Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Marvelous Mitford Sisters

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela Mitford in 1935.

Although they are not that well known in America, if you ask an English person of a certain age about the Mitford Sisters, he or she will know exactly who you are talking about. While elder sister Nancy became a best-selling author of the novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love (all thinly veiled portraits of her family) and youngest sister Deborah married the future Duke of Devonshire, it was Unity, Jessica (also known as Decca) and Diana who made the Mitford name famous or shall I say infamous?

The Mitfords were raised in what would be called genteel poverty. Their father David, Lord Redesdale, was one of those men, who have big ideas but no real follow through. He enjoyed being outdoors, so he bought a claim in Swastika, Canada hoping to make his fortune panning for gold. Unfortunately, while he found a few random flakes, he never made a fortune, although he tried for the next twenty years. Their mother Sydney, was the daughter of Thomas Bowles, founder of the British version of Vanity Fair and publisher of The Lady (a magazine that still exists today). While their father spent his time in the House of Lords after he succeeded to his title, Sydney was the one who was the practical one. She learned how to raise seven children on a budget, raising chickens and growing vegetables to feed her growing brood. She also worked part-time at The Lady. All six girls were educated at home, which was still the fashion in aristocratic families. The only son, Tom, of course was sent off to prep school at Eton, which made his sisters envious.

Diana Mitford was the first Mitford sister to scandalize her family. Considered the beauty with her lustruous blonde hair and blue Mitford eyes, she married Bryan Guinness, of the Guiness Brewing family, at the age of 18. They had two sons, Jonathan and Desmond, but Diana was soon restless and searching for meaning in her life. If it had been the seventies, she probably would have opted for a career, instead, she found what she was looking for in Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley had been a rising star of the Conservative party, one of the youngest ever members of Parliament when he took his seat at the age of 21, before he crossed the floor to join the Labour Party. He was impatient and egotistical, when things were not moving fast enough for him, he broke with the Labour Party, founding the New Party and eventually the British Union of Fasicists.

Too bad he was also married to Cimmie, the daughter of George Curzon, former Viceroy of India, and the rich American heiress Mary Leiter. He was also an inveterate womanizer who had already had an affair with his wife's elder sister. Despite this, Diana fell head over heels in love with him and was determined to be with him, even though he had already told her that he would never leave his wife and three children. Diana could not be persuaded that she was making a mistake, that divorce would ruin her socially. At the age of 22, she left her husband and moved into a flat where she could be available to Mosley when he could get away from his family. The relationship caused a schism in the family, David Mitford always refused to meet his daughter's lover.

Unity Valkyrie Mitford (1914-1949) did her sister one better. She was the only child that was actually conceived in Swastika, Canada which surely was a sign of things to come. A sullen, moody teenager, she became obssessed with facism, joining Mosley's BUF. But her biggest obssession was with Adolf Hitler. While most teenagers had pictures of film stars on their walls, Unity had posters of Hitler. Unity convinced her parents to send her to Germany where she could learn the language, but really her plan was to meet Adolf Hitler. As soon as she was settled in Munich, she put her plan into action. Hitler was a creature of habit, so Unity was able to find out exactly which cafes he frequented and plant herself nonchalantly at a table while she waited for him to arrive. After several weeks, she was finally rewarded when Hitler showed up one day. He was immediately intrigued by Unity's Aryan good looks. While not as beautiful as her sisters, she was still tall, blonde and sturdy just like the Valkyrie she was named after.

Over a period of time, Unity and the Fuhrer became better acquainted to the chagrin of his followers, who couldn't understand what Hitler saw in Unity. Unlike others in Hitler's inner circle, who walked on tenterhooks worrying about pissing him off, Unity had no qualms about teasing him. She treated him like any other English friend, which Hitler found absolutely delightful. One could say that he was, if not an ardent anglophile, at least a student of English history and it amused him to have this daughter of the English aristocracy sitting at his feet, worshipping him. Unity was not only an ardent facist but an ardent Nazi. Mary Lovell recounts a story in her biography of the sisters of Unity touring an apartment that used to belong to a Jewish family and being extremely cold-hearted about their fate.

