The Creepy Mitford Sisters

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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 gay sex somewhere. And then denying it, and sleeping around 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 fascinating bug life underneath) – there was something about the photos of all of them that I just could NOT stop looking at. They were all so gorgeous – and so breezy-looking – in their wool suits, and two-toned shoes – and 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. Add to that the general love affair with fascism and with Hitler, specifically, that some of the Mitford sisters maintained until they died – and you just get a picture of a fascinating whirlwind of creepiness.

Oswald Mosley (who ended up marrying Diana Mitford) has been of interest to me for quite some time – just because of his time period and his obvious importance. 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. What a life he had - what a creep – but 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. 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.

And the Mitford sisters were all caught up in these enormous upheavals of the mid- 20th century – and many of them were 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 lust with Hitler – like, she went out of her mind. Her fervor was so much that it burned up everything else in her personality. She ended up shooting herself in the head – and SURVIVED. Not forever – she died a couple years later – but seriously. Weird weird girls. There are pictures of Unity hanging out with “Fuhrer” – and she has this flat-eyed look of entranced exaltation on her face that seriously gives me the total 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):

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Here’s Unity Mitford, surrounded by her treasured memorabilia:

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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:

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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!

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Pamela Mitford was the second oldest - and I cannot find a picture of her. She escaped scandal, and she lived a long life.

ALL of these girls were fiercely bright and literary. Only Nancy ended up becoming a well-known novelist - but many of them wrote books:

Diana’s autobiography

Here’s Decca’s autobiography

Here’s one of Debo’s books

And somehow – to me – the fact of the Mitfords stunning good looks – they’re almost intimidatingly gorgeous – especially Diana – who is one of the most beautiful women I think I’ve ever seen – makes the whole family seem rather … Hmm. I can’t put my finger on it. All I know is that as I was reading that book about all of them, I KEPT finding myself drawn to all those pictures. They are billowy, gorgeous, seemingly breezy girls … born to the highest ranks of society … and all of them tossed themselves towards their own destinies with ferocity. It was like they had no barriers, nothing held them back – whoever they wanted to become. 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 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 Redesdale’s death, Decca can’t resist noting to a friend one of her mother’s 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 Diana’s steely and unrepentant Fascist history. Visiting London with her son, Benjamin Treuhaft, who is half Jewish, she notes Diana’s offer of a meeting: “I thought better not, as I didn’t 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.

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42 Responses to The Creepy Mitford Sisters

  1. steve on the mountain says:

    Nancy’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are well-written, funny, not so thinly veiled portraits of her own family. Her old man was quite a strange and hilarious dude.

  2. JFH says:

    Here’s what could be a stupid question(s):

    Who authors thesauruses? Lexicographers? And, if they do, do they approach it the same way they approach editing a dictionary (i.e. continual updating do to changes in word usage). If that was true? is “bad” both a synonym AND an antonym of “good”… Is “hot” a synonym of “cool”

    These are the kind of things I think about, instead of working, on a Friday afternoon.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve read that book, too. I’d never heard of them before I picked it up at the library, but hey! Crazy beautiful English chicks? SIGN ME UP!

    Nancy was a close friend of Evelyn Waugh. The “bright young things”? Those were Nancy’s and Evelyn’s group.

    Debo wouldn’t have been a marchioness had it not been for a Kennedy family tragedy. JFK’s sister Kathleen married Billy Hartington, Andrew’s (who married Debo) older brother. (Rose disowned her for that.) Billy was killed by a sniper in WWII, making Andrew the heir. (Then, of course, Kathleen was killed in a plane crash later. V v sad.)

    And Unity (I love that name, btw. I think her middle name was like “Valkryie” or something. V cool.) died because the bullet was never removed and it got infected. Ew.

    Didn’t mean to hijack your post, but I’m fascinated by the Mitfords too. I loves me some crazy family drama.

  4. red says:

    Lisa – hijack, hijack away!! You know, I had a feeling that you would have read this book. Just had a sense it was a topic you would be really into.

    Yes – Valkyrie was her middle name. Weird, right?

    I did not know that about Debo.

    The stories of that childhood – and how brutal they were to each other – the ruthlessness of their teasing – you know? How you had to FIGHT to keep up with this group, and they were not, shall we say, a CUDDLY group of people …

    I think Decca was thankful to get away. Nancy, too.

