Defiance of Lady Poison Pen: Vilified for her new book's lurid claims about the Queen Mother, an utterly unrepentant Lady Colin Campbell dismisses her critics as royal 'suck-up merchants'
00:55 GMT, 21 April 2012
'I'm not interested in hagiography about some non-existent saint,' said Lady Colin Campbell
Sporting an immaculate blonde bouffant, smart wool dress, racy black ankle-boots and brooch the size of a small gerbil, Lady Colin Campbell is not about to apologise for upsetting anyone in her new, very unauthorised, biography of that national treasure incarnate, the Queen Mother.
We are discussing the rumpus about her book in her house in Kennington, near The Oval in South London, which is full of portraits that wouldn’t look out of place in an ante room at Chatsworth.
As we drink peppermint tea — she makes it for us but seems reassuringly unfamiliar with her galley kitchen (the housekeeper is away) — Lady Colin is on rather majestic form herself.
If her circumstances are somewhat reduced — she moved here from Belgravia after some ill-advised investments — her appetite for a fight with her critics is most certainly not.
At 62, she has a patrician kind of glamour, having retained the figure of a woman half her age.
Her accent is half English upper crust and half Jamaican (where she was raised).
We are talking in the wake of a vociferous outcry in the media this week at the salacious and utterly unsubstantiated allegations in her new book The Untold Life Of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
If she doesn’t draw definitive conclusions in the book, she does hold all manner of gossip up to the light for examination.
For one thing, she suggests that the Queen Mother — as well as her younger brother David — was the natural child of her father and the family cook, Marguerite Rodiere, because her mother was too fragile to have another baby after a nervous breakdown following the death of one of her older children.
The second bombshell is that the present Queen and her late sister Princess Margaret were conceived by artificial insemination, because their mother didn’t like sex.
Fantasy, say her critics, understandably. But Lady Colin — ‘call me Georgie’ — is not backing down.
If her critics among Royal biographers — ‘sycophants and suck-up merchants!’ as she calls them — do not approve of her methods or findings, well, my dears, she doesn’t give a damn.
One is dismissed as an ‘effete ignoramus’, another as ‘hampered by his middle-class social aspirations’. Ouch!
‘I think it’s my job as a responsible biographer to examine all the aspects of somebody’s life that are out there — whether privately or publicly is beside the point,’ she says.
‘I’m not interested in hagiography about some non-existent saint. The mere fact that nobody knows when and where the Queen Mother was born suggests something was amiss.
'There’s usually a good reason for a mystery,’ she says grandly, suddenly adding: ‘Anyway, what does it matter I have two adopted children. It’s who your mother is that counts, not who gave birth to you.’
The second bombshell from Lady Colin's new book is that the present Queen and her late sister Princess Margaret were conceived by artificial insemination, because their mother didn't like sex
But surely she must have known it was going to be sensational — scandalous even — to suggest that our monarch’s grandmother was a French cook
‘I think it’s fabulous if her grandmother was a member of the servant class! It explains why the Queen Mother was so wonderful and connected with people.’
Then she pauses a beat, before slipping in the knife: ‘She did look like the daughter of a cook. You can hardly say she looked aristocratic. I think it’s all to the good. I don’t believe you have to be of aristocratic blood to be worthwhile.’
Of course, all this brings us to the question of what evidence she has for her claims.
She says the Duke and Duchess of Windsor used to call the Queen Mother ‘Cookie’ behind her back as a result of her parentage.
She mentions the Duke as one source for her allegation.
Did she meet him
‘Yes, I met them both several times in New York and knew (his former equerry) John Pringle very well.
'She did look like the daughter of a cook. You can hardly say she looked aristocratic,' said Lady Colin
'I have no reason to believe that the Duke was anything other than an honourable, truthful man.’
She points out in her book that the artificial insemination story has been doing the rounds as a rumour in some circles for years (which is certainly true) and that she had it ‘from several sources’.
Which, naturally, doesn’t mean it’s true. And, happily for her, since all the players are now dead, no one can prove the point one way or the other.
There is no doubt that she loves to shock and can be horribly poisonous. Indeed, much of what Lady Colin says should, I suspect, be taken with a large pinch of salt.
That said, it is worth recording that Lady Colin’s 1992 book, Diana In Private, was the first to lift the lid on the problems in the Royal Marriage (affairs, bulimia, war among the Waleses) yet was widely derided at the time.
What strikes you when reading the new book, aside from the somewhat outlandish birth and conception theory, is quite how caustic her general portrait of the Queen Mother is.
‘The photographer Cecil Beaton called her a ‘steel marshmallow’ and that perfectly sums her up,’ she says, calling her a ‘great schemer’ who ‘knew what she wanted and insisted on having it, at all times’.
Variously in the book the Queen Mother is accused of: cruelly and unsuccessfully giving a flirtatious ‘green light’ to the future Duke of Windsor at a time when his younger brother Bertie was already smitten and had proposed once; leaking stories to the Press and playing a part in plotting the abdication of Edward VIII; actively seeking to under-educate her own daughters (perhaps so they wouldn’t be better educated than she was); and taking sides with Lord Snowdon against Margaret when the couple divorced.
