This article was originally published as a serial in the magazing “Vintage Life”
For us vintage lovers, the Mitford name is synonymous with an era of glamour and wealth. The latter day power family, born into Aristocracy and leading lights on the social scene. But how much do you know about the six Mitford Sisters, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah?
I have to admit, apart from knowing about writer Nancy, whose most famous work “Love in a Cold Climate” I had read, and Deborah who for many year successfully managed the beautiful Chatsworth House, I knew very little of their lives.
It was only when Vintage Life asked me to write an article that I got swept into the lives of the six sisters. And what lives they had!
Growing up in a time when high society girls were famed for their style and beauty, they lived a privileged yet quite poor life. Education wasn’t a priority, marrying a suitable man was. However, The Mitfords certainly never followed these rules and had lives that were filled with scandal.
The most infamous of these Sisters must be Diana. Secretly engaged to one of the heirs to the Guinness fortune at aged 18, her parents initially didn’t approve of the relationship. However they eventually came around to the idea and they had a high society wedding in 1929 when she was 19.
The couple lived the high life with others of the social elite in London, Hosting parties and society events with members of the “Bright Young Things” as the press liked to call them.
Giving birth to two children one in 1930 and the second in 1931 it seemed like she had the world at her feet.
However a society meeting in 1932 saw her starting an affair with a married man, Sir Oswald Mosely, himself infamous as the leader of the British Union of Fascists.
She was divorced by her husband due to the affair with Sir Oswald in 1932 and lived in Sin with Oswald until their eventual marriage in 1936.
Travelling to Germany in 1933 she attended the Nuremburg Rally with her Sister Unity and listened to Hitler speak. They were both entranced by what he had to say.
Diana went on to marry Sir Oswald at the home of Joseph Goebbels with Adolf Hitler attending the event. She gave birth to two sons and shortly after the birth of the second, Max she was arrested along with Sir Oswald.
Eventually Diana and Sir Oswald were imprisoned, with Diana spending three years locked away as she was believed to be a danger to Great Britain. Although released in 1943, they were both kept under house arrest until after the end of the war.
When Diana was finally released, her own sister Jessica wrote to Winston Churchill imploring him to take her back into prison! Clearly the two sisters had different opinions and views.
Even though Sir Oswald died in 1980, Diana remained a fervent supporter of Fascism right up until her death at the age of 93 in 2003.
Her obituary even included the fact that she had a diamond encrusted swastika in her jewellery collection.
Unity visited the Nuremburg Rally along with Diana, as an impressionable 19 year old. She fell under Hitlers spell and made it her mission to meet him. Not only did she meet him, she was accepted into his inner circle of friends.
She attended many Nazi rallies, and gave Anti-Semitic speeches where she spouted hatred for the Jews. This earned her Hitlers praise and a gold swastika. She even went so far as to make sure her full name was used so everyone would know how much she hated the Jewish race.
She was actually arrested in Prague for distributing Nazi Propaganda, and was described as being more Nazi than the Nazis herself! She had no compunction in wearing a “Blackshirt” and giving Nazi salutes.
Hitler was very superstitious and believed in Omens. Unity had been born in a town called Swastika, in Canada and was given the middle name Valkyrie, so named due to her Grandfather’s friendship with Richard Wagner, one of Hitler’s Idols.
He believed that it was destined that they would meet. He even described her as his perfect specimen of Aryan Womanhood.
Hitler seemed enamored of her and called her His Valkyrie which earned her the wrath of Hitlers lover, Eva Braun.
Despite this, Unity spend over five years in Hitlers inner circle, until 1939 when he warned her to return home with Diana as war was imminent.
Unity had one fear. That war would break out between her two beloved Countries, Britain and Germany. She had even stated if that happened she would kill herself.
Always true to her word, she took a pistol which was a present from Adolf himself and shot herself in the head. Unfortunately the bullet did not kill her, but lodged in her brain.
She was hospitalised for a time before being brought back home by her family. Unity was never the same again. Incontinent and with a diminished capacity, initially she was unable to walk or talk. She learnt both of these to a degree, but never regained her full faculties.