    Dont’ you think the story of that decade in this family’s life would make a really interesting movie?

  5. red says:

    Lisa – you know that picture in the book of Unity returning home after her suicide attempt? And her face is like … it’s just this flat MASK with a little drifting smile on it.

    It totally gives me the creeps.

  6. red says:

    Found it – it’s not as big as the one in the book – but that’s the photo.

  7. Lisa says:

    I think it’s one of those stories no one would believe. How much dysfunction can one famiy hold? I read the book thinking, “Okay, SOMEONE in this family has to be NORMAL!” But, nope. Not a one.

    Have you read Jessica’s book, “The American Way of Death?” I mean, from a COMMUNIST to a critic of the funeral industry? What the hell?

    I love it.

  8. red says:

    Oh – and how ’bout Decca considering assassinating Hitler? After all, she had access to him cause her 2 older sisters were all buddy-buddy with him.

  9. red says:

    Ha! I know – like: what???

    It is truly fascinating.

  10. red says:

    Hi JFH – I think you be in the wrong post, my friend!!

    :)

    But Philip Morehead – who edits Rogets Thesaurus – and kind of inherited the job from his dad (who was a lexicographer and games expert) heads up the music staff at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Wild. I’m sure he has an editorial staff – and I am sure there are also suggestions sent to them by the ton – which they either do or do not incorporate.

    But still. Wrong post! I read your comment and had a moment of … huh? Then I realized what had happened.

  11. red says:

    I actually haven’t read American Way of Death, Lisa – I’ll have to check it out.

    Decca is the only one (to me) whose face shows warmth and human-ness. She wasn’t as beautiful (just empirically speaking) as the others. But I kind of like her face best.

  12. red says:

    Oh and Unity was born in Canada and the closest town was called Swastika.

    Just a little Nazi trivia there for ya.

  13. JFH says:

    Woops, I was looking for my comment on the other post and thought, “I KNOW it was accepted; what happened?”

    I have never heard of the Mitfords, BTW. It always fascinates and depresses me that there is SO much history and stories that I feel I SHOULD know about, but don’t…

  14. red says:

    JFH –

    The book about them – the first one I linked – gives good background about this family, if you want to check it out.

    There are a ton of books about all the sisters – but that one is the best one (in my opinion).

    The cool thing about a biography like that one – or the one I read about Howard Hughes – or the one about Lindbergh – or these other people who live these wide lives and intersect wiht so many other famous folks, history-makers – is that you get a history lesson along with learning about the individual life.

    The Mitfords literally embodied the internal war in Britain leading up to World War II. The pacifist fear of conflict – the blossoming love affair with fascism – the growing power of Communism – Each sister represents one of these trends. I mean … I’m trying to imagine a dinner party with all of them. Scary!

    Decca – the Communist – had grown up closest to Unity – and was really torn apart by Unity’s choices. They shared a room for a while – and they both would scratch stuff into the windows: swastikas and hammer and sickles. Battling ideologies.

    Just amazing.

  15. JFH says:

    The irony is that, at least in practice, that communism and facism aren’t really that far apart (both are authoritarian and socialist in nature.). Unity and Decca weren’t that far apart in their thinking (anymore than Stalin and Hitler were). Can’t wait to go to the library and pick up the book!!

  16. red says:

    Of course – but you are saying that with the benefit of retrospect. We know this NOW. At the time, except to a few who remained above the fray, those similarities were not at all clear.

    The Mitford parents were Hitler supporters because he had crushed the Communists in Germany – suppressed them and persecuted them – and the Mitfords were all for that. The Communists at that time were extremely attractive for those who wanted to fight against everything Hitler represented. Hitler was the enemy. The Communist Parties (at least those not in Russia – Russia who was experiencing Stalin’s purges at that very moment and knew where all this communistic stuff led) were alternatives to what Anne Lindbergh called “the wave of the future” – which was fascism. The end result did end up being the same – but again – on the ground-level, in the middle of the whirlwind, as World War II approached, esPECIALLY for the British, this was not at all clear.

  17. red says:

    But that’s what’s great about the book – you can see all of this unfold, all of these ideologies working themselves out through the lives of those 6 sisters.

