The Strange Story of the Mitford Sisters

This week, the last of the famed Mitford sisters, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, died at the age of 94. The six Mitford sisters came from an upper-crust British family and were celebrities of their era, famed for their wit and family drama (basically a real-life Downton Abbey magnified by ten). They were, as Michelle Dean points out in a lengthy and smart piece for Gawker, something like the Middletons of their time, if the Middletons hung around with some dreadful politicians.

The Mitfords sisters included Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity, Pamela, and Deborah. Jessica went by “Decca,” though all of the sisters had a long list of nicknames for each other (as stereotypically old-school, wealthy celeb-families are wont to have, of course). They grew up with their brother, Thomas, in an English country home, and as children, they had a private language called “boudledidge” that they used to communicate.

None of them were formally educated, although Nancy and Jessica both went on to be writers of renown. Nancy wrote eight novels, including The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, as well as several biographical works. Jessica was an investigative journalist, penning The American Way of Death, an exposé of the funeral industry, as well as two memoirs about her childhood. Hons and Rebels, her first memoir, has been cited as an influence by the likes of J.K. Rowling and Christopher Hitchens, which is obviously very high praise.

Yet the Mitford family, for its charming and seemingly innocuous beginnings, was tainted by a terrible link to Nazism. Unity was good friends with Adolf Hitler, who took her to Wagner operas and gifted her with a gun and Diana married a fascist and continued to defend Hitler even after the end of World War II. It was because of their unforgivable beliefs that Jessica became estranged from her family.

Deborah was regarded as the peacekeeper, always trying to bring her family back together. She became a duchess when she married her husband, and later would write openly in a memoir about his descent in alcoholism. She was related through marriage to JFK and did not share the same political beliefs as Unity or Diana. Her hero was Elvis—she kept a framed portrait of him in her bathroom, reportedly right up until her death.

There are a few famous descendants of the Mitfords that still cycle in and out of the tabloids. The most notable? The artist Daphne Guinness and her nephew, the well-known “playboy” Stavros Niarchos. Even with the passing of Deborah, the fascination with the sisters still lives on. They were the subject of the musical The Mitford Girls and formed the basis of several books, including the deliciously gossipy The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. To this day, people remain fascinated with the Mitfords (The Toast actually went so far as to rank them). The sisters weren’t just celebrities of their time, they were representations of a deeply fractured family and their famously divergent, sometimes disastrous paths, both captivated and shocked the world.

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