The Books: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell

Daily Book Excerpt: Biography

Next biography on the biography shelf is The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell

My mother has always lived in a dream world of her own and no doubt was even dreamier during her many pregnancies … when she was young she never opened a book and it is difficult to imagine what her tastes and occupations [were]. My father and she disliked society, or thought they did – there again, later they rather took to it – and literally never went out. She had no cooking or housework to do. In those days you could be considered very poor by comparison with other people of the same sort and yet have five servants … Even so she was perhaps abnormally detached. On one occasion Unity rushed into the drawing room, where she was at her writing table, saying, ‘Muv, Muv, Decca is standing on the roof – she says she’s going to commit suicide!’ ‘Oh, poor duck,’ said my mother, ‘I hope she won’t do anything so terrible,’ and went on writing.

— Nancy Mitford on her mother

The Mitford family provides a vast array of characters, each worthy of their own attention, and because life is short and there are only so many hours in the day I have had to force myself to NOT get obsessed with the Mitfords. However, I can’t help it. I have bought their collections of letters, I have Nancy Mitford’s novels, I have Decca’s correspondonce, and a biography of Diana Mosley. Debo just came out with an autobiography, which I have not read. It’s like stockpiling stuff in my library for the day when I am ready to dive into that deep pool.

Oh, the Mitfords. I love all of you crazy beautiful gals, Communists, Fascists and Nazis, all in the same family! How on earth did you manage it?

Mary S. Lovell’s group biography of the Mitford sisters is an excellent read, and a great way to dip your toe into that deep Mitford pool to get a good overview of this extraordinary family and all of its members. I am shocked that there hasn’t been a movie about the Mitford sisters, especially in that tempestuous decade of the 1930s, when everything exploded and the entire family found itself at war, reflecting the approaching war in the outside world. It’s hard to believe that it all actually happened.

What the heck was going on in the Mitford nursery, that’s what I want to know.

They were all so gorgeous, 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, Hitler, and Communism, specifically, and you just get a picture of a fascinating whirlwind of creepiness. These girls never heard the word “No”. These girls grew up almost unmonitored, in the belljar of the Mitford home, and as they reached adulthood, each one burst forth in her own completely self-actualized way, and each one did exactly what she wanted to do, hang the consequences. Each one was a powerhouse. Their political beliefs cut across every line there is and the sisters were fighting it out until the end of their days. Ruptures occurred that could never be mended. Add to that the fact that each one became famous, in her own right, and they all wrote books (or most of them did) where different versions of “what happened” was put out into the atmosphere … and the fight continued. “No, it wasn’t like that.” “How dare you steal my writing style.” “Listen to ME. Here is how it all went down.” You could read them squabbling forever. They had pet names for each other, and a very specific family language, almost baby-talk, which is very bizarre when you realize that they are talking about Hitler (a close personal friend to two of the sisters) or Oswald Mosley (the fascists, and Diana’s husband).

I posted a picture on Facebook of the girls, and one of my Facebook friends commented, “A Fascist and a Communist in one family. Guess stupidity is in the genes.” Well, I suppose that’s one (boring) way to look at it. I suppose it would be easier to think of the Mitford girls as “stupid”, but it’s far more confronting to see each one as pretty brilliant (if misguided, perhaps), certainly not coming from a place of bad faith – each one believed in her cause wholeheartedly – and each was incredibly stubborn. There are stories of Decca scratching a hammer and sickle into the window at the Mitford home, and Unity adding a Swastika. A tiny battleground on a pane of glass. I have written about the Mitfords before, and a commenter said “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).” It’s a vaguely moronic comment, entirely lacking in historical context. None of that at all was clear on the ground in the early 1930s. If you think that it was entirely clear in 1933 what Communism actually was, then you don’t know your history. Let’s not forget that the Communists in Germany were the only group of people who actually tried to fight the Nazis, and it was for that powerful reason alone that many in England were pro-Communist. The horrors of Stalin were not at all well-known at that time (only a few astute observers picked up on what was going on in the Ukraine and elsewhere) and the Spanish Civil War (which was a wake-up call for many Communists, including George Orwell) was in the near future. Decca’s belief in Communism came from the ground-up, as it did for many others at that time. Don’t impose a 1989 reality on a 1933 world. That makes you look stupid. This is not to sugarcoat any of the Mitford girls’ behavior. I just find it far more interesting to NOT just write them off as “stupid”, but to delve into what the hell was actually going on.