Sadly the bullet that was lodged in her head caused swelling and she died at the young age of 33. She had lived an exciting, turbulent and unconventional life.
On the opposite side of the coin, Jessica was an ardent communist from a very early age, going so far as drawing a chalk line between her and sister Unity ‘ shared bedroom. Unity had swastikas and pictures of Adolf Hitler, and Jessica had Hammers and Sickles and pictures of Lenin. Certainly not the normal bedroom decoration for a high bred English girls to have.
Jessica fell in love and married Esmond Romilly, her second cousin when she met him as he recuperated from Dysentery which he caught whilst fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Her family did not approve of them getting married so they eloped, and eventually had a baby girl together.
Sadly their baby died in a measles epidemic aged around 6 months old. This had a profound affect on the family. Both Jessica and Esmond emigrated to the USA and lived hand to mouth doing odd jobs for two years before Esmond joined the Canadian Air Force.
Jessica had a second daughter with Esmond, but she was only six months old when Esmond went missing in action after a bombing raid in 1941.
Jessica remarried in 1943. She went on to have two children with her new husband, Robert Treuhaft but again disaster struck when the eldest, Nicholas was killed by a bus when he was only 11.
Robert was a civil rights lawyer and Jessica threw herself into Civil rights issues, joined the communist party and had to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee about their membership of radical groups.
This did not stop Jessica from campaigning. She was even caught up in a riot involving the Ku Klux Klan, before attending a rally where Martin Luther King was speaking and again was attacked by a mob. This time they had to seek refuge in a church over night until the National Guard were able to come and rescue them.
This again did not stop her from campaigning. However she turned her eye to investigative journalism and began a series of pieces that first unmasked the corrupt funeral trade, then a writers school, then draft dodgers before finally writing an expose on the prison system which she found harsh and cruel.
Strangely Jessica’s next stop was music! She formed a band called Decca and the Dectones, recording two albums. One had duets with her and the now famous poet, Maya Angelou and she even opened up for Cyndi Lauper.
This seems to go against the communist way of life but certainly made Jessica an interesting character.
She died aged 78 and had a low budget funeral with her ashes scattered at sea.
Pamela is the least written about sister, almost the Black sheep of the family. She lived a relatively normal life, preferring country pursuits; horseriding and gardening amongst others.
She was also the sister who was called upon to sort things out when they went wrong, with the Sisters all relying on her. She even took in Diana and Oswald Mosely’s children when they were imprisoned by the British Government for over three years.
Sir John Betjeman was smitten with Pamela and actually proposed to her twice, but she turned him down. Although she was fond of him, she admitted she wasn’t in love with him.
She went on to marry Millionaire Physicist Derek Jackson in 1936 which lasted for fourteen years. She was his second wife, and he went on to marry a further four times. When Derek died, he left his whole fortune to Pamela.
Pamela was actually quite a strong and unique woman, choosing to drive around Europe solo and was in fact one of the first women to take a Trans-Atlantic flight
Pamela was happiest spending most of her life managing farms and living the idyllic rural life. She spent the remainder of her life after the divorce living with a female horse rider named Giuditta until their respective deaths in 1994 and 1993.
Nancy was perhaps the most famous of the sisters for her novels “Love in a Cold Climate” and “The Pursuit of Love” Which brought her great acclaim.
She was the eldest of the sisters and was given free run of the house and gardens; her Father was of the belief that children should never be chastised or punished, which turned Nancy into a spoilt child, prone to rages. This only got worse when Pamela was born, and Nancy never grew close to her, even in later years.
As they children grew up, with no formal education Nancy took to taunting and teasing her siblings, in the belief that it kept them in line. This caused the others to join together to work against her.
On the opposite side of the coin, to keep the siblings entertained, she produced her own magazine with grisly stories inside, which was much loved by all the siblings.
Nancy did eventually go to a boarding school for one year, however it taught her more about how a young lady should act and how to live within society circles.