And that’s not the half of it. The Duke of Windsor, says Campbell, believed Elizabeth was a ‘rabidly jealous’ character and wanted him off the throne out of revenge for his lack of sexual interest in her.
Campbell thinks that rather than revenge, it was sheer feminine competitiveness: a desire to get rid of Wallis.
Rather than being jealous, Campbell believes the Queen Mother had a ‘truly disturbing’ level of ‘self-belief’.
Her universally recognised charm concealed a ruthlessness and passive aggression, according to Campbell, which meant that although the public became great fans of hers because she was Press-friendly, her in-laws were less enamoured with her. They found her willingness to court the Press, and her resulting popularity, rather annoying.
When Lady Colin talks about the Queen Mother's failings as a mother, she is at her most wounding
Even her behaviour as Prince Charles’s beloved granny doesn’t escape censure in the book.
Campbell subscribes to the notion that Camilla’s success with Charles is partly down to the fact she reminds him of his grandmother.
‘The Queen Mother was always pandering to Prince Charles. She deliberately set out, some felt, to damage the relationship between her grandson and her daughter and son-in-law (Philip) so she would be in the ascendant.
‘She was a professional “yesser” who allowed his every tendency to hyper-emotional self-indulgence.
'His parents had no sympathy, as Charles himself later bemoans in the biography by Jonathan Dimbleby.
‘Charles thought his grandmother was joyous and fun — which she was — but it was his parents’ duty to lay down proper boundaries.’
Most damning of all is her assessment of the Queen Mother’s treatment of Princess Margaret.
‘Colin Glenconner’s view,’ she says, referring to Margaret’s old friend who gave her a house on Mustique, ‘is that she was tremendously jealous of her own daughter Margaret, who was witty and outgoing just like her but much better looking and more glamorous, and was her father’s favourite'.
Campbell takes a sip of her peppermint tea and warms to her theme: ‘Why was Margaret never bought a country house Or a house She was never bought anything. She was left effectively penniless.
‘A Queen Empress could have bought her an estate an hour out of London for 4,000 in the Fifties.
'After all, the current Queen is always forking out for third cousins.’
When Campbell talks about the Queen Mother’s failings as a mother, she is at her most wounding.
It is hard to resist the idea that this part of the story upsets her the most because of the inadequacies her own mother.
Her life, of course, has been every bit as sensational as this new biography, in fact rather more so, if played out on a lesser stage.
Born to a well-connected family of Catholic Lebanese who had emigrated to Jamaica and become successful business people, she was raised as a boy called George by her parents because she had been born with abnormal genitalia, though doctors would later agree that she was in fact a girl.
She was sent to a boys’ school, where she was bullied.
At home, her mother was an abusive tyrant and a narcissist. Even though she was a favourite child, she later found out her mother had tried to stop her having corrective surgery to keep her under the thumb.
She became a model in New York at 18 and had surgery at 21, as soon as she could.
On the Duchess of Cambridge: 'Everything she does is exemplary'
She then met Lord Colin Campbell, younger son of the Duke of Argyll. In those days, in her circles, if a woman didn’t marry young, she had simply failed.
Therefore when the man she insists now was ‘handsome, fun, very good company’ — and an English lord — asked to marry her, she accepted even though she hardly knew him.
It is an understatement to say the marriage was a complete disaster. He turned out to be a dim, drunk, broke, violent, drug addict. They have been in a war of words ever since.
'He was uncontainably violent after drink,’ she recalls, ‘and when he didn’t drink he was morose with the weight of the world on him.
'I have compassion for him, though not for the fact that he tried to destroy my life after we split.’
Actually, she says, he tried to destroy it before that. Just six weeks into the marriage she was in hospital having half her face reconstructed after he attacked her, ‘the first of many hospital visits’.
After nine months, she left him, and he sold a story to the Sunday People claiming, falsely, that she had been born a man. All of which, frankly, makes most of her allegations about the Windsors sound rather tame.
Given how ghastly Lord Colin was, why keep his name
Her detractors often point out this conundrum.
She sounds quite cross: ‘It is ludicrous for people to criticise me for using my lawful name. In France they know me as Madame Campbell and in Jamaica by my maiden name.’
Personally, I rather suspect it is good for book sales in the U.S.
There have been a few other men, and several years ago, she adopted two Russian boys, Misha and Dima, who are now 19 and hoping to get into business.
‘They are the lights of my life,’ she says, and she has a place in France where they went to school.
For a while she was seeing ‘an eminent scientist. But I didn’t want my children to emulate him. He was a bit of a dolt, and I thought if I can’t find a man I want them to be like, I am better off alone,’ she says.
Now she is writing a book on manners.
‘I once wrote a book on etiquette which nobody’s interested in any more apart from Catherine Middleton.’
I think she’s joking, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Lady Colin is very much a fan of William’s wife: ‘Everything she does is exemplary. She is very much in the mould of Queen Alexandra, Edward VII’s consort. She doesn’t put a foot wrong.’
Pippa Middleton, she says, needs to be found a Duke or a Marquess in order to hold her own in society, but, she notes ‘only likes good-looking men, and who can blame her’
As the audience ends, the Mail’s (rather dashing) photographer arrives to take her picture.
‘Darling, are you sure he’s safe with me’ she asks.
After reading her book, I’m not sure anyone is.