and hired a new cook after Mathilda communicated her hatred of trimmings by throwing decorative and green items on the floor. Repeated.
Then we packed our things and made our way to Paris and Mathilda’s apartment on Rue de Tournon. The sumptuous central room contained her bed and a bathtub and a swing that hung from the rafters, but our unchanging daily routine included lunch with wine and ice-cold Wyborowa at six o’clock and backgammon games before dinner. I was politely drunk many times. We almost always smoked.
Mathilda loved to tell me she was my senior school, and I actually learned how to open oysters. And to drive your Ford Mustang at rush hour over the Place de la Concorde, and the correct pronunciation of Inveraray as “Inverarer”. She introduced me to the great brasseries in Paris, Vague end (my favorite) and Le Procope and also the old Nazi favorite La Coupole. Sometimes I would wait a long time so when she came home from a party I could take off the back of her dress and start zipping.
“Thank God,” she would say, “it’s so much easier when two are of one.”
But as much as we did and whatever the inheritance situation was when she got married, the Duchess had money worries. Good Chablis was in short supply in the basement, and the Christie’s dealer, who stayed for lunch, walked around with a rolled rug under his arm. In Scotland the oysters we ate, scrap from the local Craobh Haven bay, were too large to be sold to trade. We poor. I was sent to Paris on my motorcycle to sell a first edition Ulysses.
A secretary was a treat, but I wasn’t really that and I wasn’t a ghostwriter either. Above all, my role was to be present at meal times, like a âhelperâ from the 19th century. I was the paid companion. So of course I judged them. In the early 1960s Margaret had the tabloids to question her integrity. In 1991 Mathilda had me, with disapproval as evidence that I was not entirely submissive. Having little else to balance the power imbalance (70 guineas a week), I got mad at Mathilda for what I hated about myself. She was lonely and wasted her advantages in life. It was banal. She wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t buckle up.
I felt that I should have an opinion and decided that the aristocracy was terrible. Mathilda was terrible, but – the lackey’s madness here – everything would have been worse without me. I did not let myself be fooled she was deceived. I refused to be grateful as was expected of me. I was very rude to the Ruby Wax folks.
And then Mathilda woke up one September morning and forgot who she was. The stunned doctor ordered aspirin and rest, and Mathilda sat patiently in her four-poster bed, the white lace curtains drawn back. I pulled up a chair. Her long henna hair was spread over the pillows and she crossed her hands over the white bedspread. She waited calmly for me to refresh her memory and summarize her life.
It was very sad, so much of it. She had lost two children, a son from her first marriage and a daughter with the Duke who lived only a few days. Her own father was a wealthy homosexual who was seduced into a wager by her mother in the 1920s. Probably a bet from the Duke himself, Mathilda’s future husband, who had once been friends with her mother at the age of 23. A close friend. Margaret did not have a monopoly on disturbing and lewd stories.
“You own a five-liter Mustang convertible,” I said, and went quietly inside. âIt plays them Star Spangled Banner when it is placed backwards. “
I liked making her smile. I told her about her casual friendships with the artist Brion Gysin and the composer Pierre Boulez. In Edinburgh she had lunch with the photographer Brodrick Haldane, in Paris with the sculptor Joseph Erhardy.
“Nudes or motorcycles,” I reminded her. “It was a lot of fun, but he told us the subject was a problem.”
She sent a monthly check to the aging poet Peter Russell. Yes, I said, we will of course continue with that. I warmed myself up to my job, reminding her of her rare talent for liking anyone who was kind of personable, and that was pretty much everyone. Including me. Their homes were open to judging, non-writing writers and convicted drug smugglers, as was Steven Berkoff.
“You are the Dowager Duchess of Argyll.” Nobody else could say that, least of all Margaret. “You survived your husband, the Duke, after 10 happy years at Inveraray Castle.” For verification, she was able to read the pages of her memoir. Her life had been an admirable adventure definitely worth remembering.
Mathilda recovered to some extent. After I stopped working for her we became friends and the last time I saw her we had dinner at the Hotel Continental in Lausanne. We exchanged fond memories and talked about the pool house in VÃ©zelay, where she dreamed of ending her days. A year later, in 1997, shortly before her 72nd birthday, I was surprised by her name in the newspapers.
The funeral took place in VÃ©zelay and was attended by three of her former secretaries, one before and one after my time. Despite Margaret’s shadow, we came to pay our respects. To Mathilda, not the famous Duchess of Argyll, but the next. The one we knew and loved.