I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the semi-creepy Mitford family (that is, if I’m guessing right, Nancy, Unity, Decca and Diana. The only one I am not sure about is the one whose head is the highest. That is either Unity or Pamela). Two more of the sisters are not in that photo, and brother Tom is out having sex with men somewhere, and then denying it, and then sleeping with 50 women to compensate.
I’m surprised nobody has made a sweeping film about these 6 sisters (with Charlize Theron as Diana – she’d be PERFECT) – it’s hard to believe they even existed – but they did – and there isn’t an un-interesting one among them. Some of them are BARELY likeable – but damn, they are interesting, and they did indeed live in interesting times. I read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family with fascination (but almost like I was picking up a rock to look at the bug life underneath).
There was something about the photos of all of them that compelled me, sucked me in. They were all so gorgeous, so breezy-looking, “bright young things,” with their “vile bodies” (to quote Nancy Mitford’s friend and pen pal Evelyn Waugh), in their wool suits, and two-toned shoes, their marcelled hair and light eyes. But there is something a bit blank in some of their expressions, and that – combined with their intense beauty – always seemed a bit creepy to me. These were strong-willed ferocious women. Add to that the general family love affair with fascism and with Hitler and/or Stalin/socialism … and you get a picture of a fascinating whirlwind of politics and the major destructive ideologies of the 20th century (all appearing in the same family at the same time, the cataclysm of the 1930s). It’s glamorous and ugly and creepy, all at the same time.
Oswald Mosley (who ended up marrying Diana Mitford) has been of interest to me for quite some time, because of his time period and his obvious importance. The Remains of the Day is about that group of fascists in England at that time and the Lord in that book is based on someone like Oswald Mosley. I’ve also been very interested in him because his son was (is) Nicholas Mosley – who has gone on to write one of my favorite novels of all time: Hopeful Monsters (British Literature Series). Not to be too weird but I’ve felt like: If my own spirit could pick up a pen and write a book about its core beliefs – that book would be something like Hopeful Monsters. I’m dead serious. Nicholas Mosley, the son, has written a couple of memoirs – attacking his father’s fascism – and his books (especially Hopeful Monsters) are one long indictment about such totalitarian structures. Quite extraordinary.
The Mitford sisters were all caught up in the enormous upheavals of the mid-20th century, many of them on the wrong side of history. They were ardent fascists and anti-Semites, Hitler-lovers (especially Unity Mitford, who appears to have been truly in love with Hitler. She ended up shooting herself in the head – and SURVIVED. Not for long, she died a couple years later, but still._ Weird weird girls. There are pictures of Unity hanging out with “The Fuhrer” and she has this flat-eyed look of entranced exaltation on her face that seriously gives me the creeps.)
Her sister Diana was no better. She ended up marrying Oswald Mosley (he was her second husband), connecting the fascists in England directly to the Nazis. There are pictures of her and Unity whooping it up with a bunch of SS officers. Found the photo – here it is (Unity on the left, Diana on the right):
Diana and Unity and their brother Tom all attended the 1937 Nuremberg rally – I think Diana had also gone to the first one in 1933 (but the photo above is from the 1937 rally). Tom, despite his fascist beliefs – ended up joining the British army (not joining Oswald Mosley’s ranks of stormtroopers.) He died in Burma shortly before the war ended. He was brilliant, like most of the Mitfords were – HIGHLY intelligent – dauntingly so. He was probably gay. He was a major womanizer – yet he was known to have gay relationships, so the womanizing was (as it so often is) a front. Kind of a tormented guy.
Here’s Diana with one of her greatest admirers:
Hitler loved Diana. Loved her looks. Called her “the perfect Aryan woman”. She took this as a compliment. Diana was imprisoned during the Second World War.
Here’s Diana – who was considered (by certain elements in the British secret service, who kept an eye on them) even more dangerous than Oswald Mosley:
A biography of Diana was just published, actually – I haven’t read it yet, though. I do want to.