Through Unity, Diana and her lover Mosley also became acquainted with Hitler as well as other members of her family including her parents and her brother Tom. They all thought that Hitler was delightful and charming. Mosley hoped that Hitler would provide financial support for the BUF which was rapidly draining funds. However, Mosley and Hitler never really got along. Two alpha males with huge egos in a room doesn't make for comfortable parties. After the death of Mosley's wife Cimmie, Mosley and Diana were eventually married with Hitler as one of the guests. Diana was pregnant at the time with her first child by Mosley, Alexander, which necessitated the wedding. Diana was hoping to interest Hitler in investing in a radio station that would broadcast in the UK, which could give the BUF an income seperate from Mosley's fortune. Diana made many trips back and forth from England to Germany in the years leading up to the war, where she spent many hours with her sister Unity being entertained by Hitler. They attended many important events of the Third Reich including the 1936 Olympic Games as his guests. He would serve them elaborate high teas where Diana and Unity would be forced to each huge amounts of sweets to please him.

Meanwhile back in England, while her family was hobnobbing with Hitler, Jessica (1917-1997) who was always called by her nickname of Decca, was chafing under the constraints of her life. She'd begged her mother for a chance to go to school, hoping to attend university in the future but Sydney Mitford would have none of it. While Unity and Diana were intrigued by fascism, Jessica was drawn more towards communism. As a child, she'd had a pet sheep named Miranda that went everywhere with her, even Church. She was particularly close to her younger sister Debo, who was only three years younger and to Unity. However, when Unity fell in with Hitler and fascism, it caused a rift between the sisters. All of the Mitford sisters had come out as debutantes, but Jessica in particular hated the upper class society ritual. She'd been saving money since childhood in a running away fund at the local bank just waiting for the day that she could use it.

She had her chance when she turned 19. At a weekend house party, she met her second cousin Esmond Romilly. It was love at first sight. Although only 18, Esmond was already famous. He'd been expelled from Wellington College after refusing to join the Officer Training Corps. His antics had caught the attention of the press because he was Winston Churchill's nephew by marriage. He and his brother had already published an autobiography called Out of Bounds. He lived in London where he ran a communist bookshop and helped other boys who had run away from public schools. He'd already been to Spain where he'd fought with the International Brigade against Franco until he caught dysentary and was invalided out. In one weekend, they'd decided to elope together to Spain. Jessica lied to her parents that she was going away with friends, going so far as to send chatty letters detailing her trip. But the truth soon came out. Since Jessica was still under age she was made a ward of the court, however, Esmond and Jessica had already been living as man and wife with all the privileges involved and Jessica soon found herself pregnant. A hasty wedding was arranged.

The Churchill Connection:

Esmond Romilly wasn't the only one to be related to Churchill by marriage. The Mitford's were also related as well. Their father David Mitford was the first cousin of Clementine and Nellie Hozier who had married Winston Churchill and Bertram Romilly respectively. There was even a rumor that either Clementine or Nellie was David Mitford's half-sister since their mother seemed to have had quite a few lovers. When the Mitfords were growing up they would spent time with the Churchills at Chartwell. When Diana and Mosley were interned during World War II, Diana's parents appealed to Churchill to see about getting Diana released. Winston was not an advocate of B-18, which gave leave to put anyone the government felt was not loyal to the crown in prison. He managed to get them certain privileges, and finally to allow them to be kept in the same prison together before they were released after the war.

Unfortunately things were just as bad for Unity as they were for her sister. She was distraught at the idea of Germany and England, the two countries that she loved, going to war. When Britain finally declared war on Germany, Unity took a gun and went into a park and shot herself in the head. Although she survived, she was never the same. Mentally and emotionally she was now around twelve years old, and for several years, she needed round the clock care, until she was well enough to be able to spend time on her own. But she often fell into violent rages when she was thwarted, and she had no memory of her suicide attempt. Her mother Sydney took care of her, taking her to the family cottage on a remote island in Scotland where she eventually died after a bout with pneumonia. She was thirty-four years old.

The marriage of the Mitford sisters parents also ended during the war. Although David Mitford had found Hitler to be just as delightful as his wife, once England declared war on Germany, he became virulently anti-Hitler, while Sydney refused to denounce him, or to believe that he was as evil as he was being painted in the media (a trait that she shared with her daughter Diana). Diana and Mosley had been interned during the war, Mosley seen as an enemy of the state. He had been advocating against the war, arguing for peace, which was against the patriotic fever sweeping the nation. Diana was seperated from all four of her children, including her youngest Max who was barely weaned. Both Diana and Mosley were initially held in seperate prisons, Diana in Holloway, until they were eventually allowed to be together.