So there is Jessica (Decca) Mitford, the staunch Communist. She completely renounced her privileged background and threw her significant brains and energy behind Communist causes. She volunteered to fight/help out in the Spanish Civil War. She ran off (against her parents’ wishes) and got married to her second cousin, and they eventually moved to the United States. Decca became a U.S. citizen. In the late 1950s, she saw the light about Communism and left the Party. She continued to be an active political person, however, and she’s a fascinating lively person. (Her correspondence was recently published with a beautiful foreword written by Christopher Hitchens.)

Then there is Deborah (or “Debo”) who became the Duchess of Devonshire. She is still alive and just published her autobiography. Debo stayed out of the political fray for the most part (although she did become more active in the 1980s) and said very early on in her life, “I want to be a Duchess.” And so she became one. Like I said, the Mitford girls all did exactly what they wanted to do.

Nancy Mitford, close friend to Evelyn Waugh and other Bright Young Things, was a best-selling novelist, a biting critic of the social reality of the time. Much of her work is frankly autobiographical. She was famous in her own lifetime.

Pamela Mitford actually was a gentle rural girl, who also stayed out of the clash of world politics going on between Diana, Unity, Decca, and sometimes Nancy. She loved animals, farming, and nature. She was a devoted equestrienne.

Diana Mitford originally married Bryan Guinness, who was some huge heir to some foppish barony. She is one of the most beautiful women who has ever lived. She then began an affair with Sir Oswald Mosley, who was a baron, and formed the British Union of Fascists (the “blackshirts”) – the group which stirred up so much trouble in the 1930s, leading Hitler to believe that he could easily invade England since he had such huge support there. Diana Mosley was a friend of Hitler’s, and her second marriage took place at Goebbels’ house and Hitler was there. She was seen as Enemy Number One in England and when WWII broke out she and Mosley were imprisoned for the entirety of the war. She lived a long life. Even in her later years, although she was certainly not a firebrand like Decca or Unity, she resisted bad-talking Hitler. She said she knew him as a nice man. Diana is a bit monstrous, but it’s also difficult not to like her. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable, which I suppose is why I am vaguely obsessed. Decca and Diana fought openly for their entire lives. Diana was considered (by certain elements in the British secret service, who kept an eye on them) even more dangerous than Oswald Mosley.

Then there is Unity Mitford (nickname “Bobo”), whose middle name was “Valkyrie”, if you can believe it. A devoted Nazi, she was close friends with Hitler, and lived in Germany. She wanted to marry Hitler. Unity actually had access to Hitler, and would chat with him, and advise him, and tell him about what was going on in England. She would stick up for England, basically saying that England and Germany were friends. When England declared war on Germany, Unity shot herself in the head. She didn’t die, however, although she was forever changed. Transporting her back to England in the midst of an explosion of war through Europe was a huge undertaking. Unity had obviously gone mad. She could not accept that England and Germany couldn’t work it out. Unity is the most fascinating one of all of these headstrong sisters. A dangerous woman. But her love for Hitler almost took the form of a shrieking fangirl taping up pictures from Tiger Beat. It was hero worship, idolatry, with a sexual component to it too. Almost religious in nature. Here she is surrounded by all of her Hitler memorabilia.

Here is Unity hanging out with her BFF.

Here are Unity and her brother Tom at a Nazi rally in 1937. She was a true believer.

Here are Diana and Unity whooping it up with a bunch of SS officers at the 1937 Nuremberg rally.

Here is Unity being transported from hospital to hospital in 1940, following shooting herself in the head.

