The Nazi things in life

This can be of almost zero interest to anyone lacking my own Mitford sisters obsession, but I’m going to forge on and go public with it anyway, as I’ve mentioned this anomaly a couple of times before, but never got round to scanning in the evidence. Anyway … Above is the cover of the 1978 Star paperback edition of Unity Mitford: A Quest by David Pryce-Jones, first published in 1976. Take a look at the black and white head shot of Unity, between the Union and Nazi flags. Here it is in close-up.

Unity Mitford, right? Wrong. Here is the same photo, uncropped, as it appears inside the book. Read the caption.

“The mysterious Erich, nominally a photographer, who perhaps had a watching brief on Unity, waiting with Diana at Nuremberg airport.”

So, had the publishers captioned the photo incorrectly? I think not. This is indeed a photo of Unity’s elder sister Diana Mitford (later Diana Mosley, after she married the British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald). Unity and Diana were the Nazi Mitfords, and often seen and photographed together. Both went to Munich before the war to hang out with Hitler, and attended the first Nuremberg rally, but it was Unity who actually stayed on until war was declared. (That said, Diana and Oswald were married in 1936 the house of the Goebbels, Joseph and Magda, with Hitler in attendance, so they were no slouches in the Nazi department.)

Above is another photo, also featured in this edition, which shows Unity on the left, with her squarer jaw; Diana in the centre, with those piercing eyes; and their oldest sister Nancy, who has a completely different shaped face and didn’t hang around in Germany at all. Unity and Diana do look alike, and do have similarly bobbed hair. But I think the evidence is clear. Look at the picture of Diana above and then compare with the picture of “Unity” on the cover. I say: when you’re publishing a book about one Mitford sister, it’s as well to double check you’ve got the right one on the cover before you send it to the printers.

By the way, this howling error make this book even more dear to me. It’s a forensically fascinating account of the life of the shortest-lived Mitford sister, although Decca is skeptical about some of the author’s conclusions about she and Unity’s poles-apart political destinations because, as she notes, he was born in 1936 and can’t possibly know as they did what a crazy decade the 1930s was.

The publishers changed the cover, anyway, presumably realising their little cock-up. Or perhaps not? This is how the book looks now, and this is definitely Unity, at a Nazi Youth camp in Hesselberg.

Admit one

Having expressed my lack of excitement about the discovery of the Higgs Boson on Twitter on Wednesday – a semi-principled, partly caricatured indifference predicated upon my own dimwit’s grasp of physics, a year-round allergy to hype and a more specific aversion to the sneering nature of the nickname “the God Particle” – I was informed by a couple of defenders of science that if so, I was therefore unqualified to get excited about anything else that I get excited about, including films, music, TV and, specifically, the Mitford Sisters. (I was also called an “intellectual pygmy” by someone who I will never hear from again, which I’m pretty sure is sizeist.)

I was on that day particularly excited by the Mitford Sisters, the world’s most interesting aristocratic sibling sextet, as I had tickets to see two – that’s two – great lost TV documentaries about them at the BFI on London’s South Bank. As part of what looked like a generally if typically excellent season, The Aristocracy on TV, they’d forged a Mitfords double-bill out of Nancy Mitford 1904-1973: A Portrait By Her Sisters (1980) and Jessica Mitford: The Honorable Rebel (1977), both made for the BBC, the latter under the umbrella The Lively Arts.

Having been officially and continually besotted by Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Debo Mitford since 2008, when Letters Between Six Sisters came out in paperback, my thirst for new material to ingest waxes and wanes. I went on an early rampage after Letters and Martin Bright’s C4 documentary alleging that Unity had been pregnant with Hitler’s child when she shot herself in 1939, shown around the same time. And from this first flush of enthusiasm for six literate women who were not only the subject of many books, they wrote plenty too (as well as seemingly endless correspondence), I created my own small library of new and secondhand volumes. (I am particularly fond of the yellowing paperback copy of Unity Mitford: A Quest, which erroneously displays a picture of Diana on the cover.) I have added to this intermittently when new reprints come round, or when Debo, the surviving Mitford, publishes another, but by and large, it’s kind of done. Which is why I jumped at the chance of viewing these two documentaries, which are unlikely to be shown on TV now.