Nancy came out as a debutante in 1922 and spent several years as one of the Bright young things, entertaining and socialising with other aristocratic and artistic members of society, including the famous writer Evelyn Waugh who she formed a long standing friendship with.
For Nancy, romance never came easy. Whilst a debutante she fell in love with Hamish St Claire Eskine and was involved with him for over five years, believing they would marry and have children. Hamish was however, homosexual. He eventually broke off the relationship and married the daughter of a banker!
Nancy wasted no time herself, getting married only a month later to a man who society described as lazy, unfaithful and irresponsible. Peter Rodd was unable to hold down a job and this led to money worries which placed a strain on the marriage.
Before too long Rodd was having an affair with a friends wife and Nancy suffered a series of Miscarriages. In 1939 Rodd was sent overseas with the Welsh Guards.
Whilst away, Nancy had a brief affair and suffered a third miscarriage. A hysterectomy followed ending her chances of becoming a mother.
In 1942 Nancy met the love of her life, Gaston Palewski, A Colonel attached to Charles De Gaulle’s staff. The relationship continued for over 20 years, however contact could be sparse due to social and army commitments by Gaston. They kept in contact via letter and tried to schedule visits and liaisons whenever they could.
Nancy moved to France and became a permanent resident there in 1946. She never lived in England again, although she stayed in touch with friends by letter and the occasional visit. She lived her life based on the comings and goings of Gaston in order to maximise the time they could meet up.
Nancy’s writing suffered ups and downs over the years, with her greatest success, Love in A Cold Climate being published in 1948. Not all of her work achieved commercial success and this made her love of writing wane.
In later years she wrote biographies which were critically acclaimed including those of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Louis XIV, the Sun King. This earned her great praise from President De Gaulle, eventually earning her the Legion D’Honneur.
Sadly her love affair came to an end in 1969 when she read in the papers that Gaston had married another woman. She did not go on to any further relationships as her health deteriorated and she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Nancy died in 1973. She was cremated in Versailles and her ashes were taken home to Swinbrook, where she is interred with Diana and Unity.
The youngest sister Deborah had the most “normal” of lives. She was born in 1920 and lived with her six siblings at Asthall Manor with numerous nannies and governesses.
She was the runt of the “litter” and was teased by her siblings. However Deborah had the last laugh!
Marrying Andrew Cavendish when she was twenty-one, she eventually became the Duchess of Devonshire following the deaths of Andrew’s father and older brother. With this title came the estate of Chatsworth House. Due to death duties the estate was severely in debt and the family didn’t know if they would be able to afford to keep it.
The House had been used by a ladies college during the war years and had fallen into disrepair with mould caused by condensation marring the walls and paintings. A restoration project would be necessary, again a costly affair.
Selling many assets and acreage to afford to hold on to the House, the family didn’t move back in to the estate until 1959. They then did everything possible to make it a success.
Deborah became the public face of Chatsworth. She was heavily involved in the restoration, upkeep and development of the Chatsworth brand. A line of luxury foods, a farm shop employing over 100 staff and an off-shoot that claims royalties for using the house and it’s images.
All of these ventures continued to make Chatsworth a very viable and profitable estate, which Deborah ran like clockwork.
In between manning the ticket booth on occasion, she wrote several books about the house which gained her further plaudits.
Sadly her personal life was not as blissful. Although married happily until her husbands death in 2004 after 63 years of marriage, she gave birth to seven children. Sadly four of them died close to their births, leaving her heartbroken.
Her three remaining children Emma, Peregrine and Sophia all survived and lived at Chatsworth. Peregrine went onto inherit the estate and titles upon Andrew’s death.
Deborah continued to run the estate and lived happily there until her death in 2014 at the grand old age of 94.
Survived by 3 children, 8 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren she seemed to be the Mitford who got her “Happily Ever After” ending.
The Mitford Sisters. So much more than just “Bright Young Things”
Thank you to Denise Brady of http://www.denisebradyphotography.com/ for the use of the photographs in this post – Go check out her work!