    Let me know if you find it at the library. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

  18. Jen says:

    What an interesting part of history. I’ve never heard of them either. In that first picture, I think Decca looks exactly like Ginnifer Goodwin from “Big Love” on HBO.

  19. JFH says:

    Whoa! According to the internet Unity was conceived in Swastika, Ontario, where the family owned the Swastika mines… That’s a little too freaky.

  20. red says:

    Jen – ha! You’re right!

    Okay, we need to cast this theoretical movie obviously!!

    We need to cast Unity. Let me think more upon it. Maybe Chloe Sevigny?

    Oops – yet another Big Love cast member. But I swear – she’s the one that came to mind!

  21. red says:

    Yes – I put that in one of the comments in this thread, JFH – isn’t that just too bizarre??

    She absorbed it into her bloodstream or something. ha. Too weird!!

  22. JFH says:

    We need to cast Unity. Let me think more upon it. Maybe Chloe Sevigny?

    Scary… me too, although we were influenced by the “Big Love” post… sooo, that means Jeanne Tripplehorn for the role of Nancy?

  23. red says:

    I often wonder just what the hell was going on with Unity, I really do. She truly felt that Hitler was her soulmate – and she ended up convincing her parents to let her go to Munich to stalk him, basically – she was 18 years old. She found out where he went to lunch – and somehow – showed up there, and he ended up letting her into the highest circles of his entourage.

    Decca has made a great point: The Mitford dad was a “Lord”. Obviously Hitler would think that that was really important – and perhaps that was one of the reasons why he was so open to Diana and Unity. But Decca says – that anyone who is British knows that the “Lord” thing doesn’t REALLY matter, at least not politically – and that she thinks that because of Diana and Unity, Hitler might have thought there was more support for him in England than there actually was.

    She wrote about this quite a bit – Hitler’s misconceptions about the British, and their society. That even as late as 1941, he thought that there might be a significant section of society who would welcome him with open arms. WRONG. Decca wonders if that misconception was partly due to how her sisters talked to him, and how he filtered the entire British nation thru these two girls who were not at ALL representative.

    Damn, I can’t wait to read her letters now.

  24. red says:

    JFH – HAHAHA

    Yes, Jeanne Tripplehorn – too funny.

    And Bill Paxton as Oswald Mosley??

  25. red says:

    Oh, and here’s another factoid – just for perspective:

    Diana married young. And divorced young.

    Then she got married a second time – to Oswald Mosley, the fascist dude. She hid her marriage to Oswald Mosley – at first – because her parents were so ashamed to have a divorced daughter.

    Makes me wonder if they were ashamed of any of the other shenanigans going on with their daughters – you know, like shouting Sieg Heil in Nuremberg, etc. – or if divorce was what REALLY upset them.

    “My daughter’s a Nazi. Whatevs, she is following her destiny, and I’m proud of her. But my other daughter is divorced and I can barely show my face in the streets!”

  26. Lisa says:

    Her first divorce was from the heir to the Guinness fortune. AND she gave up custody of those kids to be with Oswald.

  27. red says:

    Lisa –

    wow. Chilling.

    Did those kids haunt her? I can’t remember. Did they hate her?? Did she give up contact with them?

    I look at her – and it seems like there is such a mask of beauty, I cannot tell what might be going on there – like what made her tick. Was it power?

    I read her autobiography years ago – when the whole Mitford thing started for me – and she is completely unrepentant. Blames WWII on “world jewry”, etc. Says that Hitler didn’t really know what was going on in the camps, blah blah blha.

  28. Lisa says:

    I think she did have contact with them after the war. They live in Ireland now, and Jonathan is Lord Moyne.

    IIRC, there was some hue-and-cry about her being imprisoned during WWII because she was separated from her Mosley children. Even a fascist mother was still a mother, I guess. But it wasn’t enough for the authorities to back down for several years.

  29. red says:

    Right – after Oswald and Diana got out they went to live in Ireland, right??

  30. red says:

    Mosley was Anglo-Irish, if I’m remembering right. I have to go back and look.

    I’m just trying to imagine what the aftermath of WWII was like – for these 2 in particular.

  31. Lisa says:

    Ireland, then France, where they were friends with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

    Ew.

  32. red says:

    And they got married in the house of Joseph Goebbels with Hitler present! Fun!