I was delighted that the screening sold out, early on. It was a thrill to be among fellow Mitford groupies in NFT2, with not a spare seat in the house. Mitford fans do tend to be female, and not generally young, but this is by no means a rule. After all, five out of six of the Mitfords are dead – indeed, long dead; only Diana and Debo saw the Millennium in – and as such, loving them is not about remembering them, necessarily. I wasn’t aware of them, growing up, and I’m sure I heard about Nancy, the novelist, first. I don’t yearn to live in the tumultuous and deadly 1920s and 1930s that were their heyday, although I do find that era endlessly fascinating, with the aristocracy experiencing their first taste of decline, and losing their men in both world wars. (A life lost in action is a life lost regardless of breeding or money.)

Produced by Michael Barnes in 1977, when Jessica, or Decca, was a sprightly 60, the Melvyn Bragg-narrated portrait An Honorable Rebel was a real insight into Communist Spice’s life in Oakland, California. (She eloped to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War with her sweetheart Esmond Romilly – who was, sadly, killed in the Second World War, when he joined the Canadian Air Force – and ended up in the United States, where she married Civil Rights lawyer Bob Treuhaft.) By this time, she was in demand as a lecturer and speaker, and the documentary is topped and tailed by a talk given to students at a university. She had not developed an American accent, and retained the much-derided “Mitford accent”, which must have been impenetrable to outside influence. What a curiosity she must have seemed when she threw herself into protecting the rights of black people on the frontline of unrest in the 40s and 50s.

She and Bob – a lovely soul whose eyes almost disappear into slits when he smiles or laughs, which is often – are seen with compatriots from the Civil Rights years, when Decca was stamped a “subversive” by the authorities and the FBI started a long file that she reads from, having obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. (It is, unsurprisingly, redacted; it also states that she and Bob were both earmarked for possible internment in camps that were always previously denied by the US government.) What a fiercely dedicated freedom fighter she appears. From a privileged upbringing, she confounded all by coming out and then going away, and none of it was a “gap year” pose. She and Romilly lived in an East End slum when they first returned from Spain, and the pair of them tended bar in Florida when they first arrived there. During the McCarthy years in America, she was not exactly blacklisted, but she refused to incriminate herself or fellow members of the Civil Rights Congress at the HUAC hearings – an episode she illuminates beautifully in the re-telling, with a comic twist about mishearing a question about her alleged membership of a “tenants’ association” which turned out to be a “tennis association.”

Here’s a thing: I have hardly ever seen the Mitford sisters moving about, or talking. There’s a marvellous late interview with Decca by Christopher Hitchens on iTunes, but very little footage exists of the sisters in their debutante days. Photos, yes, and portraits, and newspaper cuttings (such as when Decca eloped and her father, Lord Redesdale, sent out a search party), but moving pictures? Very scarce. Which is why both of these docs were such delights. Honorable Rebel – named after her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, one of my faves – is packed with Decca and her lovely, plummy voice, her sentences peppered with “you know”. But Nancy Mitford, made seven years after the eldest sister’s death by Julian Jebb, was arguably all the more valuable, as it featured brand new interviews with Pamela, Jessica, Debo and Diana, an icily elegant lady who was only 70 at the time, but could have been 90, with her white hair in a bun. Still beautiful, of course. Oh, and still defiantly claiming that the British Union of Fascists, led by her second hubby Oswald Mosley, were not anti-semitic. (Diana and Mosley were interned during the war, and did not live the life of luxury in there, other than being brought Stilton and Port by visitors, so it must have etched a few years into her, although she lived to the ripe old age of 93.)

There’s also some plum footage of Nancy from 1966, filmed for ABC. She is, if anything, the most Mitfordy of all the Mitfords, fluting, “I enjoyed the war very much … it was very lively in London.” Pamela, whose lack of strident political affiliations left her without a handy nickname, and who might have been a lesbian, is a smashing old stick, feeding her hens and letting her pony off for a run, cheerily reading from Nancy’s novels and chuckling away at her favourite bits, the very image of a Countryside Alliance stalwart. She is least known of the sisters, but comes alive in this film. Debo we are used to seeing in her active dotage, such a fixture has she become at Chatsworth and on the book-signing circuit, but it’s sweet to catch her, aged 60, when she was still the Duchess of Devonshire. I love the way she admits to her older siblings’ stereotype as a bit of a dunce (“I can hardly read – I hate it, books”), and it’s amazing to think that 32 years later, she’d still be going strong.

