Friday, May 27, 2011

The Mitford Sisters

Lately I've been working my way through Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls (I think it's called The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family in the U.S.). Nancy Mitford has long been one of my favorite novelists, and I've always known that she had a fascinating family life, although it was not until this book that I realized quite how fascinating.

There were six Mitford sisters:





Jessica (Decca)

Deborah (Debo)

and one Mitford brother, Tom

They were related to Winston Churchill, close friends with Evelyn Waugh and other well-known Bright Young People, and all but Pam (and perhaps Tom, a fascist supporter who died in WWII in Burma) went on to lead notorious lives.

Unity was a devout fascist and close friends with Hitler, Goebbels, and other high-ranking Nazi officials. It was assumed by some tabloids that she was Hitler's mistress, and even now, there have been conspiracy theorists who claim that she was the mother of a child with Hitler (such claims are not very well supported).

When war between England and Germany broke out, Unity could not bear that her allegiances were so split, and she attempted to commit suicide. The bullet lodged in her brain, causing great mental damage, but she did not die, and she returned to England, where she lived for several more years with her mother Sydney until she died from an infection of the wound.

Her sister Diana was a renowned beauty in England, and her striking looks later led Hitler to call her "the perfect Aryan."

Diana was also a devout fascist, and after divorcing her first husband in ignominy, she became the mistress of the head of the British Fascist Union, Oswald Mosley. They were later married in secret in the living room of Joseph Goebbels. During the war, the Mosleys were both imprisoned in England but were never tried, and Winston Churchill finally arranged for his niece and her husband to be released, an action that resulted in a mass demonstration of 40,000 people.

Decca ran away with her cousin Esmond, whom she married on the lam in order to get a Spanish visa to enter the country to help support the anti-fascist cause in the Civil War. They later moved to America, where they began a bar and spent a great deal of time with the Kennedy family.

Esmond returned to England to fight during the war, and was killed. Decca blamed her sister Diana, along with all other fascists, and she became an avid supporter of the Communist party in the U.S.

Nancy, in comparison with her political sisters, almost seems like the "boring" sister, but she was the one in closest contact with Evelyn Waugh and other Oxfordian literati. She astonished her parents by cutting her hair short without permission, wearing pants instead of dresses, and just generally being a witty badass.

After years in an unhappy marriage, she moved to Paris to be near her lover, Gaston Palewski, who was second-in-command to de Gaulle at the time. She lived in Paris for the rest of her life and became a highly successful novelist.

(Nancy photographed by Cecil Beaton.)

I've not yet reached the main sections on Debo, but I do know that she became the Duchess of Devonshire at some point. She is still alive and spends a great deal of time in Paris.

There are a number of amazing details about these sisters (for instance, Pam was on the second trans-Atlantic commercial flight), and the list of their acquaintances is astounding. They all had a way for words, and several of them are published authors (Jessica, Debo, and Nancy primarily). They were all clever and beautiful, and you just couldn't make this stuff up.

While Lovell's book is quite long, it's really addictive reading. Highly recommended if you're looking for a solid biography about some really amazing women. Even if one does not agree with the politics of several of the sisters, their lives make for a fascinating historical account.

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