Here’s Nancy Mitford, the writer:
Here’s Unity Mitford, surrounded by her treasured memorabilia:
She wanted to marry Hitler. I think, too, that he might have even come close to proposing. At least that’s the rumor. Her love for him was ecstatic, almsot sado-masochistic. Like Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” poem. Longing for the brute black boot to stomp on her face, etc.
The little girl sitting down is Decca (Jessica) Mitford – who eventually became an ardent Communist (imagine the rupture with her fascist family!!) – moved to the United States, became an investigative journalist and also ran a bar in Miami – Unity stands behind Decca:
Here’s Deborah (“Debo”) Mitford – whose main goal in life was to become a Duchess. She did. I believe Debo is still alive. Oh, excuse me. The Duchess of Devonshire!
Pamela Mitford was the second oldest - and I cannot find a picture of her. She escaped scandal, and she lived a long life.
Diana wrote an autobiography: A Life of Contrasts: The Autobiography.
Decca, along with her lifetime of muckraking journalism (the most famous one being her book on the funeral parlor/mortuary business in America: The American Way of Death Revisited), also wrote a memoir: Hons and Rebels.
Debo wrote a number of books. Here’s one: Chatsworth: The House.
The Mitfords are intimidatingly gorgeous, especially Diana. Reading The Sisters, I kept finding myself drawn to all those pictures. They are willowy, gorgeous, seemingly breezy girls, born to high ranks of society, and all of them tossed themselves towards their own destinies with ferocity. They had no barriers, nothing held them back. Nobody ever said NO to them. Nancy wanted to write books. She did. Some of them are still taught in college level English today. Diana was a fascist. Unity was a fascist. Unity was in love with Hitler. She spent most of her time fawning on him until finally she snapped and shot herself in the head. That is a kind of destiny. Decca was a communist. She broke with her family and threw herself into Communist Party activities – until the 50s when she became disenchanted and stopped. She then opened up a bar in Florida. Which is basically one way of saying, “Uhm, yeah. I accept capitalism.” (Of all of them, Decca is the most likeable.) Deborah wanted to be a Duchess, and so she married a guy who would eventually become a Duke – and so she became a Duchess. It’s a really interesting thing – despite all of the pain some of them went through (uhm, you know, shooting themselves in the head, being imprisoned, pilloried by their country – to this day, some of them, etc.) … there is this heightened burning sense of destiny in all of them. That sense of fiery destiny could turn them into either monsters, or great artists. And the family did seem to split along those lines. FASCINATING.
The reason I am going on and on about this is because the letters of Decca (Jessica) Mitford (the Communist) have just been published: Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford and here’s the review in the Times. I did not realize (or I had forgotten) that when Decca’s father Lord Redesdale died – he bequest all of this stuff to his kids – and he added “except Jessica”. So she was NOT forgiven. By him, anyway).
I think I need to get a copy of that book.
Here’s an excerpt from the review:
Only a few letters battle directly; most report the details to friends. Her activism, though, is only one subject in a collection that deals with virtually every part of her life: her husbands, her children, her writing, her publishers and, more and more as the years pass, the Mitfords.
Each one gets her own treatment. Early on, there was a touching reconciliation with her mother, and as the years pass, this becomes warmer and more solid, though after Lady Redesdales death, Decca cant resist noting to a friend one of her mothers diary entries: Heifer born today. Mabel [a servant] two weeks holiday. Decca married. Tea with Führer. (The Redesdales were visiting Unity in Germany.)
If Decca has forgiven her mother her one-time Hitler sympathies, has nothing but tenderness for the deluded and disabled Unity, is cautiously affectionate with Nancy and warm though prickly with Deborah, she is unbending about Dianas steely and unrepentant Fascist history. Visiting London with her son, Benjamin Treuhaft, who is half Jewish, she notes Dianas offer of a meeting: I thought better not, as I didnt want Benj turned into a lampshade.
Just fascinating. I don’t know why I kind of can’t look away from the Mitfords – but I can’t. I’m strangely drawn to all of them. Not like: Ooh, I endorse their beliefs … but in the same way that I am strangely drawn to Stalin and to Charlie Manson and those who were true believers. They never cease to fascinate.