There’s a bit of Diana’s son Jonathan Guinness in the Nancy film (he co-authored 1984’s solid House Of Mitford with daughter Catherine), but it’s all about the sisters. These films have reignited my passion for them. I could literally recite their shared biography to you, with accompanying amazing facts and trivia, and part of me wishes I really had worked up a one-man show about them for Edinburgh, as I had once fantasised about doing. I’m happy enough spreading the word. Quite clearly, you don’t have to agree with hereditary peerage and the old class system like David Cameron and George Osborne do, in order to find these people fascinating. From a feminist perspective, the sisters weren’t schooled as their father feared they would develop “fat calves” from all the hockey and as such, effectively educated and motivated themselves. Only Pamela and Unity did not write books (and Unity may have, had she lived). Nancy wrote eight highly-regarded novels and, later, a clutch of tolerated historical biographies. Decca wrote a dozen books including memoirs and, more importantly, investigative journalism; she changed the way Americans saw their own funeral industry with The American Way Of Death. (She is seen testifying against the sharp practices of the funeral industry at a hearing in Honorable Rebel.) Diana wrote three memoirs and was a book reviewer for Books & Bookmen and the Standard.

That two of them turned out to be fascists, and one of them a card-carrying Communist is what makes them so unique. I love them. Anyway, my tried-and-tested guide to the best of Mitfords literature – Mit Lit – is here, although I may have to add Jessica’s memoir of her time in the Communist Party, A Fine Old Conflict, to this, having now seen An Honorable Rebel, which has re-piqued my interest.

I know it’s in London, but the BFI is such an amazing place to go to, even if it’s just for a pricey drink in the bar. Have a look what’s on there now and in the near future.

Altogether now, for Decca:

‘Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place
The Internationale
Shall be the human race

Sisterhood

It’s been a while since I mentioned the Mitford Sisters in any meaningful way. I was intending, last year, to make them the subject of my first solo stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe, but the recession altered my plans, and by the time I was making plans to go up this year, Secret Dancing had eclipsed them somewhat. This is not to say I mightn’t one day expand the 20-minute Mitfords set I worked up for Robin Ince’s School For Gifted Children back in 2008, when I was in the first flush of my Mitfords obsession. (It’s still available as a podcast, number 65a on iTunes, recorded at a Collings & Herrin gig in Brighton.) I made some overtures at Radio 4 about getting a documentary off the ground about my unprecedented love for five dead aristocrats and one alive one – working title: I ♥ The Mitford Sisters – but it came to nothing. Then the news that a Mitfords-based sitcom was already in development put me off further. (I was even drafted in as a possible co-writer/script editor on this project by the production company who had it in development, but nothing came of that either. I thought it was a brilliant idea, but I couldn’t really see BBC3 commissioning a sitcom set in the 1930s.)

Anyway, the imminent publication, and current promotion of Deborah Cavendish née Devonshire née Mitford’s belated memoir Wait For Me has put the sisters back in the spotlight. Debo is 90 and entirely with it; a game old girl. At the height of my obsession, I felt it was my sole purpose to meet her before she died. That was why I wanted to make a documentary about the Mitfords: to afford myself the excuse, and the official hook. Maybe I should reignite my own passion, and put that quest back on the agenda.

By the way, this may have gone by the time you look, it being Wikipedia, but as you may be able to see above, I have been added to the Mitford Sisters entry. It doesn’t exactly read like vandalism, but a citation is definitely needed. Perhaps somebody could cite this blog entry. I was asked on Twitter, as I am routinely asked, which is the best book about the Mitford Sisters to start with. So I have decided to republish my own Mitfords reading guide, which I wrote last year, and still stands.

1. The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters
Edited by Charlotte Mosley

The first Mitfords book I read (when it first came out in paperback in 2008), and the one that started the Mitfords ball rolling. This is why I recommend it to any other virgin: the letters span a century, from Nancy’s earliest efforts as a gel to the final fax sent by Diana to Debo just before she died in 2003. The symbols used to mark the sender of each letter – swastika (Unity), moon (Diana), spoons (Pam, the least-known, unpublished Mitford), hammer and sickle (Jessica), quill (Nancy), crown (future Duchess of Devonshire, Debo) – are what sucked me in. It just struck me that the Mitfords really were extraordinarily interesting, and all so different. You really get their voices this way, too. Mosley, who is related to the Mitford line by marriage, is the estate’s de facto official archivist and gives good biographical detail before each chapter. If you’re not in love with them by the time second youngest Jessica gets hold of the notepaper, you never will be.

2. The Mitford Girls
Mary S Lovell

By far the best straightforward biography of the whole lot of them. If the letters have pulled you in and you have no wish to get out, this is the best all-round book.

