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LONDON — In 2003, when the writer and former Daily Mail reporter Anne de Courcy asked Lord Snowdon if she could pen his biography, she knew she’d end up with a juicy story.
After all, in his 78 years — and counting — the handsome and emotionally complex Tony Snowdon married and divorced Princess Margaret, carried on countless love affairs, photographed strings of 20th-century luminaries and fought tirelessly for the rights of the handicapped in Britain.
But de Courcy — the author of 10 books including a biography of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry — wasn’t entirely prepared for all she discovered and later wrote down in “Snowdon: The Biography” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008). The book received rave reviews when it was published in Britain last summer, and excerpts will be published in the January issue of Vanity Fair.
“During the interviews, I sometimes had to stop myself from saying, ‘Whaaaat?’” to Snowdon, she says over a cup of strong coffee at her home in Chelsea. “Women did come out of the woodwork. I don’t think either one of us realized quite how much we’d find out,” she adds in her cut-glass accent.
Snowdon, who had rarely gone on the record about his personal life before, was the ideal subject in more ways than one: He spent hours with de Courcy and her tape recorder, gave her access to his meticulously kept archives, provided her with countless telephone numbers and even declined to read the book before it went to print.
It was certainly a brave move for Snowdon, the royal family’s token bohemian who married Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister in 1960 when he was already at the top of his profession, snapping society figures and royals, actors such as Ingrid Bergman and politicians including then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
At the time, the blue-eyed Anthony Armstrong-Jones — he would later be given the title Earl of Snowdon — was a man about town oozing charm, zooming around on his motorcycle, juggling women — as he would throughout his life — and experimenting, in that oh-so-Sixties way, with drugs and sex.
In the course of her research, de Courcy confirmed the existence of a daughter Snowdon conceived from a threesome with two close friends shortly before he became engaged to Princess Margaret, and yet another love affair he struck up not long ago, when he was in his mid-70s.
The book, however, goes far beyond the sex and sensationalist discoveries to talk about Snowdon’s many inventions, his charitable work for the handicapped and underprivileged, his work as Provost of London’s Royal College of Art and his never-ending passion for photography. He still keeps a London studio and continues to work.
Snowdon had a privileged but emotionally tough childhood, with an ice queen mother who favored the sons from her second marriage over Tony and his sister, and suffered the lasting effects of childhood polio, which left him with a withered left leg. After finishing the book, she concluded that Snowdon “is not really emotionally adult. Like a child, he went for what he wanted — and that was constant change. The two constants in his life were work and sex.”
But she also calls him a “very English gentleman, always frightfully nice about every woman he was concerned with. He’s remained friends with virtually all of them,” she says. He was also at the cutting edge: “He became a photographer at a time when they were considered tradesmen — it’s as if Prince Harry went off to become a plumber,” she says.
During her research she also made another discovery — this time about Princess Margaret, who had a reputation for being imperious, snobby and spoiled. “She was a wonderful, very loyal friend who was rather unfairly depicted when the marriage broke up. Tony was better at handling the press,” says de Courcy, who interviewed countless friends about the couple and practically all of the princess’ ladies-in-waiting, and who was pleased when Buckingham Palace ordered eight copies of the book.
Princess Margaret “was a very intelligent woman and, if she’d had a good education, I think she would have been much happier,” says de Courcy. “What she needed was intellectual discipline, but she was almost forced into the mold of a playgirl.”