Diana and Unity and Tom all attended the 1937 Nuremberg rally. Diana and Unity had also gone to the one in 1933. Tom Mitford, despite his fascist beliefs, ended up joining the British army (as opposed to joining brother-in-law Oswald Mosley’s ranks of fascist stormtroopers.) Tom died in Burma shortly before the war ended. He was brilliant, like most of the Mitfords were, highly intelligent. 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 is 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.

Here are Diana and Unity giving the Nazi salute.

These were English citizens of a certain class. Incredible. Mary S. Lovell’s book is brisk and lively. It gives a great overview of each journey of each Mitford, and the intersections.

Oswald Mosley has been of interest to me for quite some time 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. Here is just one of the many posts I have written about that extraordinary book. Not to be too weird but I’ve felt like: If my own spirit could pick up a pen and write a book explaining its core beliefs – that book would be something like Hopeful Monsters. I’m dead serious. Nicholas Mosley has written a couple of memoirs, attacking his father’s fascism, and his books (especially Hopeful Monsters) are one long indictment of such totalitarian structures.

The Mitford sisters, privileged, independent, and fiercely literary, 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. But also funny and ferocious and difficult. Powerhouses, all of them. All from one family?

The fact of their stunning good looks (they’re almost intimidatingly gorgeous, especially Diana) gives the family a strange impact they might not otherwise have. I cannot stop looking at pictures of the Mitford girls. I fall into each picture. The girls are billowy, slim, gorgeous, born to the highest ranks of society … and all of them tossed themselves towards their own destinies with ferocity and singleminded passion. They perceived no barriers that would hold them back, a direct result of their privileged status (something Decca was aware of). And whatever each one did, they did it wholeheartedly. It’s a phenomenal story. Nancy wanted to write books. She did. Some of them are still taught in college level English today. Diana was a fascist. She married the top British fascist at the time and was imprisoned for it. Unity was a fascist, as well as 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. Despite all of the pain some of them went through (uhm, you know, shooting oneself in the head, being imprisoned, pilloried by one’s country), there is always a 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.

When Decca’s father Lord Redesdale died, he bequest all of this stuff to his kids, but he added a clause “except Jessica”. Decca was NOT forgiven for being a Communist, for running away, for fleeing the privilege she had been born into. Diana loved Hitler and THAT was forgiven, but Decca was always beyond the pale. She seemed to relish that position. She was a fierce fighter.

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.

Each one has been profiled in biographies, each one has written a book or two, but Mary Lovell’s overview puts them all together. Not to be missed.

Here is an excerpt, detailing some events in the crucial year of 1933.

Excerpt from The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell

As Mosley was touring in France with Baba, Diana decided to go to Europe that summer on holiday too. Unity asked if she could go with her, rather hoping, she confessed later, that Diana would choose to go to Italy or France. But Diana chose Bavaria, partly because Tom was there and spoke so glowingly about it, and partly because she wanted to find out more about the regime, especially about the new German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, in whose activities the newspapers took such an interest.

In the immediate aftermath of Hitler coming to power there were outbreaks of violence against anyone who had opposed his election, or who ‘did not fit’ an accepted profile. Those rounded up were imprisoned in hastily erected concentration camps such as Dachau outside Munich. Then the camps resembled conventional prisons rather than the places of systematic murder they became less than a decade later. The improvements in the German economy were the envy of other European governments and most people accepted the unpleasantness – extreme as it was – as an almost inevitable cost of a new, radical regime.

Although Germany had not been her first choice, Unity was immediately mad keen on Diana’s proposal. She was just nineteen and with her increasing interest in the BUF she wanted to see for herself how the system worked. Unity was not yet wholly committed to Fascism – indeed, John Betjeman, who knew her reasonably well, thought she was more interested in film stars and the cinema. But that trip to Germany, Diana wrote in her autobiography, unquestionably ‘changed Unity’s life’. The streak of obsessive behaviour in Unity’s character, which might have made her ultra-religious had she leaned towards the Church, fastened instead on Nazism.