3. Unity Mitford: A Quest
David Pryce-Jones

You may wish now to home in on your favourites. I put this relentless, almost forensic biography of Unity (the Hitler groupie who shot herself in the head when war broke out and died in 1948, a sad shell of a woman) at the top of the pile because it’s packed with so much detail – too much, at times – you get a pretty complete picture of the most misunderstood of all the Sisters. The original secondhand edition I have of this features of photograph of Diana on the cover – surely one of the greatest publishing cock-ups of the century!

4. Diana Mosley
Anne de Courcy

Much harder to like than, say, Decca or Debo, Diana’s story is nonetheless fascinating and well told by de Courcy – you’ll be amazed at the way a woman so intelligent and vivacious allowed herself to be absorbed into the life and work of her second husband Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. She was so devoted to him. On her deathbed she refused to condemn Hitler. Imagine being her son, Max.

5. Love From Nancy: The Letters Of Nancy Mitford
Edited by Charlotte Mosley

Because Nancy was the most famous Sister, a bestselling novelist at 30 despite never have been to school, it’s a joy to see her acid tongue and way with words develop from girlhood. She was a right bitch, at times – or a tease, if you prefer – and apparently always ended her letters at the bottom of a page. The footnotes are sometimes longer than the letters.

6. Decca: The Letters Of Jessica Mitford
Edited by Peter Y. Sussman

My favourite Mitford, in that her politics are closest to mine, and what a natural wit. The “red sheep”, she exiled herself from the family, eloping with second cousin Esmond Romilly to the Spanish Civil War, then living in a slum in Rotherhithe, and ending up in America, running a cocktail bar in Florida, joining the Communist party, and turning herself into an investigative journalist. (She married the civil rights activist Robert Treuhaft after Romilly was killed in the war.) Unlike the others, she did a day’s work.

7. Hons And Rebels
Jessica Mitford

A must. No-holds-barred memoir of the sisters’ early years, brilliantly told by Decca. There’s a follow-up, too, A Fine Old Conflict. Hons and Rebels is the most quoted in all the other books, as Decca’s quips are so spare and unsparing.

8. The House Of Mitford
Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness

Test your Mitford obsession: you’ve read one book about the family, but can’t stop yourself buying another one when you happen upon it in a bookshop in Dublin, even though it may affect the weight of your luggage on the flight home. The Guinnesses are also related to the Mitfords (he’s the son of Diana and her first husband, Bryan Guinness, whom she cruelly and publicly cuckolded, without much complaint from the stout heir). More here on the earlier Mitford relatives.

9. Rules Of The Game/Beyond The Pale
Nicholas Mosley

Gripping, and entirely personal, account of the life of Oswald Mosley, by his son. The first book covers his first marriage to the tragic Cynthia, the second his marriage to Diana Mitford, their dalliances with the Nazis (they were secretly married at the house of Josef Goebbels, naturally), their internment at the start of the war, and their attempt to lead a normal life after that. Mosley is a larger than life character – you couldn’t make him up – and infuriating, but Nicholas’s honesty from the son’s point of view gives the writing real heart. Highly recommended, if you can handle all the jackbooting.

10. Noblesse Oblige
Edited by Nancy Mitford

You’ll have to seek this one out in secondhand shops, but look how beautiful the original Penguin editions is! A slim curio, it’s a collection of essays from 1956 about class, of which Nancy’s own on “U and Non-U” is the keystone.

Then there’s the fictional work of Nancy, most famously the post-war Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, which are handsomely packaged. She basically recycled her home life and created vicious but amusing social satire, on a par with her friend Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (which, of course, she didn’t rate much), it’s all Bright Young Things and the shifting sands of social progress. Frankly, a working knowledge of the Mitfords’ background is really handy for seeing where she’s coming from.

And The Pursuit Of Laughter by Diana Mosley, by which point we’re into non-essentials for completist fools only. A collection of Fascist Spice’s writings. I bought this in hardback and have yet to read it. Debo, the youngest and still alive, has also written many books about Chatsworth House, but I admit I have not read them. It’s always good to have something in reserve when you have gone nuts.

Over the past two years I have invested in all the books listed here, and more, new and secondhand, depending on whether or not they’re in print. There really isn’t enough I can learn about the Sisters. And once you’re into the mindset and the period, you can move sideways to confidants James Lees-Milne and Evelyn Waugh. I have tried to contact Charlotte Mosley via her publishers, HarperPerennial, but have heard nothing back*. I just want to tell her how her Letters changed my life! (And let them know how much publicity I have been doing for this book, unpaid.)

*They continued to ignore me after two emails. Well done, that press office!