If you’re a fan of “The Crown” (like me), and binge-watched the fourth season (like me), you felt a true sense of loss as the season ended. As quirky and eccentric as those royals are, they’re immensely entertaining and perfect examples of “money doesn’t buy happiness.” I had to have more, so I got a copy of the highly recommended “Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown” (Hachette Books) This jaw-dropping memoir is written by Princess Margaret’s lifelong aide, Anne Glenconner, now in her late eighties, who candidly shares tales of her life as a Windsor family intimate. And what tales they are … hilarious, atrocious and heart-breaking. But they are also well-written, honest and a valuable lesson on how to maintain a stiff upper lip no matter whatever life throws at you.
Lady Glenconner was born Lady Anne Coke (pronounced “Cook”) in 1932, and raised with two younger sisters in Norfolk’s Holkham Hall, the fifth-largest estate in England and owned by the Fifth Earl of Leicester. Anne’s parents were cold and distant and left their children for several years while the Earl served in World War II in Egypt. At one point, Anne was placed under the care of a nanny who tied her to the bed every night. The nanny was later dismissed not because she was sadistic but because another staff member discovered that she was Roman Catholic.
Anne was acutely aware that her birth was a major “disappointment.” Girls were forbidden to inherit, so she and her sisters had no claim to the family’s vast 27,000-acre estate. However, on the upside, Holkham was only a short distance from Sandringham, country home to Britain’s Royal Family, and King George VI enjoyed regular shooting parties there. His Royal Highness often brought along his young daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, and Anne became their lifelong friend.
Anne was named 1950’s “debutante of the year” by Tatler magazine and in 1953, at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, she was one of six maids of honor, a group of unmarried daughters of nobility who were friends of the royal family. In 1956, she was unexpectedly jilted by fiancé “Johnnie” Althorp on the basis of her “mad blood.” Althrorp later fathered Princess Diana, and Anne married fellow aristocrat Colin Tennant, a.k.a. Lord Glenconner. Her father was horrified; he considered Colin “nouveau riche,” but Anne thought he was exciting and good looking. Together they had five children, three of whom survive. Anne was appointed lady-in-waiting to Margaret in 1971, and she spent the next 30 years working for her close friend, accompanying her on many state occasions and foreign tours – until Princess Margaret’s death in 2002. In part, her book aspires to redeem Margaret’s image as something of a family embarrassment. Despite occasional “royal” moments, Margaret comes across as intelligent, full of fun, thoughtful and, though not terribly warm, an early supporter of AIDS patients, long before Diana took up the cause.
To say life with Colin (considered one of “Princess Margaret’s set”) proved unusual, is an understatement. On the second day of their Paris honeymoon Colin brought his virginal bride to a seedy brothel for a “surprise” – a foursome (“no thank you,” she politely declines). A later Paris visit involves a show featuring a man with a donkey. Given to instant, Titantic meltdowns – a family trait – the domineering Colin “carried on having tantrums all over the world for the rest of his life.” Once, he screamed in the fetal position on a St. Petersburg sidewalk, while passing Japanese tourists snapped photos. Another time, at one of his legendary parties, he attempted to eat his paper underwear. Anne tried running home, only for her mother to say, “Go straight back. You married him.” Besides, it was too late, she was pregnant. The couple stayed married for 54 years, until Colin’s death in 2010, with Anne maintaining that, despite his volatile temper, and bizarre mannerisms, she and Colin remained friends and, at times, he could be a wonderful father.
There were some exciting sides to Colin, such as his tendency to make instant purchases. He bought the Caribbean island of Mustique in 1958, never having set foot on it, just having sailed round it. He transformed it into a private paradise for royal holidays and the rich and famous. When Margaret ended up there on her honeymoon, Colin gave some land to her and she built her “favorite” home, finding sanctuary during and after her unhappy marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon), the photographer nicknamed “Tony Snapshot” by Anne’s father.
If anyone craves a royal life, this insider’s account of that world will shatter all expectations. On the Tennant estate, Anne flees the endless demands of visitors by hiding in a trailer, a modest vehicle that becomes a room of her own, more valued by her than any castle. When Anne’s second son, Henry, dies from AIDS, followed by Charlie, her eldest, who passes away from Hepatitis C, and her third son permanently disabled following a horrendous motorcycle accident, the tabloids scream about the “Tennant curse.” The paparazzi spring from garbage cans to catch Henry’s son at nursery school, and pound on the church door during Charlie’s funeral. Colin had mistresses and a “love child,” but his final act of cruelty came in 2010 when – unbeknownst to Anne – he left a disjointed handwritten will leaving his fortune – still huge despite the financial damages that had come with Mustique – to a local employee. What makes it all so much worse is that Anne says that she still isn’t sure whether he did it simply as a way to ensure that his reputation as an eccentric aristocrat would survive post-mortem.
At times “Lady in Waiting” seems more like fiction, than non-fiction, but one thing is obvious: Anne was wonderful to the unhappy Margaret. Her account of the princess’ final year, wrapped up in bed and wanting nothing more but to hold hands or watch “Antiques Roadshow” with her is beautifully, and tastefully, done. Honor and discretion are the hallmarks of Anne’s career as a royal servant, culminating in a book that is candid and kind. Talk about a movie-in-waiting, this one is.