Jessica and Esmond Romilly had moved to the states after the death of their first child Julia, who died after contracting the measles. At first they lived in New York, and then they moved to Miami where they opened a cocktail bar. Young and madly in love, they were feted by their new American acquaintances. When war was declared, Esmond joined the army in Canada. Unfortunately he died shortly after being sent overseas. Jessica gave birth to her second child, Constancia "Dinky" Romilly just before Esmond died. Distraught, she threw herself into her war work in Washington where she met her second husband, Robert Truehaft. They married and moved to California where they joined the American communist party.

Jessica found herself in the United States. She became involved in the civil rights movement, and during the communist witch hunts of the 1950's, she and Bob were called before the committee where they pleaded the 5th Amendment. Their passports were taken away for years as a result. Tragedy struck again, when their 11 year old son Nicolas was killed while riding his bike. Jessica wrote a best-selling autobiography called Hons and Rebels, which caused problems with her family who didn't recognize the unhappy girl that she depicted in her book. It was another blow to the family that hadn't recovered from the death of the only Mitford son Tom during the war or Unity's death. Sydney, their mother, was particulary disturbed by her Decca's portrayal of her. Jessica wrote several more well-regarded books including the American Way of Death, which looked at the funeral industry in the US. Despite her lack of formal education, Jessica found that she was much in demand as a guest lecturer at various colleges around the country.

Nancy, the eldest sister, had moved to Paris after the war to be with her lover, Gaston Palewski, one of Charles DeGaulle's right hand men, during the war. Although Palewski told Nancy that he was not madly in love with her, and continued to pursue other women, Nancy couldn't stay away from him. While she wrote well-regarded biographies of Madame de Pompadour and Frederick the Great, she lived for the few moments of time that he could spare for her. When he finally married a rich divorcee, she was devastated.

Diana and Oswald Mosley had also moved to Paris. Mosley had tried to revive his political career after the war, but he was not wanted. He was still considered one of the most hated men in Britain. Although he had softened and moderated his views, no one was interested. He and Diana raised their two sons, and wrote their autobiographies, Diana kept busy writing book reviews for various publications, and eventually wrote a well-received biography of her good friend The Duchess of Windsor. Diana and Decca never fully reconciled although they came together briefly to nurse Nancy during her final illness from Hodgkins.

Decca finally died of lung cancer in 1997, and Diana finally passed in 2003. She continued to admire Hitler and the tenets of Nazism throughout her life; "I'm sure he was to blame for the extermination of the Jews," she told British journalist Andrew Roberts, "he was to blame for everything, and I say that as someone who approved of him." Only Debo, the dowager Duchess of Devonshire is still alive at the age of 88. The only sister to live a remotely conventional life, she tried to play peacemaker between the warring sisters.

Reading about the Mitford sisters is like reading a microcosm of the history of the 20th Century. Fabulous society parties, romantic and illicit love affairs, facism, communism, literary success, and war, all within one big aristocratic family. The Mitford sisters have left a legacy of fiction, Nancy's two books about her family are still in print and have been made into two television series in Britain. Diana's story was partly dramatized in Mosley, a television series about her husband. Even Unity is still popping up in the news with the rumors that she may have had Hitler's love child. A musical was even written about their lives. They still continue to fascinate the public even today.

Further reading:

The Sisters - Mary Lovell
The House of Mitford - Jonathan and Catherine Guinness
The World's Wickedest Women - Margaret Nichols


Arsene said...


Truthdig also had a review of Charlotte Mosley's book, "The Mitfords", last year here.

One of my favorite quotes come from the Mitford sisters:
"Oh Proust, shall I try now or is it too late? I do hope it’s too late" ;)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I have to get a copy of that book. I just find them all so fascinating.

Evangeline said...

Oswald also had an affair with the other sister, Baba, and their step-mother, Grace (per the bio on the Curzon sisters). Pretty creepy if you ask me!

In fact, British society of the 1930s was just plain incestuous, with all its spouse-swapping.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I almost mentioned that, but it creeps me out to even think of that fact that he slept with all the women in one family. It's a little too soap opera for me.

Evangeline said...

Lol. It is, but then I think about one of my favorite movies, "About Adam" which deals with this on a minor, humorous scale.

annem said...

if you'd like to know more about these wonderful sisters and visit the area where they grew up, why not join a walking weekend on 2-4 October in North Oxfordshire. We'll visit Batsford, Astall and Swinbrook where the family had houses and the churchyard where most of the family are buried.
For more information contact or

Hope to see you.
Best wishes

GeorgeHolland said...

I am so a big fan of the Mitford sisters - especially the scandalous love affair of Jessica and Esmond. I read this really great bio written by a current Mitford about Jessica's life and her connections to Churchill. Pretty sure it is on promotion for free as well so may be worthwhile downloading!