Earlier in the year, before Cimmie’s death and her divorce, Diana had met a German called Putzi Hanfstaengl at the house of one of Bryan’s relations. Hanfstaengl was the Harvard-educated son of a rich Munich family of art dealers, and an old friend of Hitler. When the National Socialist putsch of 1023 failed, Hitler was wounded and several of his comrades-in-arms were killed. Hanfstaengl took Hitler into his home and hid him for a while, and after Hitler’s arrest he continued to support him throughout the two years of imprisonment that followed, during which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf. In the period of political wilderness after Hitler’s release, Hanfstaengl remained loyal to his friend, and when things improved he obtained hard currency from the United States (his family had a gallery in New York) to help fund Hitler’s return to politics. His donation of a thousand US dollars during the financial chaos of Germany’s years of hyperinflation was a lifesaver to Hitler, so it is not surprising that when the Nazis came to power Hansfstaengl was rewarded with a senior appointment as Hitler’s public relations adviser, and he made it clear that he worshipped the Fuhrer.

At the party where Diana first met him, Hanfstaengl was annoyed. All one read about Germany in the English newspapers, he complained, was of the regime’s attitude towards the Jews. ‘People here have no idea of what the Jewish problem has been since the war,’ he told his listeners hotly. ‘Why not think of the ninety-nine per cent of the population, of the six million unemployed? Hitler will build a great and prosperous Germany for the Germans. If the Jews don’t like it they can get out.’ Recalling this meeting, Diana was certain that if she called on Hanfstaengl in Munich, he would introduce them to Hitler, but at first the trip consisted of sightseeing with some of Tom’s friends. Eventually, however, Diana made contact with Hanfstaengl.

He was hospitable, providing the two young women unexpectedly with tickets to privileged seats for the first Parteitag in Nuremberg, and finding them scarcely obtainable accommodations. The rally, which began on 31 August and lasted four days, had a major effect on both young women. The carnival atmosphere was vibrant with enthusiasm as crowds milled about and revelled to the sounds of oompah-bands playing old favourites along with regular insertions of the popular ‘Horse Wessel Lied‘ that had become the Nazi anthem. Some four hundred thousand people attended the event. ‘The old town was a fantastic sight,’ Diana wrote. ‘Hundreds of thousands of men in party uniforms thronged the streets and there were flags in all the windows … the gigantic parades went without a hitch. A feeling of excited triumph was in the air, and when Hitler appeared an almost electric shock passed through the multitude.’ It was, she decided, ‘a demonstration of hope in a nation that had known collective despair.’

It was difficult for those present not to be emotionally affected and, indeed, Diana and Unity were not the only visitors impressed by the showmanship of HItler’s party. Many young Englishmen who visited Germany in the first part of that decade were moved to support Hitler’s regime, even though later some came to despise it. In a recent television documentary examining the attraction of Hitler to the youth of Europe at that time, Nigel Nicholson was just one who stated that he was thoroughly hooked: ‘The catchy “Horst Wessel” song, the marching, the torches, the singing and tramping of boots – I was, at that moment, a Hitler youth,’ he said. Michael Burn was another: ‘I wrote home, “I cannot think coherently – it is so wonderful what Hitler has brought this country back to…”‘ He recalls that he was ‘stunned and excited’ by the cohesion of Germany after the political disunion in Britain. Then there was the theatre of Nuremberg: ‘great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.’ Over the years that followed most of these young people recognized the true nature of the Nazi movement and defected from it, becoming leaders in the wartime fight against Hitler, but for the moment all they felt was excitement and admiration. For Diana and Unity the only regret of the holiday was that they did not meet Hitler in person. Although with their blond, tall, slim appearance they were the physical personification of Arian womanhood, Hanfstaengl told them that he did not dare to introduce them as they wore so much lipstick, which Hitler abhorred. They were used to this; Farve felt much the same way.

When they returned to England Diana had to face her father’s anger: she was still in semi-disgrace over her divorce, and when Unity gaily told them about the Parteitag David erupted. ‘I suppose you know without being told,’ he wrote to Diana, ‘how absolutely horrified Muv and I were to think of you and Bobo accepting any form of hospitality from people we regard as a murderous gang of pests. That you should associate yourself with such people is a source of utter misery to both of us – but of course, beyond telling you this … we can do nothing. What we can do, and what we intend to do, is to try to keep Bobo out of it all.’

