‘Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity."
"But sisters are life’s cruel adversity!"
Read about the fascinating Mitford sisters in Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls, The Biography of an Extraordinary Family.
Image Credit: Wait for Me! The Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
“Further on cause and effect, I do remember being fascinated by the Kinsey Report on the sexual habits of the American male, in which we learned that one out of every eight American men has had intercourse with animals. At any large party, I couldn’t help glancing around to try and guess which of the men had done it—with whom?”
Jessica Mitford, The Letters of Jessica Mitford
It is correct that Americans do not always understand the ways and customs of the British, but the opposite is occasionally true. Consider the negative description of Katharine Graham in The House of Mitford, written by Diana (Mitford) Mosley's son and granddaughter, Jonathan and Catherine Guinness. They erroneously label Graham as a member of the far left, writing that her newspaper, the Washington Post, "played a vital part in preparing the American public for the abandonment of Indochina to Communism as well as exploiting the Watergate burglary to hound President Nixon out of office.”
As most Americans have long been aware, Graham was hardly a revolutionary. She was mainstream, albeit swimming nearer to the left bank than the right. It is true when she published the Pentagon Papers, she played a pivotal role in alerting the American public what the military command had long known: the Vietnam War was un-winnable. However, it speaks volumes that in deciding to publish, she went against one of her closest friends, Robert S. McNamara. He, as Secretary of Defense, was the very person directing American military involvement in Vietnam. Yet, he forgave her and, several decades hence, was a pallbearer at her funeral. The truth was that she socialized with and was held in high regard by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
A case in point was Graham's warm relationship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their friendship began long before the Reagans moved to Washington, D.C. It originated when he was governor of California when a friend of Graham's visited Mrs. Reagan in Sacramento and realized she and Graham would get along quite well. Who was that friend?
The answer is after the JUMP.
“My sisters, discussing face lifts: Debo: ‘I’m afraid I’m not vain enough to have mine done.’ ‘Diana: I’m afraid I’m too vain to have mine done’—meaning she’s eternally beautiful enough already.”
Jessica Mitford, Decca, The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Jessica Mitford had almost no contact with her sister Diana in the post-World War II era. She is surely summarizing information she learned from her sister Deborah. The gist of which is slightly different in this 1966 letter from Diana to Deborah (via The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters):
Bettina [Bergery] has had her face lifted just a bit, it seems a great success if it lasts, all the sort of pouches gone if you know what I mean. The Lady [Nancy Mitford] & I discussed doing ditto & decided we were not vain enough to make it worthwhile. (Or perhaps SO vain that think think people will love us with our wrinkles.)
Image Credit: The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters
In the recently published Avid Reader, Robert Gottlieb recalls editing Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, which became of one of the most influential and best selling exposés of its era. Jessica was the Mitford sister who went Red, but that label is far too simplistic for such a complex character. Per Gottlieb:
Yes, she had been a fierce Commie; yes, she was a savage fighter for equal rights—for everyone’s rights; yes, she loved to expose chicanery; but I think what she loved most of all was revealing the idiocies of the foolish, the greedy, and the pompous. Certainly she went to town on them in AWOD, as we referred to her book. It wasn’t just the machinations of the funeral people that called to her, it was their language, their posturing. The more she tormented them, the dopier they became—it wasn’t a fair fight because she was so much smarter than they were, and so much more ruthless.
Gottlieb’s experience editing and promoting The American Way of Death was as successful as the book itself:
Everything about AWOD went flawlessly. There were no editorial conflicts because we saw everything the same way—gleefully. The title was perfect. The ingenious designer Janet Halverson … came up with the single best symbol for a book I’ve ever seen: a funeral wreath in the shape of a dollar sign.
Gottlieb and Mitford became chums. He appears throughout Decca, The Letters of Jessica Mitford. In one missive from 1984, she inquires about her old friend Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post.
Is Kay following through on the autobiog. discussed years ago with you? I DO wish she would. Quelle fascination THAT would be.
Graham did indeed follow through with her autobiography, and Robert Gottlieb edited it. Mitford did not live to see it, however. She died in 1996. Katherine Graham’s Personal History was published in 1997.
