The Pretty One

updated 10/10/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1990 01:00AM

If the Windsors reigned in Beverly Hills instead of Westminster, Princess Margaret would be the family's Elizabeth Taylor. Still plushly petite at 60, with petulant lips, a vinegary tongue and violet eyes, the Queen's younger sister has been onstage since age 6, when she had a walk-on part in her father's coronation. With her theatrical props—a tortoise-shell cigarette holder, a tumbler of Famous Grouse whisky and a circle of intimates in the arts—the Princess has played varied roles: tragic lover, wife, mother, divorcée and regal grand dame. She emanates star quality, complete with romantic intrigues, erratic public behavior, mysterious health problems and Sunset Boulevard brass. "I can't imagine anything more wonderful," she once said, "than being who I am."

That attitude, with its air of protest-too-much defensiveness", was acted out in a Shirley Temple childhood. Precocious and irrepressible, Margaret wrapped George VI around her finger. Other men proved harder to keep. The teenager fell hard for dashing fighter pilot Peter Townsend, 16 years her senior. The married commoner reciprocated the feelings, and after he divorced in 1952, Margaret asked her family's permission to marry. There was a king-size problem: The Church of England does not remarry divorces—the all-too-recent reason that Edward VIII abdicated in 1936. Masters of spin control, the Windsors asked Margaret to wait three years until she was 25 and did not need royal permission for the union. By then, they may have thought, Margaret's ardor will cool. It didn't, but by then the Church, the cabinet and courtiers opposed the pairing. A compromise was reached. Margaret could wed Town-send if she gave up her claim to the throne, her royal income and if she would live abroad for five years. Margaret could not battle such odds; she issued a public statement forsaking Townsend. He later married a 20-year-old Belgian, Marie-Luce Jamagne.

Some say Margaret never recovered from the long, cruel wait. Others hint that she played wronged woman to gain sympathy—and power. Whatever the truth, she threw herself into London nightlife. She canceled official appearances at the last minute and once kept a regiment waiting while she finished a snifter of Scotch. A natural comedian with little tolerance for pretension, except her own, she once bid farewell to the veddy proper Governor of Kenya by saying, "See you later, alligator."

Margaret's 18-year marriage to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones was not a picture-book affair. The shrewd commoner (he became Lord Snowdon after the wedding) eagerly introduced Margaret to the swinging '60s. "Theirs was a terribly physical relationship," says one friend of Snowdon's. "They couldn't keep their hands off each other." Margaret liked the loose life-style and the new friends, who included the Aga Khan, Peter Sellers, Mary Quant and a Beatle or two. With children David (Viscount Linley), now 28, and Sarah Armstrong-Jones, 26, the young family seemed the epitome of trendiness.

The union, however, soon played to the cheap seats. There were absences and arguments, but the royal family felt a separation would be too scandalous. "We would meet on the stairs and growl at each other," said the Princess. "I had to go on behaving as if nothing was happening." Margaret had a brief fling with wine merchant Anthony Barton in 1966, and over the next decade both partners discreetly sizzled with old and new flames. After pictures of Margaret and Roddy Llewellyn, a sometime gardener and wanna-be pop singer, hit the tabs in 1976, Snowdon drew the line. An uncontested divorce was granted in 1978.

As the marriage sputtered, Margaret's unlikely seven-year liaison with the sensitive, vulnerable Llewellyn, 17 years her junior, became a singular passion. The Princess found the engaging young man something of a challenge. He was arrested for drunk driving, his debut recording flopped, and his brother sold the couple's story to a tabloid. But the more the public perceived Roddy as a loser, the more Margaret protected him, taking him for R&R to Les Joies Eaux, her Caribbean home on the island of Mustique. Still, the happy waters finally trickled out. Although they remain friends, Roddy married fashion designer Tania Soskin in 1981. Insiders say the Princess, who had grown tired of Roddy's limpetlike attachment, was relieved.

Margaret may have faded from view, but she has hardly folded the act. She still turns out for the Girl Guides and other charities and still likes to belt out show tunes at the piano in her spacious blue-and-gold drawing room at Kensington Palace. Old friend Ned Ryan, a blarney-prone Irish real estate dealer, squires her around. "Remarriage would be a devil of a trouble," she said recently. "One would not want to be a bind to one's family. But if one did find someone nice..." What a happy ending that would be to this most theatrical royal run.

—J.D. REED, HELEN GIBSON IN LONDON

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