Mosley was still touring France and the children were staying at Biddesden with Bryan, so Diana left almost immediately for Rome where she spent six weeks at the luxurious house overlooking the Forum, owned by her great friend Lord Berners. Gerald Berners, a homosexual, was a quintessential eccentric; had he possessed no talent at all, he was rich enough to indulge himself as a dabbler in the aesthetic disciplines he so enjoyed, but he was also clever and exceptionally well read, an able musician, composer, artist and writer. He had been posted to Rome as a junior diplomat but while Diana was there he seemed to spend more time working on the score for a Diaghilev ballet. Nancy would later use him as the model for her colourful character Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love, a compliment that Berners rather enjoyed. At his country home, Faringdon, he kept a flock of doves, which he dyed in pastel shades so that when they rose into the sky it looked as though someone had flung a handful of confetti over the rooftop, a pretty nonsense amusingly described by Nancy. Berners was one of the few friends who accepted Diana’s decision to divorce Bryan without critical comment, and Diana valued him because he was clever, witty, and made her laugh – a quality that was especially welcome at that time – but also because he was her mentor: she once said that her relationship with Berners had been the equivalent of reading arts at university.

A sense of humour is an ethereal quality that is difficult to describe but Diana explained Berners’ wit beautifully. She wrote of how, when they drove back to England together in October, they stopped over in Paris where they met Violet Trefusis, notorious as the lover of Vita Sackville-West. Her mother was Mrs Keppel, the favourite of King Edward VII. Violet and Berners decided to pretend they were engaged and in November this was announced in London gossip columns to the astonishment, presumably, of everyone who knew either of them. Violet phoned him to say she had had dozens of congratulations. Berners was delighted; he had received none, he said. When Mrs Keppel insisted that a denial must be made as the joke had gone far enough, he suggested announcing in The Times: ‘Lord Berners has left Lesbos for the Isle of Man.’

Unity passed the time at Swinbrook working at her collages and paintings, and, unknown to her parents, made regular trips into Oxford where she dropped in at the BUF offices and helped to sell copies of the Blackshirt. By comparison Nancy’s innocent tea parties with undergraduate friends in Oxford cafes, which had provoked David’s fury half a decade earlier, seem tame. Sydney saw to it that Unity did the Season again, so that her social life continued as it had during her debutante year. But whenever she was in London during the run-up to Nancy’s wedding, or during secret visits to the Eatonry after Diana’s return, Unity attended BUF rallies or Mosley’s meetings, proudly sporting a black shirt and her unusual badge, which identified her as someone special in the party ranks. At Swinbrook visitors during that period report that hardly had they set foot in the entrance hall before they were besieged by Unity and Decca demanding, ‘Are you a Fascist or a Communist?’ When one young man answered, ‘Neither, I’m a democrat,’ they retorted in unison, ‘How wet!’ and lost interest in him.

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32 Responses to The Books: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell

  1. Lisa says:

    You’ll like Debo a lot more when you read her memoirs. She is short-changed in this book — well maybe more like overshadowed — so I’d never given her much thought.(Other than she’s only the Duchess of Devonshire because her husband’s older brother was killed in WWII. He was married to JFK’s sister. IN FACT [nerd alert!] when they called the Kennedy compound to notify them that the “Marchioness” had been killed, JFK was quoted as saying “Please be Debo, please be Debo.”)

    I’d never heard of the Mitfords before I’d read this book, and like you, I became OBSESSED. I can’t get enough of them and their special brand of craziness.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes, she is totally overshadowed – Nancy, Decca, Unity, and Diana just TAKE OVER. And forget about poor Pam! (Actually, not poor at all. She seemed to just step out of the craziness and live a quiet life.)

    I do look forward to reading Debo’s book to hear HER side of all of this.

  3. sheila says:

    “Please be Debo.” Wow.

