1. The last of the Mitford sisters

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    I have always been fascinated by the controversial Mitford sisters. In many ways, both good and truly evil, they defined an era. And now they are back in the news as Deborah Mitford, the last of the famous – some would say infamous – sextet has died. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, as Deborah Mitford was called, was 94. 

    The six sisters were the daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and Sydney Bowles. Many refer to their father as “a minor baronet,” but the fact is the Mitford sisters were born into the aristocracy, giving them an entrée into a larger world. They made the most of it.  

    Deborah Mitford, or “Debo” as she was called at home, was the youngest of the sisters. She married Lord Andrew Cavendish, a “younger son” with no great prospects for love. When his older brother died, she became the 11th Duchess of Devonshire, and, it is said, almost download (11)single-handedly restored the dilapidated Chatsford House estate and created a business empire. With no previous experience she raised chickens, sold prepared foods, organized tours, wrote books, and lectured. Upon her recent death, she left behind a multi-million dollar enterprise. 

    Her sisters were no less accomplished – even if they were sometimes nefarious. 

    Nancy Mitford became an acclaimed author and historian. One of her most famous novels, Love in a Cold Climate, is still read today. I discovered her by reading her well-respected historical biographies of Louis the Sun King and Madame de Pompadour. Mitford came out in the 1920s. she was considered one of London’s “Bright Young Things” or the British equivalent of a very posh flapper.  She began writing to stretch her scant allowance. Her great professional success came after the Second World War. 

    Nancy was never close to Pamela Mitford, the sister closest to her in age. Pamela was mad for horses, married well, and was widowed early in her marriage. Many, including her sisters, feel Nancy’s skills as a writer and her avid imagination were developed to cope with the boredom and isolation of their childhood. 

    Jessica Mitford became a well-known political activist and journalist – who joined and later left the Communist party. She moved to the U.S., where she supported the Freedom Riders and had her own run-in with the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1950s. She refused to testify about any involvement she might have had in radical politics. Jessica became a combative university professor but is remembered for scathing exposes about the high cost of death in America. When she died, her funeral cost just $533. 

    Diana Mitford was said to be a great beauty. Sadly was also a fascist and involved with the Nazis. She and her husband, Sir Oswald Mosely, were both interned during the war. Unity Mitford was a Nazi. She fancied herself in love with Adolf Hitler and came to a bad end after attempting suicide in Germany. 

    It is hard to explain how the Mitford’s managed to hold the world’s attention for decades.  Think of them as the creative and posh Kardashians of their day and you may get an idea of their popularity. I have never been intrigued by the Kardashians and the Mitford’s glory days were well beyond my time. My fascination with Nancy, Jessica, and Deborah lies in their accomplishments in a time when all a well-born woman was expected to do was marry well. All three of these women used wit, charm, and hard work to leave a mark on the world.

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