  33. Another Sheila says:

    I read that book a few summers ago. FASCINATING! I agree with you about their overwhelming beauty. I kept turning to the back and forward to the photo pages as I read, and their extraordinary faces just became more … what??? … with each new episode that unfolded. Meaningful? Profound? Penetrating? I don’t know. It’s like they’re all emblazoned on my mind forever.

    I loved the craziness of the dad … how, when he got angry with someone or whatever, would write their name on a piece of paper, fold it up into a tiny square, and put it away in a drawer somewhere? Like, this hilarious little gesture that had no impact but was enormously meaningful to him, a huge statement.

    Did Decca give up her Communist sympathies? I thought she was ardent to the end — though I know she switched her passions to the U.S. civil rights movement at some point. Did you read the Christopher Hitchens piece on her in a recent Atlantic? A review of her published letters, I think. He really digs her. And she was awfully cool sounding — her terrible choice of ideologies notwithstanding.

    Do you remember, in that bio, the episode where she and her husband were dining in some Communist country, and thinking about how great it all was, and then at some point their waitress said something to them — maybe begged them to help her get out, or something like that. And they both had this shared moment of terror, like, “Are we completely wrong about this?” And then (in my memory of how this was described in the book) they kind of decided to ignore it and not think of it again. Chilling.

    The Mitfords!! Endlessly fascinating. And YES! Charlize Theron as Diana. When is someone going to get around to that movie????? It begs to be made.

  34. red says:

    Sheila –

    Yay – someone else who read the book!!

    Yes, as far as I can remember – you are right. Decca didn’t give up her Communist beliefs, nothing like that – she just stopped being a member of the American CP – she didn’t like the way they were going.

    And aren’t there anecdotes about Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts marching down the street and being heckled by Communists – heckled to the point of rioting and fighting – and one of the Communists would end up marrying Decca (who was only 15 at the time). but there he was – heckling his future brother in law …

    Like … the connections are just too nuts to even contemplate!!

    I have to go home and look at the pictures in that book now. They were all so distinct – yet there is a sameness about all of them (except for maybe Nancy – who seemed veyr much separate) … FASCINATING.

  35. red says:

    //And they both had this shared moment of terror, like, “Are we completely wrong about this?” //

    Unbelievable. Yes, I remember that part.

  36. Another Sheila says:

    Nancy was quite different looking, wasn’t she? Interesting. I’ve really enjoyed all the novels of hers that I’ve read. And she wrote a bio (one of many, I think) about Madame du Pompadour that was SO good. A very light kind of bio, a novelist’s kind of bio, a slim volume, and such a good read.

    My husband has a book of letters between her and Evelyn Waugh that I meant to pick up and read a while ago, but forgot about. This post has reminded me — so double thanks!

  37. red says:

    Sheila – yeah the other sisters all had those big light eyes, and soft angelic faces. And Nancy was dark and angular.

    I need to read her novels again – they were quite funny, if I remember right.

  38. Lisa says:

    Plus wasn’t she quite a bit older than them? I mean, there was Pamela and Tom in between Nancy and the other three, so I think she was almost grown by the time they were teenagers.

  39. Bluebottle says:

    Ah the gorgeous Mitfords. There are some wonderful interviews of Diana shortly before her death that are in sone of the English papers… maybe The Guardian that I found with Google and lots of Mitfords with the Nazis photos at various war history sights. It seems there’s an on going fascination with women drawn to the dark side, some of these sites cater to people who collect pictures of and defend the reputations of the notorious female camp guards at places like Bergen Belsan.

  40. RTG says:

    Fascinating!

    I am embarrassed to admit this but your blog is more than just idle reading to me. In a very literal way, it’s an education. I knew nothing of Plath or the Mitfords, or the Lindburghs and you’ve made me curious and excited about these subjects, and I’ve learned from your writings; you’ve made me curious enough to educate myself on these random subjects.

    Don’t ever stop. : )

  41. alli says:

    Just another reason to read your blog Sheila, I don’t think I’ve ever read a post of yours without learning something… and usually adding another book to the wish list. :P

  42. mitch says:

    RTG

    I am embarrassed to admit this but your blog is more than just idle reading to me. In a very literal way, it’s an education.

    I’ve been coming here every day for almost three years for about the same reason.

    Alli,

    adding another book to the wish list. :P

    I’ve gotten 2-3 out of this post alone…