  4. Paul H. says:

    Crazy family. Jessica Mitford told Christopher Hitchens that Unity was too stupid to even shoot herself properly. She had zero sympathy for either Unity or Diana and refuse to speak to the latter from the outbreak of WWII, although she nodded to her at Nancy’s funeral.

    Deborah Devonshire writes (under that name) the occasional column for The Spectator. She gave a wonderful interview to the BBC last year on publication of her memoirs and addressed rumours that Unity had born Hitler’s child.

    See here:

    The Mosley family still has an impact on British life. Another son, Max, bankrolls Formula One motor racing, and was involved in scandal a couple of years back when the News of the World (of fond memory) got hold of footage showing him engaged in BDSM with a couple of prostitutes dressed as SS guards (the historical resonance was spelled out in the press ad nauseam). He sued for breach of privacy, rightly won and so the NoTW began to unravel.

    • sheila says:

      Oh that’s right! I remember following the Max Mosley scandal. How on earth does Nicholas fit into all of that … I have read only a couple of his books, none of which can live up to HOPEFUL MONSTERS.

      There did seem to be a – shall we say – lack of family feeling in the Mitford group. Especially with Decca and Diana – they were all such individuals, but more than that, they chose ideology over family loyalty. They were so mean to each other, not just when the political differences came up, but from the get-go. It sounds like rather a brutal household to grow up in.

  5. Jennchez says:

    Quite an interesting family. I had no I idea that Nancy Mitford that wrote The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate was one of the “infamous” Mitford sisters. I’m looking forward to reading this biography. I believe it was college when I first heard of them and remembered thinking “those must have been some interesting family dynamics”. I’m hoping you write more on them.

    • sheila says:

      Each sister is so fascinating. They’re all rather awful too – but boy to be a fly on the wall at the Mitford dinner table.

  6. allison says:

    LOVED this book. I think Kurt was with me in the bookstore one day and said he thought it might be interesting and that’s why I bought it. It really is a fascinating family saga…

    • sheila says:

      allison- you’re the reason I read it in the first place! I took one look at the pictures in your copy and was like, “That’s it. I have to find out about these people.”

  7. Rachel says:

    This was the book that jump-started my fascination with the Mitfords. I agree with you, why haven’t they made a real movie of the Mitfords? I just finished Lovell’s book on the Churchill family and it was a great read as well, albeit not as focused as the Mitford book. Mainly because Winston Churchill inevitably takes over so much of the story. But the Churchills were amazing too. And they all tended towards the same personality traits: arrogance, brilliance, stubbornness, and a penchant for falling in love at first sight.

    After you spend a few days pouring over the Churchills and the Mitfords and the Vanderbilts, it makes the current obsession with families like the Kardashians seem even more hollow.

  8. Catherine says:

    Another Mitfordian here…

    Diana’s own autobiography, “A Life of Contrasts” is a strange little book. She has traces of Nancy’s easy breezy style and it’s very funny – sometimes unintentionally – in places, but she’s such a monster.

    Decca was my favourite for a long, long time – I suppose I sympathised with her politics the most, and she was so fun and feisty. And gorgeous! After the whole “working in a bar” thing she went on to do really significant work with the Civil Rights Congress. Her later pieces of investigative journalism are mischievous fun. I have an mp3 clip of her being interviewed by Hitchens, I think it was at the NYPL, and it’s fantastic – two very arrogant, very smart, very funny English emigres plopped into the middle of America. She still has a plummy accent, even after so many decades living in Oakland! She could be extremely cruel as well though. I try to imagine how I would feel if my sister (whom I’m super close to) started believing in some abhorrent political views…would I manage to switch off all sisterly feeling altogether?

    When Diana was jailed under Defence Regulation 18B during the war, Jessica wrote letters to Winston Churchill from San Francisco, passionately pleading for him to keep Diana in jail for the cause of anti-fascists everywhere, Nancy gave the typically dry response, “Not very sisterly, really.” Funny, especially when you consider that Nancy herself had campaigned for Diana’s imprisonment.

