Conversations about the Mitford dinner table had to be unusual if the adult lives of the children offered any proof.
Daughter Unity Mitford (b. 1914) became fascinated by Nazi political philosophy and absolutely worshipped Adolf Hitler. When she finally had the chance to live in Germany, she essentially stalked Hitler by placing herself at his favorite restaurants. In 1935, her plan succeeded: Hitler noticed the statuesque blond and invited her to join him for a meal. It was the beginning of a friendship that brought Unity to Nazi parties and rallies.
Unity still loved England, and she became so distraught over the tensions between England and Germany that she swore she would shoot herself if the countries went to war. On the afternoon of Sunday, September 3, 1939—the day England declared war with Germany–Unity walked into the English Garden in Munich, put her pearl-handled 6.35 Walther pistol to her head, and shot herself. She survived, and Hitler paid her medical expenses and costs for her return to England where she was bitterly hated. She survived in a mentally diminished state and died nearly nine years later.**
Unity’s younger sister Jessica (b. 1917) was diametrically opposed to Unity’s politics: despite her privileged social status, she believed in Communism. Her cousin Esmond Romilly had fought for the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, and she determined to fall in love with him because of it. After knowing him only a few days, she eloped with him to fight in Spain. Her father never forgave her for this elopement; and though he lived for twenty more years, he never saw her again.
The Romillys moved to America where—ironically–Jessica used her social connections to meet and become friends with powerbrokers such as Katherine Graham (whose father owned the Washington Post) and the poet Maya Angelou. Esmond was killed in the war, and Jessica moved to California where she remarried and became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Later she researched and wrote The American Way of Death, an explosive exposé of exploitative funeral home practices. She died in Oakland, California in 1996 and had her ashes scattered at sea.
Deborah Mitford Unlike her sisters, the youngest Mitford–Deborah (b. 1920)—believed in the traditional values and politics of England. She met and married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. Andrew’s brother William was married to Kathleen (“Kick”) Kennedy and was destined to become the 11thDuke of Devonshire. When William was killed during World War II, Andrew became the heir to an estate that was taxed at 80% of its value upon his father’s death.
Deborah’s practical sense and managerial skills made possible the survival of the Devonshire estates, homes, and art. She began a Duchess of Devonshire line of products and made shrewd decisions drawing more visitors to their great country house Chatsworth.
Even while their fortunes slowly improved, they enjoyed society with Prince Charles, his wife Camilla, and the elite circle of English social life. In these respects, she was the wealthiest and most proudly English of her siblings. Deborah died in 2014 and was buried on the Chatsworth estate.
If you at all enjoy biography so startling that it reads like fiction, consider reading the Mary S. Lovell biography noted below.
Next time: A Wee Bit of the Irish around St. Patrick’s Day
*Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels. U. K.: Phoenix, p. 10.
**Lovell, Mary S. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family. New York: W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001: 181, 223)
Photo credits: Portraits are from open sources. Landscape of the water feature at Chatsworth and Chatsworth House itself by Nancy Parrish.