“No one had ever explained to me that you had to pay for electricity; and lights, electric heaters, stoves blazed away night and day . . . When the enormous bill first arrived we thought briefly about contesting it in court on the grounds that electricity is an Act of God--an element like fire, earth and air; but legal friends assured us this would get us no where.”
Jessica Mitford, on Newlywed Life in 1930s London, Hons and Rebels
Image Credit: The Mitford Family Album
“History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”
The events of the past seem so obvious, so easily predictable when reviewed from the vantage point of the present. To take from the past all the lessons it has to offer, however, means forgetting for a moment its eventual outcome. Retrospective histories do not permit this. One book that avoids this paradox is The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters. This collection of correspondence of the six lively and intelligent Mitford sisters begins in 1925 and does not conclude until the first decade of the 21st Century. All six were gifted writers with distinct points of view. Moreover, they were on intimate terms with Churchill, Kennedy, and a great many others who gave form to the 20th Century. Their letters reveal history as it occurs, in real time, and offer extraordinary perspective on how we might better live our lives today.
Note from Nick. I visited Chatsworth House, home of Deborah Mitford (who became the Duchess of Devonshire), in the fall of 2008, when she was still living and remained a powerful presence at the Devonshire family seat. There were a stack of copies of Letters Between Six Sisters in the gift shop, all signed by the then-Dowager Duchess, Deborah Mitford. Having read the book and understanding its significance to the 20th Century, I bought every copy. The book is heavy (three pounds), and a dozen of them were more than I could comfortably carry with me on the thirty minute walk back through Chatsworth Park. My arms were aching as I raced to back in time to catch my connection back to my hotel in nearby Buxton. One of the few remaining copies from that cache is available for purchase here.
Image Credit: The Mitford Family Album
One of the frustrations of bookselling is the challenge of connecting with those who would benefit from one's services. For example, consider the case of the singer Madonna’s 2007 visit to the Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at her dower home, the Old Vicarage. Nick Harvill Libraries had the perfect hostess gift for the occasion: a letter of literary significance written by the Duchess's sister Nancy.
Instead, Madonna gifted the last surviving Mitford sister with a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, inscribed not by the author but by Madonna herself. Curiously her third party gift inscription does not appear on the flyleaf as one might expect. Rather, it is wedged on either end of page containing a photograph of the author Joan Didion and her family, as if Madonna were part of the clan.
The inscription reads, “For the duchess, I hope this book inspires you as much as it inspired me! Thanks for the hospitality, all the best Madonna.” One wonders if Madonna's sentiment might be a bit sincere for an octogenarian English duchess known for combating life’s challenges with a sharp sense of humor and a stiff upper lip. A more interesting approach with the inscription might have been to note the attenuated Mitford link. The Year of Magical Thinking was the most celebrated book on bereavement since the Duchess’s sister Jessica Mitford’s sardonic exposé The American Way of Death became a runaway bestseller in 1963.
An even better choice would have been to call Nick Harvill Libraries. We then had in our inventory a perfect gift for the Dowager Duchess: a two-page handwritten letter by her eldest sister, the author Nancy Mitford. As Nancy's literary executor, Deborah housed Nancy's papers, along with an impressive archive of Mitford family material, at Chatsworth, the Devonshire family seat. One item missing from that archive was a droll handwritten letter Nancy wrote in response to a factual error in her bestselling book, The Sun King, which we included in a 2007 print catalogue (we were not yet online).
The original recipient of the letter was a descendant of the American branch of the Francine family. He complained that Nancy erred when writing that his family died out when the last of the Francines was guillotined during the Terror. She offered a poison-tipped apology in a handwritten two-page letter, archly suggesting that immigrating to America was equivalent to extinction. “One must say that in the eyes of the French the New World counts the same as the Next World,” she wrote. It is a classic Mitford tease and would have delighted the Dowager Duchess who surely would have deposited the letter into Chatsworth's Mitford archive.
The copy of The Year of Magical Thinking inscribed by Madonna to the Duchess of Devonshire is part of the March 2, 2016 Sotheby’s London sale, “The Collection of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire.” The photographs are from Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.
“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”
Jessica Mitford, Poison Penmanship, The Gentle Art of Muckraking