    Speaking of Nancy, Selina Hasting’s biography of her is only okay, but worth it just for the last few chapters which are devastatingly sad: Nancy, slowly dying a very painful death from cancer in her house in France, all alone. It’s heartwrenching. Nancy’s longstanding love affair with Gaston Palewski is just terrible to read about. She was desperately in love with him for decades; he was the reason she ended up in France at all because she had moved to be close to him. And he was fond of her but definitely NOT in love with her, plus she was a married Englishwoman which would have been ruinous to his political career, so marriage was never going to be an option for him. So she’s pining away…some of her letters are so pathetic when she’s writing to him practically begging him to love her. I have a lump in my throat just thinking about it!

    On a happier note, my absolute favourite of the Mitford bit-players: Violet Hammersly (The Wid).

    • sheila says:

      Catherine – Woah. That Nancy bio sounds intense. Sad, man.

      Thanks for the deeper perspective. I am definitely a Mitford dilettante – I feel I have to keep my distance, otherwise the obsession could take over my life … but I love love love to hear from others on the front lines.

  9. devtob says:

    Jessica Mitford is a journalism heroine, whose investigation of the funeral industry inspired reforms that help people today through a difficult time.

    Poison Penmanship, The Gentle Art of Muckraking is a personal favorite — a collection of magazine pieces with commentary after.

    The two 1977 articles in New York magazine about dinner at a fancy Manhattan restaurant (the long-gone Sign of the Dove) are hilarious — she and her friend are overcharged for lousy food, offered to pay by check and were refused, had their coats held hostage for cash payment the next day (when a corrected bill was 20 percent less), and the ham-handed PR counterattack on the first article, which occasioned the second.

    Some wry bits:

    “We are seated in an absurdly done-up place, its decor like a pink wedding scene, but determined to enjoy ourselves, we remark on how very elegant it is. … The restaurant, fairly empty when we first arrived, is filling up rapidly with persons of the gold-brocade-pantsuit type and their male counterparts, who blend nicely with the decor.”

    “(The manager) says on no account will he take personal checks — a check is just a piece of paper. So is a dollar bill, I point out. He beckons us into the lobby, where we are surrounded by menacing waiters, acting with the precision of trained guards. The manager, directing the B-movie scene, says he is going to call the police. I furiously demand that he should do so immediately; we’ll wait until they arrive and then he’ll find out what trouble is.”

    The commentary about how this story was placed the next day (via Nora Ephron), she wrote it in a few hours before her flight back to San Francisco (using the form of five acts and an epilogue, for 750 words), and she tracked down the PR types who slurred her as drunk that night is also great reading.

    My hardcover copy of Poisoned Penmanship, bought second-hand, included Molly Ivins’ appreciation of Jessica in the NYT Book Review, written a month after she died in 1996.

    In the first paragraph, Ivins calls Jessica “one of the great muckraking journalists of our time,” then notes that “Peter Sussman of the Society of Professional Journalists puts her in a class with Upton Sinclair, Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, ‘Only funny.'”

  10. sheila says:

    HAHAHAHA Awesome!! Thank you, devtob – that was marvelous.

  11. Doc Horton says:

    From Jessica’s ‘Hons and Rebels’:
    Muv (the Mitfords’ Mom) had invented a method of teaching which obviated the necessity for examinations. We simply read the passage to be mastered, then closed the book and related whatever portion of the text we happened to retain. ‘I always think a child only needs to remember the part that seems important to her,’ she would explain vaguely. Sometimes it didn’t work very well. ‘Now, Little D, I’ve read you a whole chapter. Tell me what you remember of it.’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t remember anything.’ ‘Come now, Little D, can’t you remember a single word?’ ‘Very well then – THE.’ Fatal sentence! For years after I could be reduced to tears by sisters and cousins teasing in chorus, ‘Very well then – THE.’

  12. sheila says:

    hahaha So weird!

  13. Cara Ellison 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).”

    Oh God, I hope I’m not the one who made that comment.

  14. sheila says:

    Cara – HAHA Nope – although it is someone we both know.

    Ironically – he is right, but NOT from a historical context, as in: how it looked on the ground in 1933. He was trying to make some ideological point from his present-day stance, and in so doing looked like the dumbass that he is.

    Also ironically: I have said that very thing to some of my leftie friends when they go ga-ga about “socialism” – but again: to the world in 1933, these were completely different ideologies. That was one of the reasons why the damn war was fought. The Non-Aggression Pact between Stalin and Hitler was a total bombshell to the rest of the world who thought Stalin and Hitler were natural enemies.

    The Spanish Civil War in 1936 was a key moment for many aware socialists (like Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and others). Many of them quickly saw Communism for what it was (fascism) and immediately began to write about it, criticize it – and are still looked upon suspiciously by some today for it. Those who cling to the idea that Communism was a ‘wonderful ideal’ and that Stalin was just an aberration of that ideal have my deepest contempt. I’m with Orwell: the point of Communism from the beginning was to put all power in the hands of the State.

    HOWEVER. The Mitford girls (who all were a bit fascistic, at least in their attitudes about politics) were on the frontlines of this debate, before the worst of the Soviet Union was known. The world was in the grips of a Great Depression. Capitalism had obviously failed. Fascism seemed to have helped recover Germany. There was, of course, that nasty anti-Semitism but maybe it all would be worth it?? Many people had blinders on at that time – but that’s true of any time. It is so hard to see what is actually going on while you are in the thick of it.

    England was exhausted from the First World War. The idea of going into another war was impossible. It couldn’t happen. Ideologies like Socialism and Fascism took hold in small groups in England due to the fear of war, and the hope that they could find a better way out.

    Anyway. All of this is to say – that commenter was just trying to plug it to today’s “Socialists”, for whom he has contempt – but completely ignoring the historical confusion of that particular time.

    I dislike that guy anyway. You totally know who he is. He signed his names with initials. :)

  15. sheila says:

    Basically he was saying “if only Decca and Unity knew they were on the same side” which is a stupid comment. NOBODY who was a Communist or a Nazi in 1933 thought they were on “the same side”.

  16. Cara Ellison says:

    Oh I know who it is.

    Yeah, I think that’s a true statement but a myopic one. Like you said, you can’t apply current thinking to those events.

    And I think anyone who adores Nazis and Communism would try very hard to hide the authoritarian bent of those philosophies. They don’t see themselves as the brutalizers. They see themselves as the victims – they’re “responding” to world events. It would have been impossible to see their similarities at that time.

    That’s the whole point of the Mitford split, after all. They thought they were miles away ideologically.

    If this makes no sense, blame De and her amazing mimosas! : )

  17. sheila says:

    // They don’t see themselves as the brutalizers. They see themselves as the victims //

    That is totally the key.

    And I am totally jealous of you and De right now. I wish I were there!!!

  18. Cara Ellison says:

    It was fun. I so needed to get out. We were at this tiny bar outside (absolutely perfect weather) with downtown (and the Enron towers!) rising up above us. When she said you were talking about psychopaths, the *only* thing that could have made it more perfect was if you were sitting at the table with us talking about psychopaths.

  19. sheila says:

    Nothing makes me happier than talking about psychopaths on Twitter.

  20. Diane Randall says:

    Great piece, Sheila! You know I loved the letters edited by Charlotte and the autobiography written by Debo. The Lovell book will be my next vacation read!
    By the way, I think the comment “Please let it be Debo” came from one of JFK’s sisters when they got the call about the plane crash–I believe it was Eunice (I was a Kennedy buff before I met the Mitford’s!)

  21. sheila says:

    Diane – I am dying to read the collected correspondence of all of the sisters.

  22. Mary Liz says:

    Fun fact about the Mitfords: they’re all related (sort of) to Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police! He fathered a child by Diana’s granddaughter, who is the daughter of one of Diana’s sons from her first marriage to Bryan Guinness (before she bolted with O. Mosley). Bryan Guinness–Desmond Guinness–Marina—Patrick